Does Jesus Commend Dishonesty in Luke 16?
Over a dozen email questions have arrived in the inbox from listeners who want to better understand Jesus’s parable in the first half of Luke 16. Isn’t Jesus celebrating dishonesty? Matt in Oklahoma writes us: “Hello, Pastor John! How do you understand and explain the parable of the dishonest manager in Luke 16:1–13? This one is a real head-scratcher for me. What does it mean? And what are the implications for Christians today?”
Let’s put the parable in front of us, because my guess is a lot of folks don’t know the specifics of what he’s referring to. As I read just a few verses of this parable, be asking the question “Now what’s the positive lesson Jesus might draw out of sinful behavior?” That is the issue here.
Here’s what Jesus says to his disciples in Luke 16:1–8:
There was a rich man who had a manager [like a steward who ran his business], and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. 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 [in other words, you’re fired].”
“Don’t worry about being a shrewd investor in this age. Instead, be a really shrewd investor by investing in people’s lives.”
And the manager said to himself, “What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.”
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.” 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.” The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.
That is the end of parable. So you see the situation. A manager is fired, but before he leaves, he negotiates with the debtors of the owner to sign new contracts so that they owe the owner less than they really do.
They think that’s cool, and the manager hopes that these debtors will feel obliged to him, so that when he’s jobless, they’ll help him out. So, the deceitful manager uses his wits to figure out a way to manipulate money so as to secure his future. That’s the gist.
We don’t know how the story really ends — what happens after this encounter. We just know that when the master found out how clever this guy was, he said something like, “Well, that’s clever. That was shrewd.”
Now, what will Jesus fasten on with the parable? He makes two comments.
First, in Luke 16:8 he says, “The sons of this world [that’s unbelievers, people who don’t follow Jesus] are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.”
Now, I think the point of saying that is that Jesus is saying, “It may be true that you poor, benign Christians don’t know how to be smart in this world’s affairs. That may be true. But guess what? It is utterly insignificant compared to the wisdom I am about to teach you in the next verse about how to use money to secure your future — namely, your ultimate future, your eternal future.”
In other words, “Maybe you aren’t that shrewd when it comes to the stock market, but guess what? Who cares? You’ve got a billion years to enjoy your investment. These folks, they’re going lose theirs in eighty years.”
Jobless in Eternity
Here’s how I would paraphrase the second thing he says: “You think that was shrewd? Let me tell you what’s shrewd. I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails, they may receive you into eternal dwellings” (see Luke 16:9).
“You’ve got a billion years to enjoy your investment, while others are going lose theirs in eighty years.”
There are two pointers in that verse to show why this is infinitely more shrewd and infinitely more wise than the shrewdness of the deceitful manager.
The first clue is the word eternal: “that they may receive you into eternal dwellings.” In other words, Jesus is telling these disciples not just to secure their earthly future. That’s all this guy could do: “Hopefully they’ll give me a little help when I’m jobless.”
This is Jesus’s way of saying, “You need help with your joblessness in eternity. I’m telling you how to have a house, a place to live, with joy and satisfaction in fellowship with God’s people forever. That’s the way to use your money. Use your money to secure that.” That’s the first clue — eternal.
Here’s the second pointer: the little phrase “when it fails.” In other words, all this so-called shrewdness of the deceitful manager is going to come to nothing. It’s based on wealth that will fail.
When he calls it unrighteous mammon, or unrighteous wealth, he simply means this is part of the unrighteous world in which you live. So he says, “Use money — take hold of it, and use it for eternal, spiritual purposes. Namely, to provide security in eternity.”
What does that mean? How do you do that? How do you use money to secure eternal dwellings with friends?
The clue is when you look at that phrase, “when it fails.” It triggers us to remember the word fails back in Luke 12:33. Here’s what that says. “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.”
“Use your resources to do as much good as you can for the glory of God and the eternal good of others.”
So making friends with money means using your money to meet people’s needs. That’s the way to lay up treasure in heaven that does not fail, or as Jesus says in Luke 16, “Some of those people will be converted and will go before you into heaven and welcome you there with great joy to join them in eternal dwellings” (my paraphrase).
Here’s the basic point: Don’t worry about being a shrewd investor in this age, where you can provide a future that will only fail. Instead, be a really shrewd investor by investing in people’s lives. Use your resources to do as much good as you can for the glory of God and the eternal good of others — others who will go before you and welcome you home.