1. He also said to His disciples: “There was a certain rich man who had a steward, and an accusation was brought to him that this man was wasting his goods.
Though there is a chapter break here in our Bibles, there is no break in the narrative, for this portion follows immediately upon what came before in chapter 15. The Lord Jesus here turns from the Pharisees, to whom he had addressed the previous parable in three parts, and starts speaking to His disciples. As we will see, however, the Pharisees are still very much within earshot, and the words He is speaking to His disciples are really addressing them and their hypocrisy. He has finished with their lack of compassion towards those who were cut out of Israel, yet He is not finished in condemning them. The older son in his last story claimed to have faithfully served his father for many years, and perhaps he had. Yet the Pharisees did not faithfully serve. Far from it! And this the Lord is about to show in this story.
We see first of all a rich man who has a steward. The word “steward” is not one we typically use in modern English. We might call this man an administrator, or a general manager. The word here in Greek is oikonomos, and is related to the word oikonomia, from which we get the word “dispensation.” We know that oikos means “house” and nomos means “law.” So this man was a ruler over his master’s house. The Companion Bible defines it as “a house manager, or agent, managing the house and servants, assigning the tasks, &c., of the latter.”
Great houses at this time would have needed much oversight. For example: if this rich man had his wealth in sheep, this would require many laborers. There must be shepherds to watch over the sheep, builders to make the sheep pens, shearers to harvest the wool, weavers to spin the wool, and so forth. All these employees would have needed oversight. Management of all these things would indeed be a full-time job. Thus a man like this steward was necessary, unless the rich man himself wished to spend all his time overseeing these things.
Now, in our story, an accusation is brought to the rich man. We are not told by whom this accusation was brought, but we do know that the rich man seems to have viewed it as coming from a reliable source. This accusation is that the steward or manager has been wasting his master’s goods. This is not a surprising thing, for even today we are certainly not unfamiliar with dishonest managers.
2. “So he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.’
The rich man, upon receiving this accusation, immediately calls his house-ruler to account. He demands an accounting of all his actions as steward. We would call this an audit. This appears moreover not to be for the purposes of seeing if the accusations are true or not. The rich man seems to have no doubt as to the truthfulness of the accusation. Rather, it seems to be that he wishes to see what goods he has left, so he can know how much the manager has cheated him, and so he can know what his goods are when he passes them on to a new house-ruler. Thus, this man’s fate is already decided, and he can no longer be the steward.
3. “Then the steward said within himself, ‘What shall I do? For my master is taking the stewardship away from me. I cannot dig; I am ashamed to beg.
This dishonest manager now faces his probable future. He knows his employment with this rich man is destined to come to an end. Now he ponders within himself what to do next, knowing that his master will remove him from his position when he finds out that he has indeed been wasting his goods. He knows that ditch-digging can be lucrative, and that the standards to take this work are not high, so one with a reputation for being dishonest could still find work by this means. Yet he feels that he is not physically capable of a job that requires this kind of manual labor. Begging he considered a last resort for making a living, and yet he concludes that his pride is too great for him to stoop to this. Thus, he must hit upon a different solution.
4. “’I have resolved what to do, that when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.’
The steward resolves what to do. He still is in his administrative role, though he is soon to lose it. Thus, he decides that the best thing for him to do is to use his authority, as long as he still has it, to make friends who are obliged to him, and thus will receive him into their homes when his master puts him out. Bullinger points out that he was ashamed to beg, but not to embezzle! What a deceptive thing the pride of sinners is.
5. “So he called every one of his master’s debtors to him, and said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
In the interest of carrying out his plan, the house-ruler calls to him every one of his master’s debtors under the cover of this audit he is supposed to be doing. When he is in private conference with the first of them, he questions him as to how much this one owes his master.
6. “And he said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ So he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’
This man produces his bill, or as we would call it his contract, and shows that it is for a hundred measures of oil. This was a vast sum, and a considerable debt to repay.
Now the steward produces a new bill, probably appearing just as the old one did and with whatever was needed to make a document appear official. He tells him to take this new contract and write it out for fifty, or half the sum he owed before. Then, the original bill would be torn up, and this new one used in its place. This debtor would have been most happy to do this, for as I said he owed a very large sum. Yet of course this was a very dishonest thing for both of them to do. This would not only put the debtor in debt to the steward, but would also subject him to him, for this steward alone could reveal the truth of what had gone on and what this man truly owed. This crooked manager would now have this debtor in his power, and could demand of him a place to stay and a means to support himself once he was put out of his house-rulership.
