A man happened to be walking along the streets of the city, when suddenly an armed robber approached him and ordered, “Your money or your life!” There was a long pause, and the man did nothing. He just stood there.
The thief impatiently asked, “Well?”
The man replied, “Don’t rush me—I’m thinking about it.”
Money certainly plays a role in all our lives, and sometimes it can become too important of a role. Some people think that money is not a very spiritual topic, but they would be wrong. For example, the Bible has five hundred verses on prayer, less than five hundred on faith, but more than two thousand on money and possessions.[i] Jesus can become a gadfly, provoking us with his stories. In fact, the parable we are about to look at left those who loved money ridiculing Jesus (see Luke 16:14).
This parable is known as the story of the dishonest manager. It is one of Jesus’ most unusual stories:
There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So 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.”
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—I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.”
So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?”
“Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,” he replied.
The manager told him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.”
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.”
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. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
The First Seven Words
The first seven words of this story might be the most critical for us: “There was a rich man whose manager . . .” So then here’s the question: Do we see ourselves as the owner or the manager? Scripture tells us explicitly, “You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me. But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:17-19). This parable begins with a foundational truth for us to integrate into our lives: We are not the owner; we only know the owner. We are the manager.
When I was in high school, I used to think that what I had was my money. I worked for it. It’s not as if someone was just giving it away on the street corner. It seemed pretty clear to me that my income required me to spend my power, my effort, and my toil. Then one day a mentor in the faith gently reminded me that the best of my efforts, talents, opportunities, and abilities come from God. If he wanted to, he could take any of it or all of it away from me. The mentor observed that I am not entitled to any of it.
It was shocking to hear. It was also true.
It’s one thing to know that we are the manager in Jesus’ story; it’s quite another to live that way in our everyday lives. Jesus is telling this parable to his disciples. If we genuinely believe that God is the rich man and we are the managers, then that means something for our discipleship. It means that generosity becomes the new natural for us. Conversely, if you think that you are the genuine owner of all you have, you will constantly struggle to understand how generosity can be a joy.
Self-Talk on Money Management
Jesus continues the story with charges brought that the manager is wasting the owner’s possessions. The owner calls the manager in for the final accounting because his time as the manager is over. We won’t be the manager in our stories forever either. The manager is clearly guilty as charged. He makes no attempt to explain or defend himself to the owner. Instead, he begins to do what all sane and rational people do: He talks to himself.
Self-talk is something we all do. But it’s important to think about what you talk to yourself about. To live differently, you have to think differently. To think differently, you have to monitor your thoughts—your self-talk. God’s Word tells us that we are “transformed by the renewing of [our] mind” (Romans 12:2).
Notice here that the man’s upcoming actions result directly from his thinking. The same is true for us. Through his self-talk, he correctly assesses the lay of the landscape. He realizes that he is too weak for manual labor and too proud to beg. He is insightful enough to know that this requires decisive action.
In the story, the master has apparently lent out his land to tenants, who have agreed to pay him a fixed return in grain or oil. In response to his imminent crisis, the steward calls in the rich man’s debtors and summarily reduces the debt of each. These are not small household quantities. These are large-scale business associates, not ordinary people with average economic levels. In Jesus’ day, the validity of the contract is guaranteed by being written in the handwriting of the debtor, with the document kept in the possession of the manager. The manager acts now with an eye to his quickly coming future needs of shelter and food when his job is done.
The Curious Twist in the Parable
There is a strange turn in this parable: The dishonest manager is actually commended! That seems weird, at first. But notice that he is not commended for his initial mismanagement of the owner’s resources. Instead, he is commended for acting shrewdly when he knew his time was limited. He is considered shrewd rather than simply cheating, because his actions cast an aura of goodness and generosity on the rich man while simultaneously providing for his own future by ingratiating himself with the rich man’s debtors.
Because he has done this favor for them, he is providing for his future well-being, as he is about to lose both his job and shelter (managers often lived at the owner’s property). The rich man then is not praising him for his dishonesty; he is praising him for the great foresight to anticipate what he will need after his dismissal and using his current situation to make the most of his future one.
After concluding the parable, Jesus goes on to say,
If you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?
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.
Any financial planner will tell you that you have to start with the end in mind. You have to start from knowing what you want your future to look like. Most of the time, this refers to retirement, but Jesus’ parable is saying that we need to extend that timeline a bit further: into eternity.
Repeatedly in his parables addressing money, Jesus taught his disciples to use their money to wisely invest in Kingdom purposes. It’s true in this parable. It’s true in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (see verses 16:19-31). It’s also true in the parable of the rich fool (see 12:16-21).
There is no waffling. We cannot serve both God and money. Either we will choose to submit the money we have to God, or it will become our god. Money makes a great tool, but it is a terrible master.
Jesus’ parable is saying that we are the manager now but will not be forever. Time is short. Decisive action now with what we cannot keep will in some way make a difference in our futures. The road to who we are becoming in the eternal future begins now. The cunning manager saw this. Do we? That is what Jesus’ parable is asking.
You’ve been reading with Tom Hughes from Down to Earth: How Jesus’ Stories Can Change Your Everyday Life. Read a free excerpt from the beginning of the book here. Or get started on the YouVersion reading plan in English or Spanish.
[i] “Statistic: Jesus’ Teachings on Money,” Preaching Today, https://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/1996/december/410.html.