Finally, we are here in that chapter, Luke 16, a chapter famous for two parables. The parable of the unjust steward and that of Lazarus. How I love the story of Lazarus. It was straight forward and down to earth, everyone seems to agree on the message this parable seems to be passing across. It's the other parable, the one of the unjust steward that worries me. I never really understood what Jesus was trying to teach here. All my Sunday school teachers never made it easy too, I tend to hear different interpretations of the same parable at different Bible study gatherings! Everyone harped on how the lord commended the unjust steward. The lord mentioned here is the master of the unjust steward and not the Lord Jesus Christ for each time it is the Lord, it always starts with the capital letter L. Anyway that is if you are reading from the KJV, which to me is the closest to the original Bible translation.
There are so many variations in revelations of what this parable really teaches. And in this blog post, I will attempt to unveil what I believe to be what the parable is communicating. I am not going to imply any meaning that the text in the Bible does not suggest. We will look purely at the words of the master which I believe are self-explanatory.
MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT PARABLES
Before we go on about interpreting this parable it's good to set aside some common misconceptions about the parables of Jesus!
1. People have always assumed that every parable Jesus speaks is always about the kingdom of God. This is not always so. Where the parable is about specifically and directly about the kingdom Jesus always takes time to explain. All parables are about God's kingdom but there are some that specifically speak to its character and its operation. This parable of the unjust steward is not one such.
2. It is not every parable that infers master necessarily mean it is God or the father that is been represented as such in the parable. People have gone as far as seeing every parable depicting the character of God the father or the master, it isn't necessarily so. Where the meaning is implied we will know from the text, but where it is not we must not view every parable as God, or the father been the central figure! Many have interpreted the master in this parable to be God or Jesus, it is not so!
3. Parables are given sometimes to give parallel interpretations and not direct interpretation always. This sounds much like number 2 above but there is more. Jesus can give a parable based on what is happening in the world and then use it to draw a parallel comparison with what obtains in the kingdom. Sometimes the meaning may be directly the same as what happens in the kingdom and at other times it is the direct opposite!
In the instance of this parable of the unjust steward, most of the points I highlighted above are true!
AN OVERVIEW OF THE PARABLE( Luke 16:1-14)
Rather than quoting the text of this passage I will attempt to surmise what we have read there.
A certain rich man had a steward working for him who squandered his possessions. I take it that this means he must have helped himself to too much that belonged to his master. I can imagine that in our culture this would mean padded expense accounts, lavish meals and accommodations, a prado jeep, and the like. This man was consuming much of his master’s wealth but producing very little. He was not working for his master, but for himself. Unlike Joseph, who saw his stewardship as a sacred trust, and who thus refused to “use” his master’s wife, this steward seems to have helped himself to everything that was within his reach.
Word got to the steward’s master, who fired the man, effective at a future date. During this short time, the steward was expected to get his master’s accounts in order so that he could be replaced. This short period of time was not intended for the steward’s benefit, but for the master’s. The steward, however, was highly motivated. He was too old to “dig ditches” and he was too proud to beg. He must think of some way that he can make use of his master’s goods during this short time to prepare for his own future.
Like a flash, it came to him. He would make use of his position and his master’s possessions in the little time that was left, in such a way as to provide for his needs far into the future. While his position and his master’s possessions would be taken from him, he could make friends who would take care of him. And so he set out to do it. He called in each and every one of his master’s debtors. Each seems to have been a party to this “scam,” but each is benefited by a significant reduction in their obligation to the steward’s master. Thus, all are indebted to the steward.
JESUS INTERPRETATION OF THE PARABLE(PART 1)
Before we consider the master’s response to being “ripped off” or our Lord’s commentary on this parable, let us take note of the wickedness of the steward, as seen in his deeds. The steward was unrighteous, both at the beginning of the parable and at the end. The steward was not just unrighteous as a person, he was unfaithful as a steward. He was unfaithful to his task and to his master. This unfaithfulness is what necessitated his shrewdness in preparing for his future. Every indication points to the fact that the allegations against the steward (squandering his possessions) were accurate. The steward did not change for the good, he only became more shrewd in doing evil. The steward’s attitudes and actions were all motivated by self-interest. He involved others in his sinful “scam.” It is inconceivable that the rich man’s debtors were not co-conspirators with the steward. They knew what they were doing. The steward, then, appealed to their greed.
In the telling of this parable, Jesus did not minimize the evil this man did, nor did He in any way commend him for doing evil, but His master did commend him. Probably, the biggest surprise of the parable is that the master, who has just been “ripped off” by his steward, is able to praise his steward. This praise is not for the good that he has done his master, nor for the ethical aspects of his deed, but simply for the shrewdness which he displayed.
