“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.
“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.
“And he said, ‘One hundred jugs of olive-oil.’ So he said to him, ‘Take your note and authorize payment soon—you write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how greatly are you indebted?’ And he said, ‘One hundred measures of grain.’ He then says to him, ‘Take your note and write eighty.’”
Now we are fully shown the tactic of this steward. He is calling in debtors and is essentially reducing their respective debts so that payment can be made swiftly. This raises many questions. Why did he reduce the debt of the first debtor more than the second? Is this action what earns him the name as the “dishonest manager” or is this the action that gets him commended by the master in the next verse? Why is he doing this anyway if he is on his way out—is he trying to harm or to gain favor with his former employer? Are these the only two debtors that he brings in, or are they representative of the whole? Is there any significance to oil and grain? And the questions can go on and on.
Let us make a couple observations up front. First of all, it is clear from the story that this steward is being commended by his boss for this action; the next verse follows naturally from this one and it makes very good sense to see them as connected. Secondly, in the context of the previous verse, it is pretty clear that these debtors are meant to be representative of the whole. Thirdly, though some have argued for the ceremonial significance of oil and grain in terms of priestly offerings, oil and grain were also staple products of the culture and would have been perfectly reasonable to have present in a story like this. Fourthly, it is also clear from the context that this manager is not having these payments made so as to line his own pockets. He is not saying, ‘I am on my way out, how much more can I extort from my master.” Again, there is nothing in the story or the described actions of this steward that would imply any dishonesty on his part, and again, it seems hard to believe that the master would praise his steward for extorting wealth from him. Some have also argued that stewards took a cut of the debts collected for their master as their wage and that this steward is simply deducting what his normal cut of the income would be. This seems quite odd for two reasons. First of all, one would expect a steward’s cut to be consistent across the board and the amount that the steward deducts from each debtor is different. Secondly, these are pretty significant discounts that the steward is giving out, for a steward to have been getting a 50% cut of the master’s income seems quite unreasonable.
So what are we left with? It seems that the steward is genuinely seeking to collect on some debts. Yet, are these discounts an honorable way to do so? A number of years ago I was hired by a flooring distributorship to come in for a few hours a week and help straighten out their books after they were badly handled by a previous office manager. In addition, I was to train the replacement in how to properly use the accounting software that the company used. As I was going through the books, I was astounded at just how many bad debts this company had from previous customers—some companies being more than $20,000 in debt to this distributor—debts that would likely never be collected upon. For a family owned company, that is a lot of money. Even if they had been able to collect half of the debt they were owed across the board, that would have made a substantial difference in the company’s fiscal health. This is the same principle that debt collection agencies operate on; something is better than nothing, and those “somethings” add up when you have a number of debtors.
Is it possible that this is what the steward is seeking to do? Is it possible that instead of being dishonest in the collection of the master’s debts, that he is being zealous to see the debts remitted even at the cost of some forgiveness? Is it possible that this steward’s fault had been his overzealous approach to the letter of the debt, and in doing so, he was failing to do his job, for in seeking to only bring in the full amount, he was failing to bring in much of anything? Is it just possible that in his zeal for perfection he had lost sight of the merciful nature of his master? Is it just possible that this zeal for making people pay the letter of the debt caused a greater division between his master and the people who served him? And is this not the very problem of the Pharisees?
Beloved, we serve a God of mercy, and in their zeal for the letter of the law, the Pharisees alienated the people from their God and obscured God’s mercy. Healthy business relationships grow when both parties are interested in the growth and well-being of the other. Sometimes, in business, you need to take a loss, forgiving a portion of a debt, for the overall health of both companies. When that happens, it is not so much about the exact dollars and cents of the debt, but it is about the intent behind the business arrangement. The Pharisees had lost sight of that. In their zeal, they had kind of created a “checklist” religion, where unless you could mark off all of the boxes in fulfilling all of the rules, then you could not be considered holy. Yet, the rules that God has given us are not so much a checklist as they are a sign of God’s holiness and a reminder that we are in desperate need of grace. Indeed, we owe a debt—a debt we cannot pay at that, yet God did not leave us to our own destruction, but offered us his Son, one who would pay the debt on our behalf, so that we might know the mercy and grace of the Living God toward his people. And beloved, those of us who are stewards of that grace—teachers of God’s word—have an obligation to demonstrate that grace to those around us, faithfully communicating the Gospel to all who would hear. That was also the task given to the Scribes and Pharisees—a task that they woefully failed in, being more concerned about their own vain righteousness and forgetting that even they were debtors to grace.
