The Parable of
the Unjust Steward
Luke 16. 1-12
"There was a certain man," said Jesus one day, "which had a steward." By no means an unusual statement to make; all rich men had stewards, servants who had been with the family for many years and could be trusted with the duties of the position. The office dated back to very early times, for Abraham himself had a steward, "Eliezer of Damascus" (Genesis 15.2), and to that steward was entrusted the task of going five hundred miles into Aram-Naharaim to seek a suitable bride for Isaac, the son of Abraham. The responsibilities of the steward were heavy. He administered the whole of his master's estate, saw to his business matters, controlled the routine of the house, supervised the other servants and had charge of the children until they came of age. This latter fact is referred to by Paul in Galatians 4.1-2, "The heir as long as he is a child… is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father." The word 'governors' is the one used elsewhere in the New Testament for "stewards" ‑ oikonomos.
But this particular steward, continued Jesus, was dishonest. He neglected his lord's interests and wasted his resources, so that at last he was required to make up his accounts and relinquish his position. And the unjust steward was afraid for the future. He had made no friends to whom he could turn in his hour of adversity. He had lived a life of ease and self-indulgence and forgotten how to labour that he might sustain himself. He had been proud and haughty and now was appalled at the thought of living as a dependent upon the charity of others. "What shall I do?" he asked himself despairingly. "I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed." And in searching for a way out of his plight the baseness of his nature came to the top and he saw a way of making himself friends at the eleventh hour, friends who by reason of the obligation under which he would place them might at least give him food and shelter. In order to understand the story aright we must examine its background.
The setting is an agricultural one. The 'debtors' who owed oil and wheat were evidently tenants of the lord's land and, as was the custom, paid their rent in kind ‑ an agreed amount of the produce of the land. The previous expression of the steward, "I cannot dig," indicates the same thing; apparently the only manual work which was open to him in the particular community was agricultural. The scene of the story is in the country and not in the city. It would have been the steward's duty to assess equitable rents to the tenant farmers who leased the land, and the "hundred measures of oil" and "hundred measures of wheat" probably represented the yearly amount due. In English measure these equalled approximately 750 gallons of olive oil and one thousand bushels of wheat. It is sometimes suggested that the steward was executing a good stroke of business for his lord in that he secured payment of some apparently hopeless debts by offering a liberal discount for immediate settlement. It was nothing of the kind! The steward, knowing he was shortly to leave his lord's service, was deliberately reducing the tenants' rents and altering the legal documents, the "leases", which stipulated the annual amount to be paid. The word rendered 'bill' in "take your bill, and write fifty" and again in verse 7, refers to such legal contracts which were usual in Jesus' day, as in our own. There is no doubt that the steward had the legal right to adjust the rents when his lord's interests demanded it; but in this instance his action was dictated by his own interests and to his lord's hurt. It may have been legally permissible, but was morally unjustifiable. So he hoped to place these tenants under an obligation to him. He evidently did not intend to work for his living if he could find someone to give him hospitality in return for services rendered.
"And the lord" (the steward's master) "commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely" ‑ shrewdly, according to Weymouth and the Twentieth Century versions ‑ "for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light." The master was broadminded enough and sufficient of a 'business man' himself, to admit that the unjust steward had shown himself quite capable of sharp business deals when his own interests were involved. There is no indication that the notice of dismissal was rescinded. He was a rogue, albeit a clever rogue and he had to go; but the master did at least commend him for his shrewdness as he went.
Jesus did not commend the man. To think that He did so is completely to misunderstand the parable, and waste a lot of time and ingenuity attempting to demonstrate that the steward was doing a legitimate and right thing. Jesus called him 'the unjust steward', and Jesus, by his silence as much as by his sequel to the parable, pronounced his own condemnation upon this and all similar actions which are so often justified by the glib saying 'business is business'.
