Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Parable of the Shrewd Manager

We had the fourth of our Lent Studies last night.  I must confess that I have been enjoying this series on the parables more than I expected to.  Yesterday it was the, again badly named, Parable of the Unjust (or Dishonest) Steward (or Manager) in Luke 16.  This parable has caused many Christians and commentators an awful lot of worry.  They feel uneasy that Jesus uses a dishonest person as an example of how we should live as his followers.

The first thing to be said is that the passage doesn't exactly say that the manager was dishonest that's just how some versions translate it.  Luke says that he was 'unrighteous'.  Hence the title, 'Unjust Steward'.  Clearly though, this doesn't get rid of the problem for Jesus is still holding up an unrighteous person as an example to us.  But in any case what the Manager is praised for is his shrewdness in his use of money to secure a future home for himself not his dishonesty or whatever.

Jesus' comment on the parable, however, is a bit complicated:

'...for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.  And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of the mammon of unrighteousness so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.'

Some commentators understand the first part of this to mean that the children of this age know how to exist and get on in this age among their own kind, but that the children of light don't take their place and responsibilty in the kingdom of God as seriously. The meaning then would be that we need as Christians to take being a Christian as seriously as unbelievers take acquiring money and possessions.

While this is doubtless true, I don't think it is the point of the parable.  The parable is focusing on the Manager's shrewd use of money.  Jesus is wanting to encourage his disciples in their present use of money in this age.  The Manager had used his master's money, over which he had legal control, to make friends for himself and ensure he was welcomed into their homes when he was out of a job.  Jesus then is picking up on this and speaking figuratively when he says we should make friends by means of money (literally: the mammon of unrighteousness).  He is telling us that we should so use money in this life that we will be welcomed into eternal homes in the future.

Christians have a very difficult realtionship with money.  On the one hand, we just give in and adopt the same values, attitudes and behaviour as everyone else.  The lifestyles, possessions and ambitions of Christians aren't noticeably different to those who are not.  You would not often be able to tell whether someone was a Christian, for example, simply by looking at their use of money.  On the other hand, there have been those who have rejected the use of money altogether and who have idealised poverty.  St Francis is, perhaps, a good example of this approach.

I rather suspect that many Christians think that Jesus taught a St Francis type of ethic, while following the lifestyle of the society around them.  The choice then seems to be either capitulation or rejection.

Jesus is, I think, asking for something different.  We are to use money, but we are not to use it the way society around us uses it.  We are to have different aims and goals.  Those around us  use it to make their life better here.  We are to use it to make our life better hereafter.  Jesus is under no illusions about money.  I have heard preachers say that it is not money that is evil, but rather the 'love of money'.  I think Jesus goes further than this.  He sees money itself as inherently evil. It is both bad and transient.  It is the 'mammon of unrighteousness'.  The day will come when it is gone.  It is impossible to serve God and serve money, says Jesus.  But it is, nevertheless, possible to use money to serve God.

When I go to Europe, I have to change my Hong Kong dollars for Euros.  The Euro is the currency of Europe and if I am to get around in Europe, I need Euros.  Money is the currency of this age: of this generation.  To function in this age, I need to deal with money, but in dealing with it I need to keep my eye on the future age when money will be no more.  As a Christian, how I use money should be very different to how those around me use it.

As Jesus says, this calls for a shrewdness that we children of light often find hard.  The challenge, nevertheless, remains.  As Jesus asks:

'If then you have not been faithful with the mammon of unrighteousness, who will entrust to you the true riches?  (Luke 16:11)

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