O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be;
Let that grace now, like a fetter, bind my wand’ring heart to thee.
Prone to wander—Lord, I feel it—prone to leave the God I love:
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.
“And calling in his lord’s debtors one at a time, he said to the first, ‘how much are you indebted to my lord?’”
So now we see this steward coming up with a solution—he is going to bring in the debtors and deal with them—likely, as we have already suggested, dealing specifically with those who have brought such accusations against him. The first thing that we should note about the language that is used is of the reference to debtors. The term employed is creofeile/thß (chreopheiletas), which only shows up twice in the New Testament, here and in the parable of the moneylender with his two debtors (Luke 7:41-42). What is interesting about this is that both of these uses are employed in the context of a parable about forgiveness that is designed to be a rebuke towards Pharisees. The use of the term in the Septuagint does also give us a little bit of light, as in both cases of this term’s use, it is used to speak of someone who has been humbled and put in their place unjustly. In Job 31:37, Job is speaking of how he would present himself before God—righteous and unjustly oppressed—seeking justice, and in Proverbs 29:13, the writer is speaking of how God provides light to both those who are crushed by debt and those who have kept them in poverty. What does this imply? It very well may imply that the reason that this kind of debtor is in debt is because they have been forced unjustly into that debt. Does that imply that this steward really is a crook? Not necessarily, let us explore the parable further before we jump to a conclusion.
There is another question that we must ask. Why does the steward ask the debtor how much he owed to his master? Isn’t that the steward’s business to know? The steward has yet to be released from his position, so the books should still be at his disposal. Why then does he not say, ‘you owe this much…”? In a sense, it is almost as if this steward is asking the debtors how much they say they owe to the master. Could the steward have been charging unlawful interest or fees? Possibly. But it almost seems that there may have been a debate in what the debtors owed and what the steward may have been seeking to charge them. We will bring this question up once again when we look at the steward’s strategy with the debtors, just ask the question, what is it that our Lord is teaching us here? What is this steward really like and how does it fit in with the larger context of the passage? Beloved, don’t take the easy way out of trying to come to terms with some of the more difficult passages of scripture; God has given them to us for a reason and it is our responsibility to learn just what our Lord is saying.
“‘I knew what I should have done, in order that when I am removed from responsibility of stewardship, they might welcome me into their houses.’”
As we move through this man’s thought, something very unusual stands out before us, particularly in the Greek. In the first clause, both of the verbs, ginw/skw (ginosko-“to know”) and poie/w (poieo-“to do”), are in the aorist tense, which reflects a simple past tense. In addition, poie/w (poieo) is in the subjunctive mood, which, amongst other things, reflects the idea of a cognitive or intellectual probability. “I should have done this” or “I might do that” are examples of the subjunctive mood. When we put this all together, it is not so much that the steward is looking ahead to what he might do to make himself welcome in people’s homes, but he is looking back at seeing what he should have done in the first place—with the implication that he will now go back and do it! Keep this in mind as we progress into the following verses, as it will help add some light to what is taking place.
