Parable of the Unrighteous Manager

Sermon preached on Luke 16:1-13 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 07/10/2022 in Novato, CA.

Sermon Manuscript

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.

If last chapter brought us one of the most beloved parables in Scripture with the Parable of the Prodigal Son, todays passage brings us one of the parables most difficult for people to understand. It presents some challenge in that the applications made from it are a little less direct than many parables. But it especially presents some challenge because too often people wonder here if Jesus is commending the unrighteous behavior of this dishonest manager. But as Jesus says, whoever has ears to hear, let them hear. My job then today is to help you in hearing this parable by explaining it and applying it to you. In that, we’ll see that Jesus doesn’t in any way commend the unrighteousness of this master. Rather, it is a passage that calls us to wise and faithful stewardship in this present age, in light of the age to come.

Let me begin briefly by summarizing and explaining the parable while at the same time clarifying certain aspects where people have tended to misunderstand things. So then, we begin in verse 1 with a rich man who is also described here as the master. He had a manager who was supposed to be in charge of overseeing the master’s property. In other words, this manager was a steward. The manager is supposed to be exercising wise and faithful stewardship of his master’s property and financial affairs. That is what a steward is: you manage someone else’s property on their behalf. It is a position of great trust, because the master is entrusting the steward with his property in the hope that he will care for it like it is his own. Unfortunately for the master, it turns out this manager was not a good steward. In verse 1, we learn that the manager had been wasting the master’s possessions. The word for “wasting” there is the same word translated as “squandered” in last chapter, verse 13, to describe the prodigal son’s wasteful spending. The prodigal son threw away all of his share of his father’s wealth. Likewise, this manager was throwing away, so to speak, all of master’s wealth.

So then, before it was all gone, this the master learns of his manager’s poor stewardship and decides to make a change. In verse 2, the master calls in the manager and confronts him and basically tells him that he is being fired and to turn over his books. Apparently, the master allows the manager to have some time to get the books in order before turning them in to him. That is when the evil manager begins to scheme. In verse 3, we see he is concerned for his future because he doesn’t believe he is able to do manual labor, and has too much pride to beg. He will need to figure out some way to provide for himself until he finds new good employment. So, he has this idea in verse 4 that he will reach out to his master’s debtors and quickly work with them to fraudulently alter the books to reduce their debts to the master. The manager’s thinking is that all these debtors that he helps to reduce what they owe to the master will be grateful to him and be inclined to show him kindness later. If he helps them now, they will be willing to open up their homes to him and feed him in the future when he needs such help. Basically, the manager is trying to buy some good will from these debtors using his master’s money. Sadly, the manager goes out doing the same thing that got him fired: wasting his master’s money. To be clear, this is outright theft – he is stealing from the master.

We then see in verse 8 that the master commends the manager. This is one area where we need to clarify. The master doesn’t commend the manager for stealing from him. He commends him for his shrewdness. Jesus’ parable tells us in verse 8 what we should think of the morality of the manager’s actions. It calls the manager a dishonest manager. Actually, literally, an unrighteous manager. So, the master is not commending his unrighteousness. He’s commending his cleverness. It’s like if you are playing chess and think you are going to win, and suddenly your opponent pulls off some glorious surprise move that you didn’t see coming and beats you. You tell your opponent “Good job, you really got me,” even though you aren’t glad you lost. So, like Hendriksen says of this passage, it’s like the master says, “What a clever crook!” So then, it is important to understand that the parable presents this manager as both as wasteful thus unfaithful steward as well as a dishonest unrighteous manager. But he does show a measure of wisdom and prudence in his clever, albeit evil, scheme to provide for himself in his impending unemployment. It is important to understand that Jesus doesn’t commend any of the poor stewardship or any of the unrighteous activity here. While Jesus makes several applications from this parable, none of it is to commend unfaithful or unrighteous stewardship – actually Jesus makes the opposite application.

So then we’ve rehearsed the parable through verse 8a. Now starting in verse 8b is where Jesus begins to make a few different applications from the parable to us. I will divide the application up into three points, dealing with verse 8b, then verse 9, and then verses 10-13. Each of those sections make up a specific application from this parable.

