Is the Unjust Steward truly commended by Jesus for his shrewd decision to reduce debts and ingratiate friends? Or is he a dishonest manager that no one would trust? Does Jesus use sarcasm in Luke 16? Is the lesson only about financial dealings in worldly matters, or is there another level to the story? We decided to investigate.
As always, examining the context helps to see who Jesus was addressing, and for what reason. The parable in Luke 16 follows the parable of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son. We know from Luke 14 that Jesus was at a chief Pharisees’ house. In chapter 15 the publicans and sinners wanted to hear Jesus speak and had come close, while the Pharisees and Scribes were still nearby. At the end of the Parable of the Unjust Steward, the Pharisees were still listening and resented the message. So, it seems that all these parables may have been told in succession, perhaps while Jesus was at the chief Pharisees’ house.
It is also possible that the parable of the Unjust Steward is a continuation of the Parable of the Lost, with a change of focus now towards the ‘Elder’ Son who proudly stayed with his Father. Although serving for many years and thinking he had never ‘transgressed’ any of the commandments, the Elder certainly never developed the character of his father. He was angry and resentful towards his wayward brother’s return, while his loving father was merciful and forgiving.
Sometimes it helps to look at the word-meanings. A ‘steward’ is a ‘house-distributor, or a manager, or an overseer.’ Joseph and Daniel both served faithfully in this capacity and are excellent examples of faithful stewards. However, this steward had ‘wasted his [Lord’s] goods’. To ‘waste’ has the idea of ‘dissipate, squander, scatter’. It is the identical word used of the Prodigal Son who ‘wasted his substance with riotous living’. However, this steward was still in the house; he hadn’t left! Like the Lost Coin parable, the Elder Son was lost inside the house.
‘I cannot dig’
When the steward’s ‘wastefulness’ was discovered, he was told he would be dismissed from his job. Like anyone getting a ‘pink slip’, this provoked anxious thoughts about how he would provide for himself. The first two options that came to his mind were to ‘dig’ or ‘beg’. Dig means ‘dig’ – but the word is only used in two other places in the New Testament! One is in Luke 6:48, where Jesus talks about digging deep to lay your house (life) on the foundation of Christ. The other is in Luke 13:8, where the gardener decides to dig about an unproductive tree one more time to fertilize it and give it another chance to be fruitful. This is interesting… maybe the wasteful steward was not willing to dig deep and build his life on Christ’s commands? Or dig around others (perhaps the debtors!) to help encourage them to a life of productivity in Christ? As a steward he should have been doing these things – providing meat in due season for all in the house (Matthew 24:45-46). It seems he had never been willing to ‘dig’, and wasn’t willing to change his wasteful ways.
‘To beg I am ashamed’
Well, then what about the word ‘beg’? The word meaning isn’t all that revealing; it simply means to ask again and again, or to beg. Yet, there are plenty of places we are told to ‘ask’. “
Ask and it shall be given you” (Matthew 7:7)
God knows how to ‘give good things to them that ask’” (Matthew 7:11).
Was there something the wasteful steward should have asked from his master? For instance, had he ever considered asking for forgiveness? Yes, he had been caught in sin, and he felt guilty and ashamed, but surely the best option at this point would have been to beg for mercy and forgiveness!
Generous with another man’s goods
In contrast, when the Prodigal Son came to his senses and realized he had made a foolish mistake, he decided to return to his Father, confess his failure, and beg for forgiveness. He was so humbled by his experience, he only asked to be a servant for the rest of his life. The Unjust Steward didn’t consider asking for mercy, he decided instead to rely on his own ingenuity. “Take your bill,” he said to his master’s debtors, and then he ‘generously’ discounted the debts at his master’s expense! This isn’t true generousity – true generosity comes out of our own pocket. Discounting debts on a personal whim, is also not faithful management of his master’s property; he was continuing to be a waster. However, for those of his Lord’s debtors who weren’t loyal customers, this discounting of their debt would have endeared this ‘unjust’ steward to them.
Have we ever had the experience where a cashier, or waitress gives us a special deal hinting that it’s on their own initiative? Do we insist on an honest payment out of loyalty to the owner, or are we quick to take the advantage and go away with a glowing report of the good deal we were given? Would we return to seek out that same waitress or cashier the next time we visited? Would they become our favourite? Our friend?