The next thing that we need to note is that this man is clearly not immediately fired from his position—the loss of job is imminent, but has not yet been realized. He speaks of “when” he is removed from his position. Now, the term that is used here which speaks of his removal is the Greek term meqi/sthmi (methistami), from which we get the English term “metathesis.” The word speaks of a drastic change from one state to the next. In modern Greek, it is often used to describe someone’s death and change from this life to the next, and that has led some commentators to believe that this steward is dealing with eternal matters. Yet, there is very little in the context of the passage or in the Biblical use of the term (either in the Septuagint or the New Testament) to imply that he is thinking of eternal matters. Instead, the normal use of the term seems most reasonable, that he is looking at a total change in lifestyle when he is removed from his position, and is seeking to determine what he may do to correct his dilemma.
We must also ask the question as to who the “they” are that this steward is referring to in terms of being welcomed into their homes. Many of our English translations assume the word “people” as the subject of this verb, making it a very general statement, but the word people is nowhere present, implying that the “they” is a more specific group. Normally, when we have a pronoun, we look to the most recent definite noun (of the same class and state) to see what it is being identified with. Clearly, the steward is not referring to his master, that would first of all be nonsensical in light of what is about to take place, and, the term “they” is plural and the master is one man.
The only other person that we have represented is the man who accused the steward of squandering his master’s resources. Let us consider for a minute who this accuser likely was. We have already spoken of this in terms of how the accusation was designed to be malicious and is false in its essence, and we have dealt with the idea that this might have come from someone who had an interest in stealing this steward’s job for himself. Yet, there is perhaps another possibility that we should entertain, perhaps the accusation is coming from one of the master’s debtors, one who is disgruntled at the way this steward has been dealing with them. Indeed, we must be careful as we are entering into speculation here, but at the same time, God gave us minds to reason and the people to whom this parable was told very well may have asked the same questions. As long as we stay within the context of the text, some degree of reading between the lines seems to be quite reasonable.
Let us continue this line of thinking for just a moment. Say that this steward has offended one of the master’s debtors by the way he does business, is it not probably that the steward has offended others? And if others were offended, is it not reasonable to presume that they may have communicated with one another? And if that is the case—which seems quite probable—is it not likely that the “certain man” who made the charge against the steward is speaking on behalf of other debtors? Again, we have entered into a good bit of speculation here, but at the same time, it fits entirely within the context of the passage.
This would make the “they” of his statement refer to the group of debtors that he has been dealing with. Now, we have to answer the next question as to why he would want to be welcome in their homes. The normal response is that he is hoping for a place to stay, given that he will no longer have a place in his master’s house. Yet the term that we translate as “welcome” is the Greek word de/comai (dechomai), which means “to receive, to accept, to tolerate, to welcome, or to grasp,” in other words being fairly broad in its usage. While the term can be used to refer to receiving someone or something on a permanent basis (see Matthew 18:5), it does not have to, and can simply refer to someone who is being welcomed as a houseguest for dinner or overnight. In other words, remembering that we spoke of this steward having too much dignity to live off of charity, it seems that his interest is making right offense he committed toward the debtors—at least correcting his wrong in such a way that they would be amiable toward him and not seek his life as well as his job.
So, what offense is this steward trying to make right? We have stated already that this seems to be a man of honor and that the charges were malicious and false—how could he have anything to make right? I believe that we will soon see just what his offense was, but let’s arrive at that conclusion as we continue to walk through this passage. The key thing to remember, beloved, is that although we are engaged in some reading between the lines as well as wrestling with the cultural nuances of Jesus’ day in terms of language, the Pharisees understood exactly what Jesus meant when he told this parable to his disciples—and were quite offended. Keep that in mind as we continue studying this much-debated text. In addition, keep in mind that this parable is meant for your edification as well, else the Holy Spirit would not have preserved it for you.
“Now the steward said to himself, ‘What can I do since my lord is cutting off the responsibility to manage from me? To dig, I am not strong enough. To beg, I am ashamed.’”
