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The Christadelphian | October 2017

In the magazine this month:

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The Parable of the Unjust Steward

Interpretation of this parable is problematic, but there is much to learn about the way possessions ought to be used.

Few passages in the Gospels are as problematic as the Parable of the Unjust Steward in Luke 16. It tells the story of a steward who, when accused of financial irregularities, swindles his employer still further in an attempt to ingratiate himself with his employer’s clients. He is then, contrary to what we might have expected, commended by his employer. Finally, the disciples of Jesus are encouraged to learn something from the steward’s example.

Several problems of interpretation present themselves. What exactly was the steward doing when he extricated himself from his predicament? Why did “the master”, presumably the lord of the estate rather than the Lord Jesus, commend his servant after he had acted so dishonestly? Who are the “friends” whom his disciples make by the mammon of unrighteousness and who will “receive [them] into an everlasting home”? [1] And what is the moral of the parable; what lesson does it teach? Verses 10-13 offer a commentary on the faithful stewardship of wealth but the central character in the story has not handled his master’s wealth faithfully.

The parable

It begins: “There was a certain rich man who had a steward” (Luke 16:1). The rich man was an absentee landlord who had employed the steward to manage a large estate. And then we read that “an accusation was brought to him that this man was wasting his goods”. The Greek word for “wasting” is also used in the parable of the Prodigal Son in the previous chapter (15:13) whose central character “wasted his possessions with prodigal living”. The steward was doing the same, not embezzling his master’s funds and hiding the money away; he was ‘living it up’ at his employer’s expense.

The owner of the estate soon found out what was going on and demanded of his estate manager, “Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward” (Luke 16:2). With his dismissal imminent, the steward is left wondering how to earn his living. And so he resolves to show such generosity to his master’s debtors that when he is out on the streets they will feel an obligation to look after him. He will use his last hours of authority to win their friendship by reducing their debts. The fact that he is robbing his master is of no concern to him. He therefore calls in and strikes a deal with each of the estate’s debtors and we are given samples of the proceedings in two cases. These were presumably merchants who had bought the produce of the estate and had left a promissory note so that they could pay later. The steward holds their receipts for the goods and he now hands them back so that they can alter them to their advantage.

The first of them owes a hundred measures of oil which the steward reduces to fifty. The second has bought but not yet paid for one hundred measures of wheat. He reduces the debt to eighty measures. In this way he defrauded his master twice over, first, by embezzling his money and then by reducing the amount owed to the estate. And yet, when he heard about it, his master was not angry, far from it; he commended his steward (verse 8). And this is the first of several problems of interpretation. What exactly did the employer commend in his steward?

Commended for what?

One theory is that the money which he deducted from the clients’ bills was his own commission. The clients assumed that he was acting on behalf of his master who thereby lost no money of his own but gained a reputation for generosity. That is why his master commended him. An alternative interpretation is that the steward deducted what should have been paid in interest or usury. The law forbad the charging of usury (Deuteronomy 23:19), so by deducting it he lost some money for his employer, but at the same time acquired for him a reputation for pious observance of the law.

The difficulty, however, with both these interpretations is that the text clearly states that the steward tried to ingratiate himself with his debtors, not with his employer. He acted as he did so that they would receive him into their homes and give him a job, not so that the employer would take him back or even think well of him. He would have defeated his own purpose if his employer had gained all the credit for his actions. He says to his debtors, “How much do you owe my master?” (Luke 16:5). It was his master’s money that he gave away, not his own commission or the interest on the amount. He falsified the record and the employer had to stand the loss. The steward did not care about his master’s reputation.

And so we are left with what we might call the standard interpretation of the story. The master was swindled out of money twice over, yet far from being indignant, he was generous enough to recognize a shrewd operator when he saw one and commended him for his resourcefulness. He himself gained nothing, but he still commended a crooked employee for his foresight in preparing for the future.

Despite his moral failings, the steward recognized that the real value of money consists in its power to create goodwill and friendliness. In other words, it was a means to a higher end according to his own debased standards. And then the comment of Jesus:

“The sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light.” (verse 8)

By this, Jesus means that if his followers could be as single-minded in fulfilling the responsibilities of discipleship as the rogues of this world are in promoting their own interests and getting themselves out of a fix, then the Christian faith would be a much more vibrant force in the world.

