The Parable of the Unjust Steward

July 19, 2020 Series: The Book of Luke Scripture: Luke 16:1-18 by Chris Strevel

When we come to this parable, our Lord is speaking to the same group of people. Imagine the noise of the crowds that followed him and the constant questioning about a variety of issues. This is to say nothing of the snide remarks of the Jewish leaders and the urgent pleas for help. He has just finished one of the most moving and open-hearted declarations of the Father’s mercy to repentant sinners. To then tell this parable still astounds and perplexes. What is its meaning? Surely the unjust steward cannot be a model for anything good, but yet the Lord draws several pertinent points from his example. And what exactly are those points? And is there any connection with the preceding?

The main purpose of the parable is to teach us that when we deal kindly with our neighbors, we are laying up treasures in heaven (Matt. 6:19). Like the steward, we shall soon be called to account for our stewardship of this life, and mercy is the only currency that will do us any good when we arrive at the judgment seat of Christ. Perhaps, then, this is a parable that tells us what the response of the eldest son should be – give thought to our own accounting before God, be merciful as our Father has been to us, and be faithful in all matters great and small. This steward was obsessed with making sure he had a safe place to land when he was dismissed. Are we equally obsessed with the one thing that is needful, our accounting before God, and our eternal destiny of blessedness or misery?  This does not alter the sole sufficiency of Jesus Christ as the only Mediator, and the righteousness and wisdom of God. If we know him as these things, our lives shall be transformed, conformed to his image, as the apostle says (Rom. 8:29), not perfectly, but sufficiently to show that we are heirs of heaven and have tasted his grace and share in his Spirit (Rom. 8:11; 1 Pet. 2:3).

A Clever Worldling Prepares for Disgrace (vv. 1-8)

By Shrewd Dealings (vv. 1-7)

This particular steward was in a position of trust, but he abused the trust given to him. He was accused of wasting his master’s goods. In eastern cultures, as increasingly in our own, accusation of impropriety is equivalent to guilt – remember Joseph. Defense was impossible, and he was notified that he would soon be relieved. He was desperate. He had grown soft, too weak for menial labor. He was too proud to beg. He must find a secure place where he could land. His thoughts turned to those with whom he had been doing business. It is likely that he had been taking a higher than customary cut for his services. He called his master’s debtors and asked them to adjust their bill with a lower than agreed upon price – which they were only too happy to oblige! Olive oil was extremely valuable, and the reduction was the equivalent to almost 500 gallons, or the produce of about 75 olive trees. Grain was less subject to mark-ups and purity issues, so he reduced that bill by 20%. Whether this was a reduction or elimination of the interest, which some have surmised as evidence of the steward’s repentance, or a reduction of the premium charged by the steward, his motivation was simple. I need friends when I am dismissed. These men will remember that I have treated them fairly. They will welcome me into their homes.

A Surprising Commendation (v. 8)

One of the problems in the history of the interpretation of this parable is that “lord” has sometimes been identified as the Lord, but it is better to see “lord” as the steward’s master. While noting that the steward was unjust, he was at the same time prudent or shrewd. The master could not help but admire the man’s temporal wisdom. For me, I think this indicates that the master lost no additional money by the steward’s cleverness, else we can hardly think the master would have commended him. Rather, by reducing what his debtor’s owed but was in fact being pocketed by the steward, he has made himself appear more honest. Men of the world admire clever business dealings, driving hard bargains, and cutting losses to do business again the next day. The master would soon be rid of his untrustworthy steward, and he could admire for the moment what he could no longer tolerate in his employment.

