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Questions & Answers > Questions on tricky passages > What is the meaning of the parable of the wise manager? (Lk 16)

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Question:  What is the meaning of Jesus' parable of the wise manager in Luke 16?  (Kim)

Graham's Answer:  I'll explain as much as I understand myself.  I think it's all about money and materialism.

First, I'll summarise it so it's fresh in our minds.  A master's manager was accused of wasting his possessions and so his position was about to be terminated.  Foreseeing hardships ahead when he was thrown out, his departing act was to greatly reduce the debts of the people who owed his master, in order to gain their goodwill for when he was no longer manager.  His master commended the manager's wisdom (even though it was against his own interests).

Jesus made several comments following the story:

  • Use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves and so you'll be welcomed into eternal dwellings (v9).
  • Whoever can be trusted with little can be trusted with much (v10-12).
  • No-one can serve two masters.  You can't serve both God and Money (v13).

Luke's concluding comment is that the Pharisees, who loved money, sneered at Jesus when they heard this;  but Jesus warned them that what is highly valued among men (suggesting money and materialism) is detestable in God's sight (v14-15).

I think the parable is easier to unpack if we start from Jesus' conclusions, because they tell us what he considered the parable to be all about.  It's about the impossibility of serving two masters, because of the conflict of interest;  and he specifically mentions serving God vs serving Money.  Given that the parable is about (wisely) leaving a master, it is therefore likely that the master in the parable represents Money/Mammon/Materialism.

In his plain language teaching on money elsewhere, Jesus taught his disciples to give up everything (Lk 14:33), sell their possessions and give to the poor (Lk 12:33), and not to worry about the necessities of life but seek God's Kingdom and his righteous actions and trust God to provide (Mt 6:31-34)--which is very much contrary to worldly materialistic standards.  This gives us a strong clue as to what the parable is likely to be about, since Jesus' parables generally illustrate the same principles that are in his teachings, as one might expect.

So this is what I think the symbols in the parable probably stand for:

  • The "master":  Money or Materialism (or Mammon in old English;  Greek mamonas).
  • The "manager" or "steward":  someone who used to trust in and serve Money, but has become a disciple of Jesus and has started to use money for more Godly purposes.  This is considered "wasteful" by materialistic standards and a conflict of interests arises:  a disciple cannot be half materialistic and half trusting Jesus, and so he has to end his relationship with Materialism.
  • The master's "debtors" who owe the master money and are thus beholden to him:  these most likely represent the poor who suffer under the oppression of materialism.  (Materialism is only nice for the wealthy.)
  • The manager reducing the debtors' debts:  probably represents giving to the poor, which partially relieves the oppression and hardship the poor suffer under the control of Materialism.  This will also create goodwill among the poor who would later welcome the manager into eternal dwellings (echoes of "give to the poor... and you will have treasure in heaven" Mt 19:21 Lk 12:33).
  • The master commending the manager's wise actions in reducing the debts:  even the master Materialism could see the wisdom in what the manager did.  Note that many translations have a mistake here, translating it as "commended the dishonest manager" (v8), but  the Greek text says literally, "commended the manager of that-which-is-not-righteous", which would be better translated as "commended the manager of worldly wealth".  The same word for "of that-which-is-not-righteous" is also used in v9 and is usually correctly translated there, eg the NIV appropriately has "worldly [wealth]" at v9.  (The King James Version made this error way back in 1611, translating v8 as "the unjust steward", and it seems no one has managed to break free of it since!).  I don't think the manager's actions were dishonest;  he was the master's manager and he had authority to grant discounts.
  • "...for the sons of this age are wiser than the sons of the light are to their own generation" (v8, lit.): This gives the reason why the master Materialism commended the manager's wise actions.  The implication is that worldly people are usually smarter at using money for worldly purposes than the people of the light are at using it for godly purposes.  But why is this a reason for Materialism to commend the departing manager?  My best guess is that there is a suggestion, "The master commended the manager for his wise actions, because the sons of light are not [usually] as smart with money matters as the sons of this age are [ -- but here was one who was, and even the master Materialism had to admit it]."
  • Jesus concludes, "Use worldly wealthy to gain friends for yourselves, so that when you are gone they will welcome you into eternal dwellings."  I understand this to mean using our wealth to benefit others (eg "sell your possessions and give to the poor"), which will help qualify us for eternal life (see Mt 25:31-46).
  • Jesus concludes, "Whoever is faithful with very little will be faithful with much;  and whoever is unrighteous (does not do what is right) with very little will be unrighteous (not do what is right) with much.  So if you haven't been faithful with worldly wealth, who will entrust you with true wealth?" (v10-11).  From Jesus' point of view, being faithful with worldly wealth means giving it away to the poor.  "True wealth" may mean far greater responsibilities in the Kingdom of God, eg the servants who discharged relatively small responsibilities well were rewarded by being put in charge of many cities (Lk 19:11-27).
  • Jesus' final conclusion is that no one can serve two masters, like serving God and Money/Materialism (v13).  He is referring to the importance of using worldly wealth to serve God (ie by giving to the poor, giving up everything), not to serve Materialism (ie by saving and buying property and possessions for ourselves).  The Pharisees rejected this message because they loved Money and Materialism (v14).

I suspect that the reason the parable is so poorly understood by modern western Christians is because it is rare for western Christians to follow Jesus' teachings on money and give up all their property and wealth and give to the poor instead.  I never understood the parable until I gave away (virtually) all my wealth for the first time in 1993.  Then I came across this parable in Lk 16 again while I was in the middle of giving it all away and I thought, "This is just what it feels like!  I'm trying to get free of the mastery of Money in my life.  But hopefully the end result will be that I'll be welcomed to eternal dwellings."  See the AV presentation B09 Money, Possessions and Income.ppt on this website under Presentations.

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