The Parable of the Unjust Steward, found in Luke 16:1-13, is widely regarded as Jesus’ hardest parable. The church has struggled with it for ages. The nature of the difficulty lies in the fact that a man acts unrighteously, defrauding his boss, and yet he appears to be praised by his boss and held up by Jesus as an example for his disciples to follow.
This parable shares the same context as the well-known Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. Tax collectors and sinners are drawing near to Jesus, and he is receiving them. The Pharisees are put off by this and grumble. So Jesus tells three parables about the joy of lost things being found, the last of which ends with a twist, leaving a challenge hanging for the Pharisees. Will the older brother join the celebration, or not? With that question hanging uncomfortably in the air, Jesus turns to his disciples and tells the Parable of the Unjust Steward.
The Parable of the Unjust Steward
A rich guy has a manager. He gets a bad report about this manager. He calls him to account. The manager knows the gig is up. He’s guilty and he knows it. But he’s shrewd enough to figure a way out of his mess. He’s figured out a way to make it past his imminent termination. He’ll give the master’s creditors huge discounts to win their favor, defrauding his master, but garnering good-will for himself. And the parable ends with this strange comment that the master praised the dishonest servant because he had acted shrewdly. What’s more, Jesus uses him as an example for his disciples!
Why would his master praise him? And why would Jesus use him as an example? These questions have troubled interpreters for a long time.
Efforts to Explain the Difficulty Away
Some interpreters have tried to argue that the steward didn’t actually steal from his master at all. They’ve either suggested that the man gave up his commission, making amends for his wrong, much as Zacchaeus will (Luke 19:8), or they suggest that he takes away the interest his boss was charging, bringing him in conformity with the law (Deut. 23:19-20). Either way, what he did was actually a good and righteous thing, worthy of his masters praise, and the Lord’s. But these explanations do not satisfy, for several reasons.
For one, the man is called “the unjust steward” after he has enacted his plan. He isn’t called the prodigal steward or the inept steward, nor is he called the repentant steward or the law-abiding steward. He’s called the unjust steward. His unrighteousness is declared in verse 8. Also, Deuteronomy 23 probably does not apply in this situation. If we read Deut. 23:19-20 in light of Exo. 22:25, we realize that the law has in view loans given for relief of poverty. But no household uses 100 baths of oil! Likely, the parable has in view something of a venture capitalist giving seed money to farmers who agree to pay him back in product. A subtle, but important reason for rejecting efforts to vindicate the steward’s actions is the fact that Jesus’ parables usually have an element of surprise to them. There would be nothing surprising about the master or our Lord praising the man, if what he did was give up his commission or eliminate the interest from his boss’ loans.
So, we’re stuck with a man doing a bad, bad thing, and yet being praised, not only by his boss, but by Jesus Christ.
The Nature of the Praise
The Rich Man’s Praise
The Greek tet is a little ambiguous in verse 8. Some think that Jesus is the “lord” who praises the man for his shrewdness right from the beginning of verse 8. But a better reading understands the beginning of verse 8 as part of the parable itself, and Jesus’ comments begin in the middle of verse 8.
It’s relatively easy to understand the boss’ praise. He’s not praising the theft. He’s praising the cleverness of his former manager. The steward has effectively put him in a very difficult spot. All the paperwork is official, so he can’t get the money back, and the steward has won the favor of all his clients. He can do nothing to the steward without harming his own business relationships. His praise is basically to acknowledge that the steward is a “crafty devil.”
But what about Jesus? How can he use this as an example for his disciples in any way?
Jesus doesn’t praise the theft, either. He acknowledges that “the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” (Luke 16:8 ESV) Notice that there are three elements to this remark.
First of all, he’s talking about this generation. It’s the generation belonging to the “sons of this age”. It is “their own generation”. And notice how this age — this generation, this period between the fall of man and the return of Christ — notice how this generation is described in the scriptures (Deu. 32:5, 20; Luke 9:41). And particularly notice how Paul continues this imagery of the church as sons of light in a faithless and twisted generation: “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Phil 2:14–15 ESV) That’s the context of Jesus’ words here. He’s drawing a contrast between the world-view, the ultimate commitments, that two different people have.
The Sons of This Age and the Sons of Light
You have two peoples living in one generation: The sons of this age and the sons of light. The sons of this age belong to this generation. They share its worldview. The sons of this age and this generation fit like a glove. But the sons of light don’t. They shine in the darkness. They stand apart and they stand out. The sons of light do not share the affections or the aspirations of this age. We don’t belong here. So, you’ve got two very different peoples. Both living in the same fallen world.
