The Prodigal Son and the Shrewd Manager

In Luke 16, Jesus tells a parable about a “shrewd manager.” This is a tough parable, because at first glance it appears to be condoning dishonest behavior. Jesus tells of a manager who administered the affairs of a rich man; this manager was suspected of wasting his master’s possessions. So, the rich man called the manager to account for his use of what had been given to him. This worried the manager, because he knew he had been unfaithful in his office. So, he sought to ingratiate himself with his master’s debtors by reducing their debts. In this way, once he was removed from his office, he could call in the favors that the debtors would then owe him.

This parable is an interesting contrast to the parable that immediately precedes it in Luke 15 about the Prodigal Son. Both parables appear to be linked in Luke’s account, and both stories feature a man who had wasted what had been entrusted to him. In the previous parable, a man’s son had wasted his share of his inheritance that his father had given him in advance. He eventually spent all the money his father had entrusted to him and ended up with nothing. He then realized that even his father’s servants had more to eat than he did and lived a better life than he. So, he said to himself, “I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants’” (Luke 15:18-19).

Contrast this prodigal son’s response with the response of the manager to his crisis with his master. Rather than throw himself at the mercy of his master, he worries and says to himself, “What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.” So, he decides to make friends with his master’s debtors, by reducing their debts.

The responses of the ones who had been wronged are interesting to compare as well. In the case of the prodigal son, his father takes him back. He rejoices that his son has returned and graciously gives him more than his son even hoped for by taking him back again, not as a servant, but as a son with full rights of sonship and inheritance. He even gives him his best robe as a symbol that his son is vested with his authority.

Contrast that with the master’s response in this week’s parable to what his manager had done. Jesus says, “The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” The master commends his dishonest servant for being shrewd, for he had dealt with his problem in a clever way. Note that Jesus doesn’t say that what the dishonest manager did was right, or good, but that it was shrewd. In the same way, we often commend people for their cleverness without condoning what they have done.

So, what are we to make of all this? Well, maybe if we look back at the parable of the prodigal son again, we can come to grips with this parable about the shrewd, dishonest manager. In the case of the prodigal son, he threw himself at the mercy of his father, and his father graciously received him. In the case of the dishonest manager, he did not trust in his master’s mercy. Instead, he dealt shrewdly with him by misusing his master’s wealth to buy friends.

So in both the parable of the prodigal son and the parable of the shrewd manager, you have two people who are entrusted with the wealth of another and they both misuse that wealth. The prodigal son repents, but the shrewd manager does not.

You may be starting to see how this applies to us. For we all came into this world naked and with nothing to offer God or the world. Everything we have, we received. And the source of all the blessings we have is God Himself. For our parents before us, their parents, and our long line of ancestors all came into the world naked and with nothing either. Indeed, none of us even came into the world of our own accord. For we are all God’s creatures whom he created, clothes, feeds, and provides for. He is even so gracious as to provide for the unrighteous, “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).

God gives us life and blessings, and He calls us to acknowledge that we have received all things from Him, and then He calls us to use these blessings in ways that honor Him, so that we are not charged with “wasting his possessions.” God has charged us to have dominion over His creation, caring for it, and using in accordance with His will. We are to use the created gifts that He has given us, like money and possessions, in light of the recognition that they are part of God’s creation, just as we are. We are not to worship them or make them our gods by looking to them for all blessings and benefits; we are to remember that they come from God. All things are the Lord’s, but He has graciously allowed us free use of all things. He doesn’t charge us for the air we breathe or the sun and rain and soil which grows our crops. God graciously provides for us through His creation.

We often forget this fact, though, and act as if our wealth and possessions belong to us and are not rather entrusted to us by God.

And like the prodigal son and the dishonest manager, we often waste what has been entrusted to us. We use it for dishonest gain and fritter it away on things that will not last.

There are two possible responses to this realization. We can, like the prodigal son, throw ourselves at the mercy of our Heavenly Father, trusting in His grace and mercy. Or we can, like the dishonest manager, continue to act shrewdly and remain unrepentant. If we act in this manner, we have Jesus’ admonition and warning when he says, “… make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” Perhaps it takes someone with a sense of sarcasm to get the sense here, but what I think Jesus is saying is that, you’d better use your possessions to make friends here, because by despairing of your master’s grace and mercy they’re the only ones who are going to be able to provide you with some benefit; for although we often act as if our wealth can purchase us eternity, the “eternal dwelling” that we receive apart from faith and trust in God is hell.

Again, as Jesus says: “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters, for 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 God and money.”

The true riches are, as Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew, “the kingdom of God and His righteousness” and that which is our own is the inheritance of eternal life that God has promised us through His Son.

St. Paul writes about what God has in store for us in the opening words of his letter to the Ephesians. He speaks of God predestining us for adoption as His children through Christ and giving us an inheritance and sealing us with the Holy Spirit. This is the gift which is “our own.”

And this inheritance of which Paul speaks is the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting; it given to us through the free forgiveness of sins that God has gifted to us by Christ’s death and resurrection and received through faith. The Church, called together by God through the Holy Spirit in the waters of Baptism as His people, has this guarantee of our inheritance here and now. For we are the people God has called to be His own when He placed His Triune name upon us in our baptisms, when He gave us His promise of salvation – a promise that rests not on our works, merits, or shrewdness, but on His grace that He has freely bestowed upon us through His Son.

For the Church is where God has promised to be, where He has placed His name, and where the free forgiveness of sins is proclaimed. And as the Church, we have God’s guarantee that our inheritance is secure until Christ comes again to raise us from the dead and bring us into the Lord’s glorious presence on this restored earth to acquire the full possession of our inheritance. Despite all trials and tribulations in this world, despite all our struggles of body and soul and faith, despite even the death of our bodies, God keeps this inheritance secure for us until Christ returns.

For on that day, our Heavenly Father will raise us up and welcome us through Christ as beloved sons and daughters, and not as the shrewd, dishonest stewards that we often are. For like the prodigal son, although we are sinners, we are graciously forgiven of all our sins by God’s grace through faith in Christ and have become sons and daughters of light who are clothed in the robes of Christ’s righteousness that he won for us on the cross (cf. John 12:36).

I’ll end with St. Paul’s words to the church in Colossae:

“May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:11-14).

 

(Image is of an early Christian catacomb painting, showing Christ teaching. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=510313 )

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