[September 22, 2013] Today we will consider the meaning of the Parable of the Dishonest Steward. We have been treating Luke 14:1—17:19 as a unit and will continue to do so. Until now the issue has been the spiritual miserliness of particular Pharisees who have been offended by Jesus’ corresponding generosity. In their view, Jesus has been too profligate with His message, appealing to those who can least benefit Him and who even put His reputation at risk, that is, “the poor and crippled and blind and lame,” “tax collectors and sinners,” and in fact, anyone in “the highways and along the hedges,” even gentiles (this would have been particularly interesting to the churches of the Pauline mission field). These Pharisees saw what Jesus was up to and opposed Him. Jesus, however, answered back. He knew He was taking the “lowest place” but it was so that He could get a return from God (Whose approval mattered), not from society. As the Servant of YHWH, He was the Slave sent by God to invite people to the feast of the kingdom of God. Those opposing Him had in fact been refusing God’s invitation—they were preoccupied with concerns of property, business and family—and so God was sending His Slave to the “poor and crippled and blind and lame,” and, since they were not enough, to the ones in “the highways and along the hedges.”
After that, we see “large crowds”—the people whom Jesus was now inviting to the feast of the kingdom—following Him and Jesus turning to them and spelling out the terms of discipleship. Grace was given freely to all, but it was not “cheap grace.” Discipleship costs a person everything. (This summarizes chapter 14.)
Still, the tax collectors and sinners were coming to Him, not for favors but “to listen to Him.” They were the lost ones whom the “Pharisees and scribes” despised. They were lost but coming to Jesus they have been found—by God—and were being given the gift of repentance. The Pharisees and scribes—these particular ones who were opposing Jesus (and they were a formidable and violent group, as we see in the Acts of the Apostles and in historical records of the riots they incited in cities throughout the Empire)—grumbled at this: at the whole picture of it, not just the result, but the fact that “this Man receives sinners and eats with them,” never mind that they were repenting as a result. Why did He have to be so chummy with them, so friendly? It was an embarrassment to the moral and religious sensibilities of their society.
So Jesus tells them three parables about the lost being found—a sheep, a coin, and a son—to illustrate that they should be rejoicing that the lost are found, not complaining like the eldest son in the parable of the prodigal. “There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” Righteous persons: at least that was how the Pharisees saw themselves. Yet, with their spiritual miserliness, they were as lost as the lost ones; they just did not know it. That was the content of chapter 15.
The Judgment of Death (Luke 16:1-2)
Now Jesus turns to His disciples in the hearing of the Pharisees. Verse 1 says, “Now He was also saying to the disciples …” and verse 14 says, “Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were listening to all these things and were scoffing at Him.” So the Pharisees continue to be the audience, but Jesus does not tell the following parable to them but to His disciples. It is, however, about the Pharisees, though for the disciples’ (and our) instruction. Whatever it says about the Pharisees (if they can learn from it, good), it applies to us as well.
It begins with “a rich man who had a manager and this manager was reported to him as squandering his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an accounting of your management, for you can no longer be manager.” (Other translations use the word “steward” instead of manager.)
This is not difficult to interpret. The rich man represents God. Everything in the creation belongs to God and providentially God makes us the managers of whatever portion has been divided to us. The property that we are managing is the creation, but the main way in which it falls into our hands to manage is in the form of “unrighteous mammon” or the “mammon of unrighteousness” (verses 9, 11) and what we choose to do with it. Money itself does not come from God; it is something artificially made by the world and comes under the power of the evil one (which is why one cannot serve God and mammon). Nevertheless, it is used to represent the resources of creation. It is clear that, on account of our love of money, we have squandered the resources of creation, resources that do not belong to us but to God. We have treated them as if they were our own and we have used them for our own gain instead of for the good of the creation.
