This Sunday’s message unpacked a difficult but important parable – the Parable of the Shrewd Manager, found in Luke 16:1-15. This passage made me consider my reaction to the word “shrewd.”
Is the word more positive or negative to me? Probably neutral. Do I know a lot of shrewd people? Not sure. Am I shrewd? Hmmm. I know “shrewd” is used a couple of other places in the Bible, but is the Biblical translation and definition of the word the same as Webster’s? Most importantly, what does God think of shrewdness, and does He recommend it or reject it?
Although my initial reaction to the word is neutral, many people view it negatively, associating it with cunning and manipulation and believing that those who possess it turn all things into an advantage for themselves. But shrewdness is also attached to ability, cleverness, practicality, and “having your wits about you.” And shrewdness is linked to prudence, which is a virtue in the Bible, particularly in Proverbs. Prudence: having sharp powers of judgement and the reason necessary to manage your own affairs; making the most of one’s resources and circumstances; the ability to accurately assess situations and control the direction of your life.
Prudence makes me think of every Jane Austen book I have ever read. (And I’ve read them all.) Young women born into that socially stratiﬁed era with all its constraining social norms were forced to rely on good marriages to secure a livelihood for themselves and their families. So they often had to make the most of the resources, circumstances, and opportunities and work all things to their own advantage to secure for themselves a husband, an income, a home, security, and social standing. Do some of the characters rely on cunning, manipulation, even dishonesty to do so? Yes, they do. And that’s what makes a novel good!
Please pause here and read Luke 16:1-15.
The practical parable of the shrewd manager is sandwiched between the beautiful chapter of Luke 15 and a harsher story at the end of Luke 16. Luke 15 tells the story of a Lost Sheep, a Lost Coin, and a Lost Son. After laying out the beautiful truth of a God who values the one, seeks the lost, rejoices over the found, and lovingly embraces and accepts the returning sinner, Jesus continues explaining the kingdom of God to his listeners with this story of the shrewd manager. When He concludes, He finishes chapter 16 by painting a picture for us of the after-life experience of The Rich Man and Lazarus. The ending is a bit harsh and seems to be aimed directly at the sneering Pharisees. Beside the reality of spiritual blindness, this portion highlights the opportunity we have to share resources with those in need. What a wonderful string of Scripture! Jesus is using many varied brushstrokes to paint a bold picture of God’s take on the priority, place, and purpose of wealth in our lives.
Zeroing in on the shrewd manager, we see that that he is about to lose his job because of his poor work performance- wasting his master’s wealth. So he comes up with a shrewd, albeit dishonest plan that has him waste more of his master’s wealth. He forgives large portions of people’s debt to beneﬁt himself with friends and favor, as well as to ensure he’d have a place to fall after the inevitable loss of his job. This took some forethought, yes. It was clever, yes. But while the master commends the shrewd manager, he also follows through with ﬁring him–how can he trust him any longer?
Do you know who may have understood this parable better than most? The disciple Matthew. I wonder if he cringed as Jesus began to tell it. Or did he simply nod his head in recognition as he listened. He would understand the role of a manager, because he was that manager. Matthew collected taxes for his earthly master, Rome. And in agreeing to do this job for his master, he was able to make the most of the circumstance. Using worldly wealth prudently and practically, he pleased Rome and he provided for his own needs. Matthew may have viewed saying “yes” to the job of tax-collecting as a shrewd vertical move up the career ladder. But when Jesus entered Matthew’s world, he pulled him off of that ladder and called him into an entirely different way of life.
The hard thing to understand here is the reaction of the master in this parable. Usually when Jesus tells a parable with a master in it, the master is a picture of God himself. So it could be confusing that the master actually commends the actions of the manager, actions that were motivated by self protection and took further advantage of the master’s money. Furthermore, the master does not just commend the dishonest and shrewd manager, he makes it sound like this worldly and manipulative manager should be an example for “the sons of “light.”
You see, Jesus is encouraging us to use our Master’s—God’s–resources, the resources He has entrusted to us to manage. And we, too, can win people’s favor with them. That’s where the manager’s shrewdness should stand as an example for us. Our motivation and the outcomes, however, should differ greatly from the those of the worldly manager.
Think about it. A worldview and a way of life that neither acknowledges Christ; adheres to his example, teachings, and commands; nor submits to his authority would practice a shrewdness fueled by FEAR. This type of shrewdness is chasing a carrot of selfish gain and self protection and is tethered to a ﬁnite and temporal world. But a worldview that acknowledges the presence and preeminence of Christ; is bathed by his example, teachings, and commands; and submits completely to him would practice a shrewdness that is fueled by GENEROSITY. This type of shrewdness aspires to invite and include and is enveloped in a grander eternal perspective.
Those who live for this world use resources out of FEAR–fear that they will not have enough, not be able to provide for themselves, and not live a full and good life here. But we, sons and daughters of light, should approach our resources different–-they are not to be used to secure a friend, an income, a way-of-life, a home, or a safety net. We use them to invite someone to look up, look above, look beyond these few short years, and invite them to secure for themselves an eternal home.
Think of how Matthew’s life changed so drastically as he lived shrewdly in security as a son of light compared to how he had lived shrewdly in fear as a slave to Rome. May he serve as an example to us. And may the following words of Jesus inspire us:
Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Luke 12:32–34)
Let’s grab hold of the type of shrewdness that Jesus espouses in the gospels. Let’s be wise and put his words into practice so that our house will stand strong on a ﬁrm foundation when the storms come (Matthew 7:24). Let’s be shrewd as serpents as we go out to share the gospel in the world, and be on guard against the dangers that await us there (Matthew 10:16). And let us be prudent like the five virgins in yet another one of Jesus’s parables and be fully prepared for our Bridegroom’s coming, no matter when it occurs. (Matthew 25:1-13). And yes, let’s be astute in how we manage our master’s resources so that we may gain friends who will be drawn to the life-giving message of salvation. Then, my friends, we will truly be living as sons and daughters of the light.