Jesus’ Parable of the Shrewd Steward is probably the most difficult of all Jesus’ parables. What does it mean that Jesus says that we should be more like the “hero” of this parable, who is—let’s face it—a scoundrel?
I deal with this question in today’s sermon, preached on Stewardship Sunday. He challenges us to use all the resources God gives us—time, talent, energy, intellect, possessions, and money—for the sake of God’s kingdom. And because our time to do so is limited, we need to approach this task with a sense of urgency.
Sermon Text: Luke 16:1-13
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
About ten years ago, as some of you know, I was perfectly happy working as an electrical engineer when God called me to be a pastor. In the eight years that I’ve been a pastor, however, I have forgotten nearly all engineering knowledge. I would now be useless as an engineer. So… all I can say is, this preaching gig better work out because otherwise I’m in trouble. I’m no longer qualified to do anything else. I don’t have a fall-back or a safety net.
Nah, I’m kidding. I’ve been doing this pastor thing for a while; I think it will work out O.K. If not, my wife, Lisa, can support me!
All that to say that I deeply sympathize with the plight of the manager in today’s scripture. When faced with the prospect of losing his livelihood, he says, “I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m too proud to beg.” Like me, he can’t do anything else at this point in his life; he has no fall-back or safety net.
This is a famously difficult parable to interpret. It’s so difficult we don’t even know what to call it: Is it the parable of the dishonest manager, or the parable of the shrewd manager? It can go both ways. I’m curious: What does your Bible say? Is there a heading above the parable?
As we’ll see, the truth is that the manager is both dishonest and shrewd. We know for sure that he manages the finances of a rich man, probably a powerful landowner and an absentee landlord. This landowner lives somewhere far away from his property. He rents it out to tenant farmers who pay the rent by giving him a large share of their produce each year. The manager’s job to manage his master’s property and keep his books and collect his debts while the master is away. This manager is literally a steward; he doesn’t own the property himself; but he’s temporarily in charge of it. And it’s mostly because of this parable that we use the word “stewardship” in the first place.
It turns out, however, that this steward has been mismanaging his master’s property. Maybe he’s skimming off the top; maybe he’s cooking the books; maybe he’s just incompetent. Who knows? But the master finds out about his misdeeds, and the steward finds out that his master has found out, and he knows that the master is on his way to fire him. What’s the steward going to do now? So he hatches a very clever plan—although the exact details of the plan are disputed by Bible scholars.
What we know for sure is that the steward has a short window of time in which to work to avert disaster before his master shows up and fires him. The steward knows he’ll only be in charge of the books for a few more days. He figures that if he can use the resources at his disposal to ingratiate himself with his master’s tenants—by forgiving a large portion of the debt they owe—then the tenants will be so grateful to the him that they’ll be happy to offer him free room and board when he loses his job and livelihood.
O.K., what he does next is a matter of dispute. The first and most popular interpretation is that he simply writes down the debt these tenants owe, without his master’s permission. It’s dishonest because it’s not his debt to forgive; he was essentially stealing from his master. But it’s also shrewd because what’s his master going to do about it? This was a culture in which “losing face” was about the worst thing that could happen to you. It would be way too embarrassing for the rich man to go back to his tenants and say, “You know that steward that I hired, that worked for me, that I employed? He was a no-good crook who didn’t have authorization to forgive your debt. So you still owe me the full amount.” That would be too shameful, and the steward knows it.
Another possible interpretation is that the steward eliminated the interest that the tenants owed on their debt—the interest was 100 percent on the olive oil and 25 percent on the wheat. So the steward told the tenants that they only owed the principal, the original amount they borrowed. Again, what was his master going to do about it? Charging interest was illegal under Jewish law. It was considered sinful usury. If the rich man tried to take legal action against his steward, the rich man’s own shady business practices would be exposed.
So you see, either way, it’s clever. What’s shocking about the parable, however, is that instead of being angry with the steward for his most recent dishonest stunt, the master ends up commending him for being so clever. What the steward does is deceitful and underhanded, by all means… but give him credit: he’s clever. He’s a scoundrel, but he’s clever.
And isn’t this is our main problem with the parable: that Jesus uses this deceitful, underhanded scoundrel as a positive role model for us and says that we disciples need to be more like him in some way?
But if we read the rest of the gospel of Luke, this shouldn’t surprise us: Jesus uses shady characters in two other parables in order to make a positive point about God’s kingdom. In one parable, a very grumpy man is awakened by a neighbor at midnight—and who wouldn’t be grumpy? His neighbor needs bread. It’s an emergency. Finally, the grumpy man gives him what he asks for. In another parable, a corrupt judge, who “fears neither God nor man,” who has no interest in justice, reluctantly gives a persistent widow the justice she demands. Jesus compares the grumpy neighbor and the unjust judge to God himself! It’s a “how much more”-type of comparison. If even the grumpy neighbor and the unjust judge will do these good things under these circumstances, how much more will God do good?