The basis of this view point is in the creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2. In 1:26-28 God, the One speaking, speaks to His Breath (the Spirit) and says, “Let us make the human being in Our image, according to Our likeness”—corresponding to the consonants of the spoken Word—and “male and female He created them” (reflecting the triangle of divine Speaker, the masculine Word and the feminine Breath). Then God says, “Let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” The word “rule” has the connotation of kingly shepherding, caring for, and stewardship, not of a tyrant’s domination and exploitation, for they are to rule as the representatives (image and likeness) of God. This is further illustrated in chapter 2:15 (see verse 5) where the human being is placed in the park-like Eden to “cultivate and guard it,” where the word “cultivate” also means to serve.
In any case, the value that money represents belongs to God and not to us, even though the way that this value is placed and how it is used is “unrighteous.”
The manager represents all of us and we all have squandered what belongs to God—though the parable has a particular application to the rich (the Pharisees in this case). When Jesus says that the owner called the manager and demanded an accounting, “for you can no longer be manager,” it refers to God taking the stewardship away from us and calling us to account for what we have done with it. God takes our stewardship away from us when we die. It is not as if we can get it back; we are already condemned. Death is a sentence from which no one is exempt. We are not qualified to keep our stewardship. Though we think we are “righteous persons who need no repentance,” nevertheless, we have failed in our stewardship and it will certainly be taken away from us. “All have sinned,” and “the wages of sin is death.” “The soul that sins shall die.”
Even the believer, who counts on the forgiveness of the heavenly Father before His judgment seat, is not exempt from the judgment of God in this life. As long as we are in this body, we are all without exception under the umbrella of God’s judgment, for we have all failed in terms of that for which we were created. We have rebelled and squandered—stolen—what belongs to God, acting as if we were a world unto ourselves, and could do what came into our heads to do, which is to make ourselves independent of God—gods unto ourselves—to be done with God, and to be able to completely dominate the creation for our own ends.
So death comes on all of us, to terminate us, to put an end to the ruin and destruction of which we are capable, and to put us out of our misery, to end our addiction to the world and to our isolation and sin.
However, while our stay in this life is terminated, we are not, and we must still give an account of ourselves before God.
Making Use of the Opportunity that is Left (16:3-7)
Knowing the judgment of God, can we then act shrewdly in our own best self-interest? “The sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light!” So, the next few verses shows us how this particular manager, knowing what he was facing, tried to make the best of it.
He acted so that when he was put out on the street, people would take him into their homes until he could get himself back on his feet. To do that, he would have to make himself “friends,” and he would do so “by means of the mammon of unrighteousness,” using his characteristic dishonesty and the position that he still had.
He summoned each one of his master’s debtors. These would have been merchants and tenants who still owed him something. They had received their goods but not yet paid for them. The manager was the middle man who determined on his own how much to charge, out of which proceeds he gave his master the portion that was due and paid himself with the rest. He took advantage of his position and was used to rewarding himself generously in the transaction by overcharging and charging high interest. As was typical in large estates, the debt was paid in produce: in this case, olive oil and wheat.
If someone owed a hundred measures of olive oil, the manager had him take the bill, sit down, and change the figure to fifty. If someone owed a hundred measures of wheat, he had him take the bill and write eighty. Perhaps, by having the debtor alter the bill himself, he was giving the debtor a share in the fraud which would keep the debtor from informing on him; and by doing it quickly he minimized suspicion. Some interpreters think that the manager simply shaved off his own share of the profit (fifty percent in the first case, twenty percent in the second), so that he was not cheating his master at all. In any case, by doing his debtors this favor he hoped to win their “friendship” and thus obligate them to do him a favor in the future, namely, hopefully to welcome him into their homes.
It was a shrewd move, and in view of the disaster that had befallen him (the loss of his job), one that might save him in the future. It was of course entirely motivated by self-interest.
What does this mean for us? In view of our coming death and the judgment of God that awaits us, is there not anything that we can do? We still have the little time that is left us—we know it has an upper limit though we do not know the lower limit (how short it can be)—and we can use that time to improve our condition in the afterlife, in other words, to repent. We cannot change the judgment of death that will befall us in this life, but we can affect what happens afterwards. We will speak of what this means in a moment.
