Passage: Luke 16:1–16:13
It’s quite the contrast from last week, isn’t it? Last week, we looked at one of Jesus’ most well-known parables – the parable of the prodigal son. And this week, we come to one of Jesus’ most difficult parables – the parable of the dishonest manager. It is quite the contrast.
As you heard in our reading, this is a challenging parable to interpret. Darrell Bock, in his fine commentary on Luke, says v8 in this passage is the most difficult verse in the entire Gospel to understand. Klyne Snodgrass, in his comprehensive guide to Jesus’ parables, lists no less than 17 interpretative options. Don’t worry – I’m not going to go through all 17 options this morning.
So, what are we to make of this surprising and challenging parable? Before we look at the details, it would be helpful to remember a few broad points about parables that ought to guide our study. Think of these points as guardrails that help steer us toward the proper interpretation of the text.
First of all, when it comes to parables, we ought to be mindful of the audience. To whom is Jesus telling the parable? The audience often guides the interpretation. For example, in Luke 15 that we just finished, Jesus directed his parables to the Pharisees and scribes. The lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son were all intended to confront the Pharisees’ self-righteous response to sinners. They were out of step with heaven. The audience guided our interpretation.
In this passage, the audience is identified in v1 – “Jesus also said to his disciples.” That means Jesus intends some discipleship connection in this challenging text. That ought to guide our interpretation. There is something to learn here about following Jesus.
Secondly, when it comes to parables, we ought to note what kind of parable it is. Not all parables are alike. Some parables are simple similes – the kingdom of heaven is like, for example. Some are confrontational, like the parable of the wedding feast. They cause the listener to pass judgment on himself. Some are narrative, like the Good Samaritan. The plot and the characters have some connection with the everyday life of Jesus’ listeners. Not all parables are the same.
In our passage, we have a crisis parable. The character in the parable faces a crisis, and he takes action to address the situation. So, think of the parable of the Friend at Midnight from Luke 11. Do you remember that parable? A man has guests who arrive in the middle of the night, but the man has no bread. That crisis leads the man to do something very bold – he wakes up his neighbor in the middle of the night to ask for bread. The point of that parable was not that we should be rude and wake up our neighbors in the middle of the night. Rather, the point was that we ought to be bold in prayer before God. The crisis created action. Our passage this morning is similar. It is a crisis parable that calls Jesus’ disciples to take action.
Finally, and most importantly, when it comes to parables, we ought to avoid over-interpretation. This is really important. One of my professors used to say that the key to interpreting parables is knowing when to stop interpreting. Not every detail is intended to have a one-to-one correspondence to something in our lives. Not every character is intended to represent us or God or people in this world. The key to interpreting parables is knowing when to stop.
And that’s really important in this parable, brothers and sisters. As we’re going to see, Jesus is really only making one point here – it’s the last sentence in v8. He then follows that up, in vv9-13, with a few lessons, but the point of the parable itself is very narrow, very specific.
So, just to get it out of the way up front, Jesus is not commending dishonesty in financial dealings, no more than he was commending rudeness with the Friend at Midnight. Drawing that specific lesson would be over-interpreting the passage. It would be pressing the details too far – beyond what Jesus intends. The point of this parable, according to Jesus, is actually very narrow.
Of course, that raises the question, “What is the point of this parable?” I’m glad you asked. That is how I’d like to spend our time together this morning. The sermon has two sections, each built around a question. In the first section, we’re going to ask, “What is the point of this parable?” My aim will be to answer that question with one sentence, and then explain how I get there. And then in the second part of the sermon, we’re going to ask, “What lessons should we draw from this parable?” There are three, coming from vv9-13, and my prayer is that these lessons will help us put the point of Jesus’ parable into practice. So, with that plan before us, let’s get started on the details.
The Point of the Parable
What is the point of the parable in vv1-8? That’s our first question, and I’m going to give you my answer up front. The point of the parable is this – Wise Christians ought to use the resources of this age in service of the age to come. Let me say that again. The parable teaches us that Wise Christians ought to use the resources of this age in service of the age to come. Now, let’s begin in v1 and see how we arrive at that answer.
