This parable is often considered as difficult to understand, & that is because we expect Christ’s parables to explicitly instruct us towards morality. But the Savior never veiled His moral imperatives in the parable’s inner sanctum- the metaphorical “Holy of Holies” of His teachings; instead He always chose to clearly teach essential righteousness in the outer court, so all could hear & none could contend ignorance in the day of judgment (e.g. Matt. 5).
Yes, as we have seen before (Matt. 13:10-17), the parable is meant only for the initiated- the children gifted with “ears to hear” by the Spirit of God. The parable’s goal, then, is to teach those already in the kingdom, the principles behind abundant life in the kingdom; not the basic nature of right & wrong, of which they would already have awareness of, & be repentant towards.
Christ used situations relatable to His chosen audience- thus the abundance of fishing, farming, & construction similes to His more often blue-collar converts. Most farmers then, as now, could scarcely afford to purchase a large tract of arable land outright; so the commoners had a concept of dealing with wealthy land owners through their managers. In addition, His “hearers” certainly lived in a depraved world filled with self-serving people, so surely they could apprehend the character of this dishonest manager who cared for no one greater than himself. Maybe they could even recall from their own past similar lowly virtues, & so be particularly convicted; they may therefore recall their prior high motivations for the short-term worldly reward having driven them to act shrewdly to gain such a prize. Therefore, with regards to this parable, the issue at hand is the Christian’s sometimes spiritual lethargy, wherein his abiding in Christ’s salvation never amounts to anything more than slothful slumber. This insolent spiritual dolt only gets out of bed to partake of eat his Master’s food; he enjoys all the comforts of such an extraordinary abode, but gives nothing in return. He won’t know what he’s got until it’s gone. Act shrewdly instead, my friend, in accordance with what you know & responding with all due diligence, for God knows how to deal with the lazy & insolent of His household (1Cor. 5:5)
Christ has already accomplished all that we need to have done for us to enter in to His kingdom. This parable, then, is not instructing us to use “wealth” to make friends so as to enable us to enter into His kingdom, but to actively, wisely, & “shrewdly” use all that God has put at our disposal to enable others to enter in & prosper. And because we are one body in the Lord, when one prospers, all prosper.
Philippians 3:8-16 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ (9) and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith- (10) that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, (11) that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (12) Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (13) Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, (14) I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (15) Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. (16) Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
What goal is Paul calling us to press on with him towards in this passage? Certainly not the elementary foundation of being saved, for that he establishes that he already has through faith in Christ (v. 9). It is despite his inactivity, even more so because of his inactivity in this regard, vis-à-vis the complete comprehensiveness of Christ’s salvation, that impels him forward towards the goal, “the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul stated earlier in this epistle that his continuing to live in the flesh meant “fruitful labor” for him, & he then specifically identifies this labor to be the continuing growth of the Philippians in Christ (1:21-23). He was torn; he wanted to go home to Christ, but yet he knows his work establishing his Philippian “friends” was not yet complete. He then states he wishes to stay for this purpose. Paul knew he still had spiritual capital that needed to be spent “buying” his friends’ eternal rewards. So it is because his his life is focused & his aim is singular upon this "goal" that he counts anything that does not enable it as "rubbish"; likewise anything that does enable it would be treasured as great "wealth". Oh, if the average Christian had only a tenth of Paul's focus upon a goal of like manner!
And the Philippians' rewards would pay dividends towards Paul's eternal reward as well, thus the fruit of his labor & his prize. It was a sort of “forever Facebook” account Paul was building up that he believed, in faith, would pay off in the Kingdom to come.
What’s more, Paul’s (and many other’s) “friends” list continues growing to this day. Every time someone uses the apostle’s words to mature someone in Christ, Paul’s account gains more “friends” for eternity. How’s that for some serious cha-ching, baby? (sorry, it’s March Madness) Be like Paul & “shrewdly” use all your short-term capital (physical & spiritual) to bank up your long-term reward.
Because there seems to be so much head scratching consternation about this parable, allow me to sum up & make the point of it explicitly clear. The manager was given a vision of his future in this world & was blessed for "shrewdly" taking hold of this vision & making preparation for it. Jesus desires that the Christian act similarly- in faith, "shrewdly" grasp the certainty of your destination in Heaven & likewise begin to make preparation for it. You have been made aware of your future. You know where you are going. Now wisely deal with that knowledge with the things you possess right now.
