Serve Your Master
Preached by Jason Abbott
In his commentary on Luke, theologian Leon Morris explains that this parable proves to be “notoriously one of the most difficult of all the parables to interpret.” 1 The main issue is that it seems the story Jesus tells here honors a financial manager who’s clearly dishonest. So, we worry: Is Jesus condoning shady business dealings? Is Jesus encouraging us to think of our own interests above the interests of others? Does this lesson contradict his other teachings? Let’s find out.
16 He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. 2 And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ 3 And the manager said 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. 4 I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ 7 Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ 8 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. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.
10 “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. 11 If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? 13 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.”
Well, I think we’ll find that Jesus’ parable is not at all contradictory to the rest of his teachings if we grasp two things: (1st) that characters don’t speak as the author but for the author, and (2nd) the point of this story is to teach that a servant or disciple will ultimately serve what he or she worships. Let’s look at each of these.
1. Characters don’t speak as the author (vv. 1-9).
You’ve doubtlessly read the preface for some editorial or letter to the editor saying something like this: “The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to its author, and not necessarily to his or her employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.” It’s a notice to the readers, making certain that they don’t mistake the author’s views for the publisher’s views. And, something like that can often be helpful for those reading stories too. I’ve found that many times those reading a novel or a short-story too quickly imagine that the main character represents the author—that the character’s views are the same as the author’s views. Yet, this is a dangerous assumption (as well as an impoverished reading strategy). Character’s rarely speak as the author. Instead, they speak for the author’s purposes; they serve as tools to make the author’s main point clear.
I think, consequently, that much of the consternation over this particular story occurs because we associate these less than admirable characters and their behavior with Jesus and, therefore, as somehow commendable by him.
Here’s how, I think, this might happen:
- We assume that the master in Christ’s little parable must represent God and that the servant must represent God’s disciple.
- We assume, thus, that the master’s praise of the servant is God’s approval of such behavior in his disciple.
- And, so, we wonder what we should do with this story from Jesus.
These, however, are clearly false conclusions if we consider what Jesus says about these characters at the end of his narrative. Look at his words in verse eight:
The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world [i.e. the master and servant] are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light [i.e. my disciples] (v. 8).
Obviously, the master and the servant are representatives, not of the kingdom of heaven, but, of the kingdom of this world. They are “sons of this world” (v. 8). Jesus is taking this example of how the world operates to teach his disciples a lesson. He is using a negative example to make a positive point.
Let me illustrate what I mean.
Since I have five children, I’ve read a ridiculous number of children’s books. And, when I was reflecting on this parable, one particular kid’s story came to mind; the book is entitled Tops and Bottoms; it’s by Janet Stevens. 2 The story line revolves around a rich and lazy bear who wants to sleep, and a poor and dishonest rabbit family that’s looking for food. The rabbits come up with a devious plan to farm bear’s land while keeping the food for themselves. In short, they promise bear that he can sleep as they do all the work—and that they’ll split the harvest down the middle with him. He can either choose the top half or the bottom half of the harvest.
When bear chooses the top half, the rabbits plant carrots, radishes, and beats; they give him the inedible top half and keep the edible bottom half for themselves. When bear sees what’s happened, he insists that the rabbits plant and harvest again, this time giving him the bottom half while they get the top. The rabbit family agrees but plants lettuce and broccoli and celery this time rather than carrots and radishes and beats. So, once again, the rabbits get the good and bear gets the bad. In the end, bear farms for himself, and the rabbit family has plenty to eat; but, there’s not trust between them and bear anymore. They’ve lost that! It’s a dark ending—but not one without a positive lesson for its audience.
See, Stevens isn’t telling kids to be lazy like bear, in fact, quite the opposite; and, she’s not telling kids to be dishonest like the rabbits since, if they live like that, they won’t make or keep too many friends. Instead, her story communicates a lesson that’s very positive; however, we’ll never glean her lesson by simplistically looking for a character in the story to copycat. Instead, we have to look beneath the surface of the story for the long-term benefits of hard work and honesty. We have to look for those and, then, apply them to our own situation.
This, friends, is precisely what Jesus wants us to do with his story.
Jesus isn’t telling us to be dishonest in managing whatever God has entrusted to us. And, he isn’t commending the behavior of this trickster manager or his master for that matter. Rather, he’s highlighting a principle of behavior and encouraging us to value it in terms of the kingdom of God and apply it to how we live here and now as we serve God in this fallen world. In this way, the shrewd manager and the master don’t speak as Jesus but for him—for his purposes.
But, what lesson or principle is Jesus asking us to learn and apply in his story about “the sons of this world” (v. 8)? What’s his purpose in telling it to his disciples? What characteristic from it must we engender?
