One of the parables of Jesus which has always perplexed me is that of the Unjust Manager in Luke 16:1-15. Taken on its own, the parable seems to justify unjust business practices and even a spiritual pragmatism where the ends justifies the means. Obviously Jesus Himself never taught something that, but until recently I’ve never been able to quite get my head around what the parable actually means.
That all changed though when a missionary challenged me to read the passage in its wider context. Going back to the start of chapter 15 we discover that the Pharisees were upset that Jesus was eating with tax collectors and “sinners” (Lk 15:1-2). And so, in response, Jesus immediately tells a series of three parables involving a lost coin, a lost sheep and most famously of all, a lost son.
The unifying point to each of these short parables though, is the enormous joy of their recovery (i.e. Lk 15:7, 10, 22-24). And the point obviously is, this is how we should respond whenever another fallen human being is by God’s sovereign grace brought to repentance and saving faith. We should be quite literally overjoyed! However, the Pharisees and teachers of the law were miserable and could not stop grumbling, just like the Israelites did in the desert.
Now, as important as that truth is, the Lord Jesus Christ goes on to address an even deeper issue of the heart. And in chapter 16 Jesus tells another parable which this time talks about greed. In particular the challenge is to love the things which God values rather than the material things of this world (Lk 16:15). Because as Jesus Himself says:
“No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money (lit ‘mammon’)” (Lk 16:13).
So what does this have to do with helping us to understand the meaning of the parable of the Unjust Manager? Well, as the apostle Paul would say, “Much in every way!” Indeed, Jesus deliberately uses the literary genre of ‘parable’ not to illustrate truth—as is commonly assumed—but to hide it. For parables are a form of judgment upon those who are living in spiritual rebellion (see Isaiah 6:9-10; Mk 4:10-12).
The parable which Jesus tells at the start of chapter 16 immediately follows on from what He has just been saying at the end of chapter 15. And it involves the question of, “What do you really love or value?” For Jesus it was saving lost sinners. But for the religious leaders it was the things of this world.
Jesus challenges them to consider the situation of a manager who knew that he was about to be brought to account for “wasting his master’s possessions”. What should he do? How should he respond? Well, the manager acts so shrewdly as to leave the reader in shock. For by exporting his financial loss to his master, he secures relational gain. i.e. so that after he has lost his job, people would “welcome me into their houses” (Lk 16:4).
This manager’s actions are commendable not because of their virtue in and of themselves, but because of his discretion in shrewdly re-evaluating – pun intended – his circumstances and acting accordingly. And in the same way Jesus says, “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (Lk 16:9).
Now, this does not mean we are to act dishonestly in how we handle money. No Presbyterian Board or Committee of Management would be commended by anyone for acting in this way! Instead, what Jesus teaches through the parable is that we are to value people more than money. Unlike the Pharisees and teachers of the law, we are to love lost sinners rather than the things of this world, whatever form that might take.
Understood in this light, Jesus’ parable is a beautiful call to mission – to have a heart of compassion like the Son of Man who came to seek and save what was lost (i.e. Lk 19:10). Or as the apostle Paul said, to consider other people—and not worldly possessions, status or things—as our hope, joy, glory and crown (Phil. 4:1; 1 Thess. 2:19-20).
The challenge of Jesus’ parable of the Unjust Manager then is as timeless as it is true. Will I store up my treasures on earth or in heaven? Will I use the ‘unrighteous wealth’ which the LORD has given to me for myself or for others? And especially for those who are leaders of God’s people, will I seek to feed the sheep, or will I use them for my own nourishment and self-interest? (e.g. Ezekiel 34; Matt. 9:36)
The words of Christ in Luke 16 could be a “life-verse” which we display on our mirror or fridge. They could be an over-arching mission statement on how we live out our callings now in this world. Understood in this way, they provide a profound challenge to what it is we value and who it is we live for.
For there is a day which is coming when we will all be held to account. And on that day, will we experience ‘loss’ (1 Cor. 3:14-15) or a wonderful reward – a rich welcome into heaven from not only our Father in heaven (Matt. 25:23), but the men and women on this earth whom we used our worldly wealth to reach (Matt 25:40).
– Mark Powell