The Shrewd Manager and the Prodigal Son (Luke 16:1-13; 15:11-32)
The Parable of the Shrewd Manager (Luke 16:1-13)
The key to security about the things we need is not anxious earning and saving, but trustworthy service and spending. If God can trust us to spend our money to meet the needs of others, then the money we ourselves need will also be provided. This is the point of the parable of the dishonest manager. In it, a manager squanders his master’s property and, as a result, is notified he will be fired. He uses his last days on the job to defraud his master further, but there is a strange twist to how he does it. He does not try to steal from his master. Perhaps he knows it will be impossible to take anything with him when he leaves the estate. Instead, he fraudulently reduces the debts of his masters’ debtors, hoping that they will reciprocate the favor and provide for him when he is unemployed.
Like the dishonest manager, we cannot take anything with us when we depart this life. Even during this life our savings can be destroyed by hyperinflation, market crashes, theft, confiscation, lawsuits, war, and natural disaster. Therefore, building up large savings offers no real security. Instead, we should spend our wealth to provide for other people, and depend on them to do the same for us when the need arises. “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” (Luke 16:9, NRSV footnote b). By providing for his master’s debtors, the dishonest steward is creating friendships. Mutual fraud is probably not the best way to build relationships. But apparently it is better than not building relationships at all. Building relationships is far more effective for gaining security than building wealth is. The word eternal signifies that good relationships help us in times of trouble in this life, and they will also endure into eternal life.
An extreme example of this principle occurs whenever war, terror, or disaster destroys the economic fabric of society. In a refugee camp, a prison, or a hyperinflated economy, the wealth you formerly may have had cannot procure even a crust of bread. But if you have provided for others, you may find them providing for you in your most difficult hour. Note that the people the dishonest manager helps are not wealthy people. They are debtors. The dishonest manager is not depending on their riches but on the relationship of mutual dependence has built with them.
Yet Jesus is not saying to depend on the fickle sentiments of people you may have helped over the years. The story turns quickly from the debtors to the master in the story (Luke 16:8), and Jesus endorses the master’s maxim, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much” (Luke 16:10). This points to God as the guarantor that using money for relationships will lead to lasting security. When you build good relationships with other people, you come to have a good relationship with God. Jesus does not say which matters more to God, the generosity to the poor or the good relationships with people. Perhaps it is both. “If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” (Luke 16:11). True riches are good relationships with people founded on our mutual adoption as God’s children, and a good relationship with God is realized in generosity to the poor. Good relationships produce good fruit, which gives us greater ability to build good relationships and be generous to others. If God can trust you to be generous with a little bit of money and use it build good relationships, he will be able to entrust you with greater resources.
This suggests that if you do not have enough savings to feel secure, the answer is not trying to save more. Instead, spend the little you have on generosity or hospitality. Other people's responses to your generosity and hospitality may bring you more security than saving more money would. Needless to say, this should be done wisely, in ways that truly benefit others, and not merely to assuage your conscience or flatter people targeted as future benefactors. In any case, your ultimate security is in God’s generosity and hospitality.
Echoes of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)
This may be surprising financial advice: Don’t save, but spend what you have to draw closer to other people. Notice, however, that it comes immediately after the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). In that story, the younger son wastes his entire fortune, while the older son saves his money so frugally that he can’t even entertain his closest friends (Luke 16:29). The younger son’s profligacy leads to ruin. Yet his squandering of the wealth leads him to turn to his father in utter dependence. The father’s joy over having him back washes away any negative feelings he has about the son costing him half a fortune. By contrast, the older son’s firm grasp on what’s left of the family’s wealth turns him away from a close relationship with his father.
In the stories of both the dishonest manager and the prodigal son, Jesus does not say that wealth is inherently bad. Rather, he says that the proper use of wealth is to spend it, preferably on God’s purposes—but if not that, then on things that will increase our dependence on God.