1 Corinthians 3:1-23 But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. (2) I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, (3) for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? (4) For when one says, "I follow Paul," and another, "I follow Apollos," are you not being merely human? (5) What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. (6) I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. (7) So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (8) He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. (9) For we are God's fellow workers. You are God's field, God's building. (10) According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. (11) For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. (12) Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw- (13) each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. (14) If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. (15) If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (16) Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? (17) If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple. (18) Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. (19) For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, "He catches the wise in their craftiness," (20) and again, "The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile." (21) So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, (22) whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future--all are yours, (23) and you are Christ's, and Christ is God's.
The immaturity of the Corinthians at the time of Paul's first letter to them was made evident by the use of their gifts in a worldly & fleshly fashion (1 Cor. 12-14). They were not using their present knowledge & gifting towards their future account in Heaven, but instead ignorantly & foolishly spending their treasure in the present to please the fading flesh. Suppose you did a family budget & found a $500 monthly surplus. You could giddily take that blessing & spend it on passing pleasures every month- high class dining & entertainment or a new car when the old one still runs good enough. Or you could, more prudently, take it & invest it towards your future. How many shrewd investors were mocked when they gave up their hard-earned capital to have a stake in an unknown retailer's IPO in 1970? But time has revealed their wisdom, as a relatively paltry $1000 investment in Wal-Mart at that time would net you multiple millions today.
Paul expresses great dismay over the Corinthians' wasting the treasure of their spiritual gifts; as they spend their reward- in the flesh, so accordingly they gain- only in the flesh. Such practice bears no lasting fruit & if not repented of, will result in their having "believed in vain" (1 Cor.15:2). As Jesus said concerning the fleshly person's vain public prayers "They have (already) received their reward". (Matt 6:2)
1 Corinthians 9:7-27 Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk? (8) Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? (9) For it is written in the Law of Moses, "You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain." Is it for oxen that God is concerned? (10) Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. (11) If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? (12) If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more? Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. (13) Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? (14) In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. (15) But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. (16) For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! (17) For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. (18) What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. (19) For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. (20) To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. (21) To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. (22) To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. (23) I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (24) Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. (25) Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. (26) So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. (27) But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
The Lord is fair far beyond measure in all His dealings. Though He has already given us a gift of inestimable worth in the cross of Christ, He does not desire that we should now work as though to "pay back", in any way, that precious gift. See, that would diminish the value of the gift, & God will not have the glory of the Son's work devalued in any way- especially by the works of man, which would cloud the very important dividing line between the necessities of His work & our work, Between His cross & our cross. No, like Ornan the Jebusite's threshing floor, sacred things have a price (1Chron. 21:24), & nothing is more sacred to God than the work of His Son on the cross. That is why He adds heavenly rewards for our labor in His kingdom to His central & foundational gift of His justification, to demonstrate that such a gift stands apart & stands alone, separate from any work of mankind.
If all we have gained in Christ for eternity is a ticket to Heaven for ourselves, then we have accomplished nothingwith all the wealth of worldly gain & special abilities that God has lavished upon us; to say nothing of the wealth of mercy, grace, & love God has also poured out upon us- for again, it is Christ alone who gained that pitiful, lonesome ticket for us. God has poured out a wealth of His common grace & His special grace upon us; what have we done with such bountiful blessings? To accomplish nothing with so great a salvation… well let’s just hear & be pressed on by the letter to the Hebrews…
Hebrews 2:1-4 Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. (2) For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, (3) how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, (4) while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.
In the south, we have a saying- "When you think you got it made in the shade, ya better watch out that the tree don't fall down on you."
And consider this kindred to the parable of the “shrewd manager” as well…
Matthew 25:14-30 "For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. (15) To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. (16) He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. (17) So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. (18) But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master's money. (19) Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. (20) And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, 'Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.' (21) His master said to him, 'Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.' (22) And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, 'Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.' (23) His master said to him, 'Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.' (24) He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, 'Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, (25) so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' (26) But his master answered him, 'You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? (27) Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. (28) So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. (29) For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. (30) And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.