In parts 5 and 6 we looked at the elements of the parable of the Shrewd Manager, as they would have been understood by the original audience…
So how does Jesus interpret the parable?
Jesus’ conclusion has two parts and neither of them are particularly unambiguous. In verse 8b “the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light” he seems to be indicating that the rich and powerful will always be more calculating, more devious and more crafty in protecting their privileged positions than those who are seeking to live in a simpler and more honest way of life. The language of “sons of this age” and sons of light” is somewhat unusual in the NT, but is quite clearly analogous to many other instances of Kingdom theology which is expressed in terms of light / darkness, this-age / the-age-to-come and rebirth into a new sonship (c.f. many references in the synoptics, the fourth gospel and the Pauline and pseudepigraphical apostolic epistles). He is perhaps alluding to the fact that the poor need to be a bit sharper in their understanding of how the world works against their interests. Their present woes are not the result of bad luck, or divine judgement, or ancestral sin – their predicament is the direct result of the decisions of some pretty smart men, who are not going to change that situation in a hurry as its working quite well for them. This prophetic critique of the systems of money and power in society is taken up in Paul’s discussion of the principalities and powers, in which the church’s call to engage with the powers cannot take place until they have been named for what they are and unmasked of their pretensions. Christians, inspired by the Spirit of God, should be those who really know what is going on in the world, and understand hidden, sometimes subtle, workings of power, influence, exploitation and domination. We are called to be innocent of our involvement in the domination system, but not naïve of our understanding of it.
In verse 9 he goes on to say “make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it fails, they will receive you into the eternal dwellings” (NASB) or “use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (NIV).I have heard this conclusion interpreted in a variety of fantastical ways, from building up social capital among the future residents of Heaven, to mandating spending money on evangelistic projects as a means of securing a better eternal reward. It has also been read as a simple teaching on the value of Christian generosity and hospitality, either as a value for its own sake or as a means of making evangelistic friendship.
I think a reading of this verse in the context of the story that proceeds it, and for that matter in the wider context of Luke’s Gospel, calls for a much more this-worldly and “now” interpretation of its conclusion. We should also bear in mind the mixed audience of Pharisees, tax collectors, “sinners” and Jesus’ own followers in the saying’s audience. Leaving aside for a minute the disciples, who have already given up “this life” for the sake of the Kingdom (Luke 18:28), what might Jesus’ challenge to the tax collectors, Pharisees and “sinners” have been? The restitution of Zacchaeus – “half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.” Luke 19:8, or perhaps the gospel challenge presented to the rich young man of Luke 18:22 “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me”. They would have certainly expected no less a challenging message than the kerygma of John the Baptist, who said to tax collectors “Don’t collect any more than you are required to” (Luke 3:12) and to soldiers “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay” (Luke 3:13). If we stay with the writer Luke we might look at the post resurrection community of the early church, who in answer to the teaching of the apostles “had all things common and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need” (Acts 2:44b-45).
Could the tax collectors and Pharisees have heard Jesus saying something like this? If you are going to enter the Kingdom of God – which is available to you right now – then you have known me well enough by now that it will mean giving up all of the proceeds of this system of injustice that you have acquired. So if you are going to dispose of all that wealth, then you may as well gain some friends in the process (or more accurately repair some broken relationships that your participation in the domination system has damaged). And if you do that then you will restore your own access to the practice of hospitality in the community.
Such a reading will necessarily raise a question about free grace, and the initiative of God in salvation. Jesus makes is clear that his “yoke is easy and his burden is light” (Matt 11:30) and Paul insists that no “works” are required in order to be rescued (Ephesians 2:8-9 and others). Does the idea that salvation is completely free contradict the principle of restitution? I don’t think it does. Suppose a notorious bank robber has accumulated £3,000,000 of swag through his career of armed robbery. On his last job one of his hostages powerfully witnesses the story of Jesus to him in the power of the Spirit. He is moved at the core of his being and profoundly responds to the gospel. We can throw in a “sinner’s prayer” if you like. Is his salvation, in the words of the hymn, “immense and free”? Yes, most certainly. Will it cost him nearly all his ill-gotten savings and possibly his liberty too? Yes, I think most Christians would concur.
In our next instalment we look at how the early church understood Jesus teaching in this area…