The Unjust Steward

Q – Do you have any thoughts on the parable of the “unjust steward”? It came up as part of an online discussion group. I see the contrasts all over the place, and I think the point of it is that we ought to be good stewards with what we have, but (like most parables) there is something just a tad too confusing in it for me to ‘get it.’ Here’s what was said on the discussion group:

Right now I’m working my way through the book of Luke, and today read the parable of the unrighteous steward, chapter 16:1-13. This parable confuses me greatly, especially verse 9 – “And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it fails, they will receive you into the eternal dwellings.”

Huh? Any thoughts out there?

Jim – Yep, it’s confusing when it’s out of context and the KJV translation doesn’t help things. So, let’s start with the audience. Jesus was talking within earshot of the Pharisees. And, as was often the case, He was both teaching His disciples and directing His point toward those religious leaders.

Let’s look at His conclusions –

“No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. And the Pharisees also, who were covetous, heard all these things: and they derided him. And he said unto them, Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God.” (Luke 16:13-15)

Whatever else we get from this parable, we must understand that Jesus was condemning the Pharisees for their love of money (the root of all evil). They should have been servants to God, but they served filthy lucre. And, since you cannot serve both, Jesus was essentially saying that they were not God’s servants. They understood His point and derided Him for it.

So, He finished by telling them that they got praise from other men, but God looked on their hearts, knew their greedy lust for power and would condemn them. Fleshly men may highly esteem money, fame, wealth, power and prestige, but that serves the ego and is abominable in the sight of God, who seeks genuine worship from a spirit of humility and service.

These words are similar to Jesus’ other statements concerning the Pharisees, such as –

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” (Mat. 23:27-28)

Now, the purpose of the lesson for the disciples was also spelled out –

“He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much. If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own? (Luke 16:10-12)

We’ll come back to those summary points later and apply them to the parable, but for the moment realize that these are the primary points of the lesson.

Now, as for the parable itself, people get confused over it because they don’t know whether Jesus was commending the unjust servant or not. But, the language is clear. Jesus only said that the rich man, the householder, ended up commending his unjust steward. And, it was Jesus’ reaction to that fact that is the key to the whole deal.

Alright, here’s the story –

“And he said also unto his disciples, There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods. And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward. Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. So he called every one of his lord’s debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore. And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.” (Luke 16:1-8)

That’s the whole story. A householder heard that his steward had been cheating him, so he asked for a full accounting. The steward realized that he was in trouble – probably proof that he actually had been involved in a bit of pilfering – and he didn’t want to beg or do manual labor. So, he went around to all his master’s debtors, and having the authority of the steward, he had them each lower their outstanding bills. That way, when he was out of a job, they would owe him and take him in. Pretty clever plan. Well, the householder thought it was pretty clever, too. He commended him for his shrewdness.

Now, did Jesus commend this man’s chicanery? Nope. He simply said that the householder did. Why? Because “the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light.” (NAS) The children of this world – as opposed to those who are “sons of light” – are more conniving and wise (like serpents) when they deal with each other. Of course, the “sons of light” would be just the opposite. They would be charitable and kind.

So, there’s the contrast. The unjust steward stole from his master, he enticed others to join in with his undercutting, and he set himself up with a future job at his master’s expense. Then, just to show how corrupt people really are, even his master had to be impressed with his shrewd behavior. The men of this world love that sort of activity and are naturally drawn to it.

But, the children of light are not shrewd when dealing with each other. They are not to use money and power to manipulate people and situations to their own benefit. They are to suffer loss and to esteem every man better than themselves (Phil. 2:3).

So, how should Christians approach the matter of money, considering that the whole world system is dependent on the steady, constant flow of cash? Well first off, we are not part of the world or it’s system. Christ said that we are in the world, but not of the world.

“If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.” (John 15:19)

We are to occupy until He comes (Luke 19:13), but never conform to the world (Rom. 12:2). So, Christ told his disciples what their approach to money should be –

“And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.” (Luke 16:9)

That’s where the KJV fails us and muddies the waters a bit. The NAS reads –

“And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the mammon of unrighteousness; that when it fails, they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”

That’s a much better rendering. The object of failure is the money, the mammon, not the disciples. So, His point is: Use the filthy money of the world as a means to make friends, make converts, teach the truth. Then, when this system is finished and the money fails, those that you brought to the truth will welcome you in the eternal home – Heaven.

That’s the proper Christian attitude, as contrasted with the world’s attitude, toward money. Use it for good purposes, but don’t let it control you. Don’t let it be the focus and purpose of your life. Why?

“No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”

That’s the primary point of the whole story. The Pharisees had grown to love money to the degree that they no longer served God. They served their flesh. They should have been holding up the decrees of righteousness, but – like the unjust stewards they were – they went about undercutting their Master and letting His debtors get away with less than they owed so they could get in good with other men, all the while losing their standing with God.

And, they knew it. And, they knew He knew it. And, they knew He was right. And, they hated Him for it.

And, as for practical application –

“He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.”

That’s a fact. A man who will steal from you behind your back will also cheat you openly among your friends when the chips are down. But, a man who is trustworthy in the minutiae is also trustworthy with the big stuff.

“If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?”

The unjust steward could not be trusted with money. He cheated his master and used money as a means to get in good with other rich men. So, Jesus told His disciples that how you handle your money – the legal tender on which all of the world’s trades and deals are based – is a good indication of how you will handle things of real value, like God’s word.

Liars, cheaters, embezzlers, thieves, power brokers and the like will never develop a genuinely Christian worldview and attitude because they put themselves first and have no concern for their fellows. They use people to make money, rather than using money to make friends. And God, who knows your heart, knows whether you use money for His kingdom and purpose, or whether you heap it on yourself. And, if He cannot trust you with something that is unrighteous at its core, how can He trust you with the boundless riches of His glory?

“And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own?”

And finally, if you cannot be trusted to care for another person’s property, how can you expect anyone – especially God – to give you an inheritance? Clearly, given Christ’s words, He will not. Honesty is a hallmark of Christianity. Looking out for the good of others, being trustworthy and faithful for His sake, are the marks of a converted person. Good trees bear good fruit, eh?

So, that’s my take on that chapter. I hope it helps to unravel the bits and pieces. I think it’s interesting that Jesus used money one more time as a gauge of genuine faith. As I once heard a preacher say, “Money is a powerful and useful servant, but it is a tireless and dastardly master.” People who draw close to God with their lips but won’t trust Him with their living and livelihood still have some explaining to do.

Thanks for the question!

Yours for His sake,