Jesus told a parable that has been controversial ever since. It doesn’t need to be, but when it is not understood properly, it is easy to see why it can be. It’s the parable of the dishonest/shrewd steward (manager).
He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.” (Luke 16:1-8a, ESV).
The story in itself is simple enough. A rich man hears that his money is being squandered by his money manager. So the rich man calls him in, tells him to turn in his ledgers and books. He’s finished working for him. It’s clear that the manager had no other skills and had prospered himself under the rich man’s money. There was no where to go now that he was fired. So before turning in the ledgers and books, he called on the debtors and lowered their debts by various sums. How clever! Dishonest? Yes, but very clever indeed. While one may not be able to admire the man’s dishonesty, he can certainly admire his quick-thinking. So the rich man does just that (this is where the controversy comes in). The rich man suffers loss at the hands of the manager, but he can’t help but admire his quick-thinking (his shrewdness). That quick-thinking made the rich man’s debtors indebted to him less and indebted to the manager even more. It would be cheaper for them to help out the manager than for them to pay back all that they owed to the rich man. That’s what we call, “thinking on your feet!”
So what’s the story about? It’s about us and about our use of money. Typically speaking, God is the owner of all and we are stewards (managers) of all he owns. That would include money. Jesus told this parable so that we were be more clever about how we use our money in this world. “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings,” (Luke 16:8b-9, ESV).
Jesus wasn’t asking his followers to cheat God or their bosses or anyone else. What he was wanting them to do was to think cleverly about how they use the money that God has given to them. The shrewd (clever) manager initially was called into the rich man’s office because he wasn’t being so clever. In fact, he was using the rich man’s money to make himself comfortable—a little too comfortable, if you know what I mean. The truth is, many Christians are doing the same thing. Jesus said that there is more to God’s money than comfort. There are needs to be met. We need to be clever about how we spend our (actually God’s) money. If we spend $1,000 on a 72” 4K television that means we have $1,000 less to spend on our “friends.” Who are our “friends?” Fellow-believers in need. Jesus does not seem to be saying that we are to live like peasants, though some may hear the call to do so. He was calling us to think about our money carefully and cleverly. It is not for our posh life, or even extra-comfortable life, but for our “friends” in need.
There will be a day when money fails. That means, there will be a day when we die. As Paul wrote, “for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world,” (1 Timothy 6:7, ESV). Money will eventually fail us at death. But in that moment just before death, we can think about all that we have done with God’s riches. We can think of all who have been helped and blessed because we dealt wisely and cleverly with the money in our pockets and in our accounts. These friends who have gone before us will welcome us into heaven, our eternal dwells. As Randy Alcorn has said, “We can’t take it with us, but we can send it on ahead.”
So friends, let us be clever with what we have been given.