The Shrewdness of the Sons of Light

Luke LI: Lk. 16:1-18

This is one of the more challenging portions of the book of Luke, with somewhat differing interpretations in the history of the church. But the central point is about loyalty to God and how that drives the right kind of wise and generous love of the world.

Summary of the Text: This chapter begins with a parable told to the disciples about a shrewd manager who was charged with wasting his master’s possessions (Lk. 16:1). The master requires the manager to turn in his account and tells him that he is losing his job (Lk. 16:2). Realizing his only options will be manual labor or begging, he determines to make friends with his master’s debtors (Lk. 16:3-4). So he summons his master’s debtors and forgives enormous portions of their debts, each totaling over a years’ worth of wages for an average worker (Lk. 16:5-7). And when word reaches the master, he commends the manager for his shrewdness (Lk. 16:8). Jesus says that the sons of this world tend to be more shrewd than the sons of light, but his disciples need to imitate this shrewdness and make friends by means of wealth (Lk. 16:9). Jesus then summarizes the point laced with wordplay: he who is faithful in little will be faithful in much, likewise those who are unjust in little – the implication would seem to suggest a further commendation of the “unjust manager,” and having been “faithful” in another’s is setting himself up to be granted his own (Lk. 16:10-12). And again, Jesus plays with the word “master,” suggesting that God should be seen as the ultimate master in the parable (Lk. 16:13). The Pharisees mock Jesus for his view of money, but Jesus says that what they value is an abomination in the sight of God (Lk. 16:14-15). Finally, Jesus insists that the Kingdom He is preaching is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, and not one dot will become void, including God’s prohibition of divorce, remarriage, and adultery (Lk. 16:16-18).

Israel’s Abominations
I believe a key to understanding the parable is the rather cryptic statement at the end of this section about divorce, remarriage, and adultery and the accusation that the Pharisees are committing abominations (Lk. 16:18). Jesus is clearly concerned about faithfulness and loyalty to God in the heart and insists that what is exalted among men is actually an abomination in the sight of God (Lk. 16:10-15). An abomination is something detestable to God: sodomy (Lev. 18:22), the silver and gold of idols (Dt. 7:25), child sacrifice, sorcery, fortune telling (Dt. 18:10-12), cross dressing (Dt. 22:5) – the common thread being the detestable practices of the nations. One of those detestable practices included a divorced woman returning to her former husband after being remarried to another man – probably as a moneymaking scheme (Dt. 24:4). Abominations are not merely detestable to God, but they bring sin upon the land of Israel, they have a polluting effect (Dt. 24:4). Jeremiah picks up on this particular law: “If a man divorces his wife and she goes from him and becomes another man’s wife, will he return to her? Would not that land be greatly polluted? You have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me? Declares the Lord” (Jer. 3:1). “[Judah] saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense, declares the Lord. And the Lord said to me, ‘Faithless Israel has shown herself more righteous than treacherous Judah” (Jer. 3:8-11). To the extent that faithless Israel honestly returned to the Lord in repentance, they are more righteous than treacherous Judah who only returned in pretense, without repentance (Jer. 3:5) — and that presumptuous treachery is an abomination that defiles the land.

The Generous Master
In the parable, the manager has been charged with “wasting” the master’s possessions, just like the younger son “wasted” the father’s inheritance (Lk. 15:13, 16:1). The thing that caused the younger son to come to his senses was his realization of his father’s generosity – even his “hired servants have more than enough bread” (Lk. 15:17). The unjust manager comes to a similar conclusion: he’s hopeful that the debtors will be merciful and receive him into their homes if he gets fired, but he’s banking on the generosity of his master by forgiving their debts and making his master look like a generous man. It’s a very gutsy move, and the master commends him for it, which confirms that he is a very generous man. It pleases him for his manager to magnify his generosity. This master is a picture of God, and the manager represents Israel. In the Old Covenant, God had promised that Israel would lend to the nations and not borrow, they would rule over the nations and not be ruled over (Dt. 15:6). Jesus is saying that the disciples should lead Israel to forgive the debts of the nations/tax collectors/Samaritans because their Master is a generous and merciful God. Luke says that the Pharisees mocked Jesus because they were lovers of money (Lk. 16:14). To them, money was a sign of God’s covenant blessings – why should they have to choose between God and money? But Jesus says that God knows their hearts, whether they are seeking to be justified by God or man (Lk. 16:15). There is a gaping chasm between the man who serves God with his wealth and the man who serves his wealth in the name of God (Lk. 16:13). Much of what passes for worldly success is an abomination to God because it was gotten by adultery — and that greatly pollutes the land (Lk. 16:15-18).

James says, “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” (Js. 4:4) When getting that college degree, how many times have you looked the other way when lies and sin were being exalted? When pursuing that career, how many times have you sacrificed your marriage and children on that altar? When choosing that clothing, that hairstyle, that piercing, is it the love of God driving it? Or is it the fear of man? That compromise and fear is an abomination and it pollutes the people of God. But Jesus also says to “make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings” (Lk. 16:9). What’s the difference? The difference is who your master is. If your master is God, the generous Father of our Lord Jesus, then you can live in true freedom and authority toward the world. If your master is security, then you live in fear, and you are actually in debt and they are ruling over you. Perhaps the central mystery of the parable is still: Why does the master commend the manager? And if nothing else, that same question should rest heavy on our souls: Why have we been forgiven and accepted by God? Why have we been commended by God? The shame and guilt of our treachery, of our wasting our inheritance ought to weigh heavy on our hearts right alongside the absolute glory of Jesus standing in our place, paying the debt we could never pay. If you know the Father has been infinitely generous with you, then you are free to confront sin and forgive the sins around you and build the Kingdom in that true gospel grace.

  1. Nate May 31

    Appreciate this. Tough passage.

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