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There’s a big difference between a shrewd, clever person and a repentant, moral one. A shrewd person makes decisions, either moral or immoral, based on self-benefit, with no thought of others. A repentant person makes decisions based on what is right, considering others. This parable forces us to decide if the actions of the steward make him a repentant or shrewd man. My quest is to outline the actions which led to this steward’s praise; who I believe to be more repentant than shrewd. Much depends on the law and godly practices that shape the authority and privilege of someone in the steward’s position. This may be tedious, but it should produce understanding, hopefully leading to a strategy to engage a world of deception.
Let’s take a look at context. Jesus has just finished the parable of the Prodigal Son, stressing the importance of grace, forgiveness and repentance. He then turns to his disciples and tells them another parable: “There was once a rich man who had a manager, then charges were leveled at this manager for cheating, so the rich man demanded the books and sent the manager packing.” There are only a few ways to cheat the renters: demand more money and pocket it, or inflate the interest or the usury. In this case when he goes to fix the problem, he reduces renters’ debt, likely meaning an inflated interest. He will not be charged by the courts, but he will retain a corrupt reputation for his action.
It’s customary that the manager is not let go until the owner gets the books, which they don’t always check regularly. Being an absent owner gives complete authority to the manager to do business. The owner’s reputation is based on the manager’s dealings with renters. So, the opening verses lay out the problem, who the manager is, his authority and his possible disreputable dealings.
Once the truth of his situation sinks in, he devises a plan to stay out of the poor house. He says, “What will I do, now that my master has taken away my position? He goes to each of the renters and asks them to write down half the amount they owe on the ledger, which he will present to his master. When the master saw what he had done he commended the manager for his shrewdness; for the children of this age are cleverer in dealing with their own generation, than children of the light.” But what did he do? Understanding this opens the parable up to us, and the strange reaction of the master sets in place.
By reducing the amount owed to the master, who most likely has not seen the books, the renters were happy, assuming it was on behalf of the master. The master’s reputation is restored, and the manager is seen as kind by the renters. The manager risked everything on this plan, hoping for a merciful master, and the master does not press charges.
The manger did the right thing, restoring the renter’s payment to where it belongs. In some sense the manager took a turn for the better. He could have done many things to squirm out of this predicament, but he chose to do the right thing. That was a shrewd move, and an honest one, a merciful one. He lessened the burden of the renters and counted on the mercy of the master to treat him the same.
The money he restored to the renters was, his ill-gotten gains. The master is out nothing, while the manager has depleted his salary. This is why I say that Jesus is telling us that this man comes to grips with his life, then makes a change, risking it all on the mercy of the master. To use a colloquial phrase, “I like this guy.” Caught in the misdirection and greed of life, he acts bravely and boldly. He doesn’t plead for mercy or beg the renters to stop their charge against him, he doesn’t run away. He stays and risks everything on the kindness of others, and the mercy of the master, hoping to restore his character to everyone involved.
The manager’s action is a roller-coaster of decision making and risk. His life and reputation will take years to return, if at all. But instead of traveling down the same path of deceit, he does the right thing according to law and tradition. He returns his gaze to God. Because of this the master changes his mind about the manager. Jesus says, “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are cleverer in dealing with their generation, than the children of light.” Then in Jesus’ final moments, he says ironically, “I tell you, make friends of unrighteous mammon so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” In this celebratory statement Jesus is not commending dishonesty, he is commending the actions of the manager, who sees his only way out of his problem is through acting rightly. Jesus wants his disciples to act with the same sort of abandon, counting on the mercy of God. Our salvation depends on this kind of risk taking. The same kind of energy that goes into dishonesty must be turned to put our lives in the hand of God.
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