“No household servant is able to serve two lords: for either he will hate the one and love the other or he will cling to the one and look with contempt on the other. You are not able to serve God and mammon.”
There is an interesting transition in the language that Jesus uses in this verse. The verb that is employed in this verse in terms of serving is douleu/w (douleuo), which refers to one’s service as a slave to another. It is the verb from which we get douvloß (doulos), meaning bond-servant, the term that Paul so regularly uses to speak of himself in terms of his service to Christ. You might expect, then, that the word for servant used at the beginning of this verse would be douvloß (doulos) as well. Yet, it is the word that Jesus uses is oijke/thß (oiketes), which is the word that is used for a household servant—a word that can just as easily (though less commonly) be used to refer to someone who is a member of the household. Essentially, the point that is being made here is to describe not just a common slave, but a slave with privileges as part of the household.
What an important picture this is in terms of helping us to understand the connection that Jesus is making as he rebukes the Pharisees. The Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and teachers of the law were given the obligation of God to steward the word of God and the things of God’s righteousness before the people. In addition, though all were not priests, they all shared a role in keeping the ceremonial law of God pure and undefiled—a law that found its ultimate fulfillment (at least for the day) in the temple sacrifices that the priests made. Thus, these groups of people—the groups that by this time have been actively seeking to arrest Jesus and have begun discussing his death—were more than just servants of God in the eyes of the people, but they were servants within God’s household—much like the household steward that this parable is about.
It is interesting as well, to look forward to the two teachings that Jesus gives immediately after this parable. In the context of this section of Luke, Jesus has been giving a series of parables, then breaks for two specific teachings, and then goes back to a parable. As Jesus is addressing the failure of the Pharisees to steward God’s truth, it seems to make sense to interpret these two teachings in the same context. The first teaching is about how the Pharisees are more interested in justifying themselves legally before men—using the Law of God to make themselves look good in the eyes of the people instead of using the Law of God to point people toward God’s grace. The second of these teachings is that of adultery, something that God often accuses the people of when their hearts stray from him toward the idols of this world. In other words, because the Pharisees have been faithless stewards, seeking to glorify themselves in the eyes of men, they have become guilty of spiritual adultery before God—something for which they will be dealt with quite harshly.
One final note about this parable: the mention was made earlier about this steward of unrighteousness being a reflection of the older brother from the previous parable. Many through history have pointed out that the rebuke of the older brother within the parable of the Prodigal Son was aimed at the Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees, and teachers of the Law. These men stayed home and resented the return and reinstatement of their lost brother. In the parable of the steward, we are confronted once again with one who is more interested in the letter of the law than to see debtors reinstated in the eyes of the master. The difference is that in the parable of the steward, the steward repents and offers forgiveness to the debtors forgiveness of their debt to reinstate them in the master’s eyes.
Oh, beloved, how we are to desire forgiveness and the reconciliation that comes through the blood of Jesus Christ. Yes, reconciliation is important in human terms, but what is most important is in eternal matters. What are you doing in your family and in your church to use the wealth—the mammon of unrighteousness—that God has given you, to win others to Christ? How are you stewarding the word of God—that which is of true value—to glorify God amongst the nations? We have a tendency to think of our wealth as “ours” and to do with what we please and not as something that God has given us to steward. All too often we use the Word of God to make people feel inferior to us and not to point them toward redemption in Christ. Too often we are guilty of praying diligently for the salvation of those we love and whose company we enjoy and not being so diligent in praying for those who have offended us. Oh, loved ones, let us not be like the Pharisees, but be like the steward who repented. God has given us a task to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with all the world—and that task begins at home.
We’ve a Savior to show to the nations,
Who the path of sorrow has trod,
That all of the world’s great peoples
Might come to the truth of God,
Might come to the truth of God.
For the darkness shall turn to dawning,
And the dawning to noonday bright;
And Christ’s great kingdom shall come on earth,
The kingdom of love and light.
-Henry Earnest Nichol
“And if in what belongs to another, you have not been faithful, who will give you something of your own?”
As we have been discussing, the Pharisees, for all of their zeal toward protecting the letter of the law, had missed the point of why the law was given and what the law meant. They, in fact, had added series upon series of lists and rules to the law with the intention of aiding their understanding of how to obey the law, but that had rapidly degenerated into a legalistic set of rules that was an unwieldy burden for most men and women.
With that in mind, we must not miss the parallel that Jesus is making between the things of this world and the things that belong to the next. This steward is called a steward of unrighteousness, using the language of unrighteousness almost metaphorically to refer to the wealth of this world. Yet, parables also contain a deeper meaning as they apply to the kingdom of God. Jesus is rebuking the Pharisees, ones who were entrusted not only to steward the word of God, but also the righteousness of God, as they were one of God’s representatives to the people. Not only did they fail to demonstrate God’s righteousness, keeping it honored amongst the people, they were often guilty of defaming God’s righteous name because of their hypocrisy. Thus, Jesus writes, if you are not faithful with keeping that which belongs to another, how can you expect anyone to give you anything of your own. Or, more specifically, if you have proven yourself unfaithful in protecting and stewarding the righteousness of God, how is it that you expect God to impute righteousness to you?
This language of imputed righteousness is essential in our understanding of Christ’s redemptive work. Men and women before God’s throne are judged on the basis of righteous actions; hence, we all deserve utter damnation. Yet, Jesus, having lived a perfect and sinless life and having borne the guilt of our sin upon the cross, imputes his righteousness to his people. This does not mean that we inherently become righteous and it does not mean that Jesus’ righteousness mixes with our righteousness, kind of blending it into something that might be acceptable to God. No! God cannot accept sin in his presence and even the most righteous amongst us has all of his righteous actions tainted by sin and sin’s motives. Both the Apostle Paul and the prophet Isaiah described their own righteousness in the most lowly and despicable ways (Isaiah 64:6, Philippians 3:8). No, it is imputed to us, credited to our account. When we stand in judgment, we stand not clothed in our own rags plus the garment of Christ, but we stand before God clothed in the righteousness of Christ as if a clean, white robe were placed over our filthy and wretched selves.
Now, please understand, this imputed righteousness is not something that you earned by your actions in any way. It is not a reward that is given to you as a result of your faithful honoring of God’s name, His Word, or His righteousness. In fact, you cannot even begin to honor God’s name, Word, or righteousness until you have been born again by the blood of Jesus Christ and have Christ’s righteousness imputed to you—your new clothing will shape the way you live and behave. But let us talk honestly with each other. Though we have received this gift, all too often we who have been re-clothed in Christ live as if we were only wearing our own filthy rags. All too often, we take the gift of grace all too casually and live like the pagans do. Beloved, let us turn away from the temptations of our own pride and treasure the unsurpassed gift of Christ, living like Christ’s sacrifice has made a difference to us in this world as well as the next—living in such a way that others see the change that Christ has wrought within us and come to see what Christ might do in their life.
All to Jesus, I surrender,
All to Him, I freely give.
I will ever love and trust him,
In His presence daily live.
I surrender all, I surrender all.
All to Jesus, I surrender, I surrender all.
-Judson Van de Venter
“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.