On Being Shrewd Stewards

On Being Shrewd Stewards

Last week I began by asking whether we wanted to be remembered by the worst sin or the most virtuous act we’ve ever committed. As we noted, we may resonate with the apostle Paul in his exasperation in doing the evil he hated rather than the good he desired to do. For those of us who have come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ are subject to struggling with the remnants of our fallen nature despite the fact that God in Christ has put that old nature to death by his death. Conversely, those who have not yet come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ may nonetheless exhibit qualities we can emulate for though the image of God has been muddied by the Fall, it’s not been completely lost. Such is the case of the protagonist in Luke 16’s Parable of the Shrewd Manager or Steward, the translation I prefer and will be using. Though both of these words refer to someone who is in charge, the idea of steward is more appropriate in this context because this parable is not only about someone who’s in charge, as a manager would be, but is also about someone who’s been charged with the responsibility of looking after something on behalf of another, as a steward would be.

Now this parable is a challenge to us because taken at face value, it’s difficult to understand why a steward who wasn’t very good at his job—he’s said to be dishonest[1]—is nonetheless commended by both his master in the parable and by Jesus who commented upon it. I’ll return to this question but first let’s remind ourselves of its central points:

Straightway we’re introduced to the key characters and setting in the opening verses: “There was a rich man whose [steward] was accused of wasting his possessions.So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your [stewardship], because you cannot be manager any longer.’” The rich man in this account had been unaware of his steward’s poor or “wasteful” management of his possessions. Consequently, when the matter was brought to his attention, he gave the steward his notice;

The steward in turn attempted to figure out what he could do, taking into consideration his abilities as well as what he was and wasn’t willing to do. He no doubt knew that word would spread about his negligent behavior and that therefore the door of becoming a steward for another rich person had no doubt closed for him. As he stated about himself in verse 3, “I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg.” Therefore he came up with a “plan b” to provide for himself that would result in people welcoming him “into their houses” when he lost his current position. This plan consisted in his going to those who owed his master money and collecting the debt they owed—but at a much reduced rate. Two examples are provided in verses 5 through 7: The first man who owed 900 gallons of olive oil, only had to pay for half of what he owed (vv. 5–6); the second man who owed a thousand bushels of wheat—or about 30 tons—had his bill reduced by a fifth (verse7);

Now even though the steward didn’t get his job back after collecting some of the monies owed his master, we’re told in verse 8 that “The master commended the dishonest [steward] because he had acted shrewdly.” The master’s steward had acted shrewdly—which is to say he had displayed “sharp powers of judgment” for he was no doubt correct that those whose debts had been so significantly reduced would feel a sense of gratitude to him and thereby offer him a helping hand once his master relieved him of his position. So far, so good. The point of the parable makes total sense. The steward was commended not for wasting his master’s possessions, which was the reason for his being let go, but for how he was able to make lemonade out of the lemon he had made of his life.

But what is more difficult to understand is why Jesus, in telling this parable, also seemed to commend the “dishonest steward” in the account. As recorded in the remainder of verse 8, Jesus went on to say, “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.” Now part of what Jesus said is certainly easy to understand for he, like the rich man in the story and like anyone listening to this parable, can understand how it is that the steward had acted shrewdly, that is, how it is that he had displayed “sharp powers of judgment” when faced with the consequence of losing his livelihood.

But the more difficult matter is that with regard to dealing shrewdly, Jesus essentially indicated that those who are not believers are better at displaying this kind of astuteness in dealing with others than are believers, “the people of the light.” There’s a tacit call here for “the people of light” to become more shrewd themselves, to demonstrate similar “sharp powers of judgment.” This is reminiscent of another time when Jesus told his disciples, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”[2] Shrewdness, the ability to exercise “sharp powers of judgment” is something that Jesus commends—albeit without the deceit but with innocence. God has given us brains—and bodies—and spirits—and emotions—that we might use them wisely as we seek to discern how best to live for him as those who hold dual citizenship in both God’s earthly and heavenly kingdoms. Believers are called to be shrewd as we seek to live in the world without becoming of the world;[3] as we seek to live not according to the world’s values, but according to those which God has disclosed to us in the Old and New Testaments.