The critical question here is this: Why can a man who has just been “ripped off” by his employee, a man who has suffered a substantial and irretrievable loss, commend a crooked employee? The answer to this question is given by our Lord in verse 8. Jesus’ answer is the key to the interpretation of this passage, so let us consider it very carefully.
“And his master praised the unrighteous steward because he had acted shrewdly; for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind [literally, “their own generation”] than the sons of light” (Luke 16:8).
The first part of verse 8 is the conclusion of the parable. The story concludes with the account of the master’s praise of his steward’s shrewdness. In the second half of verse 8, our Lord begins His commentary on the parable. How are we to understand and apply this parable? What does it mean? The answer comes from our Lord, who begins to interpret this story in the second half of verse 8 with an explanation of why the master can praise the shrewdness of his unrighteous steward. That there is an explanation coming is indicated by the “for” (both in the NIV and the NASB), which precedes the statement, “the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light.”
Our Lord’s words here indicate several important realities. (1) Both the unrighteous steward and his master appreciated (valued) the same thing—shrewdness. You don’t command a man for something you disdain. (2) Both the unrighteous steward and his master were members of the group which our Lord characterized as “the sons of this age.” The contemporary expression, “it takes one to know one” fits here. The master could recognize and appreciate “shrewdness” because he valued it and he practiced it, and as such he was “one” with his steward. (3) Neither the master nor his steward were members of the group identified as the “sons of light.” I take it that this means neither of them knew God—they were unbelievers
I do not think that I am going too far afield to say, then, that the master commended his steward’s shrewdness because he knew that he would have done the same thing in the same circumstances. You do not praise what you would not do, or wish you could have done.
Now, the critical question: Did Jesus praise the steward for his shrewdness? We can easily see that the master praised his steward’s shrewdness, and we can even understand why he would do so. But would Jesus join with the master in his praise of this man’s shrewdness? The answer is a dogmatic, No! This answer, in my opinion, is clear, even though few Bible teachers have accepted it, choosing rather see this parable as teaching Christians to be more shrewd, more like the world in the way we handle money. Let me enumerate the reasons why this conclusion is an inescapable one.
1)Jesus never commanded nor advocated shrewdness to His disciples here. The word “shrewd” or “shrewdly” is found twice in the parable (v. 8), but not in the Lord’s interpretation and application of it (vv. 9-13). Never does our Lord imply or state that Christians should be shrewd, in any way that approximates the shrewdness of this “unrighteous” steward.
(2) The concept that is most frequently found in our Lord’s interpretation and application of the parable is FAITHFULNESS. Faithfulness and shrewdness are, in this text, diametrically opposed. The steward “had to” be shrewd because he had been unfaithful. Disciples that are faithful do not need to be shrewd. Shrewd I say again as used in this context is akin to "street smartness" "scamming" "yahoo" "419", this is the meaning of shrewd as used in this context. If the steward has been faithful in the first instance he would not have had a need to be sacked and if he was not facing the threat of a sack he would not have had to adjust the books to rip off his master to his own benefit!
3) Thirdly people have, and I have commended the unjust steward for been creatively smart in solving his problem even though it was negative creativeness and I have encouraged believers to be as creative in a positive way too. Now I am going to discard that idea now. There is nothing creative in scamming or stealing from someone! Let's put it straight like that, it doesn't take much creative thinking to scam your way out of trouble especially if it involves ripping off other people! Such thinking doesn't take much effort, does it?
4)Since the steward is unrighteous and his master, like him, is one of those known as the “sons of this age,” in contrast to the “sons of light,” how can we possibly conclude that the master symbolizes God and the steward, the saint? This, to me, is one of the most critical points. The only way that we can really conclude that Jesus was commending shrewdness is to see the master as typifying God. But I would challenge you to prove that Luke would be trying to picture God as a rich man after all that he has already written about wealth and poverty (e.g. the Sermon on the Mount in chapter 6). How can God be typified by an unbelieving rich man, and the Christian by a crooked steward? Jesus told us instead that both these men are typical of the values, conduct, and commendation of an unbelieving generation.
5)Jesus’ words of explanation are a description of how wicked men think and act, but not a commendation of this nor a recommendation of it to the saints. In the book of Proverbs, we can find a number of statements which describe the wicked “ways” of evil men, but in none of these instances do we find their conduct being recommended to us as that which we should imitate, but rather that of which we should be aware, and which we should avoid:
The rich man’s wealth is his fortress, The ruin of the poor is their poverty (10:15).
