Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

138. The Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-18)

By common consent it is the most perplexing parable of all. Yet in fact the perplexity is more in the comment with which Jesus followed on. The story itself is as vivid and fascinating in its detail as any told by Jesus.

Word reached a rich man that his steward was "wasting his goods" (the same phrase as that describing the prodigal son!). Astonished at the news, he took him to task about it and demanded that he present his accounts. Dismissal now appeared certain.

The rascal pondered the situation anxiously. What was the best course for him to follow? There was no hope of getting another lucrative job. He was not fit for farm work, and in any case the mere thought of it horrified him. And he went hot and cold at the thought of becoming a professional beggar. He who had no shame at the misappropriation of his master's money felt shame at the mere thought of begging for subsistence. What had happened to all the money he had fraudulently diverted to his own use? He must have been a self-indulgent spendthrift as well.

All at once, as he brooded over the problem: 'I have it! I can easily make my master's debtors into my own very good friends.'

So he called all the debtors, one after another. 'What do you owe my lord?' he asked the first. 'A hundred measures of oil? Here's your reckoning. Do as I bid you. Sit down right now, and alter that hundred to fifty.' That original debt (for rent) was the produce of about 150 olive trees. The farm was a big one.

Similarly the next had his debt of a hundred measures of wheat, the produce of about 100 acres, reduced to eighty—the wily fellow knew that some people can be bought more cheaply than others. The same unscrupulous process was applied also to all the other outstanding debts.

Thus he made all these men his friends, willing to help him out when the blow fell. And he had done it without directly incriminating himself; also at the same time he had bought their silence.

The employer's surprise when the sacked steward was readily provided for by the debtors is not mentioned specifically in the parable, but is readily imagined. Completely unaware as yet of the underhand transactions, he spoke admiringly of the man for his ability to be steward and at the same time popular with the debtors. But how appropriate it is that the steward's "doing wisely" should also be the subtlety of the serpent in Eden (same word in Genesis 3:1 LXX).

The wise use of wealth?

What was Jesus trying to teach?

That the parable is difficult of interpretation is almost the only proposition concerning it that commands general assent. Is it really possible to find an interpretation which can cope adequately with the various problems which it and its context present?

Consider, for example, the view of the parable which most commonly finds favour; its unsatisfactory nature will be immediately apparent. It is suggested that what Jesus put before his disciples for emulation was not the unscrupulous scheming of the steward, but the assiduity with which he purposefully followed the path of personal profit. 'If only you, my disciples, would show the same business-like efficiency in pursuing what is, after all, your own self-interest! And how should you do it? By using mammon-money, and anything else which this world can offer-as a means of furthering your own standing with God. If you use such things faithfully for God, you may be relied upon to be equally faithful with the more essential spiritual truths of the Gospel.'

Thus, briefly, but not unfairly, may be summarised the best that is usually made of this parable. It is a not-very-impressive best! The difficulties which thus remain unsolved are considerable:

  1. Can money, when being used in the ways of godliness be fairly described as "the mammon of unrighteousness"?
  2. Who are the friends made through the right use of money who can provide "everlasting habitations"? No human friends, for certain. Then, on this view, how near is the parable to teaching justification by works?
  3. Christ's own words require an application of the parable, in the first instance, to the Pharisees, for he said of them: "Ye are they which justify yourselves before men (as did this steward)" (v.15).
  4. The context of the parable, consisting of Christ's own comment on it, especially v.16-18, has nothing whatever to do with the question of money. Any explanation worth its salt must take account of these verses also.
  5. This interpretation gets, at most, one point out of the parable. Yet in other parables there is to be found a clear one-one correspondence (as the mathematician would call it) between details of the story and details of the interpretation (as, for example, in the parables of the Sower and Tares and Drag-net—the only ones for which Christ's own interpretation is available). These objections are surely fatal.
  6. On "the right use of wealth" the argument of v.11 is no argument at all, squaring neither with reason nor experience; for it would then paraphrase: "If you don't use money properly, is it likely that God will give you the blessing of the gospel?'—this to disciples who already had the gospel and very probably no money.
  7. Verse 9 is the biggest stumbling block of all: "And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations." The natural way to read these words is to take them as a plain injunction to imitate not only the steward's enthusiasm for his own well-being but also his shady methods! Some different approach must be attempted.
Drastic alternative

Bullinger, in the Companion Bible, has a characteristically neat solution of the difficulty of verse 9, which is, after all, the crux of the whole matter. He suggests that the words be read as a rhetorical question implying a negative answer: "And do I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends by means of the mammon of unrighteousness that when ye fail they may receive you into everlasting habitations? Certainly not!"