The parable opens with a manager who is in trouble. Notice v1 – “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions.” In Jesus’ day, household managers were often entrusted with significant levels of authority, particularly over the financial affairs of an estate. Managers were even viewed as the owner’s authorized representative – so, it was an important job. But here in v1, the manager is in trouble. He has been wasting the owner’s possessions. It’s the same word used back in chapter 15 to describe how the prodigal son squandered his inheritance. The manager is throwing the owner’s money way.
Naturally, the owner is upset. Look at v2 – “And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’” The game is up, in other words. The owner wants to see the books, and when he does, he’ll find the evidence that convicts the manager.
But as Jesus comes to v3, notice that the manager has a very short window of time. He’s going to be fired, but it hasn’t taken effect immediately. This is key. Think of what the manager knows. He knows judgment is coming, he knows his future is in doubt, but he also knows there is time to take action. Indeed, there is a sense of urgency to the manager’s deliberation. Notice v3, where he acknowledges that he’s too soft to work and he’s too proud to beg. The walls are closing in, but he has this window of opportunity.
And in v4, the manager hits upon an idea. Notice his plan – “I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.” The point here is that the manager is forward-thinking. He has the future in view, and his plan is designed to take action now that will lead to a viable future. V5, then, gives us the plan – “So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and sit down quickly and write fifty.’”
Now, it’s clear what the manager is hoping for, isn’t it? By reducing each debtor’s amount, he hopes to win their favor in the future. He does the same thing to a different degree in v7. And these are sizable reductions. This would be similar to your bank canceling half your remaining mortgage, or your student loan being forgiven when you’ve still got years to go. These are sizable reductions, and it’s clear what the manager is aiming for. He’s trying to buy favor from these debtors. Once he’s fired, perhaps they will hire him. Again, it’s forward-thinking. In light of what’s coming, the manager leverages his position in the present in order to prepare for the future.
Then comes the difficulty – the part of the parable that is challenging. Jesus introduces a twist, v8 – “The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.” Now, we might expect Jesus to condemn the manager for taking advantage his situation. But as is often the case in crisis parables, the twist is unexpected and intended to get our attention. The master commends the manager. How should we understand this? There are a number of suggestions to explain what the manager has done and, therefore, make sense of the commendation.
One view is what we might call the lost commission interpretation. In this view, what the manager canceled was not the actual debt but the commission he stood to gain from collecting the debt. So, in that sense, the manager wasn’t cheating his master; he was taking the hit himself. The problem, however, is that word dishonest in v8. It’s literally unrighteous. That makes the lost commission interpretation unlikely.
Another possible view is what we might call the hidden interest interpretation. The Law of Moses prohibited Jews from charging interest on loans to other Jews. But to get around this prohibition, the interest charges were often baked into the contrast. If a gallon of oil was loaned out at ten dollars, I’d charge you twelve, and the two extra dollars was the hidden interest. So, in this view, what the manager is doing is removing the hidden interest. The master, then, has to commend the manager because if not, then the master is the one that comes out looking like a law-breaker. The problem with this view is that there is nothing in the parable to suggest it. It’s a rather subtle interpretation that doesn’t have much to commend it from the actual text.
So, we’re back to our question. How should we understand the commendation of this dishonest manager? Jesus tells us in the verse. Notice again what the manager is commended for, and by extension what he is not commended for? V8 – “The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.” The manager is not commended for being dishonest. That is hardly Jesus’ point. Rather, he is commended for being shrewd. The idea is to act wisely, prudently, and sensibly, especially in light of what is coming. And that is what the manager has done. In light of the future he faces – a future that is certain to come – the manager takes action. He’s not apathetic, he doesn’t drag his feet. He leverages his position today in order to address what he knows will be his future.
In that sense, Jesus is not commending the manager’s action but the attitude, the mindset that led to the action. Just like the parable of the Friend at Midnight was not commending rudeness, so also Jesus is not commending dishonesty. He’s commending wisdom – shrewdness. He’s calling his disciples to recognize the necessity of acting today in light of what is to come, and to do so without delay.
Now, how do we know that this interpretation is correct? Again, look to the text. The second half of v8 is Jesus’ explanation of the parable. Here’s the point, straight from Jesus. End of v8 – “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” That is a “how much more” argument from Jesus. The sons of this world refer to unbelievers, while the sons of light represent believers. It’s a “how-much more” argument. If unbelievers act this wisely to prepare for their earthly future, then how much more should God’s people act with wisdom to prepare for their eternal future?
