In our last essay Luke, chapter 15, which is about God’s joy at finding what he lost. In this essay we begin our study of chapter 16, which contains several warnings about wealth. In verses 1-13 Jesus addresses the disciples and warns them against the false use of wealth. But the Pharisees, who were addressed in chapter 15, are still present; and Jesus speaks to them again in verses 14-31. However, we will deal only with verses 1-13 in this essay.
In verses 1-2 Jesus launches right into the Parable of the Prudent Steward or Manager. It is about a rich man who obviously is an absentee landowner. That is, he is living somewhere else, probably in the city. And he has left his farm property in the hands of a steward. A steward in this case would have been a kind of estate manager who was fully responsible for the care and profitability of the estate. And he would have had considerable legal powers to run it.
But the owner had received complaints about the manager’s performance. Apparently he investigated and discovered that the complaints were true, so the rich man called the manager in and told him that he was letting him go. But he asked the manger for an accounting of the business before he was to leave. The statement of accounts would be for the benefit of the manager’s successor.
In verses 3-9 we see that the manager, knowing that he is losing his job, took action to provide for himself after leaving the job. Now this is where we run into different interpretations. The traditional interpretation is that the steward’s problem was dishonesty, and indeed the parable often is called the Parable of the Dishonest Steward. As we just saw in verse eight, the steward is described as “unrighteous,” translated “dishonest” by both the NRSV and the NIV. That would seem to end the discussion, but some modern scholars believe that the problem was one of mismanagement rather than thievery. I will try to deal with this issue as we work through the parable.
In verse three we see the manager thinking about his future. Under the circumstances, he knows he will not be able to find another job as a manager. He doesn’t have the physical strength to earn a living as a laborer, and he is too proud to beg. So in verse four he makes a decision on how to provide for his future. Verses 5-7 reveal the nature of the steward’s plan by telling us what he did. He called a series of the owner’s debtors in and adjusted their bills considerably in their favor. The idea was to make them indebted to him personally. His thinking was that they in turn would take care of him after he lost his job. Two examples are given.
There is considerable discussion among scholars about the debtor’s bills. The debtors probably were merchants who had purchased the commodities from the estate. But there is a question of why the bills were written in terms of the commodities rather than money. And another question is why they were written in the merchant’s own handwriting. The answer to this last question is fairly easy. The merchants wrote the bills in their own handwriting in order to authenticate the amount owed.
But the question about why the bills were written in terms of commodities rather than money is harder to answer. Those who hold the theory that the steward was a dishonest man who was being fired because of his dishonesty, say that the steward simply “cooked the books,” as the saying goes, to feather his future nest. There are two problems with this theory. First, if that were the case, it is hard to understand why the owner didn’t fire the manager on the spot and not given him an additional opportunity to steal from him. And second, it seems peculiar that either the owner or the Lord Jesus would have commended the manager for doing what he did, as seen in verses eight.
Those who hold to the theory that the steward was an honest man who mismanaged the estate suggest that the writing of the bills as commodities was a way of getting around the law, which did not allow the charging of interest. Instead of writing a bill for the value of the community plus interest, the bills were written in an amount of the commodity that was equal to the value of the originally purchased commodity plus interest, or possibly, plus the manager’s commission. Thus the manager was not cheating the owner, but simply was forgoing the interest, or his commissions, which he had the authority to do.
Verse eight presents an interpretive challenge, though both the NRSV and the NIV tone down the problem with their translations. The verse literally begins by saying, “The Lord commended the unrighteous steward because he acted prudently.” You will notice that both the NRSV and the NIV translated it “his master” commended …” Thus they put their interpretation into their translations. They are interpreting the parable as continuing through verse eight, with Jesus as the speaker. And they are interpreting “the lord” in the verse as the owner of the estate.
But another way to interpret it is to interpret “the Lord” in verse eight as Jesus, which means that the parable ended with verse seven, and verse 8b is Luke’s comment on it. If that were the case, it would be the Lord Jesus who is commending the steward for his shrewdness rather than the estate owner. However there is nothing in the Greek that demands that “the lord’ be interpreted as Jesus. Therefore I agree with the interpretations of the NRSV and NIV. It is the estate owner who commended the steward. And it is Jesus who is the speaker throughout. A complicating interjection of a comment by Luke is not needed.
Now then, we still have the problem of why the estate owner (or Jesus, if you went with the other interpretation) would have commended the dishonest manager. Well, that actually is not a great problem. The owner in the parable did not commend the manager for his dishonesty; he commended him for his shrewdness. And then Jesus adds, “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” What do you think that means
The shrewdness of the “children of this age” is a shrewdness that has to do with seeing, and taking advantage of, opportunities to make money, develop friends, and get ahead in the world. In general, people do that quite well. They give all their energy and creativity to getting ahead. I know something about that. I’ve been there and done that. I didn’t do it quite as well as some others, but I understand the process.
On the other hand, Jesus says that “the children of light” in general do not show the same shrewdness in spiritual matters. Instead of giving all of our energy and creativity to seeing, and taking advantage of, opportunities to serve Christ, develop spiritual friends, and advance in the kingdom of God, we tend to give a lot of our energies to the same things that the “children of this age” give themselves to.
Verse nine continues Jesus’ application. It may seem a bit strange at first. But remember, it has to do with the parable. He says, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth [literally “unrighteous mammon.”] so that when it is gone, they [that is the friends] may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
This statement is not as complicated as it might look. The “unrighteous mammon” is the wealth of this world. We Christians may not be as dedicated to accumulating it, as are the “children of this age;” but nevertheless, many Christians do accumulate some wealth along the way. And Jesus is saying that we must be prudent in the use of our wealth, such as it is, just as the steward in the parable was prudent in his devious way. When we are prudent, when we use the money wisely to help others, we will be making the kind of friends who will welcome us into heaven.
In verses 10-13 we see several sayings that draw lessons from the parable. The truth of verse 10 actually is a secular truth. That is, it is just as true in the secular world as it is in spiritual living. A person who is faithful in a small responsibility shows that he or she can be trusted with a larger responsibility. And a person who is unrighteous in small responsibilities will be unrighteous in larger ones.
Then in verses 11-12 Jesus applies the saying to the disciples. If they are not faithful with the “unrighteous mammon,” meaning “worldly wealth,” then who would entrust them with the “true riches.” The “true riches” are spiritual, kingdom riches; or we could say heavenly riches.
In verse 12 “what belongs to another” is parallel to “unrighteous mammon” in verse 11. The “another” is God. All wealth, righteous or unrighteous, belongs to God. We human beings are simply stewards of whatever amount of wealth we may have access to. But notice that whatever heavenly wealth we will have access to, the true riches, will be our very own. Wow! Do you get that? We are mere stewards of material wealth on God’s behalf, but our spiritual wealth is ours forever.
The final saying, in verse 13, still points back to the parable. The prudent steward was serving two masters. He was serving the absentee owner, because that man had given him responsibility for his estate. But the steward also was serving the master called mammon. Jesus makes it clear that it is not possible to serve two masters. Therefore the clear lesson for us is that we must serve God with our whole hearts.