The Gospel of Luke Chapter 16 verses 1-15, English Standard Version*
He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings. “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters, for 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 God and money.” The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him.
*The Holy Bible, English Standard Version copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
The Parable of the Dishonest Steward or Manager © Parva Press
What is this! The Lord Jesus Christ appears to be compromising; holding up as an example to follow: A man who is unjust, dishonest. A man who makes friends by mis-spending another man’s money. A man who cheats the one who trusted him. And then saying to his disciples, here is wisdom, here is your model, follow it!
It is a parable that has puzzled and greatly embarrassed the church for centuries. Way back in AD355, Julian became the Roman Emperor. He was the last of Constantine’s Christian dynasty and he rejected Christianity in favour of paganism arguing, from this parable, the inferiority of the Christian faith and of the Lord Jesus Christ. It clearly is a most tricky and difficult parable; what a madman I must be to draw your attention to it!
Yet do note that, to teach true godliness, the Lord Jesus did use bad men in his parables. For example: the unjust judge – not to teach idle neglect of injustice, but to teach persistence in faith and prayer. Or the man who would not help his neighbour with bread late at night until that neighbour continued, shamelessly, to pester him – not to teach us to tell those in need to go away, but to teach us to persist; to really mean business with the Lord God in prayer, like the neighbour who shamelessly kept requesting bread.
And so here, we need to be careful to hear what the Lord Jesus Christ is teaching and not be tripped up by what he is not teaching. The key seems to be in avoiding hastily equating the rich man with Almighty God and the steward with disciples. Hence, step back and, noting the worldly wisdom of the steward, let the disciple learn the spiritual wisdom of looking to the future; making our priority a welcome to heaven.
We look first at the parable and then at what we can learn from it.
A rich man who had put his affairs in the hands of another; there is always the risk of being cheated if we do that. Choose those to whom you entrust the management of your finances, carefully. Those allowed to swindle for you . . . are well equipped to swindle you!
A rich man who has a steward or manager; a man who had his master’s authority to administer his affairs, very much like Joseph in Potiphar’s house. Yet not quite the same, for when Joseph was falsely accused, he was flung into prison. Here, do note, the steward is dismissed, ‘You can no longer be manager’. And one can only conclude that he was a hired agent not, as Joseph, a slave.
So here is the manager, reported to have squandered his master’s wealth. (The same word is used of the prodigal son’s careless, wasteful, extravagant spending in the far country.) He faced being called to account and dismissed. Note, the manager offers no defence or excuse; he is silent, aware that the facts and figures will make only too plain the truth of the accusation. He hasn’t, as we say, ‘got a leg to stand on’.
What is he going to do? He is unwilling or unable to dig and too proud to beg but he uses his brains, ‘I am resolved what to do’, ‘I’ve got it’. He uses his brief opportunity. He uses the remaining hours of his position as steward to provide for his future. In a way he trades on his master’s fairness and generosity to secure his own future.
There is the rich man and there is the steward, what about these transactions?
They could be loans, to be repaid in kind, with a massive 50% or 20% discount offered for early repayment. But they are so big; 100 cut to 50 barrels of oil, 1000 cut to 800 sacks of wheat. You can’t conjure that up ‘quickly’ and that is a word to notice.
Scholars have suggested that the steward himself was going to pay the discount, but would that be ‘wise’ if he was about to be made redundant? Others have suggested that was a reduction in an inflated or heavily interest-loaded bond. As interest charged to fellow Hebrews was illegal, it would be extremely clever as the master couldn’t possibly go to court to retrieve his loss.
Alternatively, the word ‘quickly’ very comfortably fits with an adjustment to land rental agreements. A tenant farmer has the use of the land and agrees to settle for a proportion of the produce after harvest. ‘You’ve agreed to 100 barrels, quickly sit down and write another agreement for 50 and I’ll countersign it.’ ‘You’ve agreed to 1,000 sacks; rewrite an agreement for 800 and I’ll sign it.’ And, of course, he made friends. What a generous landowner, what an excellent steward! ‘If there’s anything I can do for you, just let me know’. And, almost certainly, he went down the list of tenants, one by one, in the same way. He was generously, still just with his master’s authority, replacing these agreements with much reduced, much more favourable ones to the delight of the farmers, who, of course, would love him for it. It was wise because it provided for his future. They would welcome him. It was clever because it made both his master and himself greatly appreciated for being so generous and in a close-knit, country community that is worth a lot. No one is going to be hasty to undo that. It was wise, it was clever, it was shrewd.
We do not know for certain what brand of cunning wisdom he used. But we do know that his lord commended him, not for his dishonesty, he is named as being that, ‘The master commended the dishonest manager’, but for his wisdom; his forethought, his cleverness, and his decisive action in a desperate situation. Ordinary, God-given wisdom but sadly so often neglected or not applied by the spiritually minded; ‘The sons of this generation are wiser, are shrewder, in their affairs than the sons of light.’
Now the parable was not given to the disciples to amuse or entertain them but to stir and encourage and enable them (and down the centuries, us) to better live in God’s world for God. So what can we learn from it in the spiritual realm?
A steward; a man given a trust subsequently called to account.
Firstly, although originally addressed to disciples, it is a word for those who have yet to believe, yet to bow the knee to the Lord Jesus.
