In Luke 16:1-9 Jesus tells the story of a financial manager about to lose his job for squandering his rich boss’s finances. So the manager cooks up a plan that will either make his boss want to keep him, or that will attract other people to hire him if he’s fired.
So he contacts those in debt to the rich man and offers them a 20 to 50 per cent reduction in their payment – if, that is, they pay up immediately. They all happily pay up, so before his boss actually fires him the manager is able to stride into his boss’s office with a chunk of paid bills – not the complete amount paid, but it proved he could do a good job of managing money after all, and it saved his boss having to chase people to pay their debts too.
The boss is impressed with his manager’s understanding of people, and for using it to make everyone “eternally grateful” to him (verse 9), including the boss himself. And it proved that even though the manager had made a mess of things he could actually be trusted. He’d allowed himself to veer off course, yes, but given the chance he’d got himself back on track. In other words, his heart was in the right place, he really did want to serve his boss, and here was the proof of it, even if it was partly about saving his own skin too.
The Pharisees listening in sneered, however, which is ironic because they too had veered off course in their management of God’s riches, like his law, which they‘d turned into a benefit for themselves in power and money (verse 14). They’d also added so many unnecessary extras to the law that it had become a burden to people driving them away from God rather than to him, which, according to Jesus, had made people “twice as much a son of hell as you (teachers of the law and Pharisees) are,” Matthew 23:2 and 15.
So in Matthew 23:33 Jesus threatens them with dire consequences (“How will you escape being condemned to hell?”), just as the rich man threatened his manager with the loss of his job. What, then, should the Pharisees have done, or could they have done, not only to save their own skins, but to come up with a solution that would make everyone “eternally grateful” to them, including God?
Well, they could’ve taken a leaf out of Jesus’ story in Luke 16. They could have used their obvious skill at influencing people to convince their fellow Jews to listen to Jesus, because Jesus was all about forgiveness of sins and lifting the burdens off people, and imagine how eternally grateful people who felt so weighed down and guilty would have been to the Pharisees for doing that. How utterly stupid the Pharisees were, then, because in not doing that they would lose all the power and money they held so dear (Matthew 23:38).
But turning people to Jesus would require a heart in the right place, of serving God and their fellow Jews, which the Pharisees and teachers of the law didn’t have, made obvious by their response to Jesus’ story. They couldn’t even see the value of the rich man’s manager using his skill at influencing people to turn the loss of his job into something everyone appreciated him for.
It made me think of the people in my life who made me eternally grateful to them for making the gospel message so attractive in its lifting of burdens off me, that drew me to God and not away from him. I think of the people who very cleverly knew how to get through to me, and used their skill (like Nathan did with David in helping him repent in 2 Samuel 12:1-13) to get me on the right track when I was veering off course.
And isn’t that the skill we all need as Christians in the presentation of the gospel, that we’re “as wise as serpents, but harmless as doves,” Matthew 10:16? Wouldn’t you love to hear someone say to you, “Am I ever glad you got to me the way you did, and stopped me heading off in the wrong direction,” as in James 5:19-20. It takes a shrewd understanding of what makes people tick and knowing what will get through to them, but that’s exactly what Jesus was getting at in Luke 16.
In other words, how can we present the true gospel in such a way that people cannot resist it, that also makes them eternally grateful to us for knowing how to get through to people, and using our skill for their benefit? It’s like Jesus said in Luke 16, that a little shrewdness has its uses too.