Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Parable of the Shrewd Manager (Luke 16:1-15)

This article is put up because a sister (in-Christ) requested.

The way to read this article is that the orange underlined texts are the verses of the Bible (NIV, unless otherwise stated). The black texts following the Bible verses (and enclosed by square brackets) are my commentaries. At the end of these Bible texts and commentaries, I have inserted a section on "Points to take note".

The Parable of the Shrewd Manager

1Jesus told his disciples: "There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2So he called him in and asked him, 'What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.' [Some Bible translations (e.g. NKJ) have the word “also” in verse 1 (i.e. Jesus also told ….), the writer who did the write-up of this parable in Wikipedia, went at some length concerning the implication of the missing word. (You can read the full write-up here {Updated: 28/03/2011 - Link removed, reason being that THE ARTICLE IN WIKIPEDIA HAS SINCE BEEN CORRECTED. THERE IS NOW NO DISCUSSION OF THE MISSING WORD, "ALSO"}). His interpretation of the use of the word, “also” in the verse, is not necessarily correct. My view is this: If the sentence just ended with “disciples”, i.e. “Jesus also told his disciples.”, I would agree with him, i.e. meaning, Jesus told “some other people” in addition to telling his disciples. When it was being used in this manner: “Jesus also told his disciples: “There was ….”, I am of the opinion that it can be interpreted simply as: “Jesus told his disciples also this parable of …., in addition to some other earlier told parables.” Whichever the interpretation, I believe it is “much ado with nothing” and I have no qualms about the NIV Bible translators leaving out the word, “also” here. The writer of the Wikipedia article only concluded this:

“Readers who don't include Luke 15: 1-3 can find the parable difficult if not impossible to understand.” (Updated: 28/03/2011 - THE ARTICLE IN WIKIPEDIA HAS SINCE BEEN CORRECTED.)

Luke 15:1-3 was only making mention of the people who were around Jesus – tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees and Scribes. The writer did not explain how knowing these additional people around, help us to understand this particular parable. In any case, in this chapter itself, you can read in verse 14, that the Pharisees were around, and heard what Jesus had spoken. (Updated: 28/03/2011 - THE ARTICLE IN WIKIPEDIA HAS SINCE BEEN CORRECTED.)

The reason I included some discussions here about the article in Wikipedia is to draw some attention to the fact that there are so much writings on the internet these days on the faith, and the great disparities, discrepancies, and even incorrect expositions of Biblical scriptures on the internet. You can read another exposition on this parable on WikiAnswers.com which I am not so comfortable with (you can read it here. {Updated: 28/03/2011 - Linked removed, reason being that THE ARTICLE IN WIKIANSWER HAS SINCE BEING IMPROVED OR AMENDED.}). I believe many people read stuff on the “Wiki” and the “pedia”. We should warn our children or even young Christians about what they read in the internet. We should think about what we should do about this growing phenomenon, the internet is not going to go away, it is just going to get more and more common-place. There is a question to think about – Should or should we not, write on the internet concerning the matters of the faith? The answers will differ from person to person, but for those “well-versed” in the faith, do you think you should write on the internet to balance out the half-truths, untruths, etc concerning the things of the faith on the internet. For example, am I contributing to the “mumble, jumbo”? Should we take the same attitude we take with regard to gossips, let them end in your ears, and do not start any? Nowadays, I hear of people stressing the wrestling back of the 7 Gates. People are saying if you do not take those gates, others will. I believe that the internet is one of the gates within the 7 Gates. Or are we going to just say God will look after his own Word? What about distorted Word deceiving people? I tell you, get your children to a good church to balance out the misinformation of the internet which is so freely accessible today.

Ok, let me get back to the interpretation of this parable. I believe in this parable, the Lord was trying to say a few things, one of which is fruitfulness. I know many people talk about “increase”. In the Parable of Talents, for example, 5 talents became 10 talents, 2 talents became 4 talents, and the one given 1 talent only presented the same talent back to master, no increase whatsoever. Concerning these matters, I believe the more correct concept is the concept of fruitfulness. The other concept we need to bear in mind is that what we are having here, is a parable.