And so it is in today’s parable. If even this guy—this scoundrel, this person of bad character, this person who plays fast and loose with the truth—if even he understands the importance of using the resources at his disposal to accomplish a goal—even one that’s dishonorable and underhanded and deceitful—how much more should God’s children understand the importance of using the resources at our disposal to accomplish good goals for God’s kingdom?
Jesus forcefully reminds us in this parable that what we do with our lives and our resources—including our time, talent, intellect, energy, possessions, and money—matters on this side of eternity and also on the other side. First, it matters in the case of our own, individual salvation, because we have this limited amount of time that God gives us to respond to the gospel, to repent of our sins, and to believe in Jesus. We have a limited time to make adecision for all eternity.
If you haven’t yet made that decision, please know that God is giving you this moment to do so. I don’t mean to be morbid—but how do you know for sure that you’ll have another moment? There are no guarantees in life. “One day,” you say, “I’ll get my life right with God, but what’s the rush?” The rush is that time is running out, just as it was running out for the steward in today’s parable. And because his time was running out, the steward acted with urgency. If you haven’t given your life to Christ, you need to act urgently too. Now is the time to take decisive action while you still have time.
But most of us, I know, are already Christians. We’ve already found forgiveness of sins and eternal life through Christ. But this parable still applies. Jesus is calling us Christians to live our lives with the same sense of urgency as the steward. Why? For one thing, we have friends and family and neighbors and coworkers who haven’t yet found Jesus Christ, and time is running out for us to share Jesus with them! Do we, like the steward, understand how high the stakes are? People we know and love might die without having entered into a saving relationship with God through Christ. Apart from Christ, they have no hope for salvation. Apart from Christ, people are bound for hell because their sin has separated them from God. I don’t think any of us is O.K. with that, but what are we doing about it? Are we, like the steward, bringing all our resources to bear on helping to invite people to experience Jesus for themselves? Because make no mistake, we are given a commission to do so. Is the salvation of other people a priority for us?
Is that priority reflected in the most practical and tangible way imaginable, which is, what we choose to do with our money. You’ve heard the expression “money talks”? It absolutely does, and money tells the world how important our Christian faith is. It tells the world whether we believe what we say we believe. It tells the world whom we serve.
I went to the eye doctor recently. He had this sophisticated instrument that tested your eyes for early signs of glaucoma. If you catch it early, you can catch it before it causes blindness. Well, I failed the test! Which doesn’t necessarily mean anything. “Come back next week, and let’s take it again.” And I did, and my eyes were fine. But failing that test reminded me of, well, kind of a funny story, although it wasn’t funny at the time. About 12 years ago I went to the eye doctor. And she was giving me that test, flipping lenses… Is that better or worse, better, worse, better, worse. And I was like, “I don’t know. It looks about the same to me.” And she said, “I can’t adjust your vision back to 20/20 like I could last year. Hmm. Why don’t you come back next week. I’d like to give you another test.”
Now, I’ve told you before that I’m ever so slightly a hypochondriac. So I started worrying: “What did she mean by that “hmm”? So I called her and asked her what the concern is. And she tried to put my mind at ease. She said—I kid you not—“Oh, it’s probably nothing. It doesn’t mean you have a brain tumor or anything.” And she laughed. And I’m thinking, “Brain tumor! That’s even a possibility?!” Don’t even joke about that with someone like me. So for the next week, I was convinced that I had a brain tumor! Isn’t that silly?
My point is: we need a wake-up call every now and then. And maybe this scripture is our wake-up call. How would we live differently if, like the steward, we knew our time was running out? How would that shape our decision-making? How would that shift our priorities?
This parable reminds us, whether we like it or not, that our time is running out. For those of us who are already Christians, that shouldn’t scare us because we have assurance that we’ll be saved. But it should instill a sense of urgency. We’re facing a deadline. We want our master, Jesus, to say to us some day, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” We want treasure in heaven. We want to be rewarded for the good work we do here for God’s kingdom. The apostle Paul makes it clear that not every Christian will be rewarded—we’ll just barely make it into heaven.
Brothers and sisters, I don’t want to just barely make it in. But, like it or not, whether I barely make it in or whether I receive a reward is going to depend, in part, on how faithful I’ve been with the money that God has given me to manage.
The church wants you to tithe. I want you to tithe. And I’m not asking you to do anything that I don’t do. Not only that: I believe that the vast majority of us can afford to tithe. Those of you who can’t afford to do so can at least take a significant step in the direction of tithing. Tithing means to give 10 percent of your income to God through this local church. It is the biblical standard for giving, and it’s what God’s people have done from ancient times. When the harvest came in, they took the first and the best tenth of their harvest, and gave it to God in the temple as a sacrifice. In the same way, before we pay any other bill, before we pay the mortgage or the rent, before we settle any other debt, before we spend money on ourselves, we tithe. Tithing is a way of acknowledging that it all comes from God, and it all belongs to God, and God is calling us to use our money to win men and women and boys and girls to Jesus Christ.
Can you think of a more important investment you can make with your money? If not, then let’s please do what the Lord is calling us to do.