It’s a familiar story in the aftermath of the fall of Lehman Brothers in 2008. A manager is entrusted with vast sums of money, or packages of debt, and they wheel and deal and things go badly wrong for the people they work for. We look at the way their self interest dominated their decision making, and we judge them, these evil bankers who loose all our money and get payed a massive bonus as a reward. It’s easy to see that these people are the bad guys. And then we read this very strange parable, and everything we thought we understood about the morality of wheeling and dealing gets shaken. How can this man, this dishonest manager, who not only squanders his master’s wealth, and then fiddles the books for his own advantage when he knows he has been caught, how can he be held out to us as an example which the disciples of Jesus should follow? Is Jesus commanding dishonesty? I don’t think so. In a number of Jesus’ parables he uses a bad person’s behaviour to teach an important lesson. Consider the parable of the Unjust Judge (Luke 18.1–8) where a widow had to continually badger a judge before he would grant her justice. Jesus isn’t trying to teach that God is a harsh judge who never wants to help us. He uses the example of the mean judge to show us that we shouldn’t give up praying. Might Jesus be using the story about the dishonest manager to teach, not to be dishonest, but to learn from his shrewdness. Having been caught red-handed in his dishonest use of his masters possessions, he shows his cunning by making friends and influencing people with his master’s cash. He isn’t congratulated for his dishonesty, but for his shrewdness. And so, we are to learn from his good example, to be shrewd with whatever we’ve been given by God.
Elsewhere, Jesus tells his disciples to be ‘as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves’ (Mat. 10.16). I think our problem is that we often get that the wrong way around. It is really easy when it comes to church for me to have the wisdom of a dove and the innocence of a snake. How can we learn from the shrewd world of business to help us proclaim the gospel of Jesus afresh in our generation?
Here are some thoughts:
“Product”: If someone asks us why we go to church, or why we believe in God, or why we follow Jesus, would we be able to give an answer? What is our unique selling point? What difference can Christianity make to people's lives?
Promotion: Perhaps we need to spend some time thinking about how the people we want to reach feel when they come to our church. Do they feel as though we really have good news for them? News that could change their lives? Do we welcome people, even when they don’t seem to fit with the way we like to do things? How can we avoid, at all costs, doing any kind of damage to the message we believe can change the world.
Prioritisation: With our limited resources, what are the things that we must absolutely prioritise, without which we would be untrue to our core objectives. How can we shift our attention and resources to the areas of greatest importance.
Personnel: People matter! When you look at all the resources we have as a church, you are our greatest resource. Without you we are merely a bank balance and a leaky building. With you, we are a church. So we need to care for each other and cherish each other and listen to each other. We need to make sure that no one person is overstretched and ensure that we are properly resourced and trained for the mission we have as a church. Churches that grow know that people matter more than just about anything else.
Shrewdness makes sense, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t we aim to be a shrewd church, and not a naive one? But Jesus teaching is harder still. He advises that we use ‘dishonest wealth’ to get friends. Now that’s hard. Is Jesus finally nailing his colours to the mast by advocating the use ill gotten gain to win friends? Again, I think there is a deeper meaning. The phrase is literally ‘unrighteous mammon’, and in Jesus’ day it meant roughly the same as the phrase ‘filthy lucre’. It referred to money of any kind. All money is, to some extent polluted, none of it is spotlessly clean. All money has the power to draw us away from God. I suspect Jesus is saying something like this: How can you use money to gain friends? By giving it generously – After all, isn’t that one of the ways that we show ourselves to be children of the light? By giving generously, by supporting the poor and needy. That’s the point Jesus basically makes in the second half of our reading, he links maturity as a disciple to our detachment from material wealth. Strange though it may sound living in affluent, stockbroker belt Surrey, our bank balance is one of the best ways for us to test the depth of our commitment to Jesus.
Who ultimately will be our master? Shall we serve God and our needy brothers and sisters with our money, or shall we turn our money into a god who demands our utter allegiance. So that is the message of the parable of the Shrewd Manager. Always act shrewdly, learn from the world, put your resources to the best possible use, and make sure that you give your money and time and other physical resources generously, because by doing that, you show yourself to be somebody who serves God, not money, someone who is wholeheartedly committed to Jesus.