Pastor Rod Thompson
Midland SDA Church
November 18, 2017
Scripture: Luke 16: 10-13
story about a rich guy, a nobleman, who finds out that he’s being cheated by
one of his employees, so he fires the employee, who then does something very
creative and unethical to ensure his future. The twist to the story is, instead
of being outraged at this, the nobleman praises the manager for being a shrewd
For centuries, this story has confounded right-brained, Western logical thinkers, because for the life of them, they can’t understand why Jesus, or the character that represents God in the story, would praise someone for doing something unethical. They’ve come up with a lot of theories of how this might work, or what’s wrong with the story. But all of them miss the mark unless they know something about Middle Eastern culture. do.
The story of the Shrewd Manager is a story Jesus tells in FOUR SCENES:
1. IN THE MASTER’S OFFICE. This is where the scoundrel gets the word that he’s fired
THE WAY TO GET THE BOOKS. This is where some huge thinking goes on, and reveals
what this unscrupulous manager knows to be true about the man he’s been
cheating, even though the man has treated him so well.
3. WITH THE BOOKS. This is where the manager works the plan he hatched on the way to get the books. And the plan works flawlessly.
4. IN THE MASTER’S OFFICE. (again), where the climax comes.
Let me walk you through each of these scenes,
Scene 1. IN THE MASTER’S OFFICE.
In this scene three characters are introduced, though only two of them are actually in the room.
The first character is THE MASTER. He’s a wealthy Middle Eastern landowner. Jesus calls him, “A rich man.” And tells us that the people in the area respect him so much that many of them come to him and tell him that his regional manager is cheating him.
Read Luke 16:1
tense of the verb in the original language indicates that the manager was
accused repeatedly – over and over again of this kind of embezzlement.
So the master asks. Calmly, and graciously. He doesn’t scold, berate or threaten. He doesn’t demand repayment, or put the manager in jail, which were well within his rights. He’s an impressive landlord.
The second character is THE MANAGER. He’s an agent for the master, a middle man, managing property and assets that don’t belong to him. Only he’s not managing them, he’s mismanaging them. He’s rascal who’s cooking the books to his own advantage.
According to the Mishnah, the Jewish commentary on the O.T., there were three kinds of managers legally recognized to play a management function in the life of Israel.
This man was a “shaluah” in Hebrew.
The Greek word used here for him is “oikonomos” – sounds very close to our word, “economist” doesn’t it?
He’s an educated man, who’s worked all his life with people and contracts and records. He’s an agent, hired by the master to negotiate and administer land contracts between the master and the peasants who work the land. In the 1500’s, when the Ottoman Turks conquered this area, they divided up the land amongst themselves and then rented it back to the locals in exchange for a certain percentage of the crops.
The peasants hated these landowners because they exploited them, bled them dry, and were usually absentee landlords uninvolved and unconcerned about local affairs. They were represented by managers like this who not only bilked them for the master’s gain, but bilked them a second time, on the side, for their own gain as well.
But in this story the master is clearly a part of the community. The wealthy, distant, foreign, ruthless landowner is unknown in this parable.”
The third group in this scene is hinted at, but not present. They are THE DEBTORS. These are the peasant farmers who live on the land as share-croppers. Every year each of them negotiates with the master, through the manager, to farm a certain number of acres. In exchange for the right to farm, the master gets a specified amount of wheat or olive oil, or whatever product they are farming.
It is the peasants who have blown the whistle on the shrewd manager.
That’s the set up for the action.
The entire action of scene one takes place in two sentences, both from the lips of the master.
The first sentence is a Question: The master calls the manager into his office and says, “WHAT’S THIS I HEAR ABOUT YOU?” (Luke 16:2)
The master is very careful with the words he chooses. He doesn’t say, “I hear you’ve been cheating me…” because that would tip the manager off as to what the master knows about him.
The landlord doesn’t want to tell the manager what he knows, because he wants to know everything the scoundrel has been doing to cheat him. So he says, “What’s this I hear about you?”
All the listeners hearing Jesus story would expect one and only one response to a question like this: the EEXPECTED RESPONSE: SILENCE.
And in Jesus’ story, the manager doesn’t disappoint them. The RECEIVED ANSWER: SILENCE.
The manager is smart enough not to give any answer, because he doesn’t know what the master knows about his dealings. Does he know everything? Or just one or two incidents? He doesn’t want to confess to anymore than the master can already prove.
So he stays quiet.
So the master delivers the second sentence. He gives the manager his DISMISSAL: YOU CAN NO LONGER BE MANAGER he says. Translated: “You’re done, fired, gone. (Luke 16:2)
At this point all the listeners expect to hear a debate or argument from the manager [EXPECTED RESPONSE: ARGUMENT]. There are a lot of things he can say to defend himself. He can blame others. He can claim ignorance, or that it was all just an oversight. He can put the onus on the master himself. This is the time for him to explain why he’s innocent and ought to be retained.
But, to the surprise of listeners, the manager stays silent. [RECEIVED ANSWER: SILENCE.]
