God’s word is full of examples of irony, and I guess I’m enough of an oddball that they’re fascinating to me. The Story of the “Prodigal Son” is Jesus’ most famous parable. Countless sermons have been preached from it to good effect. But right after it is a story that rarely ranks on anyone’s “favorite parable” list. The NIV calls it “The Parable of the Shrewd Manager,” and that’s as good a name as any. It took me a while to get the point of this story, but it’s become one of great meaning to me.
We start off the story with a “manager” or “steward” and his rich boss. Actually he had the same type of job that Joseph did under Potiphar. The manager was a trusted servant who was put in charge of a person’s day-to-day operations. It was commonly his job to feed the other servants, pay the bills, conduct business affairs, etc. Joseph was an honest one, and this guy was not. The rich man discovered some discrepancies in the books, and gave him notice. Apparently the boss only saw him as incompetent, not dishonest, which explains why the manager had enough time to do what he did.
Interpreters disagree over whether or not what the manager did in response (in approaching all these debtors) was dishonest in itself or not. What was the extra money that the manager's taking off their bills? Was it the boss’s interest rate? Was it his own little “managing fee”? Or was the manager simply stealing from his boss one last time? Jesus doesn’t really make it clear, but I would lean towards the first option. At any rate, it looks like his special arrangement was dishonest, since he kept it a secret from the boss.
There are two surprising things about this story, at least to me. The first is the boss’s reaction to this. The manager still was fired, but the boss actually complimented him on his shrewdness. His reaction was not “You stole from me! I’m having you thrown in jail for that!” It was “Well done! I’m impressed!” I guess he admired the manager’s skills and intelligence, even if he despised him for his dishonesty.
The thing that surprises me much more is the “punch line” of the story. Jesus is praising the manager! He points us to this guy as someone to emulate! This lying thief provides an important example for us to follow!
Our Lord, who put a commandment against stealing in his “Top Ten” list, is not condoning dishonesty or theft. But he wants us to learn some things from the manager. There are some admirable attributes which we need and often lack.
First and foremost, the guy saw enough of the future to prepare for it. He knew he was about to turned out of his job, and he took steps to provide for himself. He was smart enough to realize that he either had to have a source of income or starve. So he carried out a plan to ingratiate himself to some people who'd be indebted to him.
That’s really the main point that Jesus is making here. Like the manager, we’re handling money and resources which don’t really belong to us. We’re only managers ourselves, and one day we’re going to have to surrender it all and give an accounting. No matter how much money I have in my bank account, whether $20 or $2,000,000, it’s all going away. No matter what I invest it in, it’s going to be dust and ashes one day: Land, stocks, buildings, technology, etc.
But there’s one area in which I can invest which will provide “dividends” on the other side of the Great Divide. Souls. I can invest in souls. How can I do that? By pouring my resources (money and everything else I have) into spreading the Good News of Christ and helping people to develop a relationship with him. That’s what Jesus is talking about in vs. 9. Once I step into Eternity, I'm going to be welcomed by those whose lives the Lord touched through me, and I'd rather have that than Bill Gates's bank account any day, wouldn't you?
That’s the sad irony here. The manager puts most believers to shame when it comes to seeing the future. Even materialistic nonbelievers can know that they aren't going to have their job forever, so the smartest among them plan for the inevitable day when that income dries up. We as followers of Jesus know that everything in this world will be dust and ashes someday. Why don’t my investments reflect that? And don’t forget what he said as an epilogue to this: If I want to have the Father trust me with “true” riches, I need to be a good steward of what he’s given me thus far. Am I? Are you?
On a much more positive side to this, here's a video perfectly illustrating this grand "welcoming" which Jesus talked about: "Thank You" by Ray Boltz
Lord Jesus, please give me an eternal perspective. May I hold loosely to what I’m going to lose anyway, and really pour what I have and what I am into what’s going to last.