A little is needed to be said concerning parables if we want to be able to interpret this parable. The Greek word for parable is parabolē, which means

1) a placing of one thing by the side of another
2) metaphor - a comparing, comparison of one thing with another, likeness, similitude

This is to say a parable comprises concepts of “parallels”, metaphors, and analogy. The idea to bear in mind is the chief definition of placing of one thing by the side of another, i.e. there are 2 different things being put side by side and being talked about. This is why for some of the parables in the Bible, the opening goes like this, “The Kingdom of God is like ….”. At the end of the day, we still go back to one of the 2 things, and the correct one to go back to, is the one being illustrated, not the metaphor.

Now, it is important when you are reading the Bible, to know whether you have come to a parable or just a narrative. For example, the narrative about the woman with blood issue (been bleeding for 12 years) touching Jesus’ cloak and got healed is not a parable – it is an account of an event and should be interpreted as such.

Remember I said there are 2 things in a parable, the thing (in this case, scenario of a “manager” in the Kingdom of God/Kingdom domain), and the metaphor (scenario of a “manager” in the world). Referring to the metaphor, Jesus said there was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. The rich man was God, in the Kingdom of God scenario, not in the world scenario, of course. The manager as his name implied was to manage his master’s resources, which according to the accusation here, he was not doing well; he was charged with wasting.

How do you interpret verse 2? I believe there are 2 reasonable interpretations:
Either the master was saying to the manager that he was to be terminated, and that now he had to give an account of what was the status of things under his management, very much like when a modern day manager, on being confirmed leaving a company, would be required to prepare a hand-over; or the master was asking the manager to answer to the accusation, failing which he would be terminated. My own take is the former. The reasoning is that I have put my emphasis on the last part of the verse, “because you cannot be manager any longer”. Perhaps, the master already did his own investigations. Wouldn’t you have done your own investigations before firing a manager? Also, if you go down to verse 4, you will see that the manager used “when” instead of “if” when thinking about the loss of the job.

The article in WikiAnswer.com seems to imply that out of this parable we ought to consider whether or not we should fire people on the spot (asking them to leave immediately). I believe this is not what Jesus was even hinting, even though the manager in this case was not leaving immediately {Updated: 28/03/2011 - THE ARTICLE IN WIKIANSWER HAS SINCE BEING IMPROVED OR AMENDED.}

Coming back to fruitfulness, I believe Jesus was trying to say that we got to be fruitful. In the world, we are expected, in the Kingdom domain we are expected also. In the world, in many instances, “increase” was all that people were looking at. For example, when one hands over to another a certain amount of wealth to manage, the yardstick of performance is most likely to be in terms of how much the increase (in wealth) would be. If you do not bring about the “increase”, you are not a good manager. In the Kingdom domain, a similar concept is at work. God gives everyone certain resources, some, more, some, less, some in terms of intelligence, some in terms of creativity, some in terms dexterity of the hands, others, gift of the gap, some in terms of monetary wealth, some in terms of extraordinary long suffering, etc. The question is, what have we done with the resources or what are we going to do with the resources? The idea of increase is not wrong but not adequate. It is not wrong to bring about an increase in the “talents” God has given us, but a wider concept of fruitfulness was in order for the Kingdom domain. Often, the mere increase in the thing is not adequate, for example, if God blessed you with certain monetary wealth, your mere increasing of the wealth is not sufficient. What fruit you bear with the wealth or increased wealth is what matters. Or say, you are gifted by God in music, and you trained and worked very hard at perfecting the talent God has given you, and you become very famous, you have increased the “talent” God has given you. But what do you do with the perfected talent, what do you do with the fame you achieved? If you waste away what God has given you, you are a bad manager.

Connected to fruitfulness, what this parable, in just 2 verses, was trying to say was that we all need to give an account to God. To keep this article short, I will just say I believe God kept saying to us, “Hello, so and so, you have to give an account to me. What are you doing?” Sometimes, He would say, “Complaints have come to me, and I have checked what you are doing. You are wasting what I placed in your hands, if you continue to stay that way, I might have to take that away from you.”]

3"The manager said to himself, 'What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I'm not strong enough to dig, and I'm ashamed to beg— 4I know what I'll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.' [If you have agreed with me about verse 2’s interpretation, the manager was fretting over his predicament as he was preparing the hand-over. He was wondering what to do, now that he was going to leave his employment, he claimed that he was not strong enough to toil, and he was ashamed to beg. While listing the outstanding matters, including outstanding receivables due to his master, an “idea” came to his mind.]