How Can the Children of Light Be Shrewd in Their Own Way? (16:8-9)
The owner of the estate finds out what his unrighteous manager has done and praises him for his shrewdness. The manager is still out of a job, but he earns praise for at least taking care of himself. Jesus uses him as an example of shrewdness, for such people act with shrewdness “in relation to their own kind.” This is where the parable becomes confusing. It is not even clear whether the man ended up stealing from his master or only cutting out his own profit. Jesus, however, does not recommend the man’s behavior, only his shrewdness.
How is it that we are supposed to be shrewd with the unrighteous mammon? The Pharisees were those used it for their own self-interests (for property, business and family). If we only have in view the world, as if there were no higher accounting, then the way this manager acted was indeed shrewd and his worldly master could praise him. What if we are concerned about how our heavenly Master sees us? How are the “sons of light” to be shrewd “in relation to their own kind”? How should we handle the mammon of unrighteousness to “make friends” for ourselves so that when we die (when the mammon of unrighteousness fails), we may be received “into the eternal dwellings”?
The parable itself does not answer this, for we do not make friends “in relation to our own kind” by reducing people’s debts and maybe even by cheating our Master of what is His due. The manager was unrighteous and dishonest, and he rescued himself by continuing his dishonesty. This is not the answer, and perhaps this is the source of people’s confusion with respect to this parable. I have two thoughts with respect to this, though their application is the same.
In 2 Peter 1:11 Peter speaks of cultivating faith, moral excellence, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness and love, “for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you.” While eternal life is granted to all who believe, not all who believe will be able to enter the kingdom of God, at least not initially. As we live in this world and when we die, we suffer under the judgment of God in solidarity with all humanity. When we are raised from the dead—because we have been redeemed by the blood of Christ and forgiven our sins, and have been given the gift of eternal life by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our spirit—we shall appear before the judgment seat of Christ and will have to give an account of ourselves, of all that we have done in our body, whether good or bad. We will be measured and rewarded or punished accordingly. The reward will be entrance into the kingdom; the punishment will be temporary exclusion from it. Jesus speaks of different rewards being dealt to different individuals. What we do from the time that we have become disciples of Jesus to the day of our death determines that reward. It qualifies us (or disqualifies us) for the kingdom. This is what the parable is about—are we preparing for this or not?
(Of course, the images and language we are using is metaphorical of that which we are not capable of imagining and have difficulty demythologizing into concepts.)
It is not as if our good deeds can buy our way into the kingdom. Even our entrance into the kingdom is by grace, not works; yet it is not without works. These works, however, are the work of the Holy Spirit, and they are done out of love, not out of self-interest. This is the paradox: we act in our own self-interest when we do nothing out of self-interest but are motivated by love. When we give to the poor, let our left hand does not know what our right hand is doing (Matthew 6:3). While generosity serves our spiritual self-interest, it cannot come out of a concern for our self-interest. It is always right to want God’s approval, but we seek that approval not out of self-interest for a reward but because we love God—we love the Father, we love Christ, we love the Holy Spirit—and we love our neighbor whom God loves more than we ever can.
How we handle the mammon of unrighteousness has very much to do with our “entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Jesus says that we can store up for ourselves treasures in heaven by giving to the poor (Matthew 6:19-24; Luke 12:21; 18:22). In chapter 12 a rich man stored up all his wealth for his own enjoyment and before he got to enjoy it, God said to him, “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you.” Just as in 16:2 he was called to give an account of himself. Jesus said, “So is the man who stores up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” But how do we use treasure to become rich toward God? “Sell all that you possess and distribute to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven.”
Money is providentially placed in our hands that we may take it out of the kingdom of the world and give it back to God by giving it to the poor. Perhaps this is what Jesus means by “they will receive you into the eternal dwellings”: the poor will.
