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. Luke 16:9

Can’t Buy Me Love

We’ve been exploring the “hard sayings” of Jesus through a series of blog posts because, frankly, sometimes Jesus doesn’t sound very Christlike. Did Jesus advise His followers to “buy” their friends—their favor and their love. In modern times we criticize those who “buy” their friends. You can probably hear the wisdom in the hook from the Beatles’ 1964 hit song contradicting Jesus:

Cause I don’t care too much for money
But money can’t buy me love
Can’t buy me love, love
Can’t buy me love, oh

Does Jesus want us to buy love?

What seems even more problematic is that Jesus would commend getting ahead by means of “unrighteous wealth,” when plenty of the Bible seems to denounce making money by aggressive business practices such as lending at interest (e.g. Ez 18:7-8). Is Jesus proposing using sharp financial practices to get ourselves out of difficulties? The problem is made worse in some of the usual translations of Luke 16:9, which appear on the surface to say that you can buy your way into heaven.

Misunderstood, Jesus sounds more like a messianic version of Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko, than the One who brings the kingdom of heaven to earth.

Widening the Lens

Jesus told this parable, recorded in Luke 16:

1 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.

The story centers on a manager, or steward of accounts, who is fired but has the boldness to forgive at least some of the debt owed his master. This is followed by praise from the master rooted in the steward’s use of money in crisis. The steward is dishonest but celebrated for his shrewdness. Shrewd people have the ability to find and pursue the most advantageous course of action. Sometimes this ability is at the cost of moral compromise. But at its root, shrewdness is a desirable thing like being perceptive and wise.

Jesus then contrasts the “sons of this world” and the “sons of light”— seemingly to point out how streetwise people are smarter in regard to surviving on their wits than law-keeping citizens. This too is odd. What could it possibly all mean?

Jesus’ parables contain images which typically are consistent across all His parables. N. T. Wright describes the imagery of this parable: “If we were faced with a first-century Jewish story we’d never seen before, about a master and a steward, we should know at once what it was most likely about. The master is God; the steward is Israel.”

In this parable, as in many others, Israel is supposed to be God’s wise property-manager. God has set Israel over all His “possessions” and accountable to Him, and their role is to be the light of God’s world. But Israel has failed in the task, and is under threat of imminent removal. What then ought Israel to do?

The answer which Jesus gives His disciples is that the people of God ought to change their ways. It is so often the case that when a way of life is challenged, religious people build boundary walls higher, pull tighter on their religious regulations, and even get stingier in their spiritual practices.

To combat this tendency, Jesus told a provocative parable of a dishonest manager who carved out his survival with street smarts, who didn’t tighten up but instead did some unconventional thinking, looked for extra angles, acted with chutzpah, and in a sense risked it all now for his future. Remember, the manager wasn’t praised for his dishonesty, but his shrewdness.

First century disciples would’ve likely heard something like: “Don’t hoard your money and land but use it. Don’t exclude the very people Jesus is trying to reach by heaping up regulations and tightening your purse strings. Instead, widen your ‘friends’ and your influence in the world through your generosity. Be generous with your money. Be generous with your light.”

Strangers Becoming Friends and Heaven Being Pleased

When we apply parables in modern times we aren’t meant to allegorize and analyze them to death. It is in their simplicity that parables have the most profound impact. Jesus, perhaps, referred to wealth as “unrighteous wealth” because monetary resources possess a power to distort our values. Instead resources should be put to use in a manner that will be applauded by the Master—generosity and service—so that strangers and the needy might become friends and heaven will be pleased.

The parable is applicable beyond what we do with out material resources. Are we shrewd in all matters of the kingdom? Faced with the decline of the influence of the church in the West—a crisis for sure—is the answer to build boundary walls higher, pull tighter on our religious regulations, and get stingier in our spiritual practices.  Or is there a way to reassess what matters and what doesn’t in regard to our mission, service, and unity with other Christians? Do we have a call to a new kind of chutzpah and risking it all, rather than camping out in security, for the sake of Christ in the world?

Eugene Peterson’s translation of Luke 16:8-9 seems to get at well: “Now here’s a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.”