“So, the lord expressed his approval for the steward of unrighteousness, for he had done prudently. Because the sons of this age are more prudent than the sons of light are in their own generation.”
Now comes what we do not expect—the master commends his steward. What we expect is that now this steward would be fired and released from duty—perhaps even reproved for the way he has behaved recently with the debtors, but that simply does not happen. It is worth noting that many of Jesus’ parables that have endings that we would not ordinarily anticipate—and that goes to the heart of what parables are meant to be. They are stories and illustrations, yes, but they are told in such a way that only those who have the Holy Spirit can discern their truth and those who are not born again of the Spirit will simply be confused at their application (Mark 4:10-12).
Let us take this statement apart, then, piece by piece. The Lord has returned after the steward has made these transactions with the debtors, and it is obvious from the statement that the master is completely aware of what the steward has done with respect to those whose debts have been partially forgiven. In turn, the lord expresses his approval for the actions of the steward. The term that is used here is the word ejpaine/w (epaineo), and is sometimes translated as “to praise” or “to commend.” It conveys the idea of satisfaction with one’s actions. There is no question, then, that the actions of the steward in reducing the debt of the debtors to recover a portion of what was owed was done in such a way as met with the approval of his boss. In addition, the master commends him for acting prudently. The term employed here is froni/mwß (phronimos), which means to deal shrewdly or with understanding. Though this word is sometimes translated as “wisely,” it carries different connotations than the word sofi/a (sophia), which is the normal Greek word for wisdom. Wisdom carries the connotations of being able to live well or to live in a godly way in the world, managing all things as God would have you manage them. It is true “skill for living” as some have defined it. The word froni/mwß (phronimos) carries the connotations of dealing well with men, often in the business world. Just because someone acts prudently does not mean they are acting wisely—the two are not synonymous. Wisdom has an eye toward God; prudence has all eyes on man. The master is commending the steward not for his godliness, or perhaps we should say that the master is not commending the steward on his righteousness, but instead, the master is commending the steward on his good business sense.
So now, what does Jesus mean when he speaks of this man as the “steward of unrighteousness?” The word that is used here is ajdiki/a (adikia), and means just what we have translated it as. It describes something that is unrighteous, unjust, or otherwise disreputable. It has been pointed out that this word can refer metaphorically to ill-gained wealth (see Acts 1:18), but the emphasis there is clearly on the unrighteous nature of the way that wealth was gained. At the same time, this word provides a dominant link to the verses that follow. It culminates in verses 11 and 12 by setting up a contrast between that which is of unrighteous wealth and that which is truth. We will deal more closely with that question as we unpackage the verses that follow, but let me leave this thought with the question that we began with; could the thrust of this parable be dealing with the way the manager handled the reputation of his master and not so much about the actual cash that he earned for his master? I think that it does, but let us continue to develop the parable.
We still must ask about the “sons of light” and the contrast that Jesus makes between them and “the sons of this age.” Who are these son’s of light? Jesus himself tells us that the sons of light are those who come to faith in him, are born again, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit (John 12:36). God is light and there is no darkness in him (1 John 1:5), thus if the light of God abides in us as believers, should that light not also shine through us and through our actions?
The language of sons of this age sets up a contrast to the language of the sons of light, then. In the New Testament, the language of aijwvnoß tou/tou (aionos toutou), or “this age,” speaks of the things of the earth in contradistinction to the things of heaven. It is not so much language that chronicles time, but language that reflects the age to which a person belongs. An easy way to understand this analogy is in terms of generational gaps. There are some things that an older generation simply has trouble relating to, for example, the presence of everything being automated, prepackaged, and computerized. At the same time, because of generational differences, younger folks have difficulty with being able to relate to what their grandparents lived through.
In a sense, that is the same way in which we should understand the contrast between our old life and our new life in Jesus Christ. Believers should look to the things of this world and be flabbergasted that the things that go on do take place. In turn, those in the world look to the life of a believer and see something different in them that ought to attract them to Christ. This is so because in being born again, the process of sanctification begins taking place and the regenerated person slowly resembles the old man less and less and looks more and more like Jesus Christ—and he thinks that way too. Likewise, the children of this age, those who belong to this world, do not think in the same way that the children of light—born again believers—do.
At this point, it would be prudent for us to wait before we put these pieces into the puzzle until we have the next verse unpackaged before us. With that being said, we must make one final statement of reminder before we close. Though parables, like any analogy, are imperfect in their representations, for an analogy or parable to be intelligible, they must still approximate the reality to which they point. Given that the Master is representing God in the case of this parable, we must constantly put before us the reality that God is not going to honor activity that is unrighteous. This would lead to an ethic where the end justified the means—something that must never characterize Christian behavior. Thus, the act of the steward for which he is commended, regardless of whether the steward is called a steward of “unrighteousness,” must be an honorable and righteous act. We could say more, but we will leave that to later.