This parable, among all of the Lord’s parables, is widely thought to be the most difficult to interpret. There are too many questions without absolutely certain answers. The largest problem of interpretation is created in v. 8 by what seems to be the approval of dishonest behavior. We’ll read it and then consider its meaning.
v.1 Take note of the important fact that this parable was addressed to the Lord’s disciples. It was not addressed to the scribes and Pharisees as the previous three parables had been. But the Pharisees are still present, for we read in v. 14 that they scoffed at the remarks the Lord made in vv. 1-13.
v.2 Whether “wasting” his master’s goods means that he was simply careless and inattentive and so an incompetent steward or was actually misappropriating his master’s goods and so an embezzler is another one of the questions and the answer to that question is determined to a very great degree by later decisions made about the interpretation of the Lord’s remarks. The point is the master had reason to fire him. So he told him to wrap up his affairs and exit the premises.
v.4 The man was mulling over his options. His was a white collar job; he couldn’t bear menial labor. Think of “I have decided what to do” as our “I’ve got it! I know what I’ll do!” He had a sudden inspiration, or, as my daughter Evangeline once said, “He’d had a ‘brainwave’.” [Morris, 264] He had struck on a means of securing new employment. [Bock, ii, 1328-1329]
v.5 Dealing with the debtors one by one was essential because for his plan to work secrecy was essential. The word for measures in both instances is a different Greek word, one having to do with liquid, another having to do with grain. The “measure” of oil was something under 9 gallons so a hundred measures amounted to between 800 and 900 gallons of olive oil, the product of some 150 olive trees: a considerable debt.
v.7 The measure of wheat used here amounted to about 10 bushels, so the total bill was a thousand bushels of wheat, the yield of some 100 acres of grain. Again, the point is that it was a large debt.
If we ask why the difference in discount between a debt in oil and one in wheat — which we probably shouldn’t, it is a parable after all — the most likely suggestion is that everyone knew it was easier to adulterate oil by adding other liquid to it, while it was much more difficult to adulterate wheat.
v.9 Here is another problem. The Lord obviously doesn’t intend for his disciples to acquire money immorally or illegally. So what does he mean by “unrighteous wealth” or, literally, “unrighteous mammon.” To the Pharisees the phrase referred to money acquired legally but tainted in God’s sight for some reason. For Jesus the point seems to be that any money that is not used in a way that honors the Lord is tainted. [Caird, 189] Still it is not obvious why believers should have unrighteous money. Perhaps the best explanation is that the Lord is saying something strikingly negative about money to ram home the point, something like Dietrich Bonhoeffer’ s remark that “money is dirt.” Obviously there is a need for money. We need money to live, it is important in certain respects, but money causes so much trouble, it proves such a temptation, it so attaches a person to this world, that every now and then we should refer to it as unrighteous mammon just to remind ourselves how dangerous and how ultimately useless money really is. Money eventually “fails,” we read here. It runs out or one dies and must leave it behind. Rather than rely on it, one should put it to a use that will benefit him in the next life.
The pronoun “they” either refers to the friends the believer has made with his money who have died before him and gone on to heaven or, more likely, to God himself. As you know the Jews avoided pronouncing God’s name. “They” is a circumlocution for God, a roundabout way of saying his name. This circumlocution has occurred before in Luke but has been obscured by the English translation (cf. 6:38). [Str.-B, II, 221]
v.11 Life is a unity. One is either faithful or unfaithful and character will appear throughout, in things both small and great. [Morris, 167] All of one’s actions matter because they all reveal one’s character. [Bock, ii, 1335]
v.13 One’s attitude toward money is a great gauge of one’s true character and of one’s real commitments. There are certainly things much more important than money, but if one can’t handle money, if his or her character is undone by money, how could one handle greater riches, more significant responsibilities, and a higher stewardship?
The gist of the problem in interpreting this parable is the uncertain meaning of the master’s commendation of behavior that would seem at first blush to have been both dishonest and to his own distinct disadvantage. At first glance what seems to have happened was that the steward, his estate manager, caught either in his embezzlement or his incompetence, the man he was in the process of firing, took him to the cleaners one more time! Realizing that the jig was up, this crafty so and so hurriedly pulled off one last rip-off. He hadn’t yet been sacked; he still possessed the legal authority to rewrite bills. There was nothing illegal in what he planned to do, he had the authority to do it. That is the ordinary way in which the parable is read and it may, in fact, be the right way to read it. But perhaps there are other ways to read the story. The alternatives are broadly three.
