Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Are you ready for retirement?

There's an interesting parable that many people find difficult to understand.  I was fortunate to have a priest explain it to me.  It's often called the parable of the dishonest manager or crafty steward (Luke 16:1-8).  Let's read it:

Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.”

Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.”

And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

On the surface, the story isn't too hard to understand: The manager wants to make friends and build "connections" so that he can receive favours in return
after he gets sacked. But Jesus' parables also have a spiritual meaning. So what is he trying to say?

Notice how the master commended the dishonest manager for acting shrewdly. Jesus is teaching us that there's nothing sinful in recognizing the skills of a person acting dishonestly. In that spirit, we could also say that Osama bin Laden is very intelligent for having orchestrated various terrorist attacks and eluding authorities, even though we abhor the acts that his underlings carried out.

But didn't the master lose money because of the manager's actions to make friends? No. In Palestine, the manager was not paid directly by the master. His income was derived by charging a "profit margin" or fee in addition to what was owed to the master. So in the current example, the first person probably owed the master only 50 jugs of oil, the remainder being the manager's profit. So by telling the man to only repay 50 jugs, the manager was forfeiting his own income without depriving his master of anything. Likewise for the second guy. That's one reason why the master commended him.

But there's a more profound spiritual lesson here. Jesus is illustrating how worldly people are successful at planning for their future in material terms. He wants us to do the same in planning for eternal life, which starts after we get "sacked" from this life. Are we making good use of worldly goods in order serve God and amass treasures in Heaven? Do we act in such a way as to improve our odds of being saved? Are you preparing for the day when you checkout of this life?