The steward realizes that his dilemma is severe. Note that as of yet, the role of management has not been totally removed from his hands. The verb used here, ajfairew (afaireo), which speaks of the man’s removal from his position, is in the present tense, which implies that it is happening, but still in the process of going on at this point in the story. The fact that the steward can bring the debtors in and has the authority to collect the debts he collects echoes this fact. The verb itself is also in what is called the “middle” voice, which reflects one doing something for oneself. The statement, “I picked myself up,” would use a middle voice with the verb, for example. In this case, it implies that the rich man himself is in the process of divesting the steward of his responsibilities. Why is this significant? It is significant because it means that there are no criminal charges being leveled at the steward. Had the steward been truly guilty of squandering the man’s wealth, then the rich man would have been within his rights to have the steward arrested and thrown into prison. Yet, that is clearly not the case with this man. The rich man is personally removing the steward from his duties, which seems to imply that this incident has more to do with the rich man’s honor than with the skillfulness of the steward in fulfilling his task.
The steward continues his line of thinking, recognizing that he does not have the physical strength to dig and that he is ashamed to beg. The language of digging is normally used in the context of agricultural work, implying that what is being talked about would be hiring on as a common laborer, working in the fields tilling and planting. For this kind of labor, the man simply does not have the strength. He has been a steward for his career and has gotten accustomed to a comfortable lifestyle. In modern terms, we might say that his hands have grown soft and is not equipped to do manual labor for a living.
In addition, he says that he is ashamed to beg. The term that is used here is the word aijscu/nw (aischuno), which refers to being embarrassed or humiliated by something. The question that we must ask ourselves is whether this shame is a result of him being too prideful to ask for help or whether it is because he is too honorable to live at the expense of others in the community. Part of the answer is found in the word that we translate as “to beg.” This is the word ejpaite/w (epaiteo), which speaks of a lifestyle of begging, not seeking temporary assistance. It is used in only one other place in the New Testament, to speak of the blind beggar in Luke 18:35, but it is also found in the Septuagint, the Greek Translation of the Old Testament, in Psalm 109:10, which speaks of begging in terms of being a curse to those who are the enemies of God. We also must consider the statement he makes about digging. If he considered menial labor in the first place, it seems that we can safely say that this man is willing to work, and, if given the liberty to extend the argument to its logical end, would rather work than to beg, living off of the earnings of others.
I am reminded of what Paul teaches us in 2 Thessalonians 3:10 in regards to this principle. In that community, they were plagued by many Christians who would be content to live off of the charity of their brothers and sisters in faith. Now, we must not forget that there was active persecution against Christians in many places of the Roman world by this point, and often, when a person would come to faith, they would lose their jobs because they would no longer make offerings to the patron deity of the particular trade guild to which they belonged. Thus, there was a need for believers who had wealth to assist believers who were struggling. Yet Paul does not allow that to give one an excuse for laziness. The rule he set down then is that if you are unwilling to work, it demonstrates that you have a lazy spirit—something that is never seen in scripture as a godly character trait—and should not be allowed to eat. Paul is not saying that charity and assistance is not to be given—on the contrary, it should be given—but only to those who would genuinely seek to work. It seems to me that this particular steward’s heart is in the right place when it comes to this later teaching by Paul. The man recognizes that he will need to work to earn his own support, but is in an awkward position—his reputation has been besmirched, so he cannot be a steward, he is not strong enough to labor in the fields, and he will not beg because he is an honorable man.
There is one other question that one must ask. If this steward is genuinely guilty of squandering his master’s wealth, he certainly has not done so in such a way that would line his own pockets. Were he embezzling money from his master, he certainly would not need to worry about begging. Once again, it would seem that this man has done honorably what he was hired to do—even if , in others eyes, he has not done it well. We will revisit this again, but I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself just yet.
Beloved, sometimes our presuppositions about what a particular passage means cloud our vision, not allowing us to see the truth behind what Jesus is saying or teaching. Take time with this parable (and other passages as well), and take the time to think through the questions that you might have. God has given us the ability to reason and we ought to use it. What a wonderful gift that God has given us in his word—it is rich and deep, and teaches abundantly about His nature and his will. Treasure it and drink deeply of its riches.
