One of the most confusing parables of Jesus is the parable of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1-13). Smart people have been dissecting it since Jesus spoke it. There are a number of elements that make it difficult to understand. For instance, every single character in the parable is dishonest. And Jesus appears to encourage us to imitate dishonesty by setting up the example. In the parable, a master discovers that his chief steward is wasting his money. He calls the steward to account and threatens to fire him. The steward, who is not able to do physical labor, and is too proud to beg, decides to call in the master’s debtors. He dishonestly slashes their debt, and they unhesitatingly agree to the deception of paying less than what they actually owe. He thus makes friends with his master’s debtors, so that when he is kicked out of the master’s house, he has somewhere to go. Surprisingly, the master then commends his manager for his cleverness and cunning. But even more surprising, and also quite strange, Jesus argues that “the sons of this world” are more shrewd than the “sons of the light,” and then remarks that we should use unrighteous wealth to make friends, so that they can welcome us into their eternal homes. Very Strange.
But not really when you apply some serious thought to his next words. To paraphrase, Jesus said, “he who is faithful in little will be faithful in much, and he who is dishonest with little will be dishonest with much.” The shrewd (or dishonest) manager exemplified this. He was faithful to serve himself by wasting his master’s resources, and he was faithful to serve himself even more when he dishonestly lowered what his master’s debtors owed. Any dishonesty present in his wastefulness was compounded by an order of magnitude with his self-rescue mission. It paid off, and he had the reward of being able to live with the dishonest debtors.
But Jesus is not encouraging us to be dishonest. He is simply using the example to teach the principle of faithfulness. God has given you many gifts. One of those is money. While money is neither good nor evil, it is an integral part of an unrighteous world — so much so that loving it is the root of many evils (1 Timothy 6:10). Jesus wants you to hold the money loosely and wisely use it to advance his kingdom. Jesus is arguing that like the shrewd manager, our time in the world is limited, and we should use the resources that God has given us to make friends so that we will have greater treasure in heaven (Matthew 6:19-20). If we are faithful with the little that he has given us, then we will be faithful with the greater spiritual gifts that he has for us as we mature.
Ironically, Jesus’ audience included religious leaders of the day (Luke 16:14-15). They had not been faithful with what God had given them, and like the wasteful manager, were about to be fired from their jobs.