Does Christ Commend a Crook or "The Sting" (Luke 16:1-13)
When I was growing up, my father and I hitchhiked to Portland, Oregon, where we hoped to buy a used pickup, cheap. We were grateful to catch a ride with a very interesting fellow. He, like my father, was a school teacher, or at least he had been one. From the skills which he had developed in the classroom, he had moved into the world of industry. His new job was to “get rid of trouble-makers,” but in a way that would not violate any laws or arouse the anger of the unions. He would simply be placed alongside a trouble-maker on the job, and then would make the fellow so miserable he would quit, of his own free will.
That is another story. What was of great interest to me and my father was to hear of this fellow’s experiences in the classroom, which had made him such an expert in handling trouble-makers. He told us that he had taught school in New York City. The situation was so bad that there were policemen stationed in the halls. Teachers were routinely assaulted and intimidated. He learned the realities of life quickly.
On his first day of class, things seemed to start off well. The students all sat relatively quietly in their seats and gave some attention to him. But, at a pre-determined time, the entire class got up out of their seats and went to the back of the classroom, where they proceeded to “shoot craps.” This teacher did not react. But the next day he came prepared. He had taken note of the fact that at the place where they “shot craps” there was a metal plate. (This plate seemed to give them the right surface on which to carry on.) He wired the plate, and the next day, when the class went to the back to carry on their game, he charged the plate. Things happened quickly, as you would expect. One extremely large fellow walked up to the teacher and said, “Nice touch, professor. Nice touch.”
I think you can tell that, on the one hand, the fellow did not appreciate getting zapped with electricity. And yet, on the other hand, he had a kind of admiration for the way in which this teacher had handled things. The teacher was shrewd in dealing with this difficulty. I guess that I should go on to tell you that someone in that class invited him “out back” after school, to “have it out.” This teacher was also a golden gloves boxing champion in his weight class. After the principle informed him that he was “on his own,” the teacher went “out back” and whipped the toughest fellows in class. That was when the real education began.
My point in telling you this story is that it is possible for one shrewd person to appreciate the shrewdness of another, even though he has suffered from it. The student did not really appreciate getting zapped, but he could not help but appreciate the motivational methods of the teacher. Perhaps this young thug wasn’t uninterested in winning friends, but he did have an interest in influencing people. To see the teacher do a masterful job at influencing his class was, in one sense, an inspiration.
The same can be said for the rich man in our text in Luke chapter 16. He surely did not appreciate being “ripped off” by his steward, but he did at least have an appreciation for the skill, the shrewdness, of the steward in making provisions for his future. The steward, who was about to lose his position, had used his position and his master’s possessions in such a way as to “make friends” and thus to prepare for his own future. Even the master had to agree that the steward was shrewd. Perhaps, in the words of that young thug, the master could have said to his steward, “Nice touch!”
The Tension of the Text
The tension of our text should not be difficult to identify. While it is not so hard to see how the rich man might commend his steward, is it possible that Jesus actually commended this crook? Can our Lord, who hates sin, commend a crook? The question is a legitimate one. As you read through the commentaries you will find many creative efforts to “get our Lord off the hook,” by somehow qualifying the steward’s actions and thus minimizing his treachery.9 I believe that our text resolves this tension, in a very interesting way, but let us hold this issue in suspension until after we have studied our text more carefully.
The Structure of the Text
The parable of the unjust steward is but one part of a larger whole. The entire 16th chapter of Luke revolves about the central theme of material possessions. Let me begin by briefly outlining the structure of the entire chapter:
(1) The Unjust Steward—Vv. 1-13
(2) The Pharisees’ (who loved money) Protest & Jesus’ Response—Vv. 14-18
(3) The Rich Man and Lazarus—Vv. 19-31
The entire chapter, then, revolves about one’s attitude toward and use of material possessions. Our story, the parable of the unjust steward, is not the sum and substance of Jesus’ teaching on the subject. It is just one part of the piece of chapter 16. Beyond this, chapter 16 is but a part of the much broader teaching of our Lord on the subject of possessions throughout the entire gospel of Luke (followed up by Acts).