The Comparison: Wisdom / Prudence / Shrewdness
These two peoples are compared in verse 8, and the sons of light come up wanting in one particular area, the area illustrated by the steward’s actions: shrewdness. Φρόνησις from which this comparative adjectival form derives, means “practical wisdom.” Aristotle, in Nichomachean Ethics, defines it this way:
Shrewdness is an excellence of the intelligence by which men are able to deliberate well about … goods and evils with a view to [their own] well-being (N.E. 1140a 25)
So in v. 8, Jesus isn’t commending the man’s theft, and neither is his boss. Both of them are just acknowledging that the man knows how to navigate life to his advantage. He knows how to read the situation he’s in and act such that he comes out ahead. And in that characteristic, the sons of this age generally win out over the sons of light. The guy in Jesus’ parable saw his situation clearly, and navigated it effectively. That’s what’s commendable, not the particular actions he took.
For the disciples to become shrewd, like but unlike the steward, will mean for them to “Make friends” by means of “unrighteous wealth”. We know that he cannot be saying that we ought to use ill-gotten gains to buy friends. So, what does he mean?
For “unrighteous wealth”, Luke doesn’t give us a Greek word at all. Instead, he simply brings in the Aramaic word “mammon.” One wonders what he expected his original audience, or his patron Theophilus to understand here. The word itself probably comes from the same root that gives us the word, “Amen”, a root basically meaning “that in which one trusts.” And undoubtedly the sons of this age trust in money above all else.
Jesus is suggesting that, as sons of light, we use money, which the sons of this age trust in, as a tool for making friends. We are to be shrewd in our use of money. The steward saw an expiration date on his current situation. And he used the tools at his disposal to ensure that he would be received into a new situation. And Jesus tells us, since there is an expiration date on this age, the sons of light ought to be shrewd with the tools at their command. The currency of this age is going to be worthless. Just as the steward had a limited time to use his position and his master’s books to ensure that he would be received, So, we have been entrusted with money, not as something to trust in, but as something to use. And the reality is, we will do one or the other with our money. Either we will worship it, or we will work with it for the purposes of the kingdom.
In verse 10, Jesus lays out the simple kingdom principle that those who are faithful in little things, will be entrusted with big things. And those who are unfaithful in insignificant things are not going to be entrusted with significant things. What’s in view here is your character. If somebody cheats in a board game, he shouldn’t be trusted with something that matters. If they can’t handle a little temptation, what are they going to do when they are really tempted? For God, money — though it seems so very important to us — is insignificant. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills. Whether he gives you a modest salary and watches to see how you steward it, or whether he blesses you with surplus, to see how you will distribute it, either way, he is testing your character. If you’re faithful with something so ultimately worthless as money, then you can be trusted with real riches, kingdom riches. But if you hoard the excess, if money becomes a god for you, you won’t have anything of real value entrusted to you.
The money we are entrusted with does not belong to us anyway (v. 12). You are not your own. You have been bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:19-20; 2 Cor. 5:15; Gal. 2:20; 1 Pet. 4:2). And you came to him with an unconditional surrender or you didn’t come to him at all. So you have no rights to your property. Everything is his, and to be used for his glory. And if you find that burdensome, you have not reflected carefully on the wonder that you were saved at all, or on great price at which your redemption came. Besides, He is the creator. He is the sustainer. You wouldn’t have breath if he didn’t give it to you. What skill do you use to earn your cash that wasn’t a gift from him?
Money is the great litmus test of your faith. How you use your money — whether for your own pleasure or security, or for the kingdom — will tell so much about you, about how you view what God has done for you, about how much you trust him, and about your love for Him and for your neighbor. Either you will be generous with it, for the sake of God’s kingdom, extending mercy and spreading the gospel, or you will be collecting it for security and your own comfort. But notice what Jesus says in v. 13. You cannot serve both God and money. You will serve one or the other. But you can’t serve both. You will put your confidence in something. Will it be something that lasts?
So what are we to do with money? Should my attitude be, “it’s just money, I’m not going to worry about it. I’ll just be free with it.”…? Or should my attitude be, “it’s God’s money, I’d better be frugal with it”? This is where we need practical wisdom, prudence — shrewdness. Both attitudes are appropriate at different times. Sometimes, you just need to be open handed and know that God’s got you covered. Other times, you need to be content with little and stretch what you have. But what is never acceptable, is being miserly in the name of “stewardship”.
Aristotle, in that same book that gave us the definition of “shrewd”, had this to say about friendship:
To a noble man there applies the true saying that he does all things for the sake of his friends. . . and, if need be, he gives his life for them (N.E. 1169a, 18–20)
Aristotle is not authoritative. But John is … and he tells us,
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:16–18 ESV)
We love because God loved us. We are generous because God gave his Son for us. We receive others because He received us. When you take account of what God has given you, and what he has promised by way of provision, and the fact that this age has an expiration date on it, won’t you be faithful with something so trivial as the money he’s entrusted to you? Won’t you use it for his glory and his kingdom?