The story was ended. Turning now upon his disciples with a swift transition of thought, He said, perhaps with a vehemence greater than was his wont, "And yet I say to you, make friends for yourselves out of the mammon of unrighteousness, that when it fails, those friends may receive you into everlasting habitations". The verse has been paraphrased a little in order to bring out its meaning. Jesus probably spoke in Aramaic, the language of Galilee ‑ at any rate, "mammon" is an Aramaic word ‑ and the account was written by Luke in Greek. This verse has suffered a little in the process and is not altogether easy to follow in the Authorised Version. The conjunction "and" (kai in Greek) often has the meaning of 'and yet' or 'and so' when rhetorical emphasis is involved, as in this case, and 'of' is ek, 'out of'. 'Mammon' is a word indicating worldly wealth or riches of any kind, and the expression "when ye fail" is more correctly rendered "when it (i.e. the mammon of unrighteousness) fails".
The disciples, then, were to do, not what the steward had done, but what he had not done. He had the "mammon of unrighteousness", worldly riches, power, and opportunity, entrusted to him, but he had not used it to make for himself true friends who could be relied upon to stand by him in the day of adversity. He had used it for his own selfish ends instead. Then when the day that it failed him came, he was compelled to resort to very questionable tactics to ensure his future comfort, with no real guarantee even then that his end would be achieved. Now that, said Jesus in effect, may be all very well for the world. They order their daily lives in that way and they fully expect to do such things or have such things done to them and they call it "business". In their own day and generation they are shrewder than the children of light; but it is a shrewdness that will avail them nothing in the day when this world, and the fashion of it, passes away. But I say to you, you whose lives are given over to a higher and a holier purpose, use the possessions, influence or worldly opportunities you may have in such a way as to win for yourselves friends in the heavens. So, when worldly mammon fails, as fail it must at last, you will be welcomed with joy into an everlasting home.
Whilst the disciples were thinking that out, Jesus drove home the principle which his story was intended to illustrate. "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" (v.10). The extent of our faithfulness to the exceeding great privileges and responsibilities which God intends His consecrated children to hold and administer in the coming Age when the saints "reign with Christ" is measured by the degree of their faithfulness toward God now. That is, in the administration of such worldly "mammon" as we may be possessed of now. If we have not placed it all on the altar and henceforth used it in the interests of God and his Kingdom, then we are not likely to be any more faithful when the day for "greater works" has dawned. "If therefore you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?" How could we expect God to do so in such case?
"It is required of stewards", says Paul in 1 Cor. 4.2, "that a man be found faithful". He was thinking of the stewards of his own day ‑ perhaps even of this very parable, which must have been quite well known to him. We, the disciples of Jesus, are all stewards, and it is required of us all that we make good use of our stewardship while we have the opportunity, and not wait until the end of the day of grace before we commence thinking about it. The Parable of the Talents tells us that, as also does the story of the rich young ruler who wanted to gain eternal life but not in a way that was going to cost him anything. That story is repeated so often in these latter days. It is so easy to spend a few years in the first flush of enthusiasm for "the Faith", learning the doctrines and becoming familiar with the Holy Scriptures. We become accustomed to the routine of regular worship and even perhaps the discharge of duties falling to elders in the church. Then, having attained that stage, begin to devote increasing attention to a 'career' ‑ as if any earthly career matters to the child of God ‑ or to success in business ‑ as if any earthly business counts for aught in the sight of the Great King. Perhaps it is attention to any of the other hundred and one earthly interests that the Devil is always so industriously placing in the pathway of consecrated believers. Jesus, knowing all this, told His disciples "the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts (desires) of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful" (Mark 4.19). How true are those words, exemplified in the lives of Christians who for a time did "run well" but failed at the last.
To-day, more than ever, we need to take this parable to heart. There has been so much disappointment and disillusionment. So many things expected have not come to pass. As with Peter and the other disciples after the Crucifixion, there is a tendency to go back to the fishing-nets and make the best of the world as it now is. So we hope, as we do so, that we can fit into our place in the Kingdom when at length it does come.
And of course ‑ we cannot. Unless we have been constantly and tirelessly faithful in all respects to the unseen things whilst they remain unseen, we shall not see them when at length they become revealed to the watching ones, and faith is swallowed up in sight. If we do not make heavenly friends now by our use of the earthly mammon, we shall not be of those who, when it fails, will be received with joy into the everlasting habitations.