With this overall structure in mind, let us now give attention to the structure of our passage, which is as follows:
(1) The Parable of the Unjust Steward—Verses 1-8a
(2) Jesus’ Interpretation and Application of the Parable—Verses 8b-13
The subject of money and material possessions is one that Luke has been speaking to throughout the book of Luke. What we find in chapter 16 is not the final word on the subject, but it is more specific in its application than previous references, in my opinion. Let us briefly review what Luke has reported Jesus to have said on the subject thus far in this gospel:
John the Baptist is beginning his public ministry of preparing the people for the coming of Christ. He tells them to prepare the way of the Lord. He tells the multitudes that they need not only to repent, but to, “bring forth fruits in keeping with your repentance” (v. 8). In other words, they must practice what they profess. When pressed by the crowds as to what they must do, John gave three specific applications for three different groups.
(1) Those who had material goods (clothes & food) were to share with those who did not have them (v. 11).
(2) Tax-gatherers were not to collect more than was due (v. 12).
(3) Soldiers were to be content with their wages and not to extort money from others through a misuse of their power (v. 13).
NOTE: EVERY ONE OF THESE THREE SPECIFIC APPLICATIONS HAS MATERIAL POSSESSIONS IN VIEW.
Jesus introduced His ministry by citing Isaiah’s prophecy, which spoke of the good news being proclaimed to the poor and the oppressed, in the terminology of the Old Testament year of jubilee, at which time Israelites were released from their debts (cf. vv. 18-19).
Before Jesus called the twelve to be His disciples (chapter 6), He commanded them to launch out and to make a great catch, which served as a promise of His provision—of men who would believe (disciples), but perhaps also of the material needs of those who would follow Him as His disciples.
In Luke’s account of the “Sermon on the Mount” (here, more clearly than in Matthew 5) Jesus stressed the blessings which came to the poor (not “poor in spirit,” as in Matthew), and the woes which were to come upon the rich (cf. 6:20-26).
Later on, Jesus taught His disciples to give to those who would not likely repay, promising that God would repay them in return (vv. 34-38).
Jesus Himself was “poor” and was provided for by a group of women, who followed along, providing for Jesus and the rest from their own means (vv. 1-3).
Jesus sent out the 12 to preach, but without any provisions. They were to prove themselves worthy of their hire by their preaching and ministry (vv. 3-6). In other words, the disciples had to trust God to empower their ministry, and thus their material provisions would result from the gratitude of men for their ministry.
In verse 25 Jesus asked what good it would do a man to “gain the whole world, but lose his own soul.”
Jesus sent out the 70 to preach, again without taking provisions (vv. 1-12).
In the so-called Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught the disciples to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” (v. 3).
In response to the Pharisees fetish about ceremonial cleanness Jesus told them, “… give that which is within as charity, and then all things are clean for you” (v. 41).
Verses 13ff. Jesus is asked by one brother to tell the other to divide the inheritance, to which Jesus replies, in part,
“Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions” (v. 15).
“For this reason I say to you, do not be anxious for your life, as to what you shall eat; nor for your body, as to what you shall put on. For life is more than food, and the body than clothing” (vv. 22-23).
“But if God so arrays the grass in the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, how much more will He clothe you, O men of little faith! And do not seek what you shall eat, and what you shall drink, and do not keep worrying. For all these things the nations of the world eagerly seek; but your Father knows that you need these things. But seek for His kingdom and these things shall be added to you. Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to charity; make your selves purses which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near, nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (vv. 28-34).
Jesus told His audience that when they have a banquet, they should not invite those who can pay them back, but those who can’t, so that God will pay them back (vv. 12-14).
In the story of the banquet which was given, and to which many in the end declined from coming, material acquisitions were prominent in the excuses (bought a field, a yoke of oxen, vv. 15-24).
“So therefore no one of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions” (v. 33).
The prodigal son squandered all his possessions; the older brother saved his, but both were preoccupied with possessions.
All of this is simply to remind ourselves that thus far in Luke’s gospel Jesus has had a great deal to say about material possessions. What Jesus says about possessions in chapter 16 is thus built upon the foundation laid in the previous chapters. We can, I believe, summarize Jesus’ teaching up to this point with the following principles:
(1) Jesus turned the way men should view money upside-down.