7. “Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ So he said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’
The steward continues his plan to make some quick friends. The next debtor owes a hundred measures of wheat. This was probably worth quite a bit more than a hundred measures of oil, and so this was a bigger debt. Thus, the manager only cuts this bill from one hundred to eighty, yet this was still a huge decrease. This would put this debtor greatly in the manager’s debt as well, and would provide the administrator another friend to call on in the future for his own support, either from gratitude, or else by blackmail, for all these debtors are now co-conspirators in a plot to defraud.
8. “So the master commended the unjust steward because he had dealt shrewdly. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light.
Up to this point this story has made sense. We can certainly relate to the idea of a dishonest administrator, and his pragmatic but immoral plan fascinates us with its cleverness, even as we are appalled by the man’s total lack of conscience or scruples in applying it. Yet for all that, we know of men even in our day whom we see acting in the very same manner, and others we imagine would act in such a way if they had the opportunity.
Now, however, the story takes a turn to the absurd. For the master, upon finding out what the unjust steward has done, commends him for acting so shrewdly. He respects what this steward has done, because it was indeed a most clever solution. The implication seems to be that the master is so impressed by the house-ruler’s actions here that he might even consider keeping him on as manager. At this point we do a double take. Of course the master wouldn’t commend his steward for cheating him! The steward has acted to enrich himself at his master’s expense, and to put these debtors in a position where he can blackmail them. These are not the kinds of actions that any master would commend his steward for. This ending is shocking, and is totally the opposite of what we would expect the master to do. So why does Christ end His story this way?
The answer lies for us in whom this story was spoken about. This steward represents the Pharisees, whose stewardship of the people of Israel was far from what God would have wished it to be. They were wasting the gifts God had given to them, and using their position for their own selfish gain. Knowing that God will call to account all those who act in a manner like this, they respond by making those around them their friends and allies, as if the approval of the people could somehow make them acceptable before God. The end of this story drips with sarcasm against the Pharisees. Christ seems to be saying to them, “Do you really think that I will commend you for your unjust actions just because you have fooled men into respecting you or even feeling grateful toward you?”
In the teaching of many, this story is made to be a parable. Yet the gymnastics that many have gone through to attempt to find some high moral or teaching in this story are amazing, and often absurd in and of themselves. The common solution to the difficulty presented by this story is to suggest that Christ is telling His people that they are to be as wise in their dealings as the unrighteous are in theirs. Yet this surely is an inappropriate and damaging conclusion. Is a servant of the Lord to accept bribes from unrighteous men because this is prudent? Is he to take money from men of corrupt character in exchange for turning a blind eye to their deeds? This would seem to be the conclusion if we are to take this story as teaching us that the world-wise actions of the godless are to be an example to us of how we are to act wisely.
I am convinced that this story is in fact a satire. Dictionary.com defines a satire as “1. The use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc. 2. a literary composition, in verse or prose, in which human folly and vice are held up to scorn, derision, or ridicule. 3. a literary genre comprising such compositions.” Basically, a satire takes men’s vice and points it out through an absurd story putting it in such a light that it is unmistakable in its folly. Gulliver’s Travels, that most famous work of Jonathan Swift, is perhaps the most well-known example of satire today, presenting a satirical picture of eighteenth-century British society.
So this absurd story is meant to point out the foolish actions and beliefs of the Pharisees in a satirical way. Otis Q. Sellers says about this, “Absurd ideas and principles can be satirized only by means of an absurd story.” Thus this story that seems so unbelievable is meant to show the foolishness of the manner of life of the Pharisees. These men were unfaithful in the things of God. Yet they responded by using the things of God to gain friends for themselves. They honestly believed that their unfaithful management of God’s people was so wise in producing this gain for themselves that God Himself would commend them for it. This was absurd, and that is what Christ points out here.
The next statement of Christ is also full of sarcasm, and is pointed against the Pharisees. Christ declares that the representatives (sons) of this world (eon or flow of things, in other words, the Pharisees, who were the leaders of the flow of things in Israel) are more shrewd in their deeds (generation, or things they generate or do) than the representatives (sons) of light. We can certainly see from a worldly viewpoint that people without morals do have an advantage in getting ahead. Because they have no moral constraints, they are able to use any means necessary to achieve their own ends. They can pay any price without scruple, and thus they do appear to have an advantage over those who are held back by moral constraints. Yet those who live this way are not following the ways of God. Of course Christ does not actually mean that we should live like this, but rather He is mocking the wisdom and the deeds of the wicked Pharisees, which ultimately would lead to their condemnation by God.
9. “And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home.