But we’re confronted with another challenge in Jesus’ statement in verse 9: “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” Clearly he’s again referencing the dishonest but shrewd steward. Yet how are believers to apply this analogy? How are believers, “people of the light” to use their “worldly wealth to gain friends…so that when it is gone, [they] will be welcomed into eternal dwellings”? This is where the concept of “steward” (as opposed to “manager”) proves illustrative. For God made humans, both male and female, to be his stewards. Genesis teaches that right at the outset, after God had made humans in his very image, he charged them with the responsibility of caring for the world he had made. Specifically, “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’”[4] From the beginning, humans have been called to be stewards, to responsibly look after this world, on God’s behalf and for his sake. Therefore in asking how those who know God in Christ, how those who are “people of the light” can be shrewd stewards, can display sharp powers of judgment in how we live our lives on earth, the first thing we need to realize is that our Master is none other than the Lord and Maker of heaven and earth.

Fair enough. But how are we, then, to “use worldly wealth to gain friends for [ourselves]”? Well one definition of a friend is “a person who is not an enemy or who is on the same side.” This definition brings to mind, of course, Jesus’ command for us to go above and beyond the usually expected moral behavior. In a portion of his Sermon on the Mount, he taught,

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[5] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.[6]

With these words Jesus reminds us that our way of living shouldn’t be minimalist but maximalist. There’s no virtue in loving those who love us for that’s what should occur naturally. But to demonstrate that we’re children of our Father in heaven, we’re to be perfect as he is perfect, holy as he is holy, and this means loving and praying even for those who persecute us for this is what our heavenly Father does, sending needed rain and sun not only to his children but also to those who don’t acknowledge or believe in or perhaps even hate him. We are to exemplify God’s nature in our dealings with others. As Paul also taught, Jesus, who is also God, died for us while we were yet his enemies. He died for us while we were yet sinners[7] choosing to live for ourselves and our desires rather than living for God and his desires.

But this definition of a friend being “a person who is not an enemy or who is on the same side” also brings to mind Jesus’ definition of what a friend is:

12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you…. 17 This is my command: Love each other.[8]

Because of Jesus’ love for us, we are more than his stewards—we are now his friends, called to live and love as he did. Therefore if Jesus is calling us to “use worldly wealth to gain friends for [ourselves],” then in effect what he is calling us to do is to share with others the Gospel, the good news of who he is, in order that others might come to a saving faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ as well; in order that others, too, might become children of our heavenly Father and heirs together with us of his Kingdom. For when others commit their lives to Christ, they are no longer against God as we all once were, but are on the same side as those who follow God in Christ.

Jesus further stated in verse 9 that using worldly wealth to gain friends for ourselves would result in our being “welcomed into eternal dwellings.” Now note that Jesus didn’t state this as a condition. He didn’t say, “In order to be welcomed into eternal dwellings, you must use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves.” If he had stated it this way, then our salvation would be a matter of works rather than God’s grace for we would be able to earn our salvation by using our wealth in this manner. But the point here is that our earthly values are to be aligned with God’s heavenly values. Notice that the three parables told by Jesus prior to this one in chapter 15 of Luke were those of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son:

Concerning the lost sheep, he concluded, “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent;”[9]

Concerning the lost coin he similarly stated, “I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents;”[10]

And of the lost—or prodigal—son, we’re told how the father demanded upon his son’s return, “23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.”[11]

We get the point. Heaven rejoices whenever sinners like us repent. And we’ll enter and be welcomed into this raucous and joyous welcome if we seek to think, speak, and live in a manner that points others to God in Christ; if we use our worldly wealth to gain heavenly friends.

Thinking, speaking, and living in a manner that points others to God in Christ means that we adopt the values of Jesus our King’s heavenly Kingdom. Remember how he told his followers, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear.”[12] For as God feeds the birds, so will he feed those who are his.[13] And as God dresses the flowers, so will he dress us.[14] All of this was a lead-in to his central point: “31 But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. 32 Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[15] If we sell our possessions and give to the poor, we may gain eternal friends for ourselves—and for God’s kingdom. The logic of God’s heavenly kingdom is that if we use our earthly possessions to help those in need, we’ll be providing heavenly purses for ourselves that will never wear out, heavenly treasure that will never fail. We’ll be welcomed into God’s eternal dwelling with great joy.

Beginning in verse 10 Jesus continued to speak as the Master he is, addressing his stewards, his disciples, in stating, “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. 11 So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?” The dishonest steward in the parable deserved to be fired for he was squandering away his master’s riches. But what about us who are stewards of our heavenly Father’s resources? How are we using our worldly wealth?—and notice that worldly wealth is contrasted with true riches for worldly riches last but a season but true riches last forever. As we often note when we pray for our tithes and offerings, what we sacrificially give each week aren’t really our tithes and offerings but are monies and gifts on loan to us from our heavenly Father. And so we rightly pray that we as his family would use these gifts wisely to further his work in Ipswich and beyond. Jesus calls us here to be good stewards of the gifts—physical, material, spiritual—that are on loan to us from him. And there’s a principle of continuity in responsibility indicated. If we have been faithful with little, we’ll be faithful with much for faithfulness is a matter of character, not of abundance in possessions. Faithfulness is a matter of our belief in God whose ways are always for the best. If we have been trustworthy in caring for the things on loan to us, then we’ll do the same for those things entrusted to us by others.