(2) True repentance and faith will dramatically change the way a follower of Christ thinks and acts with regard to material possessions—from getting it and keeping it (e.g. “bigger barns”), to giving it away.
(3) The reason for this radical change in one’s thinking about money is that the true disciple comes to realize that money cannot get him the things that are really important, but that Christ can.
- The Christian ceases to trust in money and trusts in God.
- The Christian ceases to serve money, and to serve God.
(4) Money and material things are temporal—they don’t last. The best that we can do with money is to use it now to produce those things which will last. By using money on earth as God instructs us we lay up lasting treasure in heaven. One of the ways to invest money on earth to gain eternal blessings is to help the poor and needy.
With this backdrop, let us press on to the parable of the “unjust steward,” seeking to learn the lessons which God has for us in it.
The Parable of the Unjust Steward
1 Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2 So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’ 3 “The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— 4 I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’ 5 “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 “‘Eight hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied. “The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.’ 7 “Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’ “‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied. “He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’ 8 “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.
A certain rich man had a steward working for him who squandered10 his possessions. I take it that this means he must have helped himself to too much that belonged to his master. I can imagine that in our culture this would mean padded expense accounts, lavish meals and accommodations, a limousine, and the like. This man was consuming much of his master’s wealth, but producing very little. He was not working for his master, but for himself. Unlike Joseph, who saw his stewardship as a sacred trust, and who thus refused to “use” his master’s wife, this steward seems to have helped himself to everything that was within his reach.
Word got to the steward’s master,11 who fired the man, effective at a future date. During this short time, the steward was expected to get his master’s accounts in order so that he could be replaced. This short period of time was not intended for the steward’s benefit, but for the master’s. The steward, however, was highly motivated. He was too old to “dig ditches” and he was too proud to beg. He must think of some way that he can make use of his master’s goods during this short time to prepare for his own future.
Like a flash,12 it came to him. He would make use of his position and his master’s possessions in the little time that was left, in such a way as to provide for his needs far into the future. While his position and his master’s possessions would be taken from him, he could make friends who would take care of him. And so he set out to do it. He called in each and every one13 of his master’s debtors. Each seems to have been a party to this “scam,” but each is benefited by a significant reduction in their obligation to the steward’s master. Thus, all are indebted to the steward.
Before we consider the master’s response to being “ripped off” or our Lord’s commentary on this parable, let us take note of the wickedness of the steward, as seen in his deeds. The steward was unrighteous, both at the beginning of the parable, and at the end. The steward was not just unrighteous as a person, he was unfaithful as a steward. He was unfaithful to his task and to his master. This unfaithfulness is what necessitated his shrewdness in preparing for his future. Every indication points to the fact that the allegations against the steward (squandering his possessions) were accurate. The steward did not change for the good, he only became more shrewd in doing evil. The steward’s attitudes and actions were all motivated by self-interest. He involved others in his sinful “scam.” It is inconceivable that the rich man’s debtors were not co-conspirators with the steward. They knew what they were doing. The steward, then, appealed to their greed.
In the telling of this parable, Jesus did not minimize the evil this man did, nor did He in any way commend him for doing evil, but His master did commend him. Probably, the biggest surprise of the parable is that the master, who has just been “ripped off” by his steward, is able to praise his steward. This praise is not for the good that he has done his master, nor for the ethical aspects of his deed, but simply for the shrewdness which he displayed.
The critical question here is this: Why can a man who has just been “ripped off” by his employee, a man who has suffered a substantial and irretrievable loss, commend a crooked employee? The answer to this question is given by our Lord in verse 8. Jesus’ answer is the key to the interpretation of this passage, so let us consider it very carefully.
“And his master praised the unrighteous steward because he had acted shrewdly; for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind [literally, “their own generation”] than the sons of light” (Luke 16:8).