5"So he called in each one of his master's debtors. He asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?'
6" 'Eight hundred gallons of olive oil,' he replied. "The manager told him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.'
7"Then he asked the second, 'And how much do you owe?' " 'A thousand bushels of wheat,' he replied. "He told him, 'Take your bill and make it eight hundred.'
[He came up with a dishonest plan. He decided to give unwarranted discounts to the master’s debtors, on the amounts owing. The idea was to curry favor the debtors so that when he was out, one of them might take him on, as a manager.

I want to say I do not agree with the interpretations cited in the Wikipedia’s article referred to above, about Judaic prohibition against usury, and that this act of the manager was therefore done entirely honestly {Updated: 28/03/2011 - THE ARTICLE IN WIKIPEDIA HAS SINCE BEEN CORRECTED. DIRECT REFERENCE TO JUDAIC PROHIBITION AGAINST USURY HAS SINCE BEING REMOVED.}. Neither can I accept the interpretation that the manager was merely sacrificing his own legitimate commissions and therefore was praised as “astute”. The suggestion in the WikiAnswer’s article that the manager was not dishonest because he was still in the service of the rich man when he gave the discounts was wrong. Also, the discussions on the 2 options of the master in the same article, to me, only served to confuse the matter, it was never really about the rich man (the master){Updated: 28/03/2011 - THE ARTICLE IN WIKIANSWER HAS SINCE BEEN IMPROVED OR AMENDED.}.]

8"The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. 9I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. [These are the 2 verses that many of us struggle with. What do these verses mean?

There are a few words here that “stumped” us. First, let’s get it straight, it is said very clearly here that the manager was dishonest. So we shouldn’t go round trying to find ways to say that the manager was not dishonest. What he did was dishonest. I know sometimes there are insufficient details in the accounts in the Bible, but we can only insert reasonable scenarios which are consistent with what was already made known to us. Do you know the story of the Fall of Jericho, the part about the spying and Rahab, the prostitute? ( You can read it here: Joshua 2 & Joshua 6:22-25) Was Rahab dishonest? Yes, she lied. Did God asked her to lie? No. Did God asked her to be dishonest? No. Did Rahab acted shrewdly? Yes. Was she and her family spared? Yes. Did God commend her on her dishonesty? No. Did God commend her for shrewdness? No. In that story, it was a worldly action, done with dishonest shrewdness, ended up helping the people of God. It was a case of Romans 8:28. We struggled here, because we saw the words, “commended” and “shrewdly” in verse 8.

We read that the master praised the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. Let us be clear that there is no praise for dishonesty. Was the manager praised for his shrewdness? What is shrewdness? Is it something good? Or is it something bad? “Shrewd” here comes from the Greek word, phronimōs (Strong’s no. G5429), which means

1) wise (but can be with the connotation of being wise in one’s own conceit),
2) prudently mindful of one’s own interest

I believe it meant that the dishonest manager acted mindfully of his own interest, he curried-favored the master’s customers with the hope that one of the customers would employ him; and he thought he acted wisely (self-conceit) but his master came to know about his actions. So, is being shrewd good or bad? I would put it this way, being innocently shrewd is positive. Being dishonestly shrewd, as in the case of this dishonest manager is negative. In Mat 10:16, we read this:

I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.

The word, “shrewd” used in this Mat 10:16 is the same as the one used in verse 8 here (Greek word, phronimōs). So what is the difference? The difference is that Jesus was telling his disciples to be shrewd but at the same time be innocent. Being shrewd and at the same time dishonest is not what was commanded by Jesus.

But then verse 8 said, “The master commended ….”; what do I have to say about that? Yes, but it does not say God likewise commended (such phrases can be found in other parables. For example in the Parable of the Unforgiving servant, Mat 18:35). But you may say that I said the rich man (the master) was God. Yes, I did say the rich man was God, but I say the rich man was God in the Kingdom of God scenario, not in the world scenario. The clues to saying that it is not likewise that God commended are firstly, there was no such thing said, AND secondly, because the second sentence of verse 8 started with “For”. When structured in this manner, the observation that was to be emphasized is in the second sentence. What was the observation? It was this - that the people of this world were more shrewd when dealing with one another regarding their own interests in this world than the people of the light (God’s people) regarding their own interests in the Kingdom domain. The first part of verse 8 (first sentence) should be seen as flowing from the second part (second sentence). We should not be putting weight on the master’s commendation. To me, it is no more than one like our common remark, “You have to give it to him, he was shrewd, cunning or conniving or scheming.”, and it did not mean approval of what the manager did. But I would not dismiss that many worldly masters may esteem such attribute, so long as the dishonesty was not against them. To me, it is better to be simple-hearted (free of deceit) than to be shrewd. Apart from the Greek definition, if you check up the old use of this word, “shrewd”, it carried high connotation of conniving and deceit.

