Jesus used parables to illustrate certain truths about ‘the kingdom of heaven’ – that is, the sphere of God’s power and authority in the world, which, as it is extended, brings light to those living in darkness, freedom to those held captive by the oppression of sin and tyranny of death.
We tend to be most familiar with those parables that drew on agricultural images – the sowing of crops, the shepherding of sheep – which is perhaps ironic given that most of us live in urban contexts to which such images are alien. But Jesus used other images, too, including the world of business, of commerce, of financial investment: urban images.
[My observation is that many missionally-minded Christians are uncomfortable with such parables, because they do not see mega-church models, or prosperity doctrines, or the use of business models applied to church leadership as being compatible with the model of Jesus’ ministry. But Jesus employs so many investment parables that we cannot ignore them: though we might well want to reject certain interpretations, we need to wrestle with our own understanding of what Jesus is getting at.]
The parable of the bags of gold (Matthew 25:14-30) reveals to us that God has invested in us, and expects a return on his investment (a return which he then re-invests in us, for even greater return).
The parable of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1-15) is one of Jesus’ most misunderstood, because we tend to read it as condoning stealing from one’s employer - which would contradict the commandment ‘do not steal’ - and we get in a tangle trying to reconcile the parable with the law. But parables are not ethical commands, concerned with how to live. Parables are a much more wasteful use of words, generously creating pictures that show us what to live for. Jesus wasn’t instructing his hearers to steal from their employers, any more than he was instructing people to go digging in a field for buried treasure, or sell everything to buy a pearl (other parables of investment...in fact, there are many: the parable of the wise and foolish builders; the parable of the rich fool; the parable of the lost coin...)
The parable of the shrewd manager reveals to us that we can use one form of investment that we have, in order to grow another form of investment that we don’t have but do need. The particular illustration is of using intellectual capital (shrewdness) and financial capital (money owed to his master) to grow relational capital (turning his masters debtors into his friends) that will lead to physical capital (provision, without recourse to manual labour or begging). Jesus’ view of financial capital in particular is that it always exists not for its own sake, but to be invested in other forms of capital - with the ultimate goal of all other forms of capital being to be invested in spiritual capital, that which lasts for eternity.