The first part of verse 8 is the conclusion of the parable. The story concludes with the account of the master’s praise of his steward’s shrewdness. In the second half of verse 8 our Lord begins His commentary on the parable. How are we to understand and apply this parable? What does it mean? The answer comes from our Lord, who begins to interpret this story in the second half of verse 8 with an explanation of why the master can praise the shrewdness of his unrighteous steward. That there is an explanation coming is indicated by the “for” (both in the NIV and the NASB), which precedes the statement, “the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light.”
Our Lord’s words here indicate several important realities. (1) Both the unrighteous steward and his master appreciated (valued) the same thing—shrewdness. You don’t commend a man for something you disdain. (2) Both the unrighteous steward and his master were members of the group which our Lord characterized as “the sons of this age.” The contemporary expression, “it takes one to know one” fits here. The master could recognize and appreciate “shrewdness” because he valued it and he practiced it, and as such he was “one” with his steward. (3) Neither the master nor his steward were members of the group identified as the “sons of light.” I take it that this means neither of them knew God—they were unbelievers.
I do not think that I am going too far afield to say, then, that the master commended his steward’s shrewdness because he knew that he would have done the same thing in the same circumstances. You do not praise what you would not do, or wish you could have done.
Now, the critical question: Did Jesus praise the steward for his shrewdness? We can easily see that the master praised his steward’s shrewdness, and we can even understand why he would do so. But would Jesus join with the master in his praise of this man’s shrewdness? The answer is a dogmatic, No! This answer, in my opinion is clear, even though few commentators have accepted it, choosing rather to see this parable as teaching Christians to be more shrewd, more like the world in the way we handle money.14 Let me enumerate the reasons why this conclusion is an inescapable one.
(1) Jesus never commended nor advocated shrewdness to His disciples here. The word “shrewd” or “shrewdly” is found twice in the parable (v. 8), but not in the Lord’s interpretation and application of it (vv. 9-13). Never does our Lord imply or state that Christians should be shrewd, in any way that approximates the shrewdness of this “unrighteous” steward.
(2) The concept that is most frequently found in our Lord’s interpretation and application of the parable is FAITHFULNESS. Faithfulness and shrewdness are, in this text, diametrically opposed. The steward “had to” be shrewd because he had been unfaithful. Disciples that are faithful do not need to be shrewd.
(3) Shrewdness does characterize Satan (Genesis 3:1) and the unbelieving world (Luke 16:8), but it should not characterize the Christian. The steward and his master are both identified by Jesus as unbelievers. Does the Bible ever teach us to act like the world? Does it not teach us the exact opposite? We are to be “wise as serpents” and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16), but we are not to be shrewd as this steward was. More about this later.
(4)Since the steward is unrighteous and his master, like he, is one of those known as the “sons of this age,” in contrast to the “sons of light,” how can we possibly conclude that the master symbolizes God and the steward, the saint? This, to me is one of the most critical points. The only way that we can really conclude that Jesus was commending shrewdness is to see the master as typifying God. But I would challenge you to prove that Luke would be trying to picture God as a rich man after all that he has already written about wealth and poverty (e.g. the Sermon on the Mount in chapter 6). How can God be typified by an unbelieving rich man, and the Christian by a crooked steward? Jesus told us instead that both these men are typical of the values, conduct, and commendation of an unbelieving generation.
(5) Jesus’ words of explanation are a description of how wicked men think and act, but not a commendation of this nor a recommendation of it to the saints. In the book of Proverbs, we can find a number of statements which describe the wicked “ways” of evil men, but in none of these instances do we find their conduct being recommended to us as that which we should imitate, but rather that of which we should be aware, and which we should avoid:
The rich man’s wealth is his fortress, The ruin of the poor is their poverty (10:15).
A bribe is a charm in the sight of its owner; Wherever he turns, he prospers (17:8).
A wicked man receives a bribe from the bosom To pervert the ways of justice (17:23).
A gift in the secret subdues anger, And a bribe in the bosom, strong wrath (21:14).
In each of these cases, life is being described as it is, not as it should be. So it is in the parable of the unjust steward. Jesus is telling a story which describes the skill which unbelievers have of working within their generation to make money, and to look out for themselves.
