“The one who is faithful in small things will also be faithful in many things, yet the one who is unrighteous in small things will also be unrighteous in many things. If then, you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will believe you in that which is true?”
Some would hold that these verses are the beginning of a new parable, but given the linguistic connection of “the unrighteous mammon” it seems far more sensible to see this as the conclusion of the prior parable that we have been looking at. If, then, this provides the conclusion, we should expect the principles that it speaks of to provide for us an interpretive guide to understanding the parable as a whole. Before we look in detail at this parable, though, I think that it is wise for us to start putting some of our puzzle pieces together so that we can see how the conclusion of the parable unifies them.
To begin with, we established that this parable was spoken against the Pharisees, they understood it, and were offended by it (Luke 16:14). Secondly, we found that the steward in this parable was unjustly accused of wasting his master’s funds. As we see the parable develop, this steward is not only unjustly accused, but he is honest. He has not built up a nest egg for himself to fall back on because he is afraid of having to beg or to go out and work in the fields. It was not the menial wage that deterred him, but the fact that he was not strong enough to do manual labor and too honorable to beg.
We also established that the man was not fired immediately, but was given some time to close out accounts if you will. He also was not persecuted for the crime he was accused of, which once again implies that the steward was honest and kept at least some degree of the trust of the master. We also established that the reduction of debit in order to collect at least a portion of the loan was a common and reasonable practice in Jesus’ day just as it is in our own day and age, thus, what the manager did with the debtors was honest, fair, and within his authority as steward of his master’s affairs. In fact, it is pretty clear that the master commended him for this action, and given that it is clear that the master in the parable is representative of God, it is impossible for us to put forth the idea that the master is commending the steward for a dishonorable act.
So, if the manager is guilty of something that is causing him to be released of his duties, what is he guilty of? This raises the question of what exactly is the role of a steward in ancient times? As we discussed earlier, a steward’s job was to manage the affairs of his master. The bottom line is that a steward was responsible to protect the wealth that the master already had, add new wealth, and to do so in such a way that his master’s honor was kept secure. My suggestion, then, is that the releasing of the steward from his duties has nothing to do with his squandering of his master’s wealth as the false charge stated, but that he is being released due to his harming of his master’s honor.
Let us make the connection between the Pharisees and the steward at this point. Historically, the Pharisees arose during the Hasmonean dynasty in Palestine, a sect desiring the purification of religious worship. Sadly, in the 150 years or so between the start of their sect and the ministry of Jesus, they had largely grown legalistic and hypocritical, being more interested in the letter of the law than in the intent behind the law. According to the letter of the law, the Pharisees were doing exactly what they were required to do—yet they had missed their mark in terms of what they ought to have been doing, that is, stewarding God’s word, and were bringing God’s name in disgrace. They were abusing their privileges and refusing to grant people forgiveness until the very letter of the law was satisfied with the spiritual debts that people owed to the temple.
It seems that we have a connection here that we can hang our hats on. Just as Pharisees were called to steward God’s word and were more interested in the letter of the law than the calling they had been given, so too this steward was more interested in collecting the letter of the debt rather than fulfilling the intent behind his role as steward. In any business arrangement, given that we live in a fallen world, we are going to end up with people who go into debt to you that they are unable to pay. By forcing someone to pay the whole amount of the debt, you bankrupt the debtor and then rarely, if ever, collect much of anything. A wise steward recognizes this and understands that in reducing a debt to a point where people can pay it, you not only get some of the money owed, but you also build the reputation of your master as one who is fair and who desires to maintain a business relationship. In reality, by reducing the debt, you also help the debtor to stay in business and he will likely continue to deal financially with you, building up the estate of your master. In the long run, the amount you forgive will often come back to you in future profits.
The Pharisees missed the point and proved themselves faithless in their task. The beauty of the parable is that this steward, when the chips were down, got the point, and seems to have repented of his previous ways. And for his repentance, he is commended by the master. Sadly, the Pharisees were largely not willing to repent. They had proved themselves to be faithless even when the common sense business practices of the world would have told them otherwise. Jesus is saying very clearly that if they do not even understand the basic principles of interacting with people in terms of this world, how will you handle things of true value—namely God’s word.
Most of our English translations insert the word “riches” toward the end of these verses, but literally the verse ends with the words, “that which is true.” I think, especially given the language of the following verses, that the contrast here is not so much small wealth and big wealth, but worldly wealth with the truth of God’s word. What does this have to do with the language of “eternal dwellings”? It is very simple, the heart of the job of the Pharisees—and all who are called as stewards of God’s word!—is to guide people into God’s word that they might repent, believe, and come into an eternal relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ the Son. Are we not to use the opportunities of this world to do just that—win people to Jesus? Are we not to use our wealth to build up the honor of the Lord Jesus Christ in the eyes of the world? Are we not to live in such a way that draws people to Jesus? Are we not to steward God’s law that not only honors the law but honors the intent of the law? Are not eternal places waiting for the believer as he passes from this life to the next? Oh, believer, how we are to proclaim the gospel in all that we do—we are sons of light, are we not? Thus, let us shine that light into the sin-darkened world around us! Yet, how we can learn from the basic business practice of forgiveness when we deal with those around us. Let us demonstrate the forgiveness of Christ, for we have been forgiven, and let us point the people of the world toward the eternal places that are reserved for those who trust in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand,
And cast a wishful eye
To Canaan’s fair and happy land,
Where my possessions lie.
I am bound for the promised land,
I am bound for the promised land;
Oh who will come and go with me?
I am bound for the promised land.