Last week had a really nice parable that Jesus told his disciples. It was a wonderful reminder about the relentless love of God, that there is no road we can go down that God won’t go down to find us, that it doesn’t matter how lost we are, God will always find us. And those parables reminded us that we, too, are called to imitate the way that God loves relentlessly, looking for those who are lost, understanding how they left, and loving them back to the kingdom.
And then there’s this parable.
Here we have this story of a crooked manager who weasels his way out of the consequences of his actions. This dishonest manager uses money that isn’t his to get favor with his boss’s clients so that when he’s fired, he doesn’t have to end up on the street. What are we supposed to make of this parable? Is Jesus instructing us to game the system? To undermine people in authority who wrong us? This is a confusing and frustrating parable that Jesus tells.
But maybe the confusion comes from how we think we’re supposed to read parables. We’re used to the idea that we have to find who in each parable is God, who’s us, and who’s somebody else. But maybe that’s not the case with this parable, after all parables are really just stories that are meant to help illustrate a point. Maybe Jesus isn’t telling us to be like the dishonest manager at all.
After all, look at how the unjust manager acts. He’s informed that he’s been accused of cooking the books, and without delay, the boss tells him he’s fired. So the manager goes over his options. He’s not strong enough to dig—so manual labor is out of the question. And he’s too proud to beg—it would put him in an even worse position than he already is. So he uses what he’s got: his smart business sense. It’s possible that the debt he slashed for his boss’s clients was supposed to be his own cut, but even if it’s not, he’s putting his boss in a bind. By cancelling part of the debt, he’s getting the goodwill of those clients, and making it impossible for his boss to go back on that debt reduction without major public shame.
The dishonest manager was shrewd, because he used his business sense to save his hide. But there’s the rub: he used it to save himself. He had this great mind for making wise business decisions that would do exactly what he wanted them to do. But, he didn’t use his business sense to help anyone else. He was there looking out for number one. I think we’d do well to wonder how we do the same thing.
Because everything in our culture tells us to capitalize on what we have. If you’re a good people person, use that to make connections that will land you the job you want. If you’ve got a head for numbers, use it to make sound investments to have a good retirement. If you’re a gifted athlete, put yourself out there to get recruited. People are much more likely to want to become doctors than they are to become social workers—because even though both help people, doctors get paid more.
But what’s the purpose behind those gifts? I’ve said it many times before that we don’t receive blessings from God simply so we can use them for ourselves. We receive blessings from God for the good of the kingdom. Be shrewd, Jesus says, but not in the same way as the dishonest manager. The world has enough shrewd dishonest managers using their gifts for their personal benefit. Be shrewd like the children of this age because the world needs people guided by Christ’s love to use their gifts to shape the world around us.
Be like Jonas Salk, who developed the first successful polio vaccine—and rather than patent it and get exclusive rights to its profits, he released his research so that the world could be freed from the scourge of polio.
Be like Malala Yousafzai, who has used her public speaking ability and personal story to point the spotlight at education for girls in the developing world—rather than using her fame to get access to fortune and comfort.
Be like Nelson Mandela, who used his popularity to unite a nation—rather than using it to get revenge on the many people who wronged him and his people for decades.
Be like the people who took their talents, their gifts, their blessings from God, and used them for the sake of the world. That’s what God’s blessings are for, after all. We are called, as Christians, to use everything we have, all that God has given us, so that we can build up the kingdom where we are. And we do that by being shrewd like the manager, using the system for God’s purposes.
And that, I think, is what Jesus means by using unjust wealth. Ultimately, all wealth is gotten unjustly if you trace it back—whether from precious metals mined by slaves, or business profits gotten by underpaying workers, or land stolen from Native Americans. But Jesus doesn’t want us to either perpetuate that injustice by continuing to be shrewd like the dishonest manager, nor to turn our noses up at wealth because it’s tainted by injustice. Instead, he wants us to use that wealth to make the world a more just place, a place that looks like the kingdom of God.
So this is what we can learn from the dishonest manager. God has given you many blessings, whether in your skills or your connections or your money or your knowledge, and God expects you to use all of those blessings for the sake of others. Use them shrewdly, but not for your own benefit or just the benefit of those in your circle. Serve God with what you have. Shape the world around you to look more like the kingdom of God. Build up the kingdom by taking the less glamorous job that does more good in the world. Build up the kingdom by buying from stores that pay a fair wage and act justly in the world. Build up the kingdom by asking what your blessings can do for others, rather than simply what they can do for you.
Because the children of this age are shrewd, but the children of this age don’t have the kingdom in their sights. You do. Be shrewd with the blessings God has given you, and God will bring about the kingdom in what you do.
Thanks be to God. Amen.