(6) As in all other areas of Christian living, God’s blessing in the area of finances is not based upon man’s skill or shrewdness, but on His faithfulness to His promises. If the responsibility of man is to be found here, it is to be found in the area of faithfulness, which our Lord commended, not shrewdness, which he characterized as typical of unbelievers.
(7) “The things which are highly esteemed by men are detestable to God.” In verse 15 below, where Jesus will interpret this parable, He tells us that God’s values contradict man’s. He said that the things men commend, God condemns. The unbelieving master and his steward may commend shrewdness, but God condemns it. What God condemns, He does not commend. The parable, then, does not teach shrewdness as God’s way for His followers, but a way to be avoided by His followers.
(8) The Lord’s application of the parable in verses 9-13 is characterized more by contrast with the world than comparison to it. The only area of comparison, in which the disciple is clearly urged to be “like” the steward is in the matter of making friends with unrighteous mammon, and even in this there are many differences between the way the steward acted and the way in which disciples are to act.
One problem could easily, and correctly be raised: Why does Jesus elsewhere teach His disciples that they were to be “shrewd”:
“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; therefore be shrewd as serpents, and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10”:16).
The term rendered “shrewd” here in the NASB is the same term that Luke employed in our text. Doesn’t this challenge the interpretation I have proposed? I think not.
The same Greek or Hebrew term does not always convey the same meaning. For example, the same term that is sometimes rendered “tempt” is also rendered “test.” We know that God does not “tempt” anyone (James 1:12), but we also know that He does “test” us (John 6:6), and we are told to “test” ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5). The same term is used in each case, but its meaning is dictated by the context.
The term adjective “shrewd” and the adverb “shrewdly” are both found in our text, with the adverb appearing only here. The adjective, however, is used more frequently. It is interesting to note that when Matthew used the term, it tended to have a positive connotation (“wise”). When the apostle Paul used the term, it was mostly in a negative vein (roughly equivalent to “arrogantly wise” or “falsely wise”). Luke, in this text, has clearly indicated by the context that we are to understand “shrewdness” in a negative way, as a vice, rather than as a virtue. We are, I believe, to be wise, even shrewd, like serpents, but we are not to be shrewd like the steward. His shrewdness was intrinsically evil, in motive and in method. The serpent’s shrewdness is not so in my opinion.
Thus, Jesus’ intent is not to teach disciples to be wise. If wisdom were the ideal to strive for, He would not have made the model a crook, nor would He have had his master commend him. Jesus is here teaching His disciple to beware of a shrewdness which uses people for one’s own selfish interests, rather than a sacrificial simplicity which serves. It is interesting, by the way, that in the New Testament, those who give are instructed to do so “with simplicity,” with singleness of motive, and not with the hope of gain (cf. Romans 12:8, giving attention to the marginal note in the NASB).
But why does Jesus spend so much time telling us about the steward, if we are not to be like him in being shrewd? This is an excellent question, with some fascinating answers. First, Jesus is teaching by contrast. He has told this story so that we can see, in very practical terms, what we are not to be like. Second, this steward’s shrewdness was (and is) typical of the way unbelievers act. If Christians are to put off worldliness—worldly ways of thinking and acting—then we must be clear on what worldliness is. This story gives us a very clear picture of one dimension of worldly thinking. Third, in this parable Jesus exposes the hypocrisy and wickedness of the Pharisees.
The Pharisees, we will be told shortly, were “lovers of money.” As such, they greatly valued having it, and thus they resorted to some very unscrupulous means of obtaining it. They were “shrewd” in the matter of making money, and they were also proud of it. Thus, when Jesus began to tell this story, the Pharisees must have thought to themselves that when it came to the skill of making money, they were the epitome of astuteness, of skillfulness, of shrewdness.
It was undoubtedly with some misgivings that they listened to Jesus as He told of the cunning shrewdness of this steward. His shrewdness was pressing the line of ethics very hard. But the real shock came when Jesus spoke those final words of explanation in verse 8. Jesus here characterized shrewdness as sinful, as typical of the way unbelievers (sons of this age) think and act. If they thought themselves to be shrewd (and surely they did), then if Jesus’ explanation were allowed to stand their shrewdness was proof, not of their spirituality, but of their sinful secularity. Their shrewdness Jesus used as an indication of their unbelief. This story of the unjust steward is thus an expos of Pharisaism. No wonder the Pharisees were upset as these words (v. 14).