An interpretation

On one level, the story could be interpreted as a parable of crisis. Its central character faced a catastrophe that would turn his life upside down. He had to give an account of himself and faced the prospect of unemployment, destitution and disgrace. And how often have the disciples of Jesus faced a crisis which threatens to undermine everything upon which they rely for security. His first disciples had to face their Lord’s arrest and execution and possibly, their own. The next generation witnessed the destruction of the Jewish state. Over the centuries the faithful have had to face hatred and persecution from the world. And we face the coming of our Lord when he will summon his people to give account of themselves before his throne of judgment. The unjust steward coped with a crisis in his financial affairs with a far-sighted realism and resourcefulness which the disciples of Jesus would do well to emulate. They too should be “faithful and wise steward[s]” (Luke 12:42).

However, in the words of commentary that follow this parable the lesson of coping with a crisis is not, in fact, the lesson that is drawn, but rather the faithful stewardship of worldly wealth. Verse 9 is the most difficult in the whole story:

“Make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon; that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home.”

These words are a clear summary of the actions of the steward, but what is their spiritual counterpart? The expression “make friends by unrighteous mammon” clearly means use your money in such a way as to make friends. Who then are these friends who will “receive” us into an “everlasting home”? The suggestion has sometimes been made that they are God and the angels who will receive us into the kingdom. Or they are the poor who will enter the kingdom and those who have had compassion on them in this life will be there too (cp. Matthew 25:40). Or the words are intended to be ironic – ‘Make friends of those who love mammon and see where that will get you in the next life’.

Perhaps we should not look too hard for precise definitions. It is clearly advice to disciples to apply in their own lives a spiritual counterpart to the actions of the steward. This advice is given in words that reflect the behaviour of the steward, but the words do not quite fit both him and disciples. So we do not need to press too hard the exact meaning of ‘friends’ and ‘everlasting homes’.

Its meaning becomes clearer if we bear in mind that this is one of several parables in which Jesus draws a lesson from the actions of a far from perfect individual, and does so by using ‘how much more’ reasoning. Luke 11:5-13 records the Parable of the Reluctant Friend who opened his door only after he had been pestered, and ends with the words:

“If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (verse 13)

In Luke 18:1-8 he teaches that if an unjust human judge will grant justice to a persistent petitioner, then how much more will God be responsive to the prayers of His people. The story of the unjust steward follows the same pattern, only here it is not God who goes a stage further than its central character, but the disciples.

The steward recognized that the friendship of others is the highest good that money could be put to, even money that is dishonestly gained. And so he used his ill-gotten gains to make friends who would secure for him a safe future within this world. How much more then should disciples, who live by a higher moral standard than he, recognize and follow the same ideal, and put their money to an even higher good, not on a worldly, but an eternal level.

The next few verses concentrate on faithfulness in the stewardship of worldly wealth. They say very little that relates to the unjust steward, except by way of contrast. He was not at all faithful in his stewardship; he embezzled and wasted his employer’s money:

“He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much: and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?” (verses 10,11)

These are qualities which were singularly lacking in the steward. He was commended only for his resourcefulness in using his employer’s money to get out of difficulties. In contrast, the Lord tells us, the faithful disciple who has been a good steward of God’s money will doubtless be just as faithful when he is called upon to discharge the larger duties that will be entrusted to him in the kingdom. Those who have been ‘unjust’ and spent God’s resources on themselves do not deserve a larger trust. Again, in verse 12 we see a contrast between the behaviour of the steward and the advice given to disciples:

“And if you have not been faithful in what is another man’s, who will give you what is your own?” (verse 12)

The steward was not faithful in another man’s wealth. He used it to further his own interests, according to his own debased moral standards. And yet he recognized that wealth is a means to a higher end. And disciples should recognize the same truth but on a higher level. Wealth is not morally neutral. Its very possession is a measure of something higher. What makes possessions of all kinds right or wrong is their influence on character and the way we use them in our Master’s service. That is a measure of our trustworthiness for eternal stewardship.

Paul Wasson

[1] All quotations are from the NKJV.

 

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