This suggestion evades the main difficulties by thus setting forth the steward as an example to be shunned, save perhaps in his dedication to self-interest. Unhappily, such a solution can only be reached by doing violence to the orginal-a strange oversight, this, on the part of a scholar with a well-deserved reputation for accuracy. For the sentence to be read in the way suggested would require the inclusion of the negative particle me which is absent from all the manuscripts. (Contrast its inclusion in such rhetorical questions as Luke 17 :9 and 10:15RV).

Even if this suggestion were allowable grammatically, there would still remain the difficulty of the "everlasting habitations." Such nefarious work as the steward indulged in can provide only an everlasting tomb: Did Jesus really mean that?

A fresh approach

There is available a much simpler solution, and one which allows of an unforced interpretation of the details in harmony with the context.

The words of Jesus are: "Make to yourselves friends of (ek) the mammon of unrightousness." This is commonly read as signifying "Make to yourselves friends on the basis of, or by means of, the mammon of unrighteousness." Such a translation may be perfectly correct, but it is not necessarily so. There is another common use of this preposition which actually yields an exactly opposite idea: "Make to yourselves friends away from, apart from the mammon of unrighteousness." This meaning of ek as indicative of separation is listed in Liddell and Scott's Lexicon, and numerous examples of it are to be found in the New Testament. The following are only a few out of what might be cited :-

Luke 16:31: "though one rose from the dead."
Luke 16:4: "when I am put out of the stewardship.”
Luke 23:55: "which came with him from Galilee."
Acts 1:25: "this apostleship from which Judas by transgression fell."
Acts 3:23: "shall be destroyed from among the people."
Acts 7:3: "Get thee out of thy country and from thy kindred."
Acts 7:10: "delivered him out of all his afflictions."
1 Cor.5 :13: "Put away from among yourselves that wicked person."
Rev. 2:21: "And I gave her space to repent of her fornication."

It is now easy to demonstrate that not only the puzzling verse 9, but also the entire parable becomes a warning against allowing worldly unscrupulousness to mar sound ministration of the holy law of God.

The details fit

The rich man is God Himself. The steward, who had neither hoarded his master's goods nor given them away, but merely wasted them, represents (v.15) the Pharisees and lawyers who by virtue of their religious and social standing had become ministers of God's law to the rest of the nation. The first warning of impending trouble (v.2) came through John the Baptist (Lk.3:8). Just as the steward, about to be called to account for his unfaithful service, proceeded to make friends elsewhere by unscrupulous means—so also the Pharisees, before ever God cast them off, used subtlety to ensure that, whatever the divine displeasure, their standing with men would continue undiminished. This they achieved by drastically reducing the bill of men's religious obligations to God and their fellow men.

Like the steward they were essentially "children of this world." In careful application to their own temporal self-interest they were wiser than "the children of light" (Christ's disciples) would prove to be in later days in seeking their own eternal well-being.

It is to be remembered that Jesus spoke the parable to his disciples, intending the story of the steward and its application to Pharisaic casuistry to be a warning to them for the days when they would find themselves in positions of authority in his ecclesia-God's stewards (Lk.12 :42)-with the responsibility on their shoulders of administering faithfully the principles of his teaching.

A new stewardship

So Jesus bade them: You must make better friends-myself and my Father-by scrupulous avoidance of these Pharisaic methods, so that when it shall fail (the temple destroyed and the Mosaic system ended), you will be blessed with "eternal tabernacles/'This last phrase involves a strange paradox. Tabernacles—that is, tents-are essentially temporary. "The tabernacles of the (Messianic) age" are the ecclesias soon to take the place of Judaism as the spiritual home of the Lord's people.

"He that is faithful in that which is least (the law of Moses) is faithful also in much (the teaching of Christ): and he that is unrighteous in a very little (Moses), is unrighteous also in much (Christ)." This antithesis between administration of Law-and-Prophets and the direction of the ecclesias of Christ runs through the entire passage. The repetition of the word "mammon" has misled many into thinking that Jesus was talking about the wise use of money, whereas in fact he was alluding backto his parable and what the steward's "mammon" stood for. It is to be noted that Jesus was not concerned with prudence, but with faithfulness.

If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon (that is, if you have perverted