You see, it’s actually a rebuke to Jesus’ disciples. Jesus is challenging his disciples to display the kind of forward-thinking shrewdness that the manager displays in the parable. And if you think about, this is a rebuke that Christians in all ages need to hear. The reality is that compared to citizens of this world, Christians do often show a surprising level of inattention to spiritual realities. Unbelievers are often very focused on leveraging their resources for earthly gain, but how often do we Christians fail to leverage our resources for spiritual gain, for eternal things?
Think of how committed many people are to building their retirement portfolios. There’s nothing wrong with saving for retirement, by the way, but it makes a good illustration here. Think of how committed many people are to building their retirement portfolios. They watch their spending. They plan their investments. They shrewdly and wisely examine where to put their money in order to maximize their returns. It’s all very prudent, isn’t it? It’s acting in the present in order to prepare for the future.
But compare that to how little attention we give to the care of our eternal portfolios. Jesus says store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, but if we’re honest, we don’t give that as much thought as our 401k. And yet, the 401k will turn to dust, and that treasure in heaven will endure forever. Shouldn’t we be at least as concerned for heavenly treasure as we are for earthly gain? Shouldn’t we display even more drive to leverage our resources now in light of the age that is to come?
That’s the point of the parable, brothers and sisters. It’s a call to forward-thinking wisdom. Wise Christians ought to use the resources of this age in service to the age to come. If worldly people leverage this life for temporary gain, then how much more should we leverage our lives for eternal treasure?
Lessons from the Parable
And this, brothers and sisters, leads us to that second question we want to consider about this passage. What lessons should we draw from this parable? Or, to ask it another way – how do we employ such eternally-minded leverage? Again, I’m glad you asked. Beginning in v9, Jesus draws a number of lessons from the parable. Let’s note each one, just briefly.
Generosity Increases Our Eternal Joy
Lesson #1 – generosity increases our eternal joy. Notice what Jesus says in v9. This is the most direct application of the parable, v9 – “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into eternal dwellings.” Now, this is also a pretty difficult verse, but the first step in understanding is that phrase unrighteous wealth. By that phrase, Jesus does not mean wealth gained in unrighteous ways. Rather, Jesus means the temporary wealth of this passing age. It’s wealth that easily corrupts the heart, leading to unrighteousness, if not stewarded wisely.
And so, Jesus’ point in v9 becomes a bit clearer. Instead of using worldly wealth to serve yourself, use it to serve others. Make friends with your resources, money, and possessions. Be generous in serving others with what God has given you.
Now, why should disciples live this way? For one, because worldly wealth will one day fail. There will come a day when even the richest person on earth will stand before God with nothing, and on that day, no amount of money will be able to save you. So, we ought to be generous in our stewardship because worldly wealth is going to fail anyway. Wisdom would say use it for eternal purposes.
And that is the most important reason why disciples ought to be generous in this age – because such generosity increases our eternal joy. Notice that phrase – “so that they may receive you into eternal dwellings.” Jesus is not saying that the way we use our money somehow earns our way into heaven. No one is saved by being generous, though saved people are marked by generosity. Rather, Jesus’ point is that the way we use our wealth in this age redounds to our credit in the age to come. This is how we store up for ourselves treasures in heaven – by being generous on earth with what God has given us.
So, I take it that in God’s kingdom economy, every act of generosity, done in faith, increases the believer’s joy in the eternal kingdom. Every deed done in God-honoring stewardship deepens the sweetness of hearing Christ say, “Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master.”
Brothers and Sisters, that is a powerful motivation to leverage our earthly resources for the glory of God. This ought to reshape how we think about what God has given us to do with our lives. It really does affect every possible area of life. For example, when I use the gifts God has given to build a successful business that contributes to the ministry of the gospel and the needs of others, I am storing up treasure in heaven – the treasure of joy with God in Christ. When I faithfully give what I can to bless the church, even when the amount is small, I am storing up treasure in heaven – the treasure of knowing that my life demonstrated the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord. When I display hospitality or care for the least of the these or embrace the ministry of adoption or invest my time in discipleship or any other countless costly act of generosity, I am storing up treasure in heaven, treasure that will not fail.
That is how your leverage the wealth of this age for the sake of eternity, and that is precisely what Jesus is calling his disciples to do. Don’t let the world outdo the church in thinking wisely about the future. Let the church outpace the world in generously using our earthly wealth for treasure that cannot fail. That’s the first lesson – generosity in this age increases our eternal joy.