Experts in Their Earthly Interests (v. 8)

It seems unlikely that the master in the parable adds the commentary in the second half of v. 8, which means that these are our Lord’s words of explanation. The children of the world are often wiser in their own affairs than the children of the light are in theirs. Here we have an unfaithful steward who suddenly became very concerned about his future. He made decisive plans. Are we as careful and focused upon our eternal interests? Yes, there are some earthly and business implications to be drawn from this parable, but first there is this rebuke. For only a pillow and roof over his head, the unjust steward rethought his life, corrected at least some of his dishonesty, and prudently thought about his future. With heaven and hell on the line, shouts of joy or screams of horror, do we think honestly about our lives? Do we repent of our sins? Do we make preparation for when the stewardship of our lives comes to end and we stand before the Master? There will be no time for deals then, no opportunity to rectify the past, no way to change the future. It is shocking how carefully most men try to secure their futures, while most professing believers think little if at all that their accounting may come today, before the Lord of glory. It is no wonder that we need the apostle’s admonition: “not slothful in business, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord” (Rom. 12:11). Our Father delights in mercy, but we cannot stay in the pig slop – we must get up, repent, walk home to him, and secure his favor.

We Must Prepare for Death and Eternity (vv. 9-13)

An Accounting Coming (v. 9)

This is the key to the parable. Our Lord tells us to make friends “out of” or perhaps “as a result of” the “mammon of unrighteousness.” The unjust steward used money – or the returning of it – to make friends whom he hoped would receive him into their homes when his position was terminated. We must use the money the Lord gives us to serve our fellowman. He calls money “the mammon of unrighteousness” because of its dangers. Money is not intrinsically evil, but “they who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition” (1 Tim. 6:9). Not all money is ill-gotten, but enough money is ill-gotten and ill-used that the warnings of Scripture to the wealthy are constant and must be taken seriously. As a rule, what Calvin said 500 years ago remains as true today – what God gives us in one hand, we are to give away with the other – after taking care of our personal and family needs. Believers are to use their money to help others, for we shall soon “fail.” We shall die. As with the unjust steward, there is a great accounting coming, and mercy opens heaven’s doors – God’s mercy to us in Jesus Christ, with the resulting mercy we show to others as proof that we have partaken of his mercy. This is one point of connection with the parable of the prodigal. The eldest son should have traded more in mercy, for his day of “falling” was coming. The point, however, is that each one of us must make earnest preparations for our imminent death and appearance before Christ’s judgment seat.

Mercy and Liberality Rewarded in Heaven (v. 9)

We might even say that mercy is heaven’s only currency. Do we want to be received into “everlasting habitations,” the place our Savior is preparing for us? The rule of entry is mercy. This is on two fronts. First, taking the parable of the prodigal – along with the lost sheep and coin parables – God must find us and show mercy to us. We are saved by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ alone, and not by the works of the law (Acts 15:11; Eph. 2:5,8; 2 Tim. 1:9; Tit. 2:9-11). Second, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matt. 5:7). Mercy tasted and received produces mercy shown with liberality. We are saved by the grace of Jesus Christ, and his is a grace that begets mercy in us. United to him – the living Vine, loving Husband, quickening Head – we draw from him the fruits of righteousness (Phil. 1:11). Do not ignore this dynamic of mercy received and then shown. Our Savior returned to this in almost his last public sermon. How does he differentiate the sheep from the goats? “Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry, and you gave me food: I was thirsty, and you gave me drink” (Matt. 25:34-35). A few days later, he said to his disciples, after washing their feet: “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15).

Do not read these lines as indicating salvation by works or salvation assisted by our works. That is not their point. They are far more glorious and profound, for they show the true power of God’s love and mercy to us working love and mercy in us by his Spirit. Salvation in Jesus, union with Jesus, the lost sheep led home by his merciful hand, transforms us that we show mercy to others and wash one another’s feet. Mercy shown – in this case by a wise and generous use of money – will come back to us in heaven with great reward. This is also the grace of our Savior, in which we shall rejoice by casting our crowns at his feet. Lord, this was your mercy breaking my proud and stingy heart so that I might have a heart a little like yours – quick to show mercy and do good to others.

