The Parable of the Unjust Steward - Part 2
Malcolm Horlock, Cardiff, Wales
(UNLESS OTHERWISE STATED, ALL QUOTATIONS OF SCRIPTURE ARE FROM THE NEW KING JAMES VERSION)
The Parable of the Unjust Steward. Luke 16. 1-13. Part 2.
In the previous article, we noted that by means of this parable our Lord taught something of the long-term benefit and gain which God’s people can secure for themselves if they use their wealth properly.
We saw that the steward of the parable resolved to put ‘every one of his master’s debtors’ in his debt by reducing the amounts by which they were already in his master’s debt. His hope and expectation was that, by means of this ploy, he could ensure that these debtors would happily take him in when the time finally came that his master threw him out!
Having spoken of (i) the steward’s accusation and the master’s response, vv. 1-2; (ii) the steward’s dilemma and decision, vv. 3-4; and (iii) the steward’s ingenious scheme, vv. 5-7, the Lord Jesus next turned the spotlight on the master’s commendation. And that is where we take up the story.
The Master’s Commendation.
Verse 8a. ‘The master commended the unjust steward because he had dealt shrewdly’. Although the word translated ‘master’ is normally translated ‘lord’ in the New Testament,1 and in by far the majority of cases refers to the Lord Jesus, it almost certainly refers here to the master in the parable.2 I say this for two reasons. First, in the immediate context, this is the word used by the Saviour three times in the parable to refer to the rich man.3 And, second, the structure of the section from verse 1 to verse 13 points in the same direction. The clear impression given is that everything from, ‘There was a certain rich man’, through to, ‘You cannot serve God and mammon’ represents a single unit comprising that which our Lord ‘said to His disciples’.
That the master in the story should commend (should ‘praise’4) the steward constitutes no difficulty. The ‘unjust’ and unprincipled steward was applauded, not for his fraudulent actions, but for his resourcefulness, prudence and foresight.5
If some should find it difficult to believe that any master would commend such a man for his actions, they would do well to consider an incident in the life of King Charles II. Following the English civil war in the seventeenth century, Irishmen were given large estates in Ireland by Parliament. But when Charles II was restored to the throne, they lost everything. One of these men, Colonel Thomas Blood, gained the confidence of the elderly custodian of the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London, and, on 9 May 1671, Colonel Blood and his accomplices overpowered him and made off with the royal crown and other items. They succeeded in getting out of the Jewel House, but were captured before they could escape from the Tower itself. Remarkably, Colonel Blood somehow managed to secure an audience with King Charles himself, at which the King not only granted the Colonel a pardon but also bestowed on him valuable land in Ireland. One of the likely explanations of the king’s actions is that he was impressed by Blood’s initiative and enterprise.6
Whether or not that is the true explanation for the actions of King Charles, here in His parable the Saviour spoke of a ‘rich man’ who most certainly was impressed by his servant’s wisdom and foresight. But it is important to note that the Lord Jesus made it clear that the master’s praise was reserved for the steward’s shrewdness and wise use of his opportunity, and that his praise did not extend to the steward’s unfaithfulness and disloyalty. ‘It is the astuteness of the plan that is praised: and there is all the difference in the world between “I applaud the dishonest steward because he acted cleverly” and “I applaud the clever steward because he acted dishonestly” . . . The steward is a rascal; but he is a wonderfully clever rascal’.7 In other words, the master commended the dishonest steward because he acted wisely, not the wise steward because he acted dishonestly!
But before we rush on to consider our Lord’s application of the parable, we must first file away in our minds that the steward’s wisdom consisted in taking advantage of those resources and means which belonged to someone else – and which were at his disposal only for a relatively short time – to accomplish his own end and purpose, namely, to secure some long-term benefit for himself when the inevitable day of reckoning came.8
Our Lord’s comments, vv. 8b-13.
(i) The need for wisdom and foresight in the use of our earthly riches and possessions, vv. 8b-9.
