By Ava Pennington
Christians are to be light in a dark world. Salt in a corrupt society. In the world, but not of the world. Our culture has much to learn about the one true God and what it means to belong to him. It seems almost sacrilegious to think the world has something to teach us about how to live as Christians.
So why would Jesus tell us to take a lesson from a thief?
The parable of the shrewd manager in Luke 16 is about a crook looking out for his own interests, motivated by one thing: “What’s in it for me?” Hired as a rich man’s manager—some translations call him a steward—his job was to manage his employer’s possessions. He could enjoy the use of those resources as long as he maintained or increased profits. But as Jesus described, his boss accused him of “wasting his possessions” and demanded an accounting.
Sounds like an old version of today’s headlines, doesn’t it? Hardly a week goes by that we don’t hear about scandals on Wall Street, investment scams, or government officials betraying our confidence. People we trust prove untrustworthy. Those who are supposed to act in our best interests are caught lining their own pockets at our expense. But before we wag our fingers at these offenders, perhaps we should take a closer look at ourselves.
God, the Creator and owner of all that we have, has placed us in the position of managers or stewards. He’s given us the earth (Genesis 1:26), time (Ephesians 5:15, 16), talents and abilities (1 Peter 4:10), and material resources (Matthew 25:14, 15). He has even entrusted us with the message of the gospel (1 Thessalonians 2:4).
Sadly, our track records as managers or stewards are not above reproach. The earth has been battered and bruised by pollution and irresponsible land management practices. In our entertainment culture, we can easily while away hours each day playing video games, virtual word games, or watching television. Talents and abilities can be pushed aside in favor of convenience or pride. Finances may reflect a me-first attitude as we give God our leftovers. And the gospel is often watered down to avoid offending others.
Like the manager in the parable, a day is coming when we will have to give an account of our stewardship “whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). Will we be ready?
Repentance or Regret?
The manager in this parable was in a bind. About to be unemployed and with no training for any other type of work, he needed to do something fast. Manual labor and begging were not on his list of options. Neither was repentance.
He knew he would need a place to go once he lost his comfortable position. But how would he guarantee a welcome reception? Rather than own up to his misdeeds, he developed an elaborate plan. Before giving an accounting to his master, he cooked the books even further. Calling the master’s debtors, he reduced one balance by 50 percent and the other by 20 percent.
Once again, our own responses aren’t much better. When confronted with the reality of our own sin, we can respond in one of three ways. We might refuse to acknowledge it, much like unbelievers do. We may simply regret getting caught, rationalizing our behavior. For example, how often have we justified our own anger or unforgiveness with the protest, “But you don’t understand what she did to me”? Finally, we can repent with a contrite heart, recognizing once again how we have fallen short of God’s holiness, humbly receiving the forgiveness he offers us in Christ.
But now comes the confusing part of the parable: the thief is commended!
Is “Shrewd” Good?
Of all the words used to describe God’s people, shrewd doesn’t readily come to mind. Maybe that’s because calling someone “shrewd” usually has negative connotations, referring to worldly people more often than to Christians.
But the Greek word translated shrewd means to act with foresight, and that’s what this manager did. While he could not change the past, he could prepare for the future. He made friends with his master’s debtors so they would welcome him when he had no place else to go.
The master acknowledged the wisdom of the manager’s plan. It appears he still intended to fire the manager due to his dishonesty, but recognized his shrewdness in planning ahead to secure the future.
But is Jesus really holding up this manager as a role model for us? If he is, doesn’t this contradict Psalm 1:1, “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked”? Or how about what the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 12:2, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world”?
Lessons from a Thief
In telling this parable, Jesus unpacked three lessons for us.
Make the most of every opportunity to accomplish eternal goals. The manager used his opportunities to ensure his own survival. Jesus observed that “people of this world” are adept at using every opportunity to further their own materialistic goals. “People of the light” (Christians) can learn from them, using just as much foresight to accomplish eternal goals (Luke 16:8).
How can we use our time, talents, and material resources to “gain friends” so that we “will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9)? In Matthew 6:19, 20 Jesus warned against storing up treasures on earth. Instead, he exhorted us to lay up treasures in Heaven. When we combine these verses with the parable, we find he is telling us to use our material assets to win people to Christ. How many people will welcome us in Heaven as a result of how we used our resources?
Think about the extent to which people of this world will go for the purpose of making a profit—the energy spent, the money invested—all with the goal of making even more money. Yet some Christians are dissuaded from sharing the gospel for no other reason than a desire to avoid embarrassment.
All too often, we squander our time, talent, and finances, behaving as if this life is all there is. We become slaves to our possessions instead of using these resources in the service of our eternal King.
Faithfulness in using material wealth will determine eternal assignments. In our compartmentalized society, it’s tempting to divorce the material from the spiritual. But how we handle small duties offers a preview as to how we will handle larger charges.
As Jesus said, “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” (Luke 16:10). Why should God trust us with greater spiritual matters if we are not wise in handling material concerns?
How we handle material resources is an expression of our values. The spiritual principles that govern our life will also govern our giving, spending, saving, and investing. Money will not last, but how we use it will matter for eternity. It’s time to “put our money where our mouth is!”
God requires single-minded devotion from his people. We can allow our resources to master us, or we can master our resources. If we allow them to master us, then we have set up an idol to compete with God for first place in our lives.
Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Luke 16:13).
Choosing the right master allows us to invest our lives in eternal purposes. Choosing the wrong one will lead to a wasted life. Christians, too, can become distracted with the “stuff” of this world. The result will be “wood, hay, or straw” that will not stand the test of fire (1 Corinthians 3:12, 13).
If we are truly devoted to one Master, it will show not just in our words and relationships, but also in the way we handle the resources he has entrusted to us. We are accountable to him, and he has the right to demand an accounting. Are we serving and protecting our own interests, or those of our Master in the way we manage the resources he has loaned to us?
The “teacher” in this parable is not the master, nor the debtors, but the thief whom we are told to emulate! The manager, though dishonest, wisely invested to prepare for the future. Those of us who will spend eternity with Christ should be faithful and wise managers, committed to preparing for our future with him.
Ava Pennington is a freelance writer in Stuart, Florida.
Make a list of the resources God has entrusted to you. Be detailed and specific—this should take you a while. (For example, a job with a flexible schedule, a car, a living room big enough to host friends, a comfortable back porch, enough money to give nice gifts to others, creativity in working with kids, investment know-how, a good memory, the ability to learn sports or games easily, access to educational resources in your community, and so on.)
Take a few moments simply to appreciate the number of items on your list.
Go through the list:
• Which items do you feel you’re using well? How could you honor God more fully with these gifts?
• Which items do you feel hesitation about? Why are you less likely to use these resources to benefit yourself and others?
• Pick one of your weaker areas and make a plan to use that resource more fully this week.