A bribe is a charm in the sight of its owner; Wherever he turns, he prospers (17:8).
A wicked man receives a bribe from the bosom To pervert the ways of justice (17:23).
A gift in the secret subdues anger, And a bribe in the bosom, strong wrath (21:14).
In each of these cases, life is being described as it is, not as it should be. So it is in the parable of the unjust steward. Jesus is telling a story which describes the skill which unbelievers have of working within their generation to make money and to look out for themselves.
(6) As in all other areas of Christian living, God’s blessing in the area of finances is not based upon man’s skill or shrewdness, but on His faithfulness to His promises. If the responsibility of man is to be found here, it is to be found in the area of faithfulness, which our Lord commended, not shrewdness, which he characterized as typical of unbelief.
This was what Jesus took time to now explain in the next few verses that follow. While the word thrives on shrewdness and smartness God wants us his children to thrive on faithfulness and so from verse 9-13 of these chapter Jesus begin to outline that which is expected of us as children of this kingdom!
JESUS INTERPRETATION OF THE PARABLE(PART 2- Luke 16:9-13)
There are lessons to be learned in contrast with the unjust steward and his master. These, Jesus will teach us in the following verses. But when Jesus begins, He begins with a point of commonality. The unjust steward “made friends” by the use of his master’s money, or we might better say, through “unrighteous mammon.” He had used that which was his master’s, which was in his care, to make friends for himself. Christians can practice what initially looks similar, but when carefully considered is vastly different. Let us look at our Lord’s words of commentary on the parable, to learn what it was He intended us to gain from it:
(1) Make friends for yourselves through the use of material possessions, v. 13. In verse 13, Jesus carried over from the parable of the unjust steward, a parallel to what Christians should practice. The unjust steward saw that his days were numbered and that he would not be able to take his master’s money with him. He then began to use his master’s money in such a way as to make friends, because they would outlast his master’s money. He used his master’s money to make friends.
Christians should act similarly, but not the same. We, like the unjust steward, are stewards. We do not own anything, but we are given custody of certain resources by God for a time. We need to understand that our Lord’s return is at hand (or that our death will come) and that we cannot take money with us. The money will not last, but we will last for all eternity. The way we can use money so that it will last forever is to “make friends” of men, who will gratefully receive us in heaven. I know of no other application of this more important than evangelism. By using our money in ways that manifest Christ to men and which draw men to Christ in faith, we “make friends,” we invest in men’s souls so that they will await us in heaven. Thus, though money will not last, investments in men’s souls will last. In this way, we can imitate, in a measure, the unjust steward. He at least can see that friends outlast money.
It seems to me this is the essence of all that the master really wanted to teach.
2)Jesus did not advocate shrewdness to his disciples, but faithfulness. Jesus never uses the word “shrewd” when applying this parable. He does use the word faithful, however. The unrighteous steward was certainly “shrewd” in relation to his master, but he was not “faithful” to him or to his stewardship. Jesus seems to link the “making of friends” with being faithful stewards. Unlike the unjust steward, we are to be faithful stewards.
(3) Jesus indicates that being faithful stewards serves God’s interests, men's interests, and our own, and all at the same time. Take note of the fact that the steward “got ahead” by “using men” and by abusing his master and his money. Faithful stewards gain, but not at the expense of anyone. Faithful stewards are obedient and honoring to God, they pursue the best interest of their fellow men (what is more in men’s best interest than their eternal salvation?), and at the same time, they prepare heaven for themselves. Everybody wins. What a difference!
4)Jesus teaches us that while money is a “little thing” it has an important function of serving as a proving ground, testing our ability to handle more important things. Thus, the faithful steward, who uses unrighteous mammon to achieve righteous ends, will exchange what is temporary for what is eternal, and what is unrighteous mammon for what is true riches.
All of these principles which Jesus taught were intended to encourage His disciples to be “faithful stewards,” rather than shrewd, unjust, stewards. In the last verse of this paragraph, Jesus sums up the matter of mammon by saying that one must choose whether or not money will be his god:
“No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”
The parable of the unjust steward does not end in verse 8, for that's where many of us tend to stop when reading this, it extends to verse 13 for Jesus intent in bringing up this parable is to compare how the kingdom of the children of light differs from the kingdom of the children of this age. On that other side, shrewdness works, but here on this side faithfulness is what commands blessings.
The words of proverbs 28:20 ring through here again,
"A faithful man shall abound with blessings: but he that maketh haste to be rich shall not be innocent.".