Verse 8b. The Saviour first drew attention to the distressing fact that ‘the sons of9 this world’ (‘the sons of this age’, literally10) normally show far greater shrewdness with reference to their earthly and temporal concerns than ‘the sons of light‘ (a term denoting the Lord’s disciples11) do with reference to their heavenly and eternal concerns.
‘The sons of this age’ are those described long before by David as the ‘men of the world, who have their portion in this life’.12 The Lord was clearly saddened that such men were considerably wiser in seizing their opportunities and using their wealth to secure their own ends in the present world, than were His own followers in seizing their opportunities and using their wealth to further their interests in the world to come.
‘In their generation’ (by which I understand the Lord to mean ‘in their dealings with one another’ or ‘with reference to their own interests’) the men of this world are very quick to adopt the best ways and means of attaining their earthly objectives.
Such men, whose interests are bounded by the horizons of this world and who have no interest either in heaven or in God, are foolish enough in the choice of their goals, but they are astute enough when it comes to the pursuit and attainment of their goals – just as was the unjust steward. And to that extent, we who claim to aim for higher things and eternal riches have much to learn from them.
Verse 9. We can see at a glance that this verse is couched throughout in the language of the preceding parable.
The words ‘I (emphatic) say to you’ introduce our Lord’s application of the parable to His hearers in contrast to the words of the earthly lord which He had reported in the previous verse. In brief, just as the steward’s wisdom consisted in his adroit use of the goods which were available to him only for a brief time so as to secure his future and lasting benefit, so we, by the proper use of that ‘mammon’ which is at our disposal now (but which will soon fail us), can secure for ourselves lasting treasure in heaven.
‘Make to yourselves13 friends’, the Saviour said, but clearly ‘not fickle friends of the sort that the prodigal son is said to have made’, Luke 15. 13, 16.14 Do not, that is, use your wealth to build larger barns as the rich fool in chapter 12,15 nor to build some sumptuous palace as the rich man in the second part of this chapter.16 Invest your riches rather in works of mercy – in providing aid and succour to the poor and destitute – in effect, in helping the Lazaruses of this world.17
‘By (‘by means of’, ‘out of’, ‘with the help of’) unrighteous mammon’. The word ‘mammon’ was used in a semipersonified sense to signify earthly goods, especially riches, money.18
It is possible that ‘mammon’ is described here as ‘unrighteous’, not because it is inherently bad, but because it is tainted by the unrighteous attitudes and actions which the pursuit of money often engenders, frequently being acquired unjustly (dishonestly19) by unjust men, to then be used for unjust and corrupt purposes or hoarded in an unjust manner. Such earthly possessions have the mark of an evil world stamped upon them. Alternatively, the Lord may have used the word ‘unrighteous’ simply to indicate that He had in mind ‘earthly and material’ wealth. Note His use of the identical expression (‘unrighteous mammon’) in verse 11, where it stands in contrast to ‘the true riches’, in the same way that, in verse 12, ‘what is another man’s’ stands in contrast to ‘what is your own’.
Note also that the correct translation reads, ‘when it fails’, and not ‘when you fail’ (as in the NKJV). Our Lord was referring to that time when earthly wealth and possessions will cease to be of any use or value to us. Certainly, the time will come when our riches and our money will fail each one of us; ‘for we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out’.20
We are simply stewards, and the Lord requires us to put to good use on earth that which one day will necessarily fail us so that one day we shall reap the benefit of it in heaven. That is, with the same foresight shown by the steward in the parable, we are to turn to our own and eternal advantage the very same wealth which the unrighteous use to further their own ends.
There can be little doubt that our Lord’s words ‘that . . . they may receive you’ was a well-known idiom which should be understood in an impersonal way, namely, ‘that . . . you may be received’.21 Therefore, there is no need for us to speculate as to who the ‘they’ might represent.22
The expression ‘everlasting habitations’ (literally ‘eternal tents’ or ‘eternal tabernacles’) stands in deliberate contrast, I suggest, not so much to the temporary homes of the debtors within which the prudent steward secured himself a place,23 as with the transitory nature of all our earthly goods.
In summary, an accurate rendering of verse 9 would be, ‘And I say to you, make to yourselves friends by means of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when it fails, you may be received into the eternal tabernacles’. Our Lord’s teaching was then very much in line with the words of Solomon, ‘Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and He will repay him for his deed’.24
No doubt many are familiar with the saying of Jim Elliot, one of five missionaries martyred in Ecuador in 1956, ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose’.25 But I guess that not so many know that, in his journal, Jim Elliot followed those words by quoting Luke chapter 16 verse 9!
Interestingly, Philip Henry, who lived back in the 17th century,26 was credited with a very similar saying. In the biography which he wrote of his father, the notable Bible commentator Matthew Henry, recalled his father’s acts of charity, adding that he used to say, ‘He is no fool who parts with that which he cannot keep, when he is sure to be recompensed with that which he cannot lose’.27
Indeed, some 1300 years before Philip Henry (and some 1600 years before Jim Elliot), Augustine (the so-called ‘Church father’), clearly with Luke 16 in the background, had written not dissimilar words: ‘Give those things to the poor which you cannot keep, that you may receive those things which you cannot lose’.28
Was Jim Elliot, I wonder, familiar with either (or both) of these earlier sayings? Certainly his linked quotation of Luke chapter 16 verse 9 suggests most strongly that, when he penned his now-famous saying, he (in company with both Augustine and Philip Henry) had in mind particularly the eternal benefits to be ‘gained’ by the believer from giving to the poor.
But it is One unspeakably greater than Augustine, Philip Henry or Jim Elliot who would have us know that treasures in heaven are laid up when treasures on earth are given up. As the apostle Paul expressed it sometime later, those who are ‘rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share’ store up for themselves ‘a good foundation for the time to come’.29
(ii) The need for faithfulness in the use of our earthly riches and possessions, vv. 10-12.
Verse 10. Turning from the foresight which the steward clearly possessed to the faithfulness which he equally clearly lacked, our Lord stated one of His oft-repeated principles of reward in His kingdom, ‘He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much’.30 The believer’s faithfulness, that is, is to be gauged not by the amount entrusted to him but by how he uses it.
‘What is least’ points to that which is of relatively little value or importance in itself. Given the surrounding context, it may well be that our Lord was meeting the possible objection that the use of one’s money is far too trivial a matter to be of interest to God in the day of reckoning and account. That is certainly not so, our Lord was saying. For a person’s attitude to ‘small’ things provides an index to his or her character. ‘Compared with the real and eternal riches, the mammon of unrighteousness is a very small matter . . . But our employment of it gives enough opportunity to demonstrate whether we have been faithful’.31
Long before he became President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln was employed as a shopkeeper in charge of a general store at New Salem, a former village in Illinois. And the following two incidents give an insight into the character of the man known to posterity as ‘Honest Abe’.
‘On one occasion he sold a woman a little bill of goods amounting in value, by the reckoning, to two dollars and six and a quarter cents. He received the money, and the woman went away. On adding the items of the bill again, to make himself sure of correctness, he found that he had taken six and a quarter cents too much. It was night, and closing and locking the store, he started out on foot, a distance of two or three miles, for the house of his defrauded customer, and delivering over to her the sum whose possession had so much troubled him, went home satisfied.
‘On another occasion, just as he was closing the store for the night, a woman entered, and asked for half a pound of tea. The tea was weighed out and paid for, and the store was left for the night. The next morning, Abraham entered to begin the duties of the day, when he discovered a four-ounce weight on the scales. He saw at once that he had made a mistake, and, shutting the store, he took a long walk before breakfast to deliver the remainder of the tea’.32
Mr. Lincoln refused to compromise his honesty, even when only paltry amounts were at stake. In so doing, before ever Abraham Lincoln proved himself ‘faithful in much’, he first proved himself ‘faithful in what is least’.
But our Lord’s words also served as a guard against any possible misunderstanding. The Saviour was certainly not extolling the unfaithfulness of the steward.33 For, although the steward’s shrewdness was demonstrated in his unfaithfulness and unrighteousness, the disciple’s wisdom is to be demonstrated in his faithfulness and righteousness in the use of his wealth and goods.
Verses 11-12. These verses bring home the specific application of verse 10 as far as our use of money is concerned. The implication of what our Lord said is that we should both live and give in the present in the light of the future.
It is highly likely that our Lord taught in Aramaic.34 In which case, verse 11 provided His hearers with a lengthy play on several words having the same Aramaic root; namely ‘mammon’, ‘faithful’, commit to one’s trust’, and ‘true’.
Make no mistake, our Lord was saying, the improper use (in this context, the selfish and self-indulgent use) of earth’s possessions and wealth will disqualify us and unfit us for heaven’s riches – which he described here as ‘the true riches’. ‘True’, that is, in the sense of the real, the genuine riches which are eternally secure.
Slightly paraphrased, in verse 12 our Lord’s taught, ‘If you are not trustworthy with someone else’s possessions, who is going to entrust to you possessions of your own?’35 And we each need to be reminded constantly that, in the final analysis, everything we have belongs to someone else, and is ours on loan (‘on trust’) only.
It is true, of course, that, in one sense, all I possess is mine. We might think, for instance, of the words of Peter to Ananias in Acts chapter 5, ‘While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control?’36
But in another, far higher, sense, all I have belongs to the Lord. We might now think, for instance, of the prayer of David, when he and the princes of Israel gave most liberally to provide for the building of the house of God, ‘Who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to offer so willingly as this? For all things come from you, and of your own we have given you’.37
At the end of the day, nothing I have in this passing world is my own. And I will certainly not be able to take any of my money or possessions with me when I leave it. Yet, it is a most sobering thought that one of the issues which will be raised at the Judgement Seat of Christ will be my stewardship of money. And the One who will sit there to review my service makes it clear in this verse that anything I then receive as my own imperishable possession will be determined by how I handled that which I have now on trust from and for Him.
Let us not fool ourselves. The stewardship of our money doesn’t mean simply giving God a tenth of our income and then doing as we please with the rest. When John Calvin died, Pope Pius IV said of him, ‘The strength of that heretic came from the fact that money was nothing to him’.38 That’s not a bad testimony, coming, as it did, from an enemy! Would that it could always be said of me!
The questions which face me at the practical level are simple, ‘What is my investment strategy? How much am I willing to invest in heaven’s eternal riches?’ Or, to express it in a slightly different way, ‘How much currency do I want to convert?’
(iii) Serving one Master, v. 13.
Verse 13. Jesus concluded His message by sounding a loud and solemn warning. He drew attention to the danger that the very same riches which, according to verse 9, can be a very good servant, can equally be a very bad master.
You can serve God with mammon, our Lord insisted, but you cannot serve God and mammon! You can make use of mammon for God and His service; but, alas, you can also serve mammon as an end in itself – in effect, making a god of mammon!39 For, as the apostle Paul observed, ‘covetousness . . . is idolatry’.40
As far then as the earthly goods and wealth now at my disposal are concerned, one key issue for me is whether I possess them or whether they possess me. I have been put in trust with them; I am not to put my trust in them.41
And I note the two very different words our Lord used here when speaking of service. Translated literally, He said, ‘No household servant can serve as a slave two lords’. It would have been possible, of course, for a man to be a domestic servant to two masters (working part of his time for each),42 but he could not be the absolute property of two masters, which is implied by ‘serving as a slave’.43 He would, necessarily, love one more than the other, or he would, at the least, be more devoted to (‘hold fast to’) the one more than the other.44 And we can no more serve two masters than we can walk in two directions at the same time.
The Pharisees’ reaction, v. 14.
Verse 14. It is clear that Jesus’ teaching touched the Pharisees on a raw nerve, and ‘they derided Him’ – ‘they turned up their noses at’ Him, literally.45 They sneered at Him, ridiculing His teaching that His followers should be compassionate and generous with their wealth. But this is hardly surprising for these men were, Luke notes, ‘lovers of money’.46
At the beginning of chapter 15, it was the Pharisees who had criticized the Saviour because they thought Him too lax.47 Now they poured scorn on His teaching because they thought it too harsh and demanding.
Alas, the Pharisees utterly failed to use their money to make friends of the poor and disadvantaged. And, in His next story, our Lord proceeds to portray them as the rich man who, following death, was tormented in the flame of Hades.48 This ‘rich man’ wasn’t accused by our Lord of robbing or mistreating the poor man Lazarus, nor even of driving him away from his ornamental gate. The ‘rich man’ stands condemned simply on account of his indifference and neglect.49
Much as we might like to, we cannot evade the force of our Lord’s teaching. He has entrusted some of us with considerable wealth. May He give each of us the wisdom and the will to make the right and proper use of that wealth.
1 The word ‘êýñéïò’ is translated ‘lord/Lord’ in 673 of its 687 occurrences in the New King James Version of the New Testament.
2 The Saviour later used this word again (five times) to refer to the ‘master’ of a ‘steward’, Luke 12. 42-47. See too its use in Luke 12 verses 36-37. Whereas, it is true that on one occasion the expression ‘then the Lord said (’eipen de o kuriov akousate’)’ does refer to the Lord Jesus rather than a character in the parable He had just told (Luke 18. 6), an almost identical Greek expression (‘kai eipen o kuriov’) occurs in another parable, where ‘the master/lord’ undoubtedly refers to a character in the parable, Luke 14. 23. The case is very different in Luke chapter 18 verse 6, where there is no ‘master’ in the preceding parable (that of the Unjust Judge) and therefore no room for possible misunderstanding; the words, ‘Then the Lord said’ clearly being there a reference to the Saviour’s own words.
3 Luke 16. 3, 5 (twice).
4 The verb translated ‘commended’ (epainew) is found only five other times in the New Testament, Rom. 15. 9 (being a quotation from 2 Sam. 22. 50); 1 Cor. 11. 2, 17, 22 (twice). It is, however, the intensive form of a word (ainew) which occurs a further nine times. Both words mean ‘to praise’.
5 Other ‘unsavoury’ characters feature prominently in our Lord’s parables; for example, the neighbour who doesn’t want to be bothered at night, Luke 11. 7-8, the unjust judge, Luke 18. 2-5, and the man who pockets the treasure which should have belonged to someone else by buying his field, Matt. 13. 44. Compare also the apostle Peter’s commendation of Sarah’s subjection to Abraham, which Peter based on an Old Testament passage that also exposed her unbelief, 1 Pet. 3. 6 with Gen. 18. 11-12.
6 See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Blood
7 T. W. MANSON, The Sayings of Jesus, page 292.
8 The steward ‘had wit enough to see that his future prospects depend on his present exertions’, J. MOFFATT, Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, article ‘Mammon’.
9 To be ‘a son of’ is a Hebrew idiom meaning ‘to share the characteristics of’; note its use in Matt. 13. 38; Mark 3. 17; Acts 4. 36; Eph. 2. 2.
10 Compare Luke 20. 34.
11 See John 12. 36; 1 Thess. 5. 5.
12 Ps. 17. 14.
13 Compare ‘make to yourselves purses that will not grow old, an unfailing treasure in the heavens’, Luke 12. 33 literal translation.
14 DAVID GOODING, According to Luke, page 273.
15 Luke 12. 18.
16 Luke 16. 19.
17 Luke’s has much to say about the responsibility of believers to the poor and needy. See, for example, Luke 3. 11; 6. 30-35; 11. 41; 12. 33-34; 14. 12-14; 18. 22.
18 See F. HAUCK, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, volume IV, pages 388-389.
19 F. HAUCK, ibid., page 390.
20 1 Tim. 6. 7; cf. Job 1. 21a.
21 ‘Luke not infrequently employs the third person plural of an active instead of a passive verb, and that even where there is no question of action’, J. N. DARBY, Collected Writings, volume 13, page 174. See, for example, Luke 6. 38, 44 (twice); 14. 35, and, especially Luke 12. 20, where ‘This night your soul will be required of you’ reads literally, ‘This night they shall require your soul of you’. For a similar usage in John’s Gospel, see C. K. BARRETT, The Gospel according to St. John on John 15. 6 and John 20. 2.
22 Those who have engaged in such unnecessary speculation have come up with a vast array of guesses, ranging from the angels, God and good works to the beneficiaries of the generous giving of those they are then thought to welcome into heaven.
23 Contrary to A. PLUMMER, The Gospel according to St. Luke, page 386.
24 Prov. 19. 17 ESV; cf. 1 Tim. 6. 17-19. 25 Extracted from Jim Elliot’s journal entry for 28 October 1 9 4 9 . T h e a c t u a l e n t r y i s r e p ro d u c e d a t http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jim%27s_Journal.jpg.
26 PHILIP HENRY was born on 24 August 1631 and died on 24 June 1696.
27 Quoted from The Life of Mr. Philip Henry, included in The Miscellaneous Works of the Rev. Matthew Henry, published by Joseph Ogle Robinson in 1833, page 35. (Available online at Google Books.)
28 Quoted by THOMAS WATSON in The Beatitudes (under the heading ‘A discourse of mercifulness’) – available online at http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/ipb-e/epl- 10/web/watson-beatitudes.html#_Toc411063745.
29 1 Tim. 6. 18-19.
30 Compare Matt. 25. 21, 23; Luke 19. 17.
31 DAVID GOODING, According to Luke, page 274.
32 Quoted from JOSIAH GILBERT HOLLAND, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, published 1866, chapter 3 – available online at http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Life_of_Abraham_Lincoln_( Holland).
33 See the notes above on verse 8a.
34 Aramaic was the predominant language in Palestine in the first century A.D. Indeed, Aramaic was so common that the reading of the Hebrew Scripture in the synagogue was accompanied by translation into Aramaic. In addition to such strong circumstantial evidence, we find direct evidence that Jesus spoke Aramaic as his primary language from the Gospel of Mark in particular. Note those occasions where Mark quotes and translates Aramaic expressions: Mark 5. 41; 7. 11, 34; 14. 36; 15. 34.
35 The play on the words ‘trustworthy’ and ‘entrust’ is intentional, and reflects the Aramaic words our Lord most likely used.
36 Acts 5. 4.
37 1 Chr. 29. 14.
38 THEA VAN HALSEMA, This was John Calvin, pages 164-165.
39 Compare, ‘covetousness, which is idolatry’, Col. 3. 5.
40 Col. 3. 5.
41 See 1 Tim. 6. 17. Indeed, it is ‘most likely’ that the word ‘mammon’ which Jesus used was derived from the Aramaic word meaning ‘that in which one trusts’, F. HAUCK, ibid., page 388.
42 Apparently this situation often did exist. In the context of the Passover, the Talmud laid down, ‘A servant belonging to two masters must not eat of the sacrifice of both masters’, Tractate Pesachim, 8. 1.
43 See K. H. RENGSTORF, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, volume II, pages 270-271.
44 ‘As the second clause is less strong than the first, the “or” may be understood in the sense of “or at least”’, A. PLUMMER, The Gospel according to St. Luke, page 387.
45 The verb is in the imperfect tense, which has the idea of continued action in the past. That is, ‘they kept on turning their noses up at Him’. The word occurs only once again in the New Testament, of the Jewish rulers who ‘turned up their noses’ at our Lord on the cross, Luke 23. 35. (It is the word used in the Greek Old Testament for the ridicule directed at the Saviour on the cross by those around, Psa. 22. 7.)
46 This particular word occurs only once again in the entire New Testament, 1 Tim. 3. 2. The noun occurs only in 1 Tim. 6. 10, ‘the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil’.
47 Luke 15. 1-2.
48 Luke 16. 19-31.
49 In the world to come, Jesus said, ‘a great gulf’ is fixed between the rich man and the poor man, but in the present world the poor man was so close that the rich man almost tripped over him every day on the way in and out of his house.