Luke 16:1-15: The Parable of the Unjust Manager, and the Proper Use of Wealth

1Jesus told his disciples: "There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2So 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.' 3"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— 4I know what I'll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.' 5"So he called in each one of his master's debtors. He asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?' 6" 'Eight hundred gallons of olive oil,' he replied. "The manager told him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.' 7"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.' 8"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. 9I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. 10"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. 11So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else's property, who will give you property of your own? 13"No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money." 14The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15He said to them, "You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight. (NIV)


There are at least four interpretatons that commentators (whom I've consulted) have made concerning the manager's actions and the master's response:

1) What the manager originally charged included interest, and now he is allowing the debtors to forego paying the interest. The master is not greatly affected by this waiving of the interest, since he basically receives his money, and praises the manager for bringing this about.

2) What the manager originally charged included commission for himself, and now he is allowing the debtors to forego paying the commission. The master is not affected by this waiving of the commission, since he receives his entire amount of money, and praises the manager for bringing this about.

3) Since the debts must have been hard to collect, the master was pleased that, even if he didn't get all of his money back, he at least got a quick influx of dough, so he praises the manager for bringing this about.

4) The manager was deliberately cunning and deceitful, reducing the debt of the debtors without informing the master (which helps to explain, in part, why he says, "quickly...") in the hope that the debtors would reciprocate by giving him shelter and anything else he needed. The master's "commendation" is one of admiration for the manager's foresight in looking after himself, but not praise for the manager's action itself.

After a bit of humming and hawing, I have opted for #4, for the following reasons:

a) This is a fictional account that Jesus tells (a parable, after all, is a story) and not an event that actually happened. Stories are typically taken at face value, and there is no reason for the listener to surmise what details are missing. Everything is told that needs to be told. So if the manager tells the debtors to provide a smaller amount than what they owe, we should naturally interpret this amount as being a reduction of their debt, not their "basic" or "essential" debt.

b) There may be objections over how Jesus could uphold such a conniving character as being worthy of our attention. But it is the specific characteristic of shrewdness that Jesus is calling attention to - not the general character of the manager. If we think that the main character of Jesus' parables should always be virtuous, we'll have a problem when we get to Luke 18 and study the "prayer parables". There we find an unjust judge and an irritable neighbour who are not only singled out for positive attention, but who are likened to God. Not in every way, but in the way they grant the requests of those who come to them.

c) When, in verses 10 to 12, Jesus is warning his disciples about not being faithful to what's been entrusted to them, it is very hard not to conclude that he's making an allusion to the manager's actions. But if we take any of the interpretations #1, 2 or 3 (above) to be true, then we have to say that the manager's actions were good. As a result, Jesus' words in verses 10 to 12 sound kind of strange - or, at least, strangely timed.

MAIN LESSONS from vv. 1-15

A. Christ's disciples must learn positively from the unjust manager, in the way he took care of things that mattered to him.

"For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light" - people of the world attend to practical matters better than the people of God do to spiritual matters. This statement ought to have us reflect on questions like:

- Do we feed on God's word as we do on real food? (Deut 8:3; Matt 4:4)
- Do we pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstances? (1 Thes 5:16-18)
- Do we encourage other Christians daily? (Heb 3:13)
- Do we pursue the sanctification without which no one will see the LORD? (Heb 12:14)
- and - what Jesus is particularly driving at in verse 9 - are we using "worldly wealth" to "gain friends for ourselves"?

What Jesus likely means by this exhortation is that we use money to invest in those who have need, with a view to the "profitable return" that will happen in the new heavens and earth, as Paul explains to Timothy in 1 Ti 6:17-19:

"Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life."

B. Christ's disciples must learn negatively from the unjust manager, in that they must show that they are faithful (unlike him) with the small things entrusted to them.

11So if you have not been trustworthy...who will trust you with....if you have not been trustworthy....who will give you....?

- Verses 10 to 12 underline the fact that, like the manager, we have been entrusted with someone else's resources; only in our case, it's God's.
- Unlike the farming fool of Lk 12:13-21, the manager knew that his property wasn't his own, but like the farming fool, he treated it as if it were his own anyway.
- Just as both of them were called to account, so will Christians be, by God (Rom 14:12; 1 Co 3:11-14; 2 Co 5:10). However, for Christians, this is not a summons that would result in their condemnation - for there's no condemnation for those in Christ (Rom 8:1) - but it may mean loss of reward. While time can't permit us now to talk about just what is meant by "reward" for the Christian, there's ample Biblical evidence for this concept (Mt 6:1-18; 10:40-42; 16:27; Lk 6:22-24, 35; 1 Co 4:5; Col 3:23-24; 2 Jn 8; Rev 22:12).

C. Serving money cannot allow one to serve God, and vice-versa.

No servant can serve two masters....You cannot serve both God and Money.

"Those who are Jesus' true disciples must make an either/or choice between serving God and serving money. “Money” is personified here in parallel with “God,” indicating the way in which money can often take on an idolatrous place in one's life. The way to serve God rather than money is to put one's resources to the service of others and the work of the kingdom." (ESV Study Bible, pp. 1990-1991)

Discussion Question 1: Why is money often singled out in Scripture as a particularly dangerous temptation for the believer?

D. God hates what is esteemed by people, and vice-versa.

You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight.

Discussion Question 2: As Jesus makes clear in verse 15, the love of money is a subtle sin because it can't always be easily seen (also recall Jesus' words to the Pharisees earlier in Lk 11:39: "Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness"). What other things that God hates are "well-hidden" enough so that we could still show ourselves to be "righteous" before others? How can we guard against these?