I was reading Luke 16 last night and am having some trouble comprehending what Jesus meant when He said in verse 8 and 9, "For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light. And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home." I pretty much understand the rest of the chapter after those verses, but from the verses 1-9, I don't truly understand what it means. Why did the master commend the servant when the servant told the debtors to pay less than they owed? If you could shed some light on this matter it would be greatly appreciated!
You are not the only one who finds the Parable of the Unjust Steward confusing. It has puzzled many people through the ages. How is it that an unfaithful steward, about to be relieved of his position, gains praise from his employer when he ends his career by stealing more from him?
In order to better understand this parable, we need to look at the context in which it was presented. The Parable of the Unjust Steward is the fourth story given in a series that begins in Luke 15. "Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, "This Man receives sinners and eats with them."" (Luke 15:1-2). The Pharisees and the scribes could not match Jesus' knowledge of God and the Bible so they resorted to a common trick, they sought to besmirch his reputation. His personal reputation was solid so they attacked through association. If a man hangs around with sinners, well then obviously he has something in common with them. He, too, must be a sinner!
Jesus responds by telling four parables. The first is the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7). The parable tells us that every soul is precious to God and is worth great effort to save. The Pharisees and the scribes had the wrong viewpoint. They saw men and women who sinned. Jesus saw people who needed to be saved.
The second story is the Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10). With this parable, Jesus reminds us that we will put forth a lot of effort to a task that we deem valuable enough. The coin that the widow lost was only a drachma, about a day's wage. Even though she had nine other coins, she made a very thorough search for the lost coin and then ecstatically announced to her neighbors her fortune in finding it again. If people put that much value in a small piece of silver, of what then is a human soul worth to God? If people get that excited about finding a lost piece of silver, how much more excited is God over the recovery of a lost soul?
The third story is the famous Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). In this story, we learn that God wants us back even when we turn against him. God is able to forgive and forget all past wrongs when a sinner returns to him. The sinners seeking out Jesus were represented by the lost son. The Pharisees and scribes were represented by the older son who was too caught up in his own righteousness to see the value in another person's return.
Finally, we arrive at the fourth story, the Parable of the Unjust Servant (Luke 16:1-13). While we might be confused by the story, keep in mind that the Pharisees and scribes understood the point. They knew that Jesus was talking about them. "Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, also heard all these things, and they derided Him" (Luke 16:14).
Analyzing the Parable
The Parable of the Unjust Servant is not the only time that Jesus used a story about an unrighteous person to illustrate a point about righteousness. The Parable of the Unrighteous Judge in Luke 18:1-8 is another such case. But to understand Jesus' point, we need to break down the symbolism to see the principle being illustrated.
The lord in this story is easily recognized as the Lord God. To Him, each of us is a steward of God's creation and the blessings God gives to us. When God created the world, He gave mankind dominion over it. "Then God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth"" (Genesis 1:28). A steward is a fit description of our roles on earth. A steward does not own the things he manages. In the same way God gives us our lives to manage, but our lives and everything that we have belongs to God. "And the Lord said, "Who then is that faithful and wise steward, whom his master will make ruler over his household, to give them their portion of food in due season? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you that he will make him ruler over all that he has. But if that servant says in his heart, 'My master is delaying his coming,' and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and be drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he is not looking for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in two and appoint him his portion with the unbelievers. And that servant who knew his master's will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few. For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more" (Luke 12:42-48).
With the blessings God has granted to each of us comes a varying amount of ability. We each have different talents to use and God expects us to use those abilities well. "As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God" (I Peter 4:10). One of the major duties God has given to Christians is the spreading of the gospel. "Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful" (I Corinthians 4:1-2).
We naturally expect that a servant entrusted with a master's possessions and given critical tasks would be faithful in fulfilling the trust the master placed in the servant. But how many of us are truly faithful stewards of God? Have we not all wasted precious time on the job? The time that could have been profitably used in the Master's service? We have all bypassed opportunities that could have brought great profit to our Master. Instead, we often apply our talents toward things that our Master is not interested in. In short, we "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). Just like the man in the parable, each one of us is an unjust steward.
The unjust steward didn't want to work for a living; he was too lazy to put forth that much effort. Doesn't that describe you and me? How many of us look for the easiest way out, the way that requires the least effort? The unjust steward refused to beg; he had too much pride. Here too most of us find there are things beneath our dignity to do.
Being forewarned that he is about to lose his job, the unjust steward brilliantly provides for himself by making use of his lord's resources. But note carefully that the lord doesn't commend the mismanagement of his possessions. "So the master commended the unjust steward because he had dealt shrewdly" (Luke 16:8). Jesus is not praising his unrighteous actions. The admiration is for the brilliant planning.
We too have been warned that we don't have much time left for our stewardship. Life is short. It will not last forever. "For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away" (James 4:14). In real terms, it won't be long before we will have to stand before our Lord and give an account of our stewardship. "And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment" (Hebrews 9:27). "So then each of us shall give account of himself to God" (Romans 14:12).
All parables are aimed toward a particular point. They start to break down when they are stretched too far or applied to the wrong point. In essence, Jesus is stating that the ungodly people in this world know how to get the most from worldly things that, truth be told, they don't even own; but, the so-called godly people don't know how to get the most from spiritual things. "For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light" (Luke 16:8). The Pharisees were squandering precious resources. There were people in their midst who needed to be brought back to God and they refused to see their value.
If we are to receive praises from God in the Judgment, we need to make the most of the resources that God has given us to our best advantage. We are not aiming for a better life in this world because life here is temporary. We won't be around long to enjoy it. The only lasting treasure is our heavenly home. "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:19-21). Importantly, what benefits God also benefits us in the long run. If we use God’s gifts to us to provide for ourselves in the hereafter, then we are not wasting our Lord’s resources; we are doing God’s will.
"And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home" (Luke 16:9). The friends of whom Jesus is speaking are not worldly friends, but spiritual friends, for they are waiting to receive us into an everlasting home. As people of God, we need to use the things of the physical realm to accomplish the spiritual goals of Christ. "Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life" (I Timothy 6:17-19). It is our obedience to Christ that creates a lasting friendship with him. "You are My friends if you do whatever I command you" (John 15:14).
Jesus also informs us that God is watching what we do with the little things that He gives us that we call our life to see if we are faithful enough to handle more important things. "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. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in what is another man's, who will give you what is your own?" (Luke 16:10-12). We use this principle in business. You don’t put a young man, fresh from college, in charge of your company. You start him out on small jobs. If he can handle it, you move him up. The fact is that people tend to behave in the same manner, whether dealing with little or much. A person who is willing to steal small change will have not restraint if an opportunity arises to steal a large fortune. Thus, we can view this life as a test for promotion to the next life. "For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away" (Matthew 25:29). If we can’t make profitable use of our borrowed lives from God, why should we be given eternal life?
The Pharisees and scribes true problem was that they were too caught up in their current lives. They had lost the proper perspective. They lost sight of the spiritual goal and made a priority of living in the physical realm. "No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon" (Luke 16:13). Something must give. You have to make a choice regarding who you will serve.
What will you do with the life God has loaned to you?