My second thought has more to do with the Pharisees. It is possible to be accounted righteous even if one is not a believer. There are righteous gentiles in Matthew 25:31-46 who are righteous on the basis of how they have treated the hungry and thirsty and the stranger and the naked and sick and imprisoned among the least of the Messiah’s siblings (the believers). The “least” must include the poor among them. In Matthew 10:40-42 whoever receives a prophet or a righteous person as such, or even gives a cup of water to “one of these little ones” in the name of a disciple “shall not lose his reward,” and in fact will receive the reward coming to the one whom they serve. In the way that Jesus talks, the disciples, especially those who are sent, are among the poor; giving to the sent ones is giving to the poor (He presumes that they are in fact poor). The poor of Israel are considered God’s own too and those who serve them will also be rewarded. “Whoever gives to the poor lends to the Lord,” the proverb says. Just as in Luke 14:12-14, the Pharisees were missing the boat. They cared nothing for the poor but had only disdain for them.
Jesus’ teaching is not that we should amass wealth and manage it well for the kingdom of God. The proper way to manage wealth for the kingdom of God is to give most of it away to the poor, if not all of it, and to live simply.
Being Faithful with Money (16:10-12)
When Jesus says, “He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much,” He is referring to money. Money is a very little thing, and of course, a little money is even littler. Spiritual things have great value; they are big. If we are unfaithful with money, we cannot be faithful with spiritual things. So Jesus says, “If you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous mammon, who will entrust the true wealth to you? If you have not been faithful in the use of that which is Another’s, who will give you that which is your own.” Money is what belongs to God, even though the currency itself is unrighteous. It belongs to God because it has been designated to substitute for what belongs to God. It is a form of theft because we think that we possess it. Therefore to give it back to God—by giving it to the poor—is to be faithful with it (see Luke 14:33). We have said that our true wealth is spiritual. But this is also our “own.” That which grace returns to us is that which we have lost; so it is our own in this sense. However, it is also our own in the sense that it is given to us permanently: “neither moth nor rust destroys, and thieves do not break in or steal” (Matthew 6:20). It is “an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4). This refers to our spiritual transformation and transfiguration which Scriptures call “glorification,” when we shall come to partake of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).
Being Undivided (16:13)
This is spoken especially to the disciples, but the words that follow are directed to everyone. “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” The Pharisees, just like Christians today, think that one really can serve two masters, even while they lie to themselves that they are only serving God. Jesus says you cannot serve both. If you serve mammon, you will end up serving mammon entirely. Let it be said that we lie to ourselves. We really do think that we are serving God and not mammon while we in fact are serving mammon. We are devoted to taking care of ourselves in this world, and therefore we are devoted to our money. Something has to change in our heart where we love God and money loses its power over us. It loses its power over us when it is no longer something that we love. Jesus says, “Either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other.” So if we love God we will hate money, and if we are devoted to God we will despise money. The contrary is also true. If we love money we will hate God (no matter what we tell ourselves), and if we are devoted to money we will despise God. This is simply what Jesus says.
While we live in the world, we have to use money. And if we are not wise in our use of money, if we mismanage it, we are wasting the resources of the creation. We need to understand this. However, we also need to understand what money is. It represents those resources of the creation, but it also represents ownership of those resources, and therein lies the problem, why money is inherently unrighteous. No one except God owns the creation! It is therefore theft. Money is a form of theft from God, an attempt to steal from God. When we use money for our own excess, we are participating in this theft. The way to be faithful with money is to give it back to God, to disown it. We disown money not when we give it to the rich but when we give it to our poor neighbors and to the poor servants of God. When it comes to our poor neighbors, God entitles them to the use of the creation for their own wellbeing; when they are deprived of this by their poverty, we correct the injustice—though only in part—by giving them what they need, by giving them money or buying them what they need.
Finally, what Jesus is really saying to the disciples is that the reason the Pharisees have a hardened heart with respect to the tax collectors and sinners and gentiles, and the poor and crippled and blind and lame is because they love money and are participating in this grand theft from God. It is out of a guilty conscience that they ignore the poor and lowly, because if they had to pay them the attention that Jesus was paying them, they would have to recognize their own self-serving self-interest, their love of money and the fact that their whole life-style was an attempt to rob God. Since their self-righteousness did not permit them to recognize this and give up their denial and self-delusion, their only defense was to attack Jesus.