I’ve always wondered about the parable of the shrewd (or “dishonest,” depending on translation) manager from Luke 16:1-9. That sentence at the end is so bizarre—“I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” Um, what? What in the world is that supposed to mean? That doesn’t sound like something Jesus would really say, especially as a summary of the parable. And unlike some of His other parables like the parable of the sower, Jesus doesn’t take His disciples aside and explain things to them privately afterward. We’re sort of just left to figure it out on our own. So again, what does it mean?
The key to understanding this parable is to realize that it’s not really about the manager at all (title notwithstanding). It’s about the master. The manager is wasting his master’s wealth, and his master knows it. It’s important to note the word used for “wasting” the master’s possessions: squandering. Luke uses the same word here as he does in the parable immediately preceding this one, the parable of the prodigal son. In fact, these two parables are very closely related. Both the prodigal son and the dishonest manager are “squandering” wealth that is not their own. Both face a crisis—the prodigal son is forced to feed pigs and eat their food, the dishonest manager is fired and sees no viable options to escape from his dilemma. Both the prodigal son and the dishonest manager come to the same conclusion: their only option is to throw themselves to the mercy of their benefactor—the father of the prodigal son and the master of the dishonest manager.
Arthur A Just Jr’s Concordia Commentary on Luke supports the interpretation that the parable is really about the master. The parable is based on the assumption that the master is honorable and merciful. Rather than throwing the manager in jail immediately, which was the master’s right, he allowed him time to prepare for his termination. During this time, the manager realized that his only solution was in banking on the mercy of the master. The readiness of the debtors to accept the lessening of their accounts without question shows that they, likewise, believed the master to be merciful. When the master finds out what the manager had done, he has a choice. Yes, the manager was acting on his own accord in lessening the accounts. No, that money was not his own, nor was it his decision to make. But what is the master to do? If he reverses the decision, he looks bad. The debtors will realize that he is, in fact, not merciful after all. But if he lets the decision stand, his renters are more indebted and committed to him. The manager has benefited not only himself, but the master as well, by further securing the goodwill and love of the debtors. Just concludes, “The steward trusted the character of his lord and staked everything on the lord’s mercy. The steward was not disappointed.”
Can you see in the manager a picture of yourself? Which of us has not squandered what our Master has given us? The gifts, talents, time, and possessions God has entrusted to us are far too often wasted on frivolous things. When called to give an account, we would have to be honest and admit that we have squandered our Master’s gifts. And how can we justify ourselves to our Master? We have no case against Him, no defense to make for ourselves. We can’t argue the righteous decision that we are unworthy servants. Humanly speaking, there is no way out for us. We can’t make it up to our Master or find a satisfactory way out when we look to ourselves. It is only when we throw ourselves completely at the mercy of our Master that we find a solution—not in ourselves, mind you, but in the Master.
Okay, but what about that pesky verse 9, where Jesus tells us to make friends for ourselves with worldly wealth in order to be welcomed into eternal dwellings? We know from 16:1 that Jesus is speaking to His disciples here. We learn later in 16:14 that the Pharisees were listening in on this as well, but since Jesus is speaking this parable mainly to His disciples, the comments after the parable are largely catechetical. Jesus is setting an example here of how to make proper use of worldly possessions. As the master of the parable was known as a merciful man, his manager imitates that mercy in dealing with the debtors. In other words, use your earthly possessions for the benefit of others, mirroring the mercy of the Lord, who has shown you infinite mercy in forgiving your debt of sin. Just points out, “Jesus is not teaching works-righteousness here when he says ‘make.’ Rather, he is enjoining the display of merciful generosity by those who have been shown generous mercy by God.” Our faith compels us to show mercy to others as God has shown mercy to us. Our earthly possessions won’t be of any use to use once we die. Instead, while we live, we should use those possessions wisely and for the benefit of others.
So go back and read the parable again, focusing on the mercy of the Master rather than any dishonesty on the part of the manager. Indeed, God is that Master who has forgiven us our debts. Go ahead and stake everything on the mercy of your Master, even your eternal well-being. You will not be disappointed.