Even if we do not yet acknowledge it, life itself, our very breath and all our circumstances, are a trust from God to be used for His honour. We are stewards of all that we have and of all that we are and we will be called to account for the way we have used the one life entrusted to us. Terrifying – for like the steward in the parable, each one of us will be found wanting, having fallen short, wasted, squandered opportunities, time, life itself.
Wisdom demands that we cry to the Lord God for mercy; for forgiveness, for pardon and a fresh new start – now – before we are called to account. The gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ accepted; the gospel of forgiveness taken to heart, embraced and held fast makes us true disciples, God’s forgiven people, citizens of heaven.
Then secondly, it is a word to disciples, those to whom the original parable was addressed.
Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ are pilgrims and stewards here, with eyes on heaven, on being with the Lord. The challenge of the parable is to prepare for it; send ahead our best efforts, well-used time, well-used money, well-used opportunities and a well-used home. So that when these things can be enjoyed no more, ’are eclipsed,’ for that is the underlying word, it will be a joyful homecoming. Believing disciples, too, must face the judgement seat of Christ; be called to account. Learn from the steward, not from his dishonesty, but from his wisdom and buy up: time, opportunities, home and money.
Time – The man’s remaining time as steward was very short, as ours may be, but he bought it up. He did not let it slip away in entertainment or side issues. He did not slip idly into poverty. The people of this world, this generation, said the Lord Jesus are, in their own situation, wiser; clearer-thinking, forward thinking, better at seizing the opportunities, better at making and keeping friends, than disciples. Learn from them. The sportsman; picture an athlete with an eye on a gold medal, eating, training, resting – totally focussed on winning that medal. Picture the self-employed business man; out of the house by six in the morning, travelling, bargaining, making contacts and friends all the time – totally focussed on getting the business off the ground and making money. Learn from him.
Opportunities – For a short while the man still held his position of steward.
Lord Reith, a Christian disciple, was for a time head of the British Broadcasting Corporation and saw it as his opportunity and duty before God to make sure that all that was broadcast into people’s homes by the BBC was good and wholesome and honouring to God. He bought up the opportunity of his position. Christians in politics, medicine, teaching and the law – catch the vision, catch the wisdom.
Parents and grandparents – picture the scene of a youngster thrilled to be shown the inside of a watch or the view down a microscope. There is just a short window of opportunity when our children or our grandchildren love us, listen to us and long to please us. Then in their teens, they are off and on their way in the world and we are all but irrelevant, except in matters of the giving of lifts, giving money, providing food and doing the washing! With children have time for them, pray for them and with them, talk with them about everything and especially about the things of God. Buy up whatever opportunity God gives you to, as it were, score a goal for him.
Our homes – the steward was about to be thrown out of his home and wanted to be welcomed to other peoples’ homes. Who do you invite to you home and why? Could you use it for the Lord, to encourage fellow disciples or help those seeking to become disciples?
Money – the steward used money to secure his future. The Lord goes on to speak specifically of money, of wealth and particularly its faithful handling as being a very direct measure of our walk with the Lord God.
Money, riches, ‘unrighteous wealth’ – wealth in itself is neutral but is so often associated with unrighteousness as we defraud and cheat and short change, overcharge and underpay to gain it and keep it and again as we use it wrongly. Be wise, be faithful, and use it for the Lord. Look after those who depend on you, but also use it like the Good Samaritan to help those in need or like the Philippian disciples who sent gifts to the apostle Paul to forward the gospel, so that when it fails you have ‘treasure in heaven’.
Money is for this world only. Dead men cannot sign cheques or remember their PIN number! Money, use it well so that at the end, says our Lord, ‘they may receive you into heavenly dwelling places’; a heavenly welcome. Who are ‘they’? Maybe those you’ve helped or those you’ve helped get there – but much more likely a Hebrew or Aramaic way of avoiding the name of the Lord God. So it simply means a heavenly welcome by the Lord himself. ‘Well done good and faithful servant . . . enter into the joy of your lord’. Are not words like this something for truly forgiven disciples to covet and keep our eye on; something to help us set priorities and keep us on course; words to keep before us?
Julian stumbled, the Pharisees scoffed – but let true disciples learn from the steward. Look ahead and prepare. Set our priorities. Use our time. Buy up our opportunities. Use money, faithfully, for the Lord – for we cannot serve two masters.
Heavenly Father, here are words of your Son our Lord Jesus Christ which the Emperor Julian found useful in rejecting Christianity, words which caused the Pharisees, lovers of money – to scoff. Help us to humbly read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them for our own usefulness here and now, for our eternal wellbeing and for the glory of your name.
The unjust judge, Luke 18:1-8
The neighbour at midnight, Luke 11:5-8
The Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37
The Philippian gift, Philippians 4:10-20
‘Well done good and faithful servant.’ Matthew 25:21
Questions for reflection and discussion
- Why did the Pharisees scoff and the Emperor Julian stumble?
- Can we learn good things from bad men?
- Why are ungodly people sometimes better at applying their brains than disciples?
- What are the risks of entrusting our affairs into the hands of another?
- Do we still have overall responsibility for the actions taken?
- To what extent are all our possessions, skills, talents and even life itself a trust from God?
- How can we most effectively buy up the opportunities we have?