Let’s begin then with verse 8b which says, “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” So the first application Jesus makes is that unbelievers are shrewder than believers. Now this is another area of application that some people have trouble with, but let me clear it up for you. I think “shrewd” is a problematic translation. You see, in English, the word shrewd usually has a subtle negative connotation. It can suggest moral compromise in how the person acts. And certainly in our example, this manager did have moral compromise. But the Greek word here translated shrewd doesn’t have that same negative connotation. The word is most commonly translated as wise and prudent and refers to someone with understanding who is smart in their thinking. In English, the word shrewd usually carries a negative connotation, but in Greek the word more often than not is used in a very commendable sense. So, I think the English translation doesn’t serve us well here. For example, the ESV only ever translates this Greek word as “shrewd” here; most of the time it translates this word as “wise”. So, I think it should just be translated as wise here. Jesus commends wisdom here, not quite shrewdness. He commends prudence and understanding, not anything that might suggest moral compromise.

So then, Jesus’ application here in verse 8b is that unbelievers are better at using wisdom to get ahead than believers. That is obviously a general observation more than an absolute fact. This also doesn’t seem to be the most direct application from this parable – we will get to that in verse 9. But it does seem to be an interjection that Jesus can’t help but make after recounting this parable. That too often back then the ungodly exercised wisdom and prudence for their ungodly purposes better than the godly used it for godly purposes. With a little reflection we can think of plenty of Bible examples of the ungodly using wisdom to serve their unrighteous purposes. There are too many examples of such evil wisdom. Jezebel used wisdom to have Naboth murdered so they could steal his vineyard. Cain thought himself wise to answer God’s question about his brother Abel’s whereabouts by saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper”? Herod used evil wisdom when he ordered all the baby boys two years and younger killed in Bethlehem. The religious leaders exercised their evil wisdom to bribe Judas Iscariot so they could find a way to arrest Jesus when he wasn’t in front of the crowds. Haman in the book of Esther thought himself wise when he came up with a plot to destroy the Jews. Daniels’ opponents likewise thought the same when they devised the scheme to get Daniel thrown into the lion’s den. The enemies of God use wisdom for their godless purposes and only further add to their guilt – because the only reason we have capacity for wisdom is because God created us in his image.

So then, Jesus observed at that time how generally the godless used wisdom for evil purposes better than how the godly used it for good purposes. We can see examples of this still today. And that is very humbling to think about. One example that I thought of when studying this was the LGBTQ agenda. In the course of my lifetime, they have largely succeeded in changing the way our culture thinks about such sinful living. The Bible calls it sin. Historically our culture would have generally agreed. But the LGBTQ advocates have use great wisdom in slowly but steadily advancing their cause to gradually change our culture’s thinking on the matter. I can’t help but tell them, “Well played.” I am opposed to their agenda, but they have used a lot of wisdom and strategy to successfully advance their cause. Doesn’t make their cause right. But Jesus tells us that such should be a wakeup call to God’s people. We need to grow in wisdom and in using it for our Christian purposes.

I mean, think about it. Who should be the most excelled in wisdom? Shouldn’t it be Christians? We have the Word of God which includes a hearty section in it known as wisdom literature. And just look at Jesus’ teaching. More often than not, his form of teaching sounds most like wisdom literature than anything else. So let this first application be to become convicted that we need to go back to wisdom school. We need to grow in wisdom and in using it for the kingdom purposes that God has called us unto. As a side note, I am working on our next Sunday School series and I am planning to do something on wisdom, using the Proverbs to address certain contemporary issues.

Let us move on now to the second application Jesus makes of this parable. This is verse 9. “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” This is the most direct application from this parable. Basically, Jesus is saying as stewards of the financial resources that God entrusts to us in this life, we should use such resources for purposes of evangelism, that when we go to glory, there will be many people there to greet us and receive us who came to be saved because of our efforts. This is applying the parable in a bit of a twist. The servant unrighteously stole money and used it to make friends in this life so they would receive him into their homes here and now. Jesus says to use money here and now to make friends for the kingdom that in eternity they will receive us when we too die and go to glory.