Jesus’ Commentary of
the Parable of the Unjust Steward
9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. 10 “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. 11 So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? 13 “No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”
There are lessons to be learned in contrast with the unjust steward and his master. These, Jesus will teach us in the following verses. But when Jesus begins, He begins with a point of commonality. The unjust steward “made friends” by the use of his master’s money, or we might better say, through “unrighteous mammon.” He had used that which was his master’s, which was in his care, to make friends for himself. Christians can practice what initially looks similar, but when carefully considered is vastly different. Let us look at our Lord’s words of commentary on the parable, to learn what it was He intended us to gain from it:
(1) Make friends for yourselves by the use of material possessions, v. 13. In verse 13, Jesus carried over from the parable of the unjust steward, a parallel to what Christians should practice. The unjust steward saw that his days were numbered, and that he would not be able to take his master’s money with him. He then began to use his master’s money in such a way as to make friends, because they would outlast his master’s money. He used his master’s money to make friends.
Christians should act similarly, but not the same. We, like the unjust steward, are stewards. We do not own anything, but we are given custody of certain resources by God for a time. We need to understand that our Lord’s return is at hand (or that our death will come), and that we cannot take money with us. Money will not last, but we will last for all eternity. The way we can use money so that it will last forever is to “make friends” of men, who will gratefully receive us in heaven. I know of no other application of this more important than evangelism. By using our money in ways that manifest Christ to men and which draw men to Christ in faith, we “make friends,” we invest in men’s souls, so that they will await us in heaven. Thus, though money will not last, investments in men’s souls will last. In this way, we can imitate, in a measure, the unjust steward. He at least can to see that friends outlast money.
In this verse (9), note that Jesus represented money as having two characteristics: (1) it would not last—it would fail; and (2) it was, in some measure, unrighteous. Jesus called it the “mammon of unrighteousness.” Money is not intrinsically evil, but it is often associated with evil. It has a kind of taint, but even so it can be used so as to produce a righteous end—the salvation and edification of men. I think the expression, “mammon of unrighteousness,” was aimed at the Pharisees, who tended to equate righteousness with money. Did they view money to be a righteous thing; Jesus called it the mammon of unrighteousness, because the love of material things is often at the root of various kinds of sin. As the apostle Paul put it:
But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith, and pierced themselves with many of pang (1 Timothy 6:9-10).
(2) Jesus did not advocate shrewdness to his disciples, but faithfulness. Jesus never uses the word “shrewd” when applying this parable. He does use the word faithful, however. The unrighteous steward was certainly “shrewd” in relationship to his master, but he was not “faithful” to him or to his stewardship. Jesus seems to link the “making of friends” with being faithful stewards. Unlike the unjust steward, we are to be faithful stewards.
(3) Jesus indicates that being faithful stewards serves God’s interests, man’s interests, and our own, and all at the same time. Take note of the fact that the steward “got ahead” by “using men” and by abusing his master and his money. Faithful stewards gain, but not at the expense of anyone. Faithful stewards are obedient and honoring to God, they pursue the best interest of their fellow men (what is more in men’s best interest than their eternal salvation?), and at the same time they prepare heaven for themselves. Everybody wins. What a difference!
(4) Jesus indicates here that money, in and of itself, is not a very important thing. To be precise, Jesus tells us that money (or perhaps more broadly and accurately, material things) is (are) a “little thing.” “Unrighteous mammon” is contrasted, by our Lord, with “true riches” (v. 11). And while money is not our own, the “true riches” will be (v. 12).
(5) Jesus teaches us that while money is a “little thing” it has an important function of serving as a proving ground, testing our ability to handle more important things. Thus, the faithful steward, who uses unrighteous mammon to achieve righteous ends, will exchange what is temporary for what is eternal, and what is unrighteous mammon for what is true riches.