1. The first way is as I just described. The steward just rewrote the bills at a lower rate, cheating his master out of the money he might have earned. In such a case the Lord would be saying that the owner was able to appreciate the fact that he had been had by a clever rogue, that no matter the fact that the man was a charlatan, one had to admire his craftiness and his hutzpah. Or,
2. The steward had removed his own cut or percentage from the bill, so that the master still got his share. In this case the master’s reference to his dishonest steward would then refer not to what he had just done in rewriting the bills — that was not dishonest — but to the behavior that was getting him fired in the first place. That’s why we said that we didn’t know whether the steward was actually dishonest or just incompetent.
The third alternative and one favored in a number of commentaries is that:
3. The manager was taking clever advantage of a then current Pharisaical legal fiction invented to get round the fact that the Law of Moses forbade Israelites from charging interest to other Israelites. There should have been no interest charged, so what the steward did, therefore, was to rewrite the bills without interest attached. As a result the creditors were delighted and the master was stuck. He couldn’t complain without admitting that he had been charging interest to his fellow countrymen. [Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible, 142]
In the first case the steward is an out and out thief, but at least a clever one. The kind a movie might be made about, a heist film. In the second he is simply a clever man who sacrifices present income to gain a subsequent advantage though he was dishonest in the beginning. In the third the shrewd manager takes advantage of the fact that the owner himself was not a man of integrity and acted so shrewdly that the owner was left with no course of action but to act publicly as if he approved of what his steward had done.
No matter which particular scenario one chooses — and it is very difficult to know which is the correct one — the Lord obviously is not recommending dishonesty in our dealing with others, still less is he encouraging us to acquire money in whatever way we can so that we can put it to some good use. He indicates explicitly what he finds commendable in the behavior of this steward.
Some have argued that the parable should be understood as part of the Lord’s teaching that a great crisis now faced the world. The Messiah had come among men; the hour of decision had arrived. He was challenging his hearers with the urgency of the moment. He meant that they were in the same position as this steward who saw himself faced with imminent disaster. Indeed, the crisis that faced men and women because of the appearance of Jesus was incomparably more serious than the loss of one’s job or income or prospects. The man in the parable acted decisively and so must mankind. The Lord was telling them that the situation in which they find themselves demands urgent action. The Messiah has appeared, life and death, judgment or heaven lie before you. Will you take decisive action as did this steward? Will you consider the situation and throw caution to the wind, or will you remain in the comfort and security of your old ways and hope for the best?
All of that is true enough, and all of that is worth saying, but is it the meaning of this parable? A parable, after all, is simply an extended metaphor, a comparison, a figure of speech. One has to know what the point of comparison actually is. If you call a man an ox you are speaking metaphorically. But your hearers must know whether by calling him an ox you intend to refer to the man’s strength, his appearance, or his smell! So what is the point of comparison here? How does he want us to be like this steward? In what way does he commend the behavior of this steward to us?
The first thing to notice is, as we pointed out, that the parable is addressed not to the crowds, nor to the religious leadership, but to the Lord’s disciples. He wants his disciples, those who already believe in him to be like this crafty steward. This makes it less likely, in my view, that the parable is a call to decision in view of the presence of the Messiah in the world. The Lord’s disciples had already answered that call and made that decision and had begun to follow the Lord Jesus.
Then, in v. 8 the Lord seems to lay all the stress on the steward’s shrewdness. And then he goes on to say that it is precisely this same shrewdness that his disciples need to display in their conduct.
The Lord’s point, expressed in the second half of v. 8, is that the steward’s behavior illustrates the value of shrewd calculation, and, in particular, foresight. Here was a man who acted in the present with a view to his future. When he used the steward as a representative of the “sons of this world” or “the sons of this age” he was identifying his disciples, whom he calls the “sons of light” as people of the next world or the age to come. The Lord’s disciples are to be people who live now with a view to the coming age, the next world, heaven. Wicked as this steward may have been, he had an eye open to the future and acted accordingly.