Silence is supremely significant in the Middle Eastern setting. The manager is indirectly affirming at least the following:
1. I’M GUILTY.
2. THE MASTER KNOWS I’M GUILTY.
3. THIS MASTER EXPECTS OBEDIENCE, DISOBEDIENCE BRINGS JUDGMENT.
4. I CAN’T GET MY JOB BACK BY OFFERING EXCUSES.
This manager, this shrewd manager, doesn’t dwell on how he can get his job back. He knows he can’t. All his energy is focused on the future and what he’s going to do now that he’s unemployed.
Before he even leaves his boss’s office, he begins processing everything he knows and weighing all his options.
The master has told him he’s fired, and that he must turn in the company books. So now what’s he going to do?
He’s thinking about this as he leaves the office. As he closes the door, he thinks to himself, “At least he didn’t throw me in jail.” The Mishna, the Jewish book of commentary on the OT, makes it quite clear that an agent was expected to pay for any loss for which he is responsible. The master hasn’t even asked that of him. He’s not even scolded. He just released him.
“He is a merciful man,” thinks the manager as he walks into scene two, which takes place
THE WAY TO GET THE BOOKS.
The master has said, “Give an account of your stewardship…” – Luke 16:2
does an accountant account for his work? He keeps records. In Middle Eastern
culture, when a person is fired, they’re fired on the spot. No severance pay,
no 60 day’s notice. This guy is terminated. He is now powerless, friendless,
and without a job. He only has one task left to do: turn in the books.
So on his way, he is thinking furiously: “What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job.” – Luke 16:3
He considers his options: Let’s see - “I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg.” –
While he’s walking, his mind is spinning. And it hatches a plan. The plan is based on everything he knows about the master.
His thinking goes like this: I have been manipulating another man’s money for years, and everyone around here knows it. I’m too weak for manual labor, and begging is beneath my social station, so what am I going to do?
PROBLEM: WHO WILL HIRE ME?
Answer: no one. They all know his reputation. Nobody likes him, or they wouldn’t have turned him in. Nobody trusts him. There is no way in his current state of popularity he could hope to get a job. His reputation won’t allow it.
So he thinks and thinks and thinks and thinks and comes up with a solution not based on his reputation, but on his master’s reputation: The solution he comes up with? [SOLUTION: TRUST IN THE MASTER’S MERCY!”]
After all, this is a man who was so kind; he didn’t even reprimand the manager when he let him go. He didn’t demand repayment, he didn’t make a fuss! This man is generous! This man is merciful!
“I know what I’ll do,” he says, “I’ll stake my entire future on the master’s reputation!” And he does.
Scene 3 reveals the plan he’s hatched. Ironically, the plan has everything to do with the master, and nothing to do with the manager.
The manager has to move fast, he knows, because his entire future depends on changing the villagers perceptions of him, so that one of them will give him a job. He’s got to change the minds of his master’s debtors, and he’s got to do it before they discover they he no longer has any power or authority.
The manager knows that, for his plan to work, the debtors must assume two things:
1. They must assume that THE MANAGER IS STILL IN AUTHORITY. They must believe that he still works for the master. They must believe that he still manages the legal contracts between them and the master.
So, as soon as he gets back to his office, he finds one of the servants and says, “Summon all my master’s debtors.”
The peasants don’t know that he’s been fired. They assume his summons is an official one, sanctioned by the master, so they come.
As soon as the first tenant farmer shows up, he pulls his contract out of the file, lays it down in front of him and says, “Quick, “How much do you owe my master?” – Luke 16:5
The farmer says, “Eight hundred gallons of olive oil.” – Luke 16:6
“The manager told him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.” – Luke 16:6
He calls the next one in, lays his contract in front of him: Then he asked the second, “And how much do you owe?” – Luke 16:7
“A thousand bushels of wheat,” he replied. “Take your bill and make it eight hundred.” – Luke 16:7
actual monetary value, the debts are both reduced by the same amount: 500
denarii. The manager isn’t thinking percentages, he’s thinking speed. He knows
he must complete every deal before a servant walks in and says, “Hey! I heard
you were just fired!” If that happens, his plan collapses and he goes to jail.
2. The second assumption the debtors must hold is that THE MASTER HAS APPROVED OF THIS DEBT-REDUCTION.
If not, they’ll never go along with it, and they’ll never change their perceptions of him, and he has no future at all.
But, lightning-fast, he pulls it off. One by one the tenant farmers come and they all have their bills reduced.
This is the great betting-of-the-farm. The manager is risking everything based on what he knows about his master: that the master is generous and merciful. If this is true, if the master really is generous and merciful, he’ll be okay. If he’s wrong, it’s prison. He bets the farm. He stakes everything on this. Everything.
Now, reducing bills like this was not unheard of, but it was rare. The Mishna provides for rent reductions when trees die or a blight spreads or when the winter is particularly harsh, but discussions of this kind never begin with the owner. They always begin with the renter. The renter, having been wiped out by a flood, or having a locust plague, would petition the landlord for a reduced fee. But never would the landlord initiate the process. Never.