We who are God’s children by his grace; we who are “the people of the light,” brothers and sisters and friends to Christ Jesus, God’s Son, who is the Light of the world,[16] are called to invest not in the earthly kingdom but in the heavenly. This is yet another lesson taught by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount:

19 Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 22 The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! 24 No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.[17]

Healthy eyes are eyes that are generous; unhealthy eyes are eyes that are stingy. Our Lord Jesus calls us to have healthy eyes, to be generous with our worldly wealth, using it to gain friends, to extend his kingdom. And you may have noticed that the end of this portion of his teaching is identical with what he states near the end of our passage in verse 13: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” If serving God is our highest priority, then nothing else should compete with that priority. We can love him or we can love money, but we can’t love both for though money is a necessity, loving it, as Paul writes Timothy, is the root of all kinds of evil and has led some to wander from the faith and pierce themselves with many griefs.[18] If we love money, we will sacrifice all that we have in order to get more; but if we love God, then we will sacrifice all that we have in order to please him. And what pleases him most is when we act according to his will and ways and care for those whom he’s placed in our lives.

Well this section ends by recording the reaction of the Pharisees who had evidently been listening in on what Jesus was teaching his disciples. As we read in verse 14, “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.” Well, of course they were! How could someone who loved money approve or agree with what Jesus said here? Yet Jesus had the last word as he told them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.” As those who loved money as an end in itself, what these Pharisees valued was detestable to God for they valued money more than they valued their Maker.

Well, dear sisters and brothers, clearly the lesson we’re to take with us in this parable is that we should do our level best to be shrewd stewards. That is, we’re to do our level best to be shrewd in displaying sharp powers of judgment with the things we possess. However we should use this discernment in the service of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Maker, who from the beginning created us—and has now redeemed us—that we might care for this earth, for his kingdom, and for those who comprise it.

Let us be shrewd, therefore, in living according to God’s values, not the world’s values;

Let us be shrewd in how we display our love for our gracious God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit;

Let us be shrewd in how we display our love for one another, urging each other to live in accordance with the values and behaviors he’s revealed to us in his Word,[19] trusting that he who made us knows best what it takes to flourish in life;[20]

Let us be shrewd in expressing God’s love even to those who persecute us in order that their hearts might be softened, their gaze might be turned to their Maker, and they might go from being an enemy to being a friend, someone who is on the same side as we;

Let us be shrewd in using whatever wealth we have been granted for the sake of serving those who are most in need knowing that we have a heavenly inheritance, true riches, that will never wear out. Let us have healthy eyes, generous eyes, not unhealthy eyes, stingy eyes, as we see the needs of others in order that the Kingdom of Jesus might continue to grow and be made evident on earth as it is in heaven;

Let us be shrewd in making the love and service of God, not money, our highest priority. Let our sacrifices be for the sake of pleasing him, not enriching ourselves, for knowing him is the greatest treasure we could ever know or have.

In all that we do, let us carry out our responsibility of looking after others with shrewdness, with the sharpest powers of judgment we can muster, for in so doing our Lord and Master and Maker and Redeemer will be pleased.

Let us pray.

[1] Luke 16:8a: The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.

[2] Matthew 10:16.

[3] See Jesus’ high priestly prayer, esp., John 17:15–18: 15 My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. 17 Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.

[4] Genesis 1:28.

[5] Leviticus 19:18: Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.

[6] Matthew 5:43-49.

[7] Romans 5:8: But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

[8] John 15:12–15, 17. Emphasis added.

[9] Luke 15:7. See also Matthew 18:12–14: 12 What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14 In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.

[10] Luke 15:10.

[11] Luke 15:23–24.

[12] Luke 12:22. Verse 23 states, “. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.” Verse 29 reiterates, “And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it.” See also Matthew 6:25: Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Verse 31 reiterates, So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’

[13] Luke 12:24: “Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!” See also Matthew 6:26: Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?

[14] Luke 12:27–28: 27 Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 28 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith!” See also Matthew 6:28–30:

[15] Luke 12:31–34. See also Matthew 6:33: But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

[16] John 8:12: When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

[17] Matthew 6:19–23.

[18] 1 Timothy 6:10: For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

[19] To believe Scripture is to believe God who gave us these Scriptures. See James 2:23: And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend.

[20] On this point, see James 4:4: You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.