The Wikipedia’s ‘anti-Qumran’ interpretation of the parable is uncalled for because the “people of the light” in verse 8 was clearly referring to the people in the Kingdom domain, which I put here as God’s people; it is not about some Qumran sect members {Updated: 28/03/2011 - THE ARTICLE IN WIKIPEDIA HAS SINCE BEEN CORRECTED. THERE IS NOW NO MENTION OR DISCUSSION OF WHAT "PEOPLE OF LIGHT" MEANT.}). Verse 8 is a parable comparison of a state in the Kingdom domain (“the thing”) and the same, in the world (“the metaphor”). It is not a comparison of 2 metaphors.

Actually God was saying, “Why can’t you shift your worldly mindset to the eternal mindset, from looking at the worldly self-interest and goodwill, to eternal self-interest and goodwill?” That was why what He said in verse 9 was amounting to a command for us to use our wealth to do Kingdom work (like those contributing to the Kingdom enlargement or Kingdom welfare) so that when we die, we would be welcomed into Heaven by the people (saved people) benefited from them. Maybe you and I should ask ourselves whether or not there will be many people welcoming us when we enter Heaven. Will there be many friends waiting to receive you? This is what these 2 verses are about.

Is there any special significance to the word, “worldly” attached to the word “wealth” in verse 9? My opinion is that there is none. All wealth that we cannot bring with us when we die is worldly wealth. I believe it was just referring to our wealth in this world. No, I do not think it was referring to “ill-gotten” wealth of any sort.

I also would like to point out that the “gaining friends” here was not referring to gaining friends in this world particularly, although people benefited from your Kingdom contributions could become your friends in this world. The connected metaphor for verse 9 is in verse 4. So, this verse 9 is not about making friends in this world. It is not about using wealth to build “guan-xi” (connections) in this world. Please do not get me wrong, I am not saying you should not make friends or get connected with people; it is just that this verse is not about gaining the connections to get ahead in this world or in this life on earth.

Please note that it is incorrect to end this parable at verse 8. As a minimum, verse 9 must be included.]

10"Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. 11So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else's property, who will give you property of your own? [Some consider these few verses not part of the parable. I am treating them as part of the parable.

We need to be honest and trustworthy. Firstly, if we cannot be trusted with little, it is not likely that we will be trusted with much. Secondly, if we cannot be trusted to handle worldly wealth, it is not likely that we will be trusted with true riches.

Worldly wealth, I have defined very simply as wealth you cannot bring with you when you die. What are true riches, then? I have not come across any good write-up on this, true riches, or have seen any convincing definitions of what true riches are. I think you also will not be faulted for not accepting what I say about true riches.

Maybe true riches are riches that still matter when we die. Since verse 11 talks about being entrusted with them, maybe they include other people’s eternal lives, and their spiritual well-beings, spiritual revelations, spiritual gifts, wisdom, and favor of God. Maybe these things do not die with you, people’s eternal lives and spiritual well-beings get translated into goodwill with God, friends in heavenly places, spiritual revelations and gifting, at least some of them, maybe remain with you; maybe wisdom stays with you (maybe King Solomon still has great wisdom in Heaven), and favor with God gained here on earth, may continue into Heaven.

Verse 12 may on the surface, looks easy to interpret, but if you bring yourself back to the Kingdom scenario, you will be wondering what was it that was being referred to as property of your own. Even if you join me in accepting a “measure” of the Kingdom is already here, in the world, we do not have real ownership, do we? Your church, for example, is really not your church, right, it’s the Lord – we are stewards. Maybe we do get to own something which we can call our own, in the future; who knows? – 1 Cor 2:9 says, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him”]

13"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."
14The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15He said to them, "You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight.
[Are these last 3 verses part of the parable? I think they are part of the parable.