“And he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I have heard concerning you? Return your declaration of stewardship, for you are no longer able to be my steward.’”
This is one reason why we are not to take parables and make them into allegories. Here you have this wealthy man, he has a steward that has dealt honestly with him in the past, and now when malicious accusations begin to fly, he believes the accusations and calls for his steward’s resignation. God does not behave in this way, he cannot be snookered by false educations and he does not summarily dismiss those who he has called into his service. Yet, as a parable, the analogy is accurate because the only point of this action by the rich man is to set the stage for what is to come. The parable is thus not so much about this man’s poor stewardship, but what he does when accused of squandering his employer’s money. Does this not strike a note of similarity with the parable of the Prodigal Son? Is that parable not one about forgiveness? Is not that parable less about the son’s actual squandering and more about what the son does when he comes to see his sin? I think that we will continue to see these similarities as we continue on through this parable, but for now, let us be content to put out the puzzle pieces where they can be clearly examined.
Note very closely the statement of this rich man. He never actually accuses the steward of mismanaging his wealth. He simply brings up these accusations and says that as a result of the accusations, the steward must return to him his declaration of stewardship. There is some degree of uncertainty about this declaration of stewardship. It may reflect a statement of accounts that the steward would have kept, much like a corporate accountant keeps the company books, but it also may be the document that gave this man public authority to manage the rich man’s affairs. Either way, his position has been removed.
Why would the rich man remove the steward as a result of accusations—false or true—without an investigation. One might assume that the man investigated the accusations before summoning his manager, but how would the rich man make such an investigation without having access to the accounts? Indeed, we see as we continue down the parable, that the steward still held on to the books so that he might put them in order before he stepped down. Thus, it seems that the steward was called before his employer shortly after these accusations were waged. The rich man simply says, as a result of these accusations, that the steward is no longer able—du/namai (dunamai), no longer has the power—to be his steward.
Why might this steward be unable to continue managing the rich man’s money upon the accusation of wrongdoing? Could perhaps the rich man’s honor and reputation be such that his household could not be effectively managed by one who gave even a hint of impropriety? Remember, that a steward was responsible for more than just making wise investments for the master, but he carried with him the authority of the master and represented the master in all areas of community life. The word we translate as “steward” is the word oijkono/moß (oikonomos), and is the word we get “economy” from. It is combination of the word oi™koß (oikos), meaning “house” and no/moß (nomos), which means “law or ordering.” Thus, you have the idea of a oijkono/moß (oikonomos) as being one who orders the affairs of the house—something that would be especially focused on, though not always limited to, financial dealings. Thus, this man represented his master in all things—whether the accusations were right or wrong, if this man was discredited in the community, his master would have had his reputation harmed as well.
Though we will revisit this question a bit later in the parable, I find it interesting that the first thing that the Apostle Paul lists as being a requirement for someone who is to be an elder in the church is that they must be above reproach (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:6). The two words that he uses in their respective passages are ajnepi/lhmptoß (anepilamptos) and ajne/gklhtoß (anegklatos), and they both mean to be blameless, irreproachable, or without guilt. In other words, the way that preachers are to conduct themselves is in such a manner that even their enemies respect their integrity. I wonder how many preachers live up to that standard?
Amazingly, this is what the scriptures say of believers when we stand before God’s throne of judgment—that we will be found blameless in that day (Colossians 1:22)! Why is this? It won’t have anything to do with our own “righteous” works, but it has everything to do with Jesus Christ’s perfect righteousness. When we stand before God’s judgment seat, we will be judged according to Christ’s righteousness and not our own. Indeed, for the Christian, it is Jesus who is our oijkono/moß (oikonomos) of righteousness! Hallelujah for that and Amen!
“And also, he said to the disciples, ‘There was a certain man who was rich who had a steward, and this man accused him of squandering his possessions.”
