Season 8 - Week 4
“Are we hedging our bets?”
The story of the Shrewd Manager is a surprising read. Even by Jesus’ standards.
In essence you have a bloke who knows he is about to get fired, who undertakes a final act of desperation. With an eye on his own future survival, he drastically reduces the debts of people who owe the company something. He essentially cheats the company of money, in order to curry favour with their clients, so he can try and cash it in once he has lost his job. Talk about corruption!
By this point of Jesus’ ministry, I imagine the disciples were pretty confident about what was coming next in the story. The man’s boss would kick off and throw him out to a place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. A classic lesson about right and wrong, and not getting away with things.
Except that’s not what happens. Much to the shock of his listeners, and readers 2,000 years later, the company owner encourages this type of behaviour, commending him on his shrewdness, disrupting the neat narrative everyone was expecting. It all feels a bit upside down to me. Almost like Jesus is disrupting his own narrative.
So what exactly is Jesus affirming here? It’s shrewdness, not dishonesty. He follows the story up by telling his listeners (seemingly a mixture of disciples and Pharisees) that people of the world are more shrewd than people of ‘the light’. He’s not calling us to abandon ‘the light’, or to become greedy hoarders. But he surprises his audience by affirming the corrupt manager’s creativity and resourcefulness in pursuit of his own ends. He is self-serving, sure, but he is strategic about it and puts worldly resources to effective use. And so for Jesus’ followers it is a challenge to engage that same brilliant creativity in pursuit of the kingdom; and it also asks us how ready we are to give away the resources we have in pursuit of more valuable things. It’s a call to generous open-handedness: “Use worldly wealth to gain friends”. In other words – the assets your church has, bless the world with it. Don’t just hoard it!
We could choose to look at the implications this has for many of our large denominations and organisations, but what about ourselves? Our youth budget? Our own finances? Are we using them to further the kingdom of God? Are they tools to introduce people to Jesus? Are we being strategic and clever, recklessly funnelling material resources towards the things that really matter?
Jesus totally disrupts the cultural paradigm that would have existed where you give 10% away and are free to do what you want with the rest – instead, everything, everything, was up for grabs. Everything was to be ploughed into the things that pay off in the end. In eternity.
So the story forces us to ask whether we are being ‘shrewd’ in pursuit of the things that really matter. Are we hedging our bets or going all in? The young people that we work with notice our priorities and our lifestyles. They can see where our energies are focused, and if we really see them as worthwhile, lovable and full of potential. If we live by the things we claim.
Catherine Booth, The Salvation Army’s co-founder said: “If we are to better the future we must disturb the present’. That means the world around us, but it also means our own lives. The shrewdness of the manager is pro-active, not passive. We can choose to go along with the flow, doing what the world does or we can choose to let Jesus really disturb our lives, so they are changed to bring glory and honour to God.
And the beautiful thing about that is that they will also impact the lives of the young people we work with as we show them a better way.
Jesus told his disciples: “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[a] 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.
“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. So 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.”
The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight."
Is it a character trait you think you have? Have you ever thought it was something a Christian should be? If it feels like a new idea and one that seems hard to put into practice, can you maybe think of a Christian you know who does seem shrewd and strategic in their pursuit of the kingdom - who really is totally focused on Jesus with their whole lives. How could you learn from them? Maybe a shrewd move might be taking them out for coffee and picking their brains...
Jesus famously claimed that we cannot serve both God and Money (v.15), but plenty of us really give it a good go. It's a great conversation to have with young people, when we can really spell out the kinds of life decisions serving God or serving miney lead to. Reflect on your own life, and your own decisions related to this issue. Could you use it as a conversation starter with young people?