To me the “parallel” is still there, in the world, it is difficult to serve 2 masters; in the Kingdom domain, it is also similar, Jesus said you cannot serve both God and Money. To Jesus, the Pharisees were bad managers, they tried to serve both God and Money, and ended up loving money and were dishonestly shrewd. In the world, who came to know about the heart of the manager? The master. In the Kingdom domain, Jesus said, “but God knows your hearts (v 15)”. When John the Baptist was baptizing people in the Jordan River, in preparation for the coming of Jesus, he saw the Pharisees and Sadduces approaching, he called out, “You broods of vipers!” (Mat 3:7). Vipers are venomous snakes. What did Jesus implied about snakes? Remember Mat 10:16, quoted above, the same shrewdness is being referred to. They, the Pharisees and Sadduces, knew Jesus was talking about them, as shrewd but bad managers, even as He, Jesus, was teaching his disciples and all others, who were gathered around Him.

Now what do you think is being referred to in the last part of verse 15 – What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight? No, not money. Money by itself is neutral. It is the love of money that is the root of all kinds of evil. Dishonest shrewdness was what Jesus was referring to. If you want to be shrewd, be innocently shrewd and not dishonestly shrewd, the latter is detestable in God’s sight.]

This has been a long article, in part because I included the discussions on the articles on Wikipedia and WikiAnswer in an effort to point out the “gross” expositions of matters of the faith in the internet. It is not my desire to go round attacking people on their beliefs or opinions, especially if their articles are on their personal sites or blogs. These 2 articles are somewhat different; they are on “public sites” which people use widely. Wikipedia and its associated sites are being projected as the encyclopedia of the internet. Actually, I did consider removing these parts from my article but when I was doing that I felt a “prompting”, which I read as “not to remove”. So, you have it, complete with the discussions on the “Wiki” articles. {Updated 28/03/2011 - THE ARTICLES IN WIKIPEDIA AND WIKIANSWER HAVE SINCE BEEN IMPROVED OR AMENDED. I RECOGNISE THAT ARTICLES IN "WIKI" ARE LARGELY FROM CONTRIBUTIONS FROM "INFORMED" MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC COMMUNITY, AND THE MANAGEMENT OF WIKI HAS BEEN IMPROVING ITS PROCESSES OF ENSURING ONLY "CREDIBLE" ARTICLES APPEAR IN THIS SO-CALLED ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF THE INTERNET. MY POINT IS THAT CHRISTIANS STRONG IN THE WORD, SHOULD CONSIDER HELPING TO SHAPE WHAT WOULD APPEAR IN THIS ENCYCLOPAEDIA, AS INTERPRETATION OF THE WORD, EITHER DIRECTLY AS CONTRIBUTORS OR PROVIDING FEEDBACK. THIS ARTICLE IS NOT INTENDED TO ATTACK WIKI FOR ANY FAILURE.}

Let me summarise the points to note:

1. As Christians, we are all servants of the Lord. We are also managers of the Lord.

2. As managers, we must be fruitful. Not necessarily increasing the resource given, but be fruitful.

3. As managers, we cannot just let the resources given to us waste away

4. Managers who are not fruitful and wasting away resources will not please God. I cannot judge, but it appears that maybe such managers may get demoted, given lesser and lesser to take care. In the worst case scenario, maybe what little that they may have, may even be taken away from them.

5. Being unfruitful through wasting away resources is not pleasing to God, being dishonest in management is also displeasing to God.

6. God often starts people off with a little. We have to prove ourselves to be diligent (bear fruits, not letting resources go to waste), and trustworthy before He will entrust us with more, and more important resources and tasks.

7. Whether little or much, whatever the resource, belonging to others or your own, be a good steward.

8. Use your resources for Kingdom work to bear fruits which should include people getting saved, and people getting helped, in the process, gaining friends who would be welcoming you at your entry to Heaven. Shift from a worldly mindset to an eternal mindset.

9. Do not try to serve both God and money. Serve only God. Do not love money, for the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.

10.If you need to be shrewd, be innocently shrewd and not dishonestly shrewd. The latter is detestable to God.

Anthony Chia - To sister who requested this exposition, this article took me a long time to complete, but I want to thank you because I have learnt about what kind of shrewdness is pleasing to God, and what kind of shrewdness is detestable to God.

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