There’s always a villain in a good story - wicked stepmothers, Sheriff of Nottingham….. So, who’s the villain in this story Jesus tells to his disciples? He them about a dishonest manager. He’s the sort Del boy would probably admire, not maybe quite up to the standard of the wheeler-dealers we’re used to reading about in the press, but nonetheless, he’s a scoundrel. He’s losing his job because he wastes his master’s possessions, and he’s not too keen on the prospect of having to do a job that’s too physical (he’s not strong enough to dig) or on doing anything that might damage his pride (he’s too ashamed to beg). So he tries to save his skin, to make friends and influence people, by using his boss’ money. After all, he needs to secure his future. He calls in the people that owe his boss money, and does deals with them. “How much do you owe?” he asks the first one, “Nine hundred gallons of olive oil”, he replies. “Take your bill” he says, “sit down quickly and make it four hundred and fifty”. That would be a real result if you owed the debt and you would want to return the favour – you’d want to welcome the manager into your house. You would be indebted to him.
I don’t know about you, but with stories like this, I want to read on to the end to hear what happens to the villain; to when the villain gets his or her comeuppance because then the moral of the story becomes clear just as the baddies get what’s coming to them. But hang on … something’s not quite right in this story … something shocking happens … this scoundrel’s plan actually succeeds! His boss, the one whose estate he’s mismanaged, the one whose wealth he has just shared out to feather his own nest, commends him, “because he acted shrewdly.” That doesn’t make sense. This is the manager who disseminates his master’s investment portfolio to protect his own future! You wouldn’t want this guy looking after your pension plan (half of it might disappear) and yet here’s his boss commending him, as if he were some sort of business genius!
But then what’s even more shocking is that Jesus says this dishonest manager is more shrewd in dealing with the world than the believers, the people of light. Puzzling isn’t it… Jesus tells a story about a dishonest manager and then praises him and commends him to us – and implies that we should act like him!
In his parables, Jesus uses illustrations from everyday life, but they don’t always portray normal everyday actions – it’s not unusual for Jesus to tell stories where the unexpected happens, where he connects the ordinariness of everyday life with the extraordinary nature of God. He often leaves his listeners pondering on the meaning – and this parable certainly needs a lot of pondering. It has the reputation of being the most confusing of them all! One commentator calls it “the problem child of the parables!” So, if we’re confused, that’s normal – everyone else reading it this morning probably is too! I know of at least 6 other newly ordained curates who are preaching on this passage this morning. We sat together last Thursday lunchtime on our first curates’ training day together, debating the meaning of the parable. We all had different ideas about the manager’s actions; we wondered how the story would have sounded to the first listeners; we thought about how the parable fitted in with the rest of Luke’s Gospel and even discussed the nuances of 1st century financial systems. We all agreed too that in 3 years time, when this reading comes up in the cycle of readings again, we’re all booking a holiday! But, joking aside, despite our different ideas, we all came to a similar conclusion. We came to the same end, but not necessarily by following the same route. One route might be …
…to consider, that maybe what Jesus says, isn’t quite as shocking as it first sounds. The master commends the manager, not for his dishonesty, but for his ‘shrewdness’. Jesus is not saying, “be dishonest like this manager”, he’s saying, “be shrewd like this manager”! Hmm … still sounds a bit dodgy to me. But maybe that’s because today, if we call someone shrewd, it can have negative connotations. To be shrewd is sometimes interpreted as being crafty or canny, but a shrewd person is really someone who’s good at judging a situation; it actually means astute or wise. So, maybe this parable should be called the Parable of the Wise, Dishonest Manager.
But what is he doing that’s shrewd, that’s wise? In his precarious position, he uses what he has, to secure his immediate future. He manages the resources he has at his disposal to secure an earthly home. How much more then, should God’s people, be shrewd in using their resources for God’s purposes, to secure their eternal future, their eternal home? Jesus says, if we cannot be trusted with worldly wealth, we cannot be trusted with true riches.
Every morning on Radio 5Live there’s a programme called “Wake up to Money”; it’s a programme about the financial markets and the economy. The title of the programme, “Wake up to Money”, is clever. It’s a play on words – the programme is on in the early morning (it starts at 5.30am), but it also means “to be savvy about money” to be aware. And as a group of assistant curates sitting round discussing this parable, we all came to the conclusion that Jesus was telling a story urging us to “Wake up to money”. “Wake up to how we use what we have”. Be shrewd, get real, we’re in a world full of the stuff – we can’t operate without it, so as people of the light, how do we deal with it – how do we deal with ‘worldly wealth’?
Well, not as the Israelites did that’s for sure. Approximately 750 years before Jesus shares this parable with his disciples, the prophet Amos warns the Israelites about their behaviour, about how they’re dealing with their worldly wealth. As a society, they’ve never had it so good; the country was going through a period of relative economic and political stability and yet they were exploiting the poor, and businessman and traders were cheating in the marketplace. So Amos warns them, and us, of the consequences. To treat others badly, by using what we have to exert power in our relationships, offends God and he will not trust us with true riches. As people of the light, we serve God. And serving God means that loving others, not money, is always the bottom line. Therefore, we should be using our worldly wealth, whatever it is, to bless others. Not just as individuals, but as a church community and as a society.
It’s difficult – we don’t always know where our money is going or how it’s being used. The Church of England having shares in a company that backs the payday loan company Wonga, is a prime example of how we get it wrong! In our own parish, the statistics from the 2011 Census paint a picture that may surprise you. 9% of the population are on out of work benefits and shockingly, 12% of children are defined as living in poverty. To be a child living in poverty is tough, it means you don’t go on school trips, or to the Arena for a swim; you don’t have your friends round for tea or go on holiday. We can speak out against such social injustice, we can speak out against payday loans, we can support credit unions, we can buy ethically produced goods.
Money is powerful – it can ensnare us, but if we serve wealth for its own sake, we will be poor, even though we are ‘rich’. But if we serve God and shrewdly use what we have for his purposes, he will give us the greatest treasure. He will give us true riches. We will enjoy the blessing of life with Him … and that life promises peace, forgiveness, justice and joy. So, let’s wake up – let’s wake up to money!
1. Is there really a ‘villain’ in the story and if there is, is it the ‘rich man’ or the manager? You might want to consider what it means to be a ‘rich man’ in the Gospels.
2. What do you find challenging about the Parable of the Shrewd Manager?
3. Walter Brueggeman says that in the Gospels “letting go is to have and keeping is the way to lose”. What do you think this means? Why is ‘letting go’ so difficult?
4. How would you define ‘wealth’? Is it more than money?
Statistics taken from: