The Unjust Steward, Luke 16. 1-13

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In Luke 16. 1-13 we are given details of the Lord’s audience, v. 1a; of His parable of the unjust steward, vv. 1b-8; and of His application of the parable, vv. 9-13.

The Lord’s Audience, v. 1 a.

The Lord addressed the parable directly to His disciples, although it was heard also by the Pharisees, v.14. The parable was intended in the first place, therefore, for those whose habit it was to learn from Him in order to do His will. It appears to have followed immediately on the parabolic discourse of chapter 15, and Jesus’ audience may well have included many of the tax-collectors who had earlier drawn near to hear Him, 15. 1. The lesson of the parable centres in the action of a prudent steward who put to good account the possessions which for a short time were at his disposal. The subject of the wise and proper use of earthly wealth would have been singularly appropriate for converted tax-collectors I

The Lord’s Parable of the Unjust Steward, vv. 1 b-8.

1. The Steward’s Accusation and the Master’s Response, vv. 1 b-2. The “certain rich man”, Luke 16. 1, was probably an absentee landlord, of which there were many in Galilee at the time. He had entrusted his affairs to a steward, who acted as his estate manager and who was responsible to administer his business concerns for him. The steward thus occupied a position of considerable trust and authority. The parable opens with him being accused of wasting his master’s goods. Whereas the word for “accuse” can mean to give false information, to misrepresent or to defame (as in the Septuagint of Daniel 3. 8.), the subsequent actions of both the steward and his master indicate that in this case the charges were well founded. There is, however, little evidence that the steward had been deliberately dishonest (save possibly the Lord’s description of him as “unjust”, v.8), and it may be that his fault was mainly one of carelessness and mismanagement. The prodigal son had also been guilty of wasting many goods, 15. 13, but he had wasted only his own substance, whereas the steward’s folly was rendered far more serious because the goods which he squandered were his master’s.

As a result of the charges, the steward was summoned by his lord and told that his position of steward was to be taken from him, v.2. He was required to close the books and to render an exact account of the current state of his master’s property, partly no doubt for the sake of his successor. He could be no longer steward.

2. The Steward’s Self-counsel, vv.3, 4. It seems the steward accepted that a full investigation of his master’s accounts could have only one result; he would be “put (lit. removed, the same verb occuring in 1 Cor. 13. 2) out of the stewardship”, v.4. He made no attempt either to challenge or to deny the serious charges which had been made against him. Instead he took counsel with himself, v.3, soliloquy being a common feature in the Lord’s parables,12. 17; 15. 17-19 18. 4; 20. 13. “What shall I do”, was the question he posed himself. The very same question occurs also in the parable of the rich fool, 12. 17, and in the parable of the wicked husbandmen, 20. 13. In each case an answer was soon forthcoming. Whereas, however, the rich fool’s answer exposed his utter selfishness, 12. 18, 19, and the vineyard-owner’s expressed his unfounded hopefulness, 20. 13, the answer of the steward exhibited his artful shrewdness. He faced a grave crisis. He was being relieved of his well-to-do position, and the options left open to him were indeed few. Following his failure as a steward, it would be well nigh impossible for him to find any other employer willing to trust him with a post of similar responsibility. Clothing his thoughts in a proverbial expression of the time, he soon satisfied himself that he was not fitted for the strenuous work of digging. Nor would he accept begging as a suitable alternative; he was not going to be a Lazarus, v.20! What could he do? An idea suddenly came to him. His words, “, am resolved what to do”, v.4, can be literally translated, “I knew (i.e., I found out a moment ago) what I shall do”. He devised a scheme which meant that some at least of his master’s debtors would feel obliged after his dismissal to make him a grateful return and to receive him into their houses, v.4.

3. Details of the Steward’s Ingenious Scheme, vv. 5-7. With the minimum of delay he set about implementing his ingenious scheme, v. 5a. Time was of the essence; note the “quickly” of verse 6. One by one he called his master’s debtors to him, and cleverly set about placing each of them in his debt by reducing the amounts by which they were in his master’s debt. By so doing he placed each under a sense of obligation to himself. The short interval between his notification of dismissal and the actual moment of dismissal was therefore filled up by safeguarding his future interests at his master’s expense. He used his master’s goods, which were available to him for only a short time, to secure adequate provision for himself in the future.