All of these principles which Jesus taught were intended to encourage His disciples to be “faithful stewards,” rather than shrewd, unjust, stewards. In the last verse of this paragraph, Jesus sums up the matter of mammon by saying that one must choose whether or not money will be his god:
“No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”
We may wonder how it would be that one would ever have to choose between two “masters,” one of which is money. This is precisely the temptation which would confront the steward, for he must either be faithful to his master, using his master’s money to further his master’s interests, or he can choose to serve his master’s money, therefore using his master and his money as a means to his own, self-serving interests. Such was exactly what the unjust steward did.
As we will see in the next verses, one reason why the Pharisees could not love God (although that asserted that they did) was because they loved money. The Pharisees loved money, and thus they were devoted to it. They were so devoted to it that they became shrewd, as the “sons of this age.” One who would truly love God and men cannot love money.
As I was thinking through this passage, something suddenly occurred to me, which, in our day and time is unusual: WHEN JESUS TALKED ABOUT MONEY, HE DIDN’T TAKE AN OFFERING.
Did you ever think of this? Preachers today talk a great deal about money. Some seem to talk of nothing else. Jesus also talked a lot about money, but he never took an offering afterwards. Too many who talk about money today are quick to “pass the plate.” They would love to rid us both of our materialism and of our money. Watch out for such folks.
Having gotten this matter out of my craw, let us press on to see what our Lord’s words have to teach us about money and material possessions.
First, our text provides us with the proper motivation for good stewardship. Prophecy is designed to motivate godly living, and this has much to do with being faithful stewards in terms of our material possessions. The unrighteous steward was motivated to give up his squandering ways and to begin to be shrewd, because he knew that his days were numbered, he could not take his master’s money with him, and he was going to give account. Prophecy indicates that we must leave money behind, that time is short, and that we will give account. Most of us, if we were honest, would admit that we are squanderers. This is not better than being a swindler, for both are misappropriations of the Master’s money. Let us consider the nearness of our Lord’s return and let it motivate us to better stewardship.
Second, I find that our text causes us to see the relationship between “heaven” and “friends.” The unjust steward not only used his master, he also used his friends. There was no selflessness, no sacrifice, no taking up of his cross, but only self-interest evident in the steward’s actions. The “friends” of the steward were of an inferior type.
Notice how Jesus speaks of heaven here. He is speaking to a materialistic society, but He does not describe it in terms of its “golden streets,” as we see in the last chapters of the book of Revelation? Why? Can’t you just see heaven if Jesus let in those who loved money? They would all be out with their little miner’s picks and assaying the value of the gold in the streets of heaven. But Jesus chose to describe heaven as a place where one’s friends would be. Evangelism is many things, but one of these is the process of making friends. One of the blessings of heaven will not be its streets of gold, but its saints, especially if we have used our lives and our “mammon” to win men and women to Christ, to pave their way, as it were, to heaven, where they will await our arrival. This was the viewpoint of the apostle Paul:
But we, brethren, having been bereft of you for a short while—in person, not in spirit—were all the more eager with great desire to see your face. For we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, more than once—and yet Satan thwarted us. For who is our hope or joy or crown of exultation? Is it not even you, in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming? For you are our glory and joy (1 Thessalonians 2:17-20).
Third, our predisposition to accept shrewdness as a virtue which God commends us should serve to instruct us that shrewdness is more a appealing “virtue” than other, more godly, options. Why are we so ready to find our Lord commending a crook? Why are we so willing to accept shrewdness as a virtue? Because, I fear, we find shrewdness more appealing than its biblical opposite—sacrifice. For someone to see us a shrewd would be viewed as a compliment. But it is not so with our Lord. Shrewdness in material things presupposes too much priority and emphasis being placed on material things. We would prefer to spend more time and effort in trying to be shrewd, for this would serve to camouflage our own greed and love for money.
Fourth, if shrewdness wins men’s commendation, sacrifice does not. It took a while to realize it, but Jesus did not advocate shrewdness in the use of material things. To a large degree, He advocated stupidity, at least so far as the “sons of this age” are concerned. How wise do you think unbelievers would think us for giving away our possessions, for not pursuing wealth, but God, for selling our possessions, rather than saving them, for loaning money to those who may likely not be able to repay us? There is absolutely no way that we can obey our Lord’s teaching and commands concerning material goods without looking absolutely stupid to the “sons of this age.” Do not expect to be considered shrewd by unbelievers. They may well look on the unjust steward as shrewd. They may even compliment this crook. But do not think that they will compliment you.
