The Sons of this World are More Shrewd

Austin wanted me to expound a bit on a Dorothy Sayers quote I posted. This is my stream-of-consciousness-style attempt.

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 (Luke 16:8).

Jesus tells the story of a man on his way out of power. He is about to get the oust from his boss, so on his way out the door he decides to give his boss’ clients some special favors so that he can be in their good graces when he is left unemployed. And his boss finds out, and thinks it’s brilliant. Hence Jesus lauds the ability of worldly wisemen to make friends through business and hang on to their jobs in the process.

Dorothy Sayers makes a passing comment on this passage:

The children of this world are not only (as Christ so caustically observed) wiser in their generation than the children of light; they are also more energetic, more stimulating and bolder’ (Creed or Chaos?, p. 8).

The energy, stimulation, and boldness Sayers mentions are implicit in the world ‘shrewd.’ In fact they make a decent definition of the term.

I mentioned NPR (National Public Radio) as an example of this fact in a previous post. The thoughtfulness displayed on many NPR programs really puts most of Christian radio to shame. Whether they are right or wrong, they are generally more energetic, certainly more stimulating, and perhaps more bold than anything we hear on Christian radio.

But that is just one small example. I recently watched a 12-year-old episode of PBS Frontline called The Merchants of Cool. You can watch it HERE. In less than an hour, the program takes you on a tour de force of pop culture marketing. The shrewdness of the sons of this world is on full display. Their energy and boldness is on full display, all for the purpose of stimulating teenagers to buy their products. Executives making millions of dollars a year are going to the houses of random teenagers to see what they’re in to. They’re taking what they learn and analyzing it, and trying to put it into the magic bottle of plasma screens in order to shape culture and fill their wallets. I wonder how many pastors are checking in with their youth from time to time to see what they’re in to? I wonder if we are asking ourselves how we can shape the culture of our youth? Notice I did not say, ‘how we can cater to our youth.’ Rather, are we as shrewd in considering how we will work to shape them as citizens of the Kingdom of God and his Christ?

Are we on the cutting edge of anything? Yes. We are on the cutting edge of the rock of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, the rock that will fill the whole earth. Yet we tend to stay so far behind the wisemen of the world that it’s hard to imagine that we are filling up anything but the wake of their ever forward moving steam-liner. Being on the cutting edge does not mean that we conform to whatever is new or hip. It means that we must cut. We must cut the path that will allow culture to thrive, rather than simply following the leaders. This calls for wisdom.

Jesus calls us to be ‘as shrewd as serpents’ and ‘as harmless as doves.’ A serpent seeks prey. A dove is prey. We must be both the hunter and the hunted. We must be the hunter seeking out ways to shape our age – to be more energetic than worldly culture, to be more stimulating, to be bolder. If we were actually that shrewd, we might find a bit more resistance, and actually be able to respond as harmless doves. The snakes of the world bite in order to kill. We should bite in order to give life. The snakes of this world bite with venom and hatred. We are called to act as doves.

I said all of that to say this: my early experience in Christianity was mainly doctrinal (in a stuffy, academic sort of way). I wasn’t exposed to Christian shrewdness that often. Shrewdness involves ‘sharp powers of judgment’ (that’s the dictionary idea). Christian shrewdness is not the sharp power of calling beer bad or church good. Christian shrewdness involves being able to cut sharply against the grain of this world and do what we do better than they do what they do.

They reach young folks by getting to know what they like, through sensational marketing and constant advertising. That’s what they do, and they do it well. We have, or at least certainly should have, another way of reaching the same people. Our intentions are certainly better, but are we more wise, more discerning, more proactive? They reach culture at large through basically the same means. Do we have a vision for enculturating our people and shaping their view of the world? Or are we just doing what we do without any thought or concrete intention?

I watch wordly wisemen every day. I observe and I learn. I see a man who knows that people will like him if he is generous. I see a man who knows that people will pay attention if he raises his voice. I see a man who knows that people will take him seriously if he knows his subject better than most. The question is, can I be as energetic, bold, and stimulating by doing what I do in a different way, and doing my way better than them?


  1. Austin says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post! I have much to think about. My dad and I had a Bible study with that verse; I’m going to pass this on.

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