Note: This post is adapted from a post the author wrote in 2013 for ON Scripture, entitled, “Shrewd Christians.”
The Parable of the Dishonest Manager, told in Luke 16:1-13, is a complicated text in which to look for insight on practicing faithful stewardship. Despite, or maybe because of, the seemingly simple concluding sentence, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (16:13), the story has led to some unflattering characterizations of Christians’ attitudes toward wealth. But the overall message of the parable is worth exploring, if we can get past the stereotypes.
Let’s start with a word about the Gospel of Luke, which is filled with references and teachings about how the followers of Jesus are to regard money and possessions. Preacher and scholar Fred Craddock writes, “Luke has used practically every literary vehicle available to him to put the subject before the reader: the song of Mary (1:46-55), the sermons of John the Baptist (3:10-14), the prophesy of Isaiah 61:1-2 (4:16-30), blessings and woes (6:20-25), and the parable of the rich fool (12:13-21)” (Interpretation: Luke, John Knox Press: Louisville, 1990, p. 189) Jesus is neither oblivious to wealth, nor naïve about it, according to the gospel writer.
But stereotypes have taken root anyway. First, there is the idea that Christians should not have wealth. Of course, some men and women take a vow of poverty when they enter certain religious orders, or for other reasons. They honorably promise to forgo monetary concerns and turn over their earnings in order to avoid the potentially corrupting effect of wealth accumulation. A vow of poverty is sometimes thought to be a Christian ideal to which all Christians aspire, or should aspire. Critics then charge Christians who do possess wealth with hypocrisy. Another stereotype is similar: That Christians are overly naïve about wealth, especially when they espouse an ethic of wealth equality such as that described in Acts 2. A redistribution of wealth is not possible, nor even desirable, critic says, and they would like Christians to be quiet about it. Both stereotypes about Christians and money assume that Christians are not, nor should ever be, shrewd with wealth.
The Parable of the Dishonest Manager challenges both stereotypes: Jesus commends a person who had been dishonest with wealth, but then acted shrewdly to protect his future. The story goes that a manager of a rich man’s property had been squandering the property; Therefore, the rich man fired him. Before the rich man could inform his debtors about the change in management, the manager approached the debtors and reduced what they owed the rich man. The manager did so to garner their favor, so that when he is out of work, they might look kindly on him.
One would think Jesus would’ve condemned the dishonesty of the manager and the clever plot to further swindle the rich man out of his receivables in order to secure the manager’s future. At the very least, we might think Jesus would’ve condemned the deep desire for wealth and security that the manager displays. But Jesus doesn’t. Instead, he lauds the manager for his cleverness, with an additional complement to “children of this age” (those who are not followers of Jesus), for their shrewdness. And then Jesus encourages people to be faithful to God with their possessions and wealth, not to give it all up.
Now that we are hopefully moving beyond the stereotypes, we can explore this reading for insight on faithful stewardship, for indeed it offers a profound teaching that guides many people of faith in their thinking about money and possessions.
Despite all the potential ethical and practical pitfalls and dangers of wealth accumulation, Jesus is suggesting in this reading that it is possible to manage possessions and money in ways that can lead us into life with God. The key, the starting point for knowing how to do this, is to know the endpoint — to know what life with God is. And if we use possessions to gain that life with God, Jesus may commend us, as he did the dishonest manager. Being shrewd, in this case, means using what we have for God’s purposes, rather than squandering what we have for no gain at all. Jesus says, “If you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust you with the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? (16:11-12)”
Being shrewd requires knowing what rules your heart, knowing whom you serve. This is how we are to understand verse 13. If you serve wealth for its own sake, you will fail. But if you serve God and shrewdly use the wealth you have for God’s purposes, you will enjoy the blessings of life with God.
When Christians participate in conversation about the economy, taxes, wages, deficits, cost of living, etc., they may bring to the conversation shrewdness about the power of wealth to corrupt. But they may also bring shrewdness about how to use wealth to benefit God’s entire world and all people. They are not necessarily condemning wealth nor abnegating it. And they are not, by definition, naïve. Instead, they may know that life with God is fulfilling, peaceful, forgiving, just, inclusive, expansive, and filled with joy. And they would rather serve that vision to help those who suffer, than serve a vision of wealth for wealth’s sake.
The Rev. Verity A. Jones lives in Indianapolis, Indiana where she is a consultant working with the Center for Congregations and Lilly Endowment Inc. She is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).