The myth of the self-made man (Luke 16:1-8)

So recently I saw someone post an image to Facebook that described how to understand basic things from medicine and chemistry in the event that you’ve gone back in time somehow.  It’s a joke, obviously, but it raises a simple point: if you were to be stripped of all modern convenience, could you single-handedly reinvent things like the light bulb?  Penicillin?  The internet?  There’s no such thing as a “self-made man.”  Frankly I can’t explain how half the stuff works in my apartment—let alone be able to reinvent them.  No; our greatest creative achievements are only built on the achievements of others.  And if we take it back far enough, we see that all—all—of man’s inventions are utterly dependent on the world that God alone created.

It’s only a profound delusion that we “keep the books,” making sure that the ledger shows just what we’ve been able to accomplish on our own.  But sometimes this is not enough, as the manager in Jesus’ parable reveals:

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. (Luke 16:1-8)

There’s a reason why this parable is considered the hardest one Jesus ever taught.  What’s happening here?  Well, first of all, a manager was someone hired by a wealthy man to manage his estate—an accountant with the “power of attorney,” able to make decisions on behalf of his boss.  But the manager seems to be acting contrary to his boss’s best interests.  How can he lower the bill like that?  There are three ways that this might happen:

  • He might be cooking the books. He might be totally shady, and undercutting his boss is the only way he can preserve his reputation among the debtors, on whom he might later rely.
  • As a manager, he would be entitled to a commission. He might be knocking off his own commission to ensure his boss got the money he deserved.
  • As a manager, he would also be legally permitted to alter the bills as he saw necessary. Perhaps by lowering the costs, he could expedite the payment rather than wait for the debtors to accumulate a higher sum.

It’s unlikely that Jesus would praise him for being shady, so we might toss out the first option.  The manager might be doing a combination of the other options.  The bottom line is, he’s managing the estate in such a way that preserves the master’s reputation.

Our stewardship is like this, because like the manager we don’t worry about taking our “commission,” but instead we see our finances as a gift from God for the betterment of our relationships and our community.

This is actually a universal principle—it’s what we might see as a fragment of God’s image still alive within us.  In 2006, Michael Norton of Harvard Business School gave a talk where he discussed how a similar principle worked on a college campus in Canada.  They asked random students how happy they were, then gave them an envelope containing between five and twenty dollars.  One group was instructed to spend the money on themselves.  A second group was instructed to spend the money on other people.  They re-interviewed these same students later and—surprise, surprise—the students who spent money on others were significantly happier than those who spent it on themselves.

“…if you give [college students] five dollars, it looks like coffee to them and they run over to Starbucks and spend it as fast as they can. But some people bought a coffee for themselves, the way they usually would, but other people said that they bought a coffee for somebody else. So the very same purchase, just targeted toward yourself or targeted toward somebody else. What did we find when we called them back at the end of the day? People who spent money on other people got happier. People who spent money on themselves, nothing happened. It didn’t make them less happy, it just didn’t do much for them. And the other thing we saw is the amount of money doesn’t matter that much. So people thought that 20 dollars would be way better than five dollars. In fact, it doesn’t matter how much money you spent. What really matters is that you spent it on somebody else rather than on yourself. We see this again and again when we give people money to spend on other people instead of on themselves.” (Michael Norton, TED Talk: “How to Buy Happiness,” April, 2006)

The gospel tells us that we find joy in using God’s resources for God’s Kingdom rather than build our own private empire.  And because our time, our money, our relationships are all gifts from God, we may use them for others without fear of losing what we never truly earned to begin with.

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One thought on “The myth of the self-made man (Luke 16:1-8)

  1. I don’t have a spiritual thought here, but I think he was most likely motivated, as the text says, to have places to stay when he loses his job.

    On the other hand, maybe the way he was going about it, had some perceived ancillary benefit to the owner that we didn’t pick up.

    One thought is that the manager could have been responsible for keeping up with “Account recievables”. It may not have reflected well on the manager that he did so poorly in making people “pay up”. By slicing a third or so off the accounts receivable ledger maybe it made the manager look like he wasn’t letting as much debt go uncollected.
    I am not confident with that analysis, but maybe it could be true. Toss this into the hypothesis category.

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