Character is Revealed in the Small Things
Lesson #2 comes in vv10-12 – Character is revealed in the small things. V10 is a proverbial application of Jesus’ parable. Look at v10 – “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.” Whether it’s something big or small, character is character. That is Jesus’ point. In fact, we could probably put it more pointedly – if you want to know someone’s character, watch how they handle the so-called small things of life. Do they keep their word in small matters? Do they follow through on things that could easily be overlooked? Do they give their best effort on things that promise little return? That’s where character is revealed – not in the big moments, but in the small, quiet moments of life.
Jesus then applies this to our spiritual lives. Look at vv11-12 – “If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?” I have heard wise, godly men say that this life is preparation for the life that is to come. That is not to minimize life in this world, but it is to put things in eternal perspective. If we have not been faithful with something as temporary as money, how can we expect to be entrusted with the lasting wealth of heavenly things?
Now, I don’t know how all of this works, but the NT is pretty clear that believers will have responsibilities and perhaps even possessions in the age to come. Passages like 1 Corinthians 6 and 2 Corinthians 5 speak of the believers as having some level of responsibility in the coming age, and even the phrase ‘treasure in heaven’ suggests some kind of reward. And so, I take vv11-12 in this passage to be teaching that we ought to be faithful with what we have now in order to prepare for what we will be entrusted with then. Again, I don’t know how all of that adds up, but here is what I do know – I want to be faithful. I want to be a good steward now, particularly in the small things, so that the Master will entrust to me true riches in the age to come.
So, we ask ourselves these kinds of questions:
How am I using my money – to serve myself or to serve the work of the gospel?
Do I hold on to things as though they belonged to me, or am I generous toward others, particularly those in the church?
Do I give the best of myself to my most important callings – to my spouse and family, if God has so called me; to my church; and then to my job? Do I give the best of myself to my core callings, or do those core callings get the leftovers of my life?
Am I a person of integrity in small things, even things no one else sees?
That is the lesson of vv10-12. Character is revealed in small things, and character cultivated now prepares us for what is to come.
Stewardship Reveals What We Worship
Lesson #3 from v13 – Stewardship reveals what we worship. Jesus speaks in absolute terms to close this passage. Look at v13 – “No servant can serve two masters, for 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 God and money.” To put it simply, a disciple cannot live with divided allegiance. We must follow the Lord with whole-hearted devotion. Divided allegiance leads to unfaithfulness.
And one of the greatest threats to our allegiance is money. Jesus uses the word mammon here, which encompasses more than simply money. It’s material possessions in their entirety. Those material possessions often compete with God for our allegiance. It is interesting that money is put alongside God here in v13, almost as a rival deity. Of course, money can never replace God, but that’s how money often functions, isn’t it? As a rival for our trust and confidence. Instead of trusting in the Lord, we trust in our possessions. Instead of anchoring our confidence in Christ, we anchor it in our money. Disciples cannot have divided allegiances, and perhaps the greatest threat to our allegiance is our possessions.
So, how do avoid this threat? Simply put, by listening to Jesus’ teaching in this parable. Do you see how v13 ties it all together? Instead of worshiping our possessions, we leverage our material resources to faithfully serve the kingdom of God. We live generously. We view what we have now as preparation for what is to come. V13 is the summarizing principle that wraps up the section. How we steward our possessions reveals what we worship. If we hold on to our money, then it reveals that money is likely our god. But if we faithfully use our money for Christ’s sake, then it reveals that we have a greater Treasure than money, namely, Jesus Christ himself.
And so, that is where we conclude, brothers and sisters. All of life is meant to be lived in light of Jesus Christ and his coming into this world. That is the great crisis, you might say, that gives shape to our lives. The kingdom of God is at hand, and the day is coming when we will see Christ and stand before the Lord. That reality ought to shape how we live each and every day in the present. Indeed, that reality ought to create in us a wise approach to life, where we steward and leverage what we’ve been given, especially our material resources, for the sake of the gospel, for the good of others, and for the glory of God in Christ.
I pray this passage has helped us in that direction, and I pray that God’s Spirit will now take the truth of this text and bear generous fruit in our lives, even the fruit of treasure in heaven. Amen.