If the debt in the parable refers to sin, as in, ‘forgive us our debts’ – faithful stewards don’t have the authority to ‘mark-down’ the debt a fellow-believer has to God. Just telling someone, “Don’t worry, God loves you as you are. You don’t have to change, He’ll overlook your sin”, does not take away their debt! In fact, it can give them a false sense of security. Far better to direct them towards God, the one who can truly forgive them!
Looking up the word ‘bill’, we were surprised to discover it was the word ‘gramma’ – the word used for ‘scripture’ in many places! Was this steward discounting the Scriptures to bring himself into favour with others? Is it even possible to do this? Some scriptural ‘echoes’ helped to make this analogy clear. “
For we are not as many, which corrupt [‘peddle, adulterate, to do a thing for base gain’] the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ.” (2 Corinthians 2:17).
Or we read in 2 Corinthians 4:2, “But have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.”
Discounting the Scriptures?
Now, if this parable was directed to the Pharisees, was there a way in which they were handling God’s Word deceitfully? Were they discounting the Scriptures in order to bring themselves into favour with others, with ‘fake generosity’ that wasn’t coming from God? We were reminded of the Corban law in Mark 7:6-13, where the Pharisees had found a way to get around God’s command to look after one’s father and mother. Jesus told them they were, “Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition.”
The prophet Ezekiel told the people of his day, “with lies ye have made the heart of the righteous sad, whom I have not made sad; and strengthened the hands of the wicked, that he should not return from his wicked way, by promising him life.”
The Luke 16 parable is powerful, because we can all think of examples where we or others have discounted people’s debts to God, without truly having the authority to do so. If God has clearly spoken in His Word about right and wrong, whether in regards to belief or practice, we need to be careful to proclaim the same accurate message that He has given. It is God who has set the terms for salvation, not us. Ironically, God’s promise of forgiveness is full and complete to all who confess and forsake their sins and ASK for forgiveness. To change the Gospel message to make it more appealing in order to make ourselves seem more compassionate, or merciful, or generous, will actually defeat the gift that God has given. Sin that is not confessed cannot be forgiven. The Unjust Steward offered 50% forgiveness at the most, while God offers 100%!
However, one of the most confusing parts of this parable is that the Unjust Steward is commended for his actions. Is this a true commendation from Jesus, or is it a sarcastic remark? Would Jesus truly encourage us to ‘make friends of the mammon of unrighteousness [“injustice, moral wrongfulness of character, life or act’]’? This doesn’t add up with the lessons he draws from this parable in verses 10-13. He says, “ye cannot serve God and mammon.”
We looked carefully at what the Unjust Steward hoped to gain. What are the ‘everlasting habitations’ of those who act like this unjust steward? Everlasting means ‘perpetual, eternal, for ever’, which is no surprise. However, ‘habitations’ means ‘tent, tabernacle, a cloth hut’. This is an oxymoron! Tents are certainly not permanent dealing places, any more than being taken into the home of a worldly friend will last longer than this life. The only permanent dwelling place for those who choose not to obey God or seek His forgiveness – is in the grave! This is the ‘eternal home’ offered to an unrepentant unjust steward.
‘Wiser than the Children of Light’
But what about the statement Jesus made in verse 8, that, “the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light”? Paul also drew lessons from godless people, for example, the athlete (1 Cor. 9:24-27), and the soldier (2 Timothy 2:3-6), but he wasn’t trying to encourage us to choose their occupations. Rather, the lesson is to follow their complete dedication and commitment in service to our Master, the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Unjust Steward may have enjoyed winning the favour of his Lord’s debtors, and he may have been rewarded for his unjust actions by the grateful customers who loved him for his fake generosity. However, the best they could give him was praise and comfort for this life. “Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.” Matthew 6:1-6
‘Faithful over a few things’
The lessons Jesus draws from this parable in verses 10 to 13, and the Pharisees negative reaction, support the idea that this parable is against dishonest management whether in financial matters, or the spiritual guidelines that God has entrusted to us. How we act in the small matters of life now, will determine whether or not God will assign us a position in His eternal kingdom in the life to come. In his spiritual house, Jesus and God are looking for those who love God’s righteousness, encouraging others to confess and forsake sin and receive full forgiveness (be completely debt-free!), while balancing this with mercy towards those who are truly repentant for what they have done – like the prodigal son.
The words we want to hear from Jesus
“Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” Matthew 25:21
Click this link for a poem on this subject, “When Mr. Goodman Went Away”