What one does with one’s money is but one way in which such a concern to live in view of eternity reveals itself. But it is a particularly important way. In v. 13 the Lord reminds us that we are always faced with a single alternative. We may think there is some third, middle way, but the fact is one is either living for this world or the next, serving God or money. Our calling thus becomes both to consider our lives in these terms and to take action accordingly day after day. There is urgency to be sure. This life is short and eternity beckons, rushing toward us at a speed few of us appreciate. Action needs to be taken, but it is the action of Christians living an authentic Christian life that I think the Lord is describing here.
I suppose there are few remarks in the Bible that we find more surprising than this one, when the Lord tells us to “make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth so that when it fails God may receive us into heaven.” Did he really say that? We would never describe the Christian life to somebody else in those terms would we? What’s the Christian life all about? Well, we use unrighteous wealth to make as many friends for ourselves as we can so it will go well with us when we get to heaven. But, then, that is so characteristic of the Lord Jesus and his teaching, is it not? He had a knack for arresting everyone’s attention, for putting things in memorable ways, and in provoking thought, and that’s what he has done here. But isn’t what he said here something that is obviously important for us to hear and to heed.
John Duncan, the famous Rabbi Duncan of the 19th century Scottish Presbyterian Church, once told a graduating class of seminarians:
“What you need, gentlemen, are the three Gs: Greek, Grace, and Gumption. If you haven’t Greek, you can learn it. If you haven’t grace, you can pray for it. But if you haven’t gumption, the Lord help you!”
“Gumption” is a word whose meaning combines common sense and enterprise, horse sense and initiative. And is that not what the Lord is recommending to us, his disciples here? He wants us to realize how important it is for us to be commonsensical and enterprising in the living of our lives. This life is short, the next world beckons. Our lives in this world will soon be measured by what measure of heavenly reward we accumulated while we lived on earth. This is no time to be distracted, to be careless or thoughtless about our lives, still less for us to be worldly. This is a time for acting with foresight, with initiative, and with the intention of fulfilling our calling as the sons of the next world, the next age.
The always insightful P.T. Forsyth, the early 20th century English Congregationalist, after observing how much more attention and effort supposedly Christian people invest in worldly matters than in the things of God, asked:
“Why don’t people give to the high business of eternity some of the same effort they give to the grave business of time?” [Cited in A.M. Hunter, Interpreting the Parables, 106]
I have relative, a member of my extended family, a very savvy businessman, who, some years ago, saw an opportunity to supply a demand in his field of business more cheaply and with a better product than that supplied by the large multinational corporation that then was the sole supplier of this particular piece of equipment. He saw the opportunity when others did not and he seized it. He investigated beforehand all the potential legal issues, assured himself that he was not infringing on any patent or copyright. He arranged for the manufacture of the product, installed what was then called a Watts telephone line in the basement of his home — enabling him to make cheap phone calls to potential customers — and in his spare time began soliciting business.
Because it was a better product and he was offering it for less money within a few months he was selling so many units that he came to the attention of the multi-national corporation that had for years enjoyed a monopoly in this market. They dropped their own price for the product far below their cost to manufacture it in order to drive him out of business. My relative took this huge company with its expensive lawyers to anti-trust court in San Francisco and, after months of very expensive litigation, won a judgment against that corporation and secured his right to do business in a fair, competitive environment.
By this time, however, he was in trouble with one of his most important suppliers who did not appreciate the fact that in an effort to cut costs he had ignored the niceties of their distribution network. He was making them a lot of money but not in the way they preferred for it to be made. The supplier he depended on didn’t like him and didn’t want to do business with him any longer.
So, in order to secure a reliable supply of that company’s exotic kind of paper, he purchased, unbeknownst to them, one of their regional offices, a money-loser that was up for sale. Because he was not in their good graces and he knew they did not want to do business with him, he fronted another man, his associate, as the buyer of the property so that the national company wouldn’t know that he was the owner of the regional office. The scheme worked perfectly. He now had unfettered access to product, no one was the wiser, and he was selling more units every month. Indeed, he was at a trade fair in Germany, intending to break into the European market, when news came that the man he had fronted as the buyer of the regional office had absconded with several million dollars that was owed his supplier for the product that had been purchased.
To make a much longer story short, in the aftermath the national supplier learned who it was they were actually dealing with and hit the roof. He made a deal with them to pay back the money owed and get out. In the meantime he turned the unprofitable regional office into a profit making company and sold that company at a profit, then sold his new business to a larger firm, and now gets a royalty for every unit sold. For all this, over several years he risked a substantial amount of his own money, worked incredibly long hours, lived apart from his family for two years — flying home from the regional office every weekend — and endured the hostility of a number of powerful people and the ill will of two extraordinarily large and influential companies. But he made a lot of money.
