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Many millions throughout the world are mourning the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The longest reigning monarch in British history, she was respected for her life-long commitment to leadership through service. She reigned with dignity and graciousness, providing stability in a chaotic world.
In previous Word on Wednesday writing I have touched on her witness to her faith in her Christmas Messages. In 2011 she said:‘…Although we are capable of great acts of kindness, history teaches us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves – from our recklessness or our greed. God sent into the world a unique person – neither a philosopher nor a general, important though they are, but a Saviour, with the power to forgive…’
Her words, ‘we sometimes need saving from ourselves – from our recklessness or our greed’ call to my mind Jesus’ parable, ‘The Parable of the Shrewd Manager’ found in Luke chapter 16. Two themes stand out: a Dishonest Manager; and a Generous Owner.
A Dishonest Manager. The parable takes us into the world of property and business. It’s the story of a rich man who has his affairs looked after by a property manager, who enjoyed a great deal of delegated power. He could negotiate financial deals and sign contracts. His position commanded a great deal of respect.
However, as with any position of financial responsibility, he could mismanage funds. And this seems to have been the case, for at short notice his master issued him with a dismissal notice: Charges were brought to the owner that his manager was squandering his property.
The silence of the manager is significant. He was street-smart and was clearly unsure of the details of the charges. To speak might give the master even more reason to charge him. But his silence condemned him. He was fired, but significantly not immediately sent to prison. He had time to plan, but he needed to act quickly.
Knowing he didn’t have either the physical stamina or the heart to work as a laborer, and not wanting to beg, he worked on a strategy to win friends who would look after him.
One by one he called in those who owed money to the owner. He halved the debt of the first debtor who owed the equivalent of 900 gallons (lit. 100 barrels) of oil. He also reduced the sum owed by a second debtor who owed the equivalent of two and a half tons of wheat (lit. 100 containers). In today’s money both reductions were in the order of $10,000.
While much ink has been spilled in debating the meaning of this parable, we can make several observations. The manager’s action in reducing the outstanding accounts is conceivable. In a bad season an owner could reduce the yearly rent in advance. But the feature here is the secrecy and the speed of the adjustments.
Furthermore, there is an all-important underlying theme: the owner’s character. The manager knew him to be just and upright. And because the owner hadn’t promptly sent the manager to prison, it was evident he could temper justice with mercy.
This is the key: the manager risked everything on his perception of the owner’s mercy.
A generous owner. The owner had two options: he could call in the debtors and point out that the updated rental agreements weren’t binding. Or he could remain silent and personally absorb the pain and the price of the deception. In which case he would be the one who paid the cost of his manager’s tactic.
To interpret the parable this way puts a dark construction on its meaning. Could Jesus really be saying this? Consider verse 8 where we read: And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.
Shrewdness. The placing and force of the word shrewdly is significant. The owner is not commending his manager for his deception, but rather is complementing his shrewdness.
The usual Greek word for wisdom is sophia. But here another word is used – meaning cleverness in self-preservation. The manager is commended for his shrewdness in looking out for his future.
The parable speaks of an existential moment in the manager’s life. He faced a future without hope. The movement of the story and the motif of shrewdness means this is a parable about life and death matters.
Furthermore, as one commentator has noted, the better reading of the phrase in 16:8 is not, the unrighteous manager but rather the manager of unrighteousness. This phrase is a figure or metaphor for the world of men and women whose lives are characterized by unrighteousness before the owner – God.
In the parable Jesus is drawing together a complex cluster of ideas. The owner is a figure for God who is both just and yet incredibly merciful. The dishonest manager is a figure for us all.
A parable for us all. In the story the manager is caught in his sinful actions and called to account. Knowing he is guilty, he entrusts his future completely to the kindness and mercy of the owner. Having experienced his master’s goodness at the beginning (he wasn’t jailed) he is confident his master will bear the full cost of his rescue. This is the shrewdness the master commends.
Shrewdness about life, death and the future is what Jesus wants us all to think about. Verse 8b is the climax of the parable: “The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light,” Jesus comments.
Kenneth Bailey, who lived in the Middle East for decades observes: ‘the parable provides an unforgettable insight into the nature of God, the predicament of men and women, and the ground of salvation’ (Bailey, p.110).
This is a ‘dark’ parable in that Jesus teaches us lessons about God and ourselves, the present and the future, through a situation of corruption, injustice and pain. It is ‘dark’ in that it is the owner who has to pay the price for human failure. As Luke’s narrative unfolds, the shadow of the cross of Calvary looms ever larger.
The parable challenges us all (disciples 16:1) to be shrewd in preparing for our future beyond the grave, and wise in trusting God with our life now. Men and women (the children of this age) make smart decisions about life, looking after and protecting their interests
However, Jesus is saying, the children of light (his followers, 16:1) are not necessarily clever about heavenly things. They know there is a future world but they don’t prepare for it, nor do they live in the light of that knowledge.
‘In what do you trust?’ is Jesus’ question. Have you understood that the only hope of rescue for sinful men and women is found in the mercy of God? Yes, that mercy is undeserved, he is saying, but the day will come when you will see that God, the owner, is willing to pay the full price of your rescue.
A prayer. Almighty God, you have conquered death through your dearly beloved Son Jesus Christ and have opened to us the gate of everlasting life: grant us by your grace to set our mind on things above, so that by your continual help our whole life may be transformed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit in everlasting glory. Amen.
You may like to listen to the hymn, In Christ Alone from Keith and Kristyn Getty.
© John G. Mason
Note: Today’s ‘Word’ is adapted from my book in the ‘Reading the Bible Today’ series, Luke: An Unexpected God, 2nd Edition, Aquila: 2018.
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