“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 I say to you, make for yourselves intimate friends out of the mammon of unrighteousness, in order that when it may fail, they may receive you into eternal tabernacles.”
We should perhaps begin by asking ourselves the question as to what Jesus means by speaking of “eternal tabernacles” or “eternal dwellings.” This is a phrase that is unique to the New Testament and to the Greek translation of the Old Testament as well. We do know, though, that the term aijw/nioß (aionios), which we translate as “eternal” is normally used in terms of speaking of the afterlife—though it is used to speak in terms of both heaven and hell (though it is most often used of heaven). We also know that the term skhnh/ (skana), translated here as “tabernacle,” can refer to any kind of temporary shelter or dwelling, but is the same term that is used to translate the Hebrew word !K’v.mi (mishkan), or “Tabernacle.” Thus, in certain contexts, the term skhnh/ (skana) carries with it important Old Testament theological significance. The Tabernacle, of course, being where God dwelt in his presence, it seems reasonable, then, when Jesus talks of eternal Tabernacles, he is talking about eternal life in heaven or at least eternal life with God (as this is something that begins in this life given that God dwells in the tabernacle of the believer through his Holy Spirit). This is also consistent with the contrast that we saw in the previous verses between the sons of light and the sons of this age—“this age” being contrasted with “eternity.” Beloved, this age will pass away, but eternity will go on forever.
I guess the next logical question is to ask what is the “mammon of unrighteousness” and how does one use such a thing to make friends. The first thing that we should note it the nature of the friendships that are being spoken of. The term that Jesus employs is fi/loß (philos), which reflects an intimate friendship or a dear friend. This is not a casual relationship, but a relationship that has been strengthened by sharing hardships as well as good times. It is not a friendship that will easily fall away.
In terms of “mammon,” there is quite a bit of discussion. The simplest answer to this question is to see it as a personification of wealth as in Matthew 6:24. Some scholars have suggested that the term mamwnavß (mamonas), might be derived from the Hiphil participle of the Hebrew verb !mea’ (amen), which would be spelled !ymia]m; (maamin). In Hebrew, the Hiphil form is a causative tense and a participle, as in English, can be used substantively as a noun (the runner). In layman’s terms, to use this verb in such a way can convey the idea of something that causes you to place your trust (the meaning of !mea’) in it rather than in God. And indeed, wealth is a prime culprit, if it is not the primary culprit, of doing just that. Yet, let us not limit our definition to wealth, but let us include all things that can turn the heart of man away from trusting in God. It can reflect prestige, fame, possessions, etc… Anything that you put your trust in apart from God becomes mammon, and in the context of the passage, these worldly things are unrighteous as well as they are not the things of God.
The simple answer, then, to our question, is that this steward used the worldly wealth to make friends or to become favored by those of this world—including his master. Now, there is more to the question, but it would behoove us to put the final puzzle pieces in place before we began to assemble them to draw a conclusion. Take, though, this simple principle. God has given us worldly wealth for a reason and for a purpose, and that purpose is so that we might be a blessing to the world around us. Yet, we are called to be a blessing to the world around us not just so that we will have lots of people like us, but so that we will draw lots of people to Christ. Indeed, as from God’s hand comes all good things, are we not just stewards of God’s possessions? Are we not stewards of the created order itself? If the intention of our stewardship is to use these worldly things to draw others to faith in Jesus Christ, how faithful are we being in the task to which we have been called? How consistently are we either faithful or unfaithful with the things that God has given us?
“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.