Be Faithful in All things (vv. 10-12)

Our Lord also uses the unjust steward to urge us to be faithful in these smaller matters of money. To this fearful man, the use of money was everything to him – he had been wasting it and now he was trying to use it to secure a safe place. For us, the way we use money, and by implication the way we serve the Lord in our earthly affairs, reveals our heart and future. If we are faithful in small matters like money, we shall be faithful in large matters. The usual excuse for laziness and waste of time and opportunities is that “if I had something really important to do or more money to use, then I would accomplish much.” Our Lord argues from the other direction – if you cannot take out the trash with a cheerful spirit, if you cannot share $50 with a needy brother, you will not be faithful in larger matters. If we bring in here the parable of the talents, then we must add that the Lord will not give us the opportunity for something greater. The dynamic of faithfulness works from smaller to greater matters.

Again, our Lord uses the description “unrighteous mammon” (v. 11). This should arrest our attention and bring us to repentance for our covetous, grasping, and stingy hearts. We must “use the world without abusing it” (1 Cor. 7:31) and hold loosely to money, valuing it not for what it can do for us but for others. The Lord gives us money to provide for our daily bread and our family’s needs, with some forethought to the future, but he also gives to us that we may share with others. As we have opportunity, we must do good to all, and especially to our fellow-believers (Gal. 6:10). But notice the higher connection – unless we are righteousness with our money, will God place the true riches in our hands, our eternal inheritance? Again, this is not works’ righteousness and should not lead us to take our eyes of our all-sufficient Savior. At the same time, we cannot take covetousness to heaven with us, as the Pharisees determined to do (v. 14). Stingy and selfish uses of money reveal a very sick heart – perhaps a heart that has not tasted of the Lord’s grace and mercy. We must be careful and honest here. Will God trust us with his heaven if we have been unfaithful stewards on earth (v. 12)? If we have abused another man’s goods, who will give us our own? Covetousness is an idol that cannot be serve forever; he is a god that consumes his worshippers now with worldly lusts; later he will roast them in the fires of hell.

You Cannot Serve Two Masters (v. 13)

It is not simply that our Lord commends mercy and generosity. He is setting forth mercy and generosity as the way we serve God, our true Master. If we serve money, we cannot serve God. As believers, we must not love money, feverishly pursue money, anxiously hold on to money, or otherwise orient our lives around acquiring and holding on to wealth. This is a worldly policy that prevents our serving God. He gives us many good things to enjoy, but we must use whatever he gives to serve him and love others. We do this by praising him for his goodness and living in dependence upon his blessing for our daily bread, even if we have full pantries. Second, the more generous he is with us, the more generous we must be with others. The rule of his house is “mercy unto mercy,” amazing grace unto thankful generosity. Third, we must see our lives are nothing but a continual service to him, whether in field or factory, office or study, worship or recreation. The unjust steward would never have become a wastrel of his master’s goods if he remembered that what he had was not his own. He would have been more careful and never come to such a dangerous place by his presumption and thieving ways. We will serve God more earnestly if we remember two things. First, nothing we have is our own to do with as we please, but everything belongs to our gracious God and must be used to serve his cause and promote his glory in the world. Second, we have been purchased with the blood of Jesus Christ and will soon stand before him for an accounting of our stewardship. We have, therefore, the highest possible motive for faithfulness. We shall soon stand before our generous Savior, who emptied himself and served us by dying on the cross. We serve him by living for his pleasure, living to love others, and dying to ourselves that we might live unto God.

Jesus Warns the Covetous Pharisees (vv. 14-18)

God Knows Your Hearts: Stop Self-Justifying (vv. 14-15)

The Pharisees were laughing and scoffing at these words. They were covetous men. Pride and worldly lusts were their leading sins. They wanted position, and they wanted money – like too many church leaders, past and present, like most men since the world began. These are very real temptations, and the Holy Spirit by exposing their covetousness shows us the practical tendency of this parable – to rebuke our selfish use of money and to encourage strongly, mercy and generosity. Faithful with the “mammon of unrighteousness,” we shall be faithful with the true and eternal riches. This explains also our Lord’s rebuke and his intervening words before he told the next parable. “Stop justifying yourselves,” he told them, “for you are guilty, and God knows your hearts” (v. 15). Our Lord touched upon a deep vein of sin; their response was not repentance but ridicule, as many sinners still do, perhaps some this morning. I am not covetousness about money, simply shrewd and careful. But the Lord knows our hearts, and where our true love is. From men we can often hide our heart, but not from the Lord. What men highly esteem, he abominates. Men admire the shrewd businessman who furthers his own interests. God hates this. All our standard of evaluations must be turned upside down. Let us learn to look at life form God’s perspective. Who does he highly esteem? The humble believer who is quietly sharing what he has with others, ministering to others, and doing nothing to draw attention to himself. 