And why, my friend, should we expect it to be any other way. God’s ways are not man’s ways. The message of the cross is not regarded as “wisdom” by unbelieving men, but foolishness. We should not expect our ways to be hailed by men as wise and shrewd. If wicked men are regarded as shrewd by their own kind, we should not be surprised, nor should we expect them to commend the “sons of light.”
This is Easter Sunday. This has not been an Easter message, as you well know. But this text does relate to Easter. Easter is, for the Christian, the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is our assurance of the righteousness of Christ, and of the satisfaction of God toward Christ and His work of redemption (forgiving of sins) on the cross of Calvary. It is God’s approval on all that the Lord Jesus said and did while on the earth. It is also the Christian’s assurance of his own resurrection. This certainty of life after death, the hope of heaven, is that which motivates us to live our lives distinctly from that of unbelievers in this age. It is what motivates us to use material possessions very differently, so that we will indeed lay up treasures in heaven, rather than on the earth.
But all of this is foolishness to the unbeliever. We readily acknowledge this. If you are reading this message and thinking to yourself, “This is foolishness,” that is precisely what one would believe, apart from faith in God, in heaven and hell, and in His word. I cannot convince you, my friend. I would not try. That is the task of God’s Spirit, who convinces men of the truth (cf. John 16:8-11). May He do so in your life today.
9 One of the more ingenious explanations found in Morris’ commentary. He has a very clever explanation of the transaction here and of the steward’s shrewdness. There was a prohibition of charging interest of a fellow-Israelite in the Law (Exod. 22:25; Lev. 25:36; Deut. 23:19). There was the feeling that translating dealings in terms of wheat and/or oil made it possible to justify that the man being dealt with was not impoverished (everybody had a little of each) and thus that interest could be charged by simply increasing the total debt, in terms of oil or grain. Thus, the steward did not really cheat his master out of what he loaned, but only out of the interest he should not have charged. The master commends the steward because he does not wish his own sin to be exposed, and this is the easiest way out for him. Leon Morris, The Gospel According To St. Luke, The Tyndale Bible Commentary Series, R. V. G. Tasker, General Editor (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), pp. 245-246.
The problem I have with all of this is that none of this information comes to us from our text, but from reasoning based upon conjecture or undocumented historical research. Would the average reader, over the centuries, have understood this? And did it really matter? If the steward was a crook, why try to justify his actions?
11 It is interesting to note that the term “friends” has been used several times in the surrounding context of Luke. The prodigal tried to make “friends” of those in a foreign land, but in the end his only companions were the swine. The older brother wanted a fatted calf to share with his friends. The unjust steward later seeks to make friends. But at this point, the squandering steward, who has spent much, has made few friends, it would seem. The people he dealt with seem to be the ones who told the man’s master about his waste.
13 Our Lord gives us but two specific illustrations of how it worked, but He also informs us that each debtor was called in and dealt with in the same way. No need to repeat every case. From the two cases, we know that these two debtors were handled in the same way, but not exactly the same way. One was given a 20% discount, the other a 50% discount. The reason for this difference may be this:
“The steward varied his rate of discount perhaps because of the difference in the commodities. It was comparatively easy to adulterate olive oil, so the rate of interest on transactions involving oil was high. Derrett points out that ‘where a debtor has nothing left to offer, short of his self and family as slaves, but an amount of natural produce, and where this is a fluid like olive-oil, he must pay dearly for the risks to which he submits his creditor.’ It was much more difficult to adulterate wheat and the interest was correspondingly lower.” Morris, pp. 247-248.
14 A. T. Robertson is typical in this, citing Plummer, and then pressing his point further: “‘This is the moral of the whole parable. Men of the world in their dealings with men like themselves are more prudent than the children of light in their intercourse with one another’ (Plummer). We all know how stupid Christians can be in their co-operative work in the kingdom of God, to go no further.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: The Broadman Press, 1930), pp. 217-218.