Two examples are given of how the shrewd steward proceeded, vv. 5b-7. The plan had been cunningly devised, and it was no less skilfully executed. The Lord Jesus told of two men whose debts to the rich man were substantially reduced by the steward.

It is probable that the debtors were farmers who had obtained goods on credit from the master’s stores in exchange for a written bond or promissory note. They were invited by the steward to reduce the amounts which they owed. This may have involved them in altering the original vouchers or, more likely, in substituting new vouchers showing the lesser amounts. The modern equivalent of these debts is not altogether certain, but it is generally accepted that a measure of wheat was a little less than 11 bushels and that, in accordance with a statement of Josephus, the Jewish historian, a measure of oil was about 8-6 gallons. Certainly both debts were large. One issue that has been the subject of much serious discussion is whether or not the steward’s actions were in any way blameworthy. On the face of it he effectively defrauded his master of the 50% discount on the oil and of the 20% discount on the wheat. It has been suggested, however, that he did not in fact deprive his master of anything that was legitimately owed to him. The full debts, it has been claimed, would have included heavy interest charges on top of the original capital debts. Such a practice was strictly illegal in Israel according to the Mosaic law, Exod. 22. 25; Deut. 15. 7-8; Psa. 15. 5, but not a few Jews of the first century had found ways of evading the plain meaning of God’s Word. The steward is regarded by some, therefore, as merely cancelling the extortionate interest charges and of thereby putting his master’s business on a legal footing as recognized by the law of Moses. Details of the lending transactions common in first century Galilee may not be sufficiently clear at present for us to be dogmatic, but the most obvious meaning of verses 5-7 seems still to be that the steward behaved in an underhanded manner and that he did cheat his master out of a significant proportion of the debts that were properly owed him.

4. The Steward’s Commendation, v.8. The fact that the steward was praised should not present us with any difficulty. He was commended only for his foresight and prudence, and not for any associated unfaithfulness or dishonesty on his part. A similar case arises in Peter’s commendation of Sarah’s subjection to Abraham, 1 Pet. 3. 6, which was based on a passage that equally demonstrated her unbelief, Gen. 18. 11, 12. The steward’s commendation came from “the lord”, v. 8a. The reference is almost certainly to the master in the parable and not to the Lord Jesus. That is, verse 8a forms part of the parable. The contextual references to the steward’s “lord”, vv. 3, 5, together with the structure of verses 8, 9 (both of which give every appearance of reporting the words of Jesus), support this interpretation. It is true that ‘the Lord” in the expression, “And the Lord said”, does on one occasion refer to Jesus, 18. 6.

However, the same expression occurs also in 14. 23, where “the lord” undoubtedly refers to a character in a parable.

In accounting for the wisdom of the steward, the Saviour drew attention, v. 8b, to the regrettable fact that the children of this world (lit. the sons of this age; cf. 20. 34) generally show far greater astuteness “in their generation” (that is, with reference to their own affairs and concerns) than do the children of light (lit. the sons of the light, a term denoting the Lord’s disciples; cf. John 12. 36; 1 Thess. 5. 5). It should be noted that “to be a son of” is a Hebrew idiom meaning “to share the characteristics of”; see Matt. 13. 38 R.V.; Mark 3. 17; Acts 4. 36; Eph. 2. 2 R.V. “Men of the world, which have their portion in this life”, Psa. 17. 14, are foolish enough in the choice of their goal and object in life, but are usually extremely shrewd as to the ways and means of obtaining it.