The Kingdom of God Is Here: Come to Me (v. 16)

We cannot live this way in our own strength. We have much of the eldest son in us – we want recognition, a party thrown in our honor for every little good we do. Many true believers crave far too much attention and praise from others. Some never had acceptance from their parents or grew up lonely and mistreated. To live selflessly, to give as we have been given, to extend mercy and forgiveness as we have been forgiveness, these are truly a heavenly life. But the kingdom of God has come so that we can have power to live this way. “The law and the prophets” exposed sin and gave a glimmer of the promise of the grace that is now ours. Jesus Christ has come and brought God’s kingdom and power into the world. We have the gift of the Spirit. In his fellowship and by his strength, we can give, show mercy, deny our cravings for recognition and to have what we want. We can empty ourselves for others as our Savior emptied himself for us. Thus, by reminding the Pharisees of how men were pushing into God’s kingdom, he urges them to do the same. Only the power of God can break our heart selfishness and replace it with a true love for God and others. This is the gospel’s very good news. Jesus Christ came not only to redeem us from the penalty of the law for our disobedience, but he also came to establish the kingdom of God within us so that we can obey God and serve others with joyful, loving hearts. Let us ask him to bring his kingdom into our lives today.

God’s Law Cannot Be Broken: Listen and Repent (vv. 17-18)

It is hard to imagine these lines placed here, unless the Lord said them then, aiming them at the heart of the Pharisees’ unbelief. They are a specific admonition to them. They were lawbreakers. We must not forget this. It is not that the Jews rejected Jesus because they held to the Old Testament. They had rejected God’s law in favor of their own traditions (Matt. 15:9; John 5:47). Thus, he reminds them here of the general principle that they were living in sin. God’s word cannot be broken, but they were breaking it (v. 17). Their covetousness was breaking it (v. 14). They were lawbreakers who needed the kingdom of God to overthrow the dominion of sin and establish the kingdom of righteousness. And specifically, they were adulterers (v. 18). Remember that ongoing in Jesus’ day was the great “divorce debate.” One school of thought (Hillel) made it very easy to get a divorce and was more popular; the other (Shammai) advocated more stringent views. Jesus said, “I am the true lawgiver of God’s kingdom. You may not divorce your wives (except for adultery). If you marry a divorced woman (or man), you become an adulterer.” We shall not enter into all that our Lord has to say on this question. It is enough to know that he rebukes casual, easy divorce, and reestablishes the authority of God’s law. The Pharisees must repent. They must come into God’s kingdom now. They are the self-righteous eldest son and are being shut out of God’s kingdom because they will not see their need of God’s mercy and repent.

Learn from this how much we need to repent of our lawbreaking and how much we need God’s mercy revealed in his Son. He touches upon two ways in which we are equally offenders – covetousness, whatever its object, and making excuses for not denying ourselves and bringing ourselves under the authority of our Father’s word. We are saved by his mercy and grace alone. And having received such wondrous mercy from our holy Savior, should we not therefore extend mercy and generously give to others? Should we not this morning resolve that God alone will be our Master and that we will serve him this week in every small thing? Our earthly stewardship will soon end. We shall be called before our enthroned Savior to give an accounting. Shall we find a home in heavenly habitations? Consider mercy. If we have tasted that the Lord is kind, that taste shall remain on the tongue of our hearts, sweeten our attitudes toward others, open our pocketbooks to those in need or simply to bless others as we have been blessed. The currency of heaven is mercy. How much is in your pocket this morning? “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”