Now, there is one more thing that we need to remember before we start looking more closely at the specifics of this passage, and that this passage is a parable and not an allegory. A parable is a heavenly story that points to a greater and often spiritual reality. There are not always one to one correspondences between elements and where there are correspondences, there is not always a good correspondence. In other words, while we are often led to view this rich man as God, do not attribute to God everything that this rich man does, simply see the rich man as an imperfect analogy of something that cannot be adequately described in human language. Many people want to allegorize these parables, not only forcing meaning on things that are not present but also by forcing there to be a complete correspondence between the picture and the reality. This is crucial to understand when you are looking at any parable, and especially with ones that are debated as much as this one has been.
The first thing, then that Jesus tells us in this parable is that there was a certain man. And the primary thing that he tells us about this man is that he is rich. The word that he uses is plou/sioß (plousios), which implies that he was abounding in worldly assets. There are multiple words in Greek to describe one having wealth, and this is not a word like eujpore/omai (euporeomai), which speaks of one who is well to do, but is speaks someone who is abundantly wealthy. Why is this worth noting? Assuming that the charges against the steward were true, the effect of his squandering certainly was not harming the overall wealth of the rich man in question. You might say that the man was greedy and thus the squandering was such that it kept a man who was abundantly rich from being abundantly even more rich. Yet, then, you are missing the point of the parable. This accusation that was brought about against him was such that he was in danger of losing his position of authority over the master’s money. Also, the language of squandering, diaskori/zw (diaskorizo), is such that speaks of scattering or wiping out that which was given. It speaks of how a sower scatters seeds all about, throwing them this way and that. The accusation against this man is quite severe and implies that the steward was doing serious damage to the financial portfolio of the rich man.
So what about these accusations? The word for accuse is the word, dia/ballw (diaballo), and is the word which we get “diabalo” from, or devil. This is the only time it is found in the New Testament, but it is found within the Greek translation of the Old Testament in Daniel 3:8, where the Chaldeans are maliciously accusing the Jews, implying that the Jews were not loyal citizens because they would not bow down before an idol of the king. Note what the accusation is about. The accusation is not so much against them because they won’t bow down—if that were so, the accusation would be true. The accusation implies a lack of loyalty because they won’t bow down. In addition, it is found twice in the inter-testamental writings of the books of Maccabees, once to describe misinformation given of one who was squandering money (2 Maccabees 3:11) and once of the slandering of a righteous man with the intent of ruining his reputation (4 Maccabees 4:1). It should not surprise us that the word “devil” is drawn from this term, reflecting not so much broad accusations, but accusations that are meant to be destructive and misleading.
With these things in mind, I think that the implication we must draw is that this manager—this steward of the rich man’s wealth—was being falsely accused. Perhaps he had offended someone or perhaps someone was out to take his job. These things we do not know, but what we can safely glean from the text was that this accusation is designed to discredit the man and undo the things that he has worked hard to accomplish for his boss. This is rather awkward because most of us have grown up thinking nothing more than that this is a dishonest manager extorting money from his boss, yet that is probably one of the reasons that this parable has been so perplexing to so many people. And indeed, sometimes those little titles in bold print at the top of passages like this can be rather misleading (and of course, these were never part of the original inspired text but are insertions made by translators).
What should we say about this? Should we distrust our Bibles from here on out? No, not at all. Our modern English translations are remarkably accurate and even the little bold print titles can be quite helpful. What it does teach us is that we need to oftentimes look deeper at the scriptures when we read things that just don’t sit right with our common sense. It is also a reminder that we need to slow down in our study of God’s word. Oftentimes we become so familiar with a story and the way the meaning of a story has been presented that we may gloss over it and in doing so miss the meaning or the application that is within the text. We live in a culture that is rush, rush, when it comes to everything it does—how we would benefit by slowing down as we immerse ourselves in God’s word. I pray that as we take time to work our way through this parable, that it will encourage you to take your time to work through other passages of scripture seeking God’s face and seeking to dig more and more deeply in to the glorious treasure that we have been given.