Here it would help to give a clarifying remark about Jesus calling wealth “unrighteous wealth”. This is another reason why this parable can be hard to understand because it might make it sound like Jesus is suggesting that we use ill-gotten gain for good purposes. But no, Jesus doesn’t want us to gain wealth in unrighteous ways. Verse 10 gives us that needed clarification when it commends to us faithfulness not unrighteousness. You see the word for “unrighteous” in “unrighteous wealth” in verse 10 actually appears repeatedly three verses in a row in the Greek in verses 8, 9, and 10. In verse 8 it is literally the unrighteous servant. In verse 9 it is unrighteous wealth. In verse 10, it is be faithful not unrighteous. So beside the obvious thematic aspect, why does he call wealth unrighteous? I think he is acknowledging how in this life mankind far too commonly is tempted to be unrighteous in order to accumulate wealth. It is wealth that typically causes us to be unrighteous. Think about other Bible passages that speak similarly. Elsewhere the Bible speaks of the deceitfulness of riches and that the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil. But such “unrighteous wealth” should for the Christian be used for righteous purposes. In other words, we should take that which the world commonly uses for evil and we should redeem it and use it for good. So, Jesus is not at all saying that we should gain wealth through wicked ways and then use it for good. But however we do properly gain earthly wealth, may we especially think of how we can use it for eternal purposes in the support of evangelism. That includes how we we give to the work of the church and its work of missions to support pastors and ministers in bringing the gospel. It can also involve mercy ministry in giving to those in need as an act of Christian charity where we adorn our faith that we are sharing. To clarify, Jesus isn’t saying that the only thing you should spend your money on in this life needs to be for evangelism purposes. That wouldn’t actually be good stewardship. You will have other needs to, like buying your daily bread, clothing, shelter, and it is not wrong to have some enjoyments and recreations in life either. But Jesus is reminding us that our earthly wealth is something entrusted to us by God. We should see ourselves as stewards of those funds, and look to manage them in godly stewardship. That management should include ways in which we support the work of Christ’s kingdom on earth including evangelism.

That leads us to the third and final application that Jesus gives us in this parable in verses 10-13. There we find Jesus apply this parable by saying that we need to be faithful in our stewardship. Whatever is entrusted to us, we need to be faithful to properly care and make use of such property and possessions. A faithful steward is someone who is worthy of the trust being placed in them. A faithful steward is someone who knows they will have to give an account for their stewardship and so they are diligent to do a good job. A faithful steward will deal righteously with what has been entrusted to them, not in unrighteousness.

Now, when we speaking of being a faithful steward, that reminds us that we are stewarding things for a master. That’s drawn explicitly to our attention in verse 13. There, Jesus describes two possible masters in application of this parable. You can have either God be your master or money be your master. The bad manager in our parable was supposed to have the rich man as his master. But ultimately, in his greed and avarice, we see that the manager was really serving money. He had put his personal accumulation of wealth above obedience to the rich man who was supposed to be his master. So, that manager had effectively displaced his rightful master with money. Jesus applies this to us to say that we need to have one ultimate master. Money will be a temptation to be our ultimate master, that we live to serve the goal of getting as much money as we can. But Jesus says that God needs to be our ultimate master. In which case, we are to be a faithful servant and steward who is devoted to and loyal to God. As God entrusts us with wealth, we use it to serve him for the purposes he would have us to use it.

This final point of application also holds out great reward. It speaks in verse 11 of the hope of being entrusted with true riches. In comparison, verse 10 compares that wealth of this world that we are entrusted with as something “very little”. Verse 12 implies that we might ultimately end up not just as stewards but as owners ourselves. Given how Jesus speaks of us as God’s people laboring in this life to receive heavenly treasure in glory, we can see how this is implying that out hope is to one day be not just stewards of true riches but owners of such. Let us be encouraged then that to live as stewards of God in this world is not to live our life in vain.

Sons of light, let us in conclusion, bring together these three applications Jesus has made from this parable. Let not unbelievers out do us in using wisdom. Let us instead be wise and faithful and righteous stewards as servants of God who have been entrusted with a measure of this world’s wealth. Let us especially look to support the work of evangelism with that wealth, seeking to make friends for eternity. We look forward to being told at the end, “Well done, good and faithful servant… enter into the joy of your master.”


Copyright © 2022 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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