The Significance and Application of the Parable, vv. 9-13. The Lord Jesus next brought out the moral of the parable and applied it to His hearers; as is indicated by the clause, “And I say unto you”, v. 9; cf. 11. 9. Before we undertake any application of it ourselves, we should do three things; (a) Bear in mind that the Lord’s words are influenced considerably by the details of the parable itself, (b) Ensure that we grasp the proper meaning of verse 9. Many of the difficulties which have been encountered in understanding the verse have arisen out of faults in the translation. A typical example of an accurate rendering would be, “And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends by means of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when it shall fail, they may receive you into the eternal tabernacles” r.v. (c) Understand several of the expressions used. The word “mammon” is derived from an Aramaic word meaning either “that in which one trusts” or “that which is entrusted to one”. It came to signify wealth of every kind. Assuming that the Lord spoke Aramaic, verse 11 would have provided a lengthy play on several words with the same Aramaic root, namely “mammon”, “faithful”, “commit to one’s trust” and “true”. The Lord may have described mammon as “unrighteous” because injustice is often involved in the getting, keeping and using of it. “When it shall fail” refers to the time when it ceases to be of any use or value; that is, at death or the Lord’s coming. “That..they may receive you” means no more than “that you may be received”. Luke uses this idiom several times in his Gospel; see 12. 20, which would be literally rendered, “this night they shall require thy soul of thee”, together with 6. 38; 14. 35. There is no need therefore to look for any precise interpretation of the “they”, such as the angels, God Himself, good works or the people benefited by almsgiving.

Against the background of the parable, the Lord called for four things from His disciples.

1. Wisdom, v.9. The wisdom of the steward had consisted in his skilful application of the goods which were available to him only for a brief time, so as to secure his future and lasting benefit. Similarly we, by the proper use of the mammon which is now at our disposal but which will soon fail us, can lay up for ourselves treasure in heaven and gain ourselves a ready reception in the place where God dwells. The description of the tabernacles as “eternal” stands in deliberate contrast to the transitory nature of all earthly wealth. With the same prudent foresight evident in the steward, we can turn to our own long-term and spiritual advantage the very wealth which is used by unjust men in unjust ways.

The Gospel of Luke has much to say about the responsibility of disciples to the poor and to the needy, 3. 11 6. 30-35; 11. 41 12. 33-34; 14. 12-14; 18. 22. It is clearly to this that the Lord alluded when He said, “Make to yourselves friends”. The rich man in the following parable missed his opportunity, 16. 19-21, and found himself in fiery torments, vv. 23-24, rather than in eternal tabernacles I We have the opportunity now of using our possessions (which will soon fail us, 1 Tim. 6. 7.) for the good of those around, and to bring a little happiness into the lives of others. These possessions can also be directed to the practical support of the Lord’s servants, 10. 7. It is a sobering thought that one of the issues to be raised at the judgment-seat of Christ will be our stewardship of money!

2. Faithfulness, v. 10. Turning from the wisdom which the steward possessed to the faithfulness which he lacked, the Lord stated one of His general principles of reward; see Matt. 25. 21, 23; Luke 19. 17. A disciple’s faithfulness is to be gauged not by the amount entrusted to him but by how it is used. Compare God’s ways with David, Psa. 78. 70-72.

3. Living the Present in the Light of the Future, vv. 11 -12. The Lord took it for granted that the present world is an apt preparation for the next. Because earth is the God-appointed training ground for heaven, our unfaithfulness in respect of earth’s wealth will disqualify us from receiving heaven’s real, genuine riches, v. 11. In one sense, all that we possess is our own, Acts 5. 4, but in a far higher sense it is not. It remains the Lord’s and is ours only on loan, 1 Chron. 29. 14; Job 1. 21. That which will be given us as our own imperishable possession will be determined by how we handle that which now we have only on trust, v. 1 2.

4. God Alone to be Served, v. 13. Finally, the passage stresses that our Master’s goods can easily become our master. Mammon can be a good servant, v. 9; it is always a bad lord, v. 13. Let us remember that we have been put in trust with it, and that we are not meant to put our trust in it, 1 Tim. 6. 17. We are responsible to use it wisely, and so to lay up for ourselves “a good foundation against the time to come”, 1 Tim. 6. 19. May God give us the necessary grace.

Further spiritual instruction on the subject of stewardship, seen in a variety of New Testament contexts, can be gained from the following articles in earlier Precious Seed magazines: “Christian Stewardship and Local Church Finance”, Vol. 3, No. 8. “Stewardship”, Vol. 26, No, 5 and No. 6.

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