Well, I think it’s essentially this:
2. A disciple will ultimately serve what he or she worships (vv. 10-13).
This seems to be Jesus’ point at the end of this text when he explains:
“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” (vv. 10-13).
Consider the dishonest manager. Was he faithful with his master’s finances? No! In fact, he sacrificed his master’s interests in the end to ensure his own interests. Since he’s been dishonest in those affairs, would it be wise to put him over more? No! He’ll likely do the very same thing. Moreover, would you make him a partner in the business? Would you make him a stakeholder? No! He wasn’t trustworthy when he managed what wasn’t his. It’d be foolhardy to give him ownership.
And, here’s something more important to consider. Who does he really serve? Who is truly this dishonest manager’s master? It isn’t his boss in this little parable, is it! Ultimately, the dishonest manager serves his own security and his own pleasure over everything else. He isn’t concerned with the master’s affairs first and foremost; he’s concerned with his own. What am I going to do? Aha! I know what I will do “so that…people may receive me into their houses” (v. 4). He’s all me, me, me.
But, what about the master in this parable? How does he stack up in the end? Well, he seems harsh and quick to judge. Accusations are made, and he fires the guy. There doesn’t seem to be a weighing of evidence or an opportunity for the manager to answer the charges against him. He’s simply called in to hear the master’s verdict: “What is this…I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager” (v. 2). It’s like an episode of Shark Tank.
And, what exactly should we make of the master’s response when he learns about the dishonest manger’s debt reduction scheme? Why does he commend him for it? This is hard for us to understand. And, a bunch of suggestions have been made but none with certainty. So, let me offer my own uncertain suggestion.
This is a dirty scene Jesus depicts. It’s a messy parable with messy characters. As Jesus makes clear, this is how “the sons of this world” behave and do business with one another. If this is what’s being depicted, the practices of two corrupt men as they pursue personal financial gain, then this commendation is perhaps just a nod of respect from one cutthroat businessman to another—like: Nice work; you got me this time. I’d have done the same if I were you. You see, the master’s approval here makes him complicit in the manager’s dishonesty. After all, only a dishonest master could congratulate his dishonest servant for pulling a fast one like this.
Friends, this is really a picture of worldly discipleship. And these two disciples serve their master well. They’re shrewd when it comes to using “unrighteous wealth” to obtain their self-interests—money, security, position, and power. They worship, with a singular focus, such things. These things rule over them. A harsh master!
Yet, Jesus is realistic. He knows these are things we’re all tempted to worship. He knows this struggle isn’t faraway but near to us. He knows we want more money. He knows we seek greater security. He knows we long for recognition and esteem. Jesus knows we desire power. Jesus knows we’re prone to regularly wander away from him in order to worship and serve such things.
What is it for you? What’s the siren song in your life?
As I look at the parable Jesus tells here, I think it’s meant to seem ugly to us. I think it’s meant to show the foolishness of pursuing and worshiping created things rather than the Creator of things. It’s supposed to show the devilish and harsh master they ultimately prove to be. And, then, to highlight the better Master!
When Natalie and I lived in Chicago, our pastor often repeated a little phrase: A text without a context is a pretext to say what you want to say. I like that saying. It’s so true. We cannot forget our context, or we will likely misunderstand our text. We will likely misunderstand this parable.
How does Luke frame this particular teaching from Jesus? He begins:
[Jesus] also said to the disciples… (v. 1).
This story is for his disciples, for his followers. Before this he’d been talking to pharisees and tax collectors and sinners as well as his disciples. And, do you recall what the main thrust of that teaching was about? Do you remember what the stories, before this story, all highlighted—the narratives of the lost sheep and the lost coin and the lost son? These three worked together to hammer home how utterly loving and gracious and celebratory God is when he finally has his lost children back again. No matter their waywardness and rebellion, he welcomes them and exalts over them. He treasures them when they return to him.
That was the point for all who would listen. But, now he’s talking to disciples. And, he tells this story about a harsh master and a dishonest servant. He tells a story about a distant, unattached lord and his selfish, rebellious disciple. What a contrast! In short, Jesus asks: Is this what you want?
- Do you want to serve an exacting master? Do you want to become this kind of self-serving disciple? Do you want to be a child of this world (v. 8)?
- Do you want to serve a gentle master? Do you want to be a loved disciple? Do you want to be a child of light (v. 8)?
He tells them and us—You can only serve one master. You can’t worship two. Jesus makes this clear. And the master we choose will determine how we’ll live now. If we choose to be children of this world, then we’ll use whatever we’ve been given for our own self-worship. However, if we choose to be children of light, we’ll use whatever we have to bring glory and honor and praise to our Creator who loves us and sacrificed himself for our salvation; and, who graciously and joyously welcomes us back—no matter what we’ve done—when we turn and trust Christ.