I love Him more deeply every day and in every way,
For he has given me his word and has hid it in my heart.
He has shown me truth and has shown me life
And given this once dead sinner a brand new start.
“And also, he said to the disciples, ‘There was a certain man who was rich who had a steward, and this man accused him of squandering his possessions.”
We should pay very close attention to the first statement of this verse because it sets the larger context. The verse begins with de\ kai\ (de kai), which means, “but also or and also.” It could even be translated more colloquially as “and he went on to say…” These words connect this verse very closely with what goes before. This is not a general teaching that Jesus gave at some point of his ministry between here and there as so many of his recorded teachings are, but it follows on the heels of the passage that goes on before it, thus, we must see the connection.
This passage follows immediately after three parables that are normally grouped together—a lost lamb, a lost coin, and a lost son—and all designed to answer the challenge of the Pharisees and scribes, that Jesus had been receiving sinners to himself and even eating with them (something that would make one unclean in their eyes). This parable, then, is told in exactly the same context, and should be understood in terms of answering the same question about Jesus spending time with sinners. With this in mind, one must also make note of the link between this parable and that of the Prodigal Son. While we usually place this parable in with the parables about “lost things,” we should note that the parable of the prodigal son is not so much about a lost son being searched for as it is about a son who mismanages his father’s estate. In the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, the owner of the item in question does the seeking out; in the parable of the prodigal son, the Father, while clearly watching for his son’s return, never goes out and hunts his son down as in the previous two parables. Instead, he waits until his son gets to the end of his rope and receives his son back with forgiveness—much as the steward or manager does in this parable.
It should also be noted that the Pharisees, scribes, and Sadducees were considered to be stewards of the temple of God and of the riches of God’s law. Jesus tells a number of parables to this extent which are also designed to point out that these stewards were abusing and wasting the things of God which God had placed them over. Both of these parables (the prodigal son and the honest/dishonest manager) deal with exactly that question—the abuse of that which they had been given to care for and with forgiveness offered by the one in charge (the father and the rich man in the respective parables). We should not miss these connections, for they will provide us with important interpretive tools as we enter into this greatly disputed parable.
One final note about the context of this passage: note to whom Jesus is speaking. Luke begins this passage by telling us that Jesus is directing this parable toward his disciples, not to the crowd as a whole. It is almost as if this parable were meant as a private commentary on the previous parable—or at least, a commentary on the son who remained home in the parable of the prodigal son. It is also worth noting that in verse 14, we find out that the Pharisees had been listening in, and were offended at this parable of the steward. Why? It is likely because they understood this parable to be directed toward them—the ones who by all earthly measure were upright and righteous and never followed the path of the prodigal.
Have you ever told a story to one person, knowing that someone is listening in, with the express aim of addressing the one who is listening in? I think that one some level, this must be what Jesus is doing. It is as if stops in the middle of a public discourse, directs this toward his disciples (knowing full well the Pharisees are listening in) with the intent of putting the Pharisees in their place. There is no question that they heard the parable, and no question that they responded negatively, the question that we must now seek to wrestle with is just what does Jesus mean by using this parable? Oh, the joy of God’s word—it never ceases to force you to dig deeper and deeper into its riches, and oh the blessings one finds as one continues to plumb the depths!
The Parable of the Honest Dishonest Manager (Luke 16:1-13)
The parable of the “dishonest manager” or “unjust steward” is a parable that has caused Bible teachers endless frustration. Not only is the meaning rather confusing on a surface reading of the text, but there are also no end to the different interpretations of the passage. A number of years ago, while preaching through a series of parables, I found myself confronted with having to tackle this text. What I found, upon surveying about 15 different commentaries on the subject was that amongst those 15 commentators, there were 15 different interpretations of just how this parable was to be understood. Especially once we get to the end of the parable where this dishonest manager is being commended for his “shrewdness.” I hope and pray that as we spend some time reflecting on this passage, some light will be shed on this very disputed parable from our Lord.