The Shrewd Manager

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A short biblical reflection on Luke 16,1-9 (RSV)

1 He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a steward, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his goods.

 2 And he called him and said to him, `What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.’

 3 And the steward said to himself, `What shall I do, since my master is taking the stewardship away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.

 4 I have decided what to do, so that people may receive me into their houses when I am put out of the stewardship.’

 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, `How much do you owe my master?’

 6 He said, `A hundred measures of oil.’ And he said to him, `Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’

 7 Then he said to another, `And how much do you owe?’ He said, `A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, `Take your bill, and write eighty.’

 8 The master commended the dishonest steward for his shrewdness; for the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.

 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations.

The Parable…

This estate owner had a manager to administrate and run the business in his estate. He lived in a faraway place, took no notice of his estate matters, except through checking the state of his Bank accounts. One fine day, it came to his attention that this manager was doing business irregularly and wasting money and therefore wanted to remove the manager from his job. The manager had a very good job. He had a power position as a manager in this ‘economic system’ that seemed to offer security for the future. Here was his vested interest.

What should he do, now that he was being removed from his job?

It could be interpreted that this manager falsified documents 1  or at least he was a party to it.

One debtor was allowed to change 100 to 50, another was allowed to write 80 instead of 100 . That is why this manager is also called “ the dishonest steward”. He does damage to his master’s interests. But by doing this, he gets the goodwill of these people who will later, out of gratitude support and help him.

It is to be assumed that the manager reduced a part of the high interest originally charged. According to Jewish law, getting interest is prohibited. Interest is not charged separately, but simply added to the capital (as is the current practice in many developing countries today)2. A person borrowed 50; fifty percent interest is added to it and the debt amounted to 75 3. These high percentages and still higher are common in these situations. The borrower has seed and other provisions and being in such dire financial needs she or he has no choice but to accept exorbitant rates of interest, in the hope that she or he will be able to payoff the debt from the harvest. Therefore it is evident that the friends whom the steward tries to make, are poor and often have been exploited. It is also clear that the money  earned through this practice is ill-gotten.

Jesus stresses this forcefully. Whoever puts his or her main interest in the economic motive of money must sooner or later participate in injustice. People/economists who can no longer look beyond money are “economists of injustice”4. To talk about ‘stewardship’ could be easy, but in fact is no more than self righteousness on the part of the owner of unjust riches 4a. The biblical teaching is about the management of unjust things. To remain faithful while associating with those things, therefore does not mean to perpetuate the things themselves. It demands, that

we must draw from other treasures which are indestructible.

9 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal,   Matt. 6,19 (RSV)

Our dealing and associations with money is only the test of how worthy we are to be trusted with “the true riches”.

If we give money an independent life of its own and act as if it existed in and of itself, we give into the injustice its spreads. The people who think in terms of money and on behalf of money, often fail to see the limits of law and no wonder the ‘manager’ in our parable, broke the interest prohibition. Interest was a personal advantage to the manager which he wisely abandons.

A word of praise for an act of ‘dishonesty’

The master praises his “the shrewd manager” because he handles the matter in a “clever” way. The manager was not a dishonest steward but an “economist of injustice”. He cancelled interest on loans but by breaking the law. The law did not then accuse him in any way of new irregularities. He was wise that he sought solution to his problem outside the unjust economic system. He places his hope in a kind of partnership with these poor farmers, than on the “system”. He restores human relations. The shrewd manager looks for his future not in new accumulation of capital or in amassing great wealth, but in making of friends. Ofcourse there is an element of “skilfulness”, but it was more a matter of “wisdom”. Here Jesus says that the shrewd manager with wisdom changes his direction in life.

The farmers are no longer victims of exploitation, but their former creditor now joins in fellowship with them. They are no longer objects but subjects of discussion. The money that was at first the cause of separation is now used to make friends. In this way money is disconnected from the search for money and it leads to a non-threatening way of improving human relations 5. The master congratulates the shrewd manager. He had dealt the situation intelligently.

Our income is a blessing from above. We have earned it.  John Calvin says, we have worked not for that only 6. He further goes on to say that the work  or our enterprise itself must make sense. It must be done to the honour of God, for the welfare of the neighbour,  for the poor and the needy, for the support and the emancipation of a  socially and ecologically sustainable lifestyle. By living in this way, we discover that our welfare is not a “goal” which we have earned by ourselves; it is something extra. Welfare cannot be planned that is what economic system promises but never actually delivers 7.

Real Christian life is acted out when life in a system of injustice intersects with the new life through faith of Christ. Life cannot be divided into two separate spheres, so that we might serve two masters:

24 “No one 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 mammon.   Matt. 6,24 (RSV)

Thus human beings cannot be free from the problems of money. We are called to manifest God’s sovereignty over riches, but this is only possible through faith.