So each farmer is astounded when he sees his bill and his the words, “rent reduction.” They all wonder how they could be so fortunate. And the manager is only too happy to tell them.
“Well,” he says, “I caught the old man in the good mood and decided to see if I could do something for you. Actually, I’ve been working on this for quite some time, and it all came together today.” The reduction may come from the master, but the manager lets it be known that the idea came from him!
Imagine getting a call from the last salesmen who sold you a car, and the guys saying to you, “Have you gotten the check yet?”
“The check that’s coming from the dealership. I convinced the manufacturer to give you a $5000 rebate, for no particular reason, just because I’m a good guy and these people listen to me.”
Who’s your new best friend?
Only these guys haven’t gotten a $5,000 rebate, 500 denarii is equivalent to a year and a half pay. So it’s more like a $50,000 rebate.
As quick as he can, the manager gathers up all the freshly-reduced contracts and dashes back to the master’s office.
This marks the beginning of scene 4. IN THE MASTER’S OFFICE (again).
And this is where, to those who understood how things worked in Middle Eastern culture, everything becomes clear.
As the manager reaches the master’s office, the ink is still wet on the contracts. The master can see what’s happened. He’s no dumbie. And he can hear evidence too. Because already, in the streets, the tenant farmers are throwing a party, celebrating the name of their most generous landlord! Never before in history has their been a man as wonderful, as kind, as noble, and deserving of loyalty and praise as this master! Never before has a landlord reduced rents just because he’s a generous person!
As the sound of “three cheers for our patron!” goes up outside his windows, the master realizes he has two options:
1. he can - EXPLAIN THAT THE REDUCTION WAS A MISTAKE , that the manager has manipulated them and that they are still legally obligated for the full amount. In which case, the master’s name goes from marvelous to mud and they will curse him for his stinginess. Or, he can
2. - KEEP SILENT AND ACCEPT THE PRAISE and allow this clever manager to ride high on the wave of popular enthusiasm.
So what does the master do?
He reflects on his choices for a minute: Reputation, or money? For a man of character, it’s a no brainer. He turns to the manager and says, “Shrewd move. Shrewd move. You are a rascal, but a wise rascal.”
Middle Easterners still tell a story today about a condemned murderer during the days of the famous sultan Saladin. The killer was condemned to death and kept crying, “I want to see the Sultan.” Finally he was taken to see Saladin, where he cried out, “O most gracious Sultan, my sins are great but the mercy of the Sultan is greater.” And he was released.
This is very difficult for the Western mind to grasp. But for the Eastern mind, face, or reputation is everything.
Proverbs 22:1 A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.
Middle Easterners believe that.
See how this story nets out? It’s about a master who is generous and merciful. And about a man who has assets that are only at his disposal for a brief time. He doesn’t control his own destiny, and he knows it. It’s all in the master’s hands.
Jesus is saying, “The shrewd move is to trust the master. The shrewd move is to bet the farm that He’s generous and merciful.”
“What are you going to do with your one and only life that will last for eternity?”
I think that’s pretty close to the question Jesus is raising in this parable.
What are you going to do with the one asset you have?
A shrewd guy uses what he has to gain a future for himself.
In the verse that immediately follows the story, Jesus gives the first of THREE LESSONS from the story.
He says, “I tell you, use your worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” – Luke 16:9
you only have one life. Use it to enhance your future. Use it to build
friendship with people who can say to you some day in heaven, “Thanks. Thanks.
I’m here because of you.”
“What should I do with what’s been entrusted to me?” And it begged the answer: Invest it in making friends for eternity!
The second lesson Jesus teaches at the end of this story is this. He says, “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. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?” – Luke 16:10-13
I think this is Jesus’ way of asking, “Do
you want a big kingdom assignment here and in heaven, or do you want a little
assignment here, and there?”
I think vs. 10-13 are asking me the question, “What do I want entrusted to me?” And the principle behind the question is, The better I invest what I have in the kingdom of God, the more will be entrusted to me.
And then the final lesson: Jesus says, “No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” – Luke 16:13
This verse asks the question: “Can I invest my life in two places?” – Can I work on my own stockpile over here and run across and work on God’s stockpile effectively too?
Can ride the fence? Can I have it both ways?
What’s the answer friends? No! You cannot serve two masters.
God’s Stewards of time, Talents, Money
This week’s assignments are:
(1) Continue praying “God, I don’t ask you for much today, I just ask that you give me your heart for lost people.”
(2) Ask God: “How do you want me to invest my one and only life?”
Father, some of us in this room have been wondering if your real. Are you trustworthy? Are you really like the master? Generous and merciful. Can we trust you?
And some of us have been wondering if we dared serve you, instead of serving all those things that the American dream says we have to pursue. Father you’ve answered that for us today with this very creative story. Now speak to us about what it means to invest our one and only lives in welcoming people into eternity.
And those of us who have invested it all just want to thank you now. Thank you for reminding us of your generosity and your mercy to us. Thank you for being a God who never scolds or jails us, even though sometimes we are scoundrels, but a God who comes through when we bet the farm on you.