This statement is based on the satirical story that comes before it. Many have tried to make this sarcastic statement fit with the true teaching of Christ as He sets it forth in verse 13. This is attempted by means of translation and interpretation. Yet this cannot honestly be done, for the two statements are exact opposites. The truth is that Christ does not condone even the least friendship with unrighteous gain.
This statement shows the same kind of sarcasm that we see in the book of Judges in the Old Testament, wherein the LORD declares, “Go and cry out to the gods which you have chosen; let them deliver you in your time of distress.” Of course, this statement is sarcastic, and was the opposite of what the LORD really intended them to do. He was pointing out the foolish character of their idolatrous gods. They were happy to serve them when times were good, and when they thought these gods could benefit them, or when they would condone their unrighteous actions. Yet when they were in trouble or needed deliverance, they knew the only One they could truly turn to was the LORD. Yet why not go to those false gods that they liked so well when times were good? If those gods were so great, then why not ask them to save them, rather than the LORD? Thus by this sarcastic statement the LORD points out the folly of His people’s actions.
So in this verse the LORD points out the folly of the Pharisees. Christ now offers His disciples advice based on the way the Pharisees were behaving. He tells them to make friends using money so that when their life ends and they seek to enter God’s kingdom, their friends whom they bought through bribes may receive them into an everlasting home! This is ridiculous, of course. Only God can receive people into His glorious home that He will prepare for them. But this is how the Pharisees were behaving. They were making friends based on their money, but were totally neglecting the things of God. Therefore, Christ sarcastically suggests to His disciples that the Pharisees have acted wisely, and that their friends gained through their money will no doubt get eternal life for them!
I do not believe that the disciples for a minute would have considered following Christ’s advice here. They knew that they had already made friends with the only One Who could truly receive them into an everlasting home. Thus, they would have recognized the sarcastic statement Christ was making, saying the opposite of what He meant. This has always been the way sarcasm has worked, and it does so here in the Scriptures as well.
The word for “everlasting” here is the Greek word aionious. This is the word “eonian” or “outflowing,” and has to do with homes in God’s great future eon of the kingdom of God. The word “homes” is skenas, meaning a tabernacle or tent. Yet this is also the source from which we get our word “scene.” When the Israelites were a nomadic people, their tents were the stages upon which they worked out the scenes of life. Thus what we have here are eonian habitations or tents. This is what these men were looking forward to, that is, a place to dwell and work in God’s future kingdom. Yet certainly the Lord’s advice here was not the true way they could gain this!
10. “He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much.
Now the Lord stops speaking satirically or sarcastically and speaks literal truth. Remember that He was speaking to His disciples, and yet He was doing so in the hearing of the Pharisees. This fits with the way satire is given, for it is never addressed directly to those it is satirizing. Yet we can see that the Pharisees heard this and recognized in it the rebuke if we look at verse 14, where we read, “Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, also heard all these things, and they derided Him.” Thus they have heard the sarcasm, and now they hear the true teaching.
The Lord presents what with God is a principle: that he who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much, and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much. One who will be honest with five dollars is likely to be honest also with a hundred or a thousand. Yet one who is willing to be dishonest with five dollars will be dishonest with a greater sum also. So the Pharisees proved, by being unfaithful with the little God had given them in this world, that they would be just as dishonest if He were to give them a place in the kingdom of God. Yet the disciples, who had been faithful with what they had in this world, would be faithful also in the position God will give them in His kingdom.
In the same way, God can look at any man on this same basis. Those who knew very little about God, yet were faithful with it, He can know that they would have been faithful if they had known more. On the other hand if they were unrighteous with what little they knew of God, He can know they would have been unrighteous with more. Thus God can judge men based on what they did know, not on what they didn’t.
11. “Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?
Christ continues to sum up what His actual teaching is. He tells His disciples if they were not faithful in unrighteous mammon, who would commit to them the true riches? Of course, by the true riches, He meant those of His kingdom. It was true, unfortunately, of Judas, that he was not faithful with unrighteous money, though the rest of the disciples were. Yet this statement was not really pointed at Judas, though it was spoken to His disciples, yet it was pointed at the Pharisees who heard. Yet certainly Judas in hearing could have taken a lesson from this! Alas, he did not.
12. “And if you have not been faithful in what is another man’s, who will give you what is your own?
Since these Pharisees had been unfaithful in dealing with God’s people whom He had entrusted to their care, they would certainly receive nothing from Him to call their own in the future. We can also take a lesson from this. It is important for God’s people to act faithfully with what is another man’s and is put into their care. It is not right for us to be careless or wasteful with what does not belong to us. In the eyes of the world this may not matter so much, but with God, this is something that is very important.