Now that illustration is, I think, not unlike what the Lord has given us here in his parable of the shrewd steward or dishonest manager. I have no interest in recommending my relative’s example to you, but then the Lord wasn’t commending the steward’s dishonesty or selfishness either. The Lord called him a “dishonest manager.” My relative certainly should have done otherwise in some respects. He didn’t break the law, but he pushed the ethical envelope and paid the price for it, as did this steward who lost his good job and who may have been and probably was cheating his master at the end as he had been all along.
But like the steward, this relative of mine showed a great deal of gumption, savoir faire, resourcefulness, entrepreneurial foresight and enterprise in pursuit of worldly wealth. Where, the Lord is asking us, would the kingdom of God be if every Christian were as determined to seize every opportunity to lay up treasure in heaven, to make friends for the gospel, and to live their lives in that way the Lord will approve? What if every Christian worked as hard at godliness, at the destruction of his or her sins, and at ministry to others; what if every Christian sacrificed as much ease, as much time, as much energy for the sake of the kingdom as so many do for the sake of money.
It is certainly an arresting way to make the point: for Jesus to tell us to use our unrighteous wealth to make friends for ourselves so that God will receive us into eternal dwellings. It is most definitely not the way we would dared have described our calling! But we don’t have any trouble understanding his point and he made it in a memorable way, did he not? It is like this later in the Gospel likening God to an unrighteous judge who won’t grant justice to a woman until she pesters him unmercifully! No one but the Son of God could have dared to have likened the Living God to an unrighteous judge. But we remember the parable.
We can’t claim that we weren’t told that our actions here have consequences there — even among us who are already saved through faith in Jesus Christ. How many times and in how many ways have we been told, encouraged, commanded and warned to lay up our treasure in heaven. And certainly what better way is there to do that than by making friends for the gospel.
Do you remember how the book of Daniel ends?
“Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”
Alright, there is the distinction between those who are saved and those who are not. But it goes on.
“And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” [Dan. 12:2-3]
Many of you have heard Gerry Gutierrez’ testimony, his account of how he became a Christian. A hard-boiled young Marxist, a friend and confidant of the man who founded The Shining Path, the Maoist terrorist organization that blighted the life of Peru for twenty years, he became a Christian, Gerry says, because he was set-up by the Christians who knew him. They went to great lengths to undermine his suspicion of Christianity and to commend the gospel to him. On one occasion, after Gerry had taken refuge with him after a violent demonstration against the government he had organized and led, a Mission to the World missionary very definitely broke the law to spirit Gerry through a police roadblock, hiding the young man under a blanket on the floor of the backseat. That is at least gumption. The missionary would have been in real trouble had he been caught aiding and abetting a fugitive! Or Gerry would be invited to someone’s home only to discover once he was there that everyone else was there to talk to him about Christ.
That is the kind of resourcefulness, shrewdness, and enterprise the Lord is recommending to us. That is the sort of foresight, the recognition of the truly important that ought to characterize Christian behavior. If people will go to such great lengths to acquire money — which must eventually fail us — how much more should we go to great lengths to acquire what will never fail us and will always be ours to enjoy!
This parable is just the Lord’s brilliant and memorable way of making the same point the Apostle Paul will make at the end of his first letter to Timothy.
“As for the rich in this present age…. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.” [1 Tim. 6:17-19]
Every April 15th, as you prepare your taxes, you wish that you had spent more on this or that which you could then deduct from your taxable earning. At the time you didn’t want to spend it on that, but as you prepare your taxes you wish you had because at tax time your perspective has changed. Well the day is coming — the mother of all April 15ths — when your investments, when the use of all your resources will have to be accounted for. And then — and this is obvious isn’t it? — then you will wish you had spent all of it — every last penny — on what heaven rewards.
No one who has ever done that has ever regretted having done so. Not the poor widow who put her two mites in the temple treasury or the early convert who, on the day of his baptism, gave his 1,500 slaves their freedom and a gift besides.
You have a home, a table, an income. You have time, you have a heart, you have a tongue. You can use every one of those things to win friends for yourself and for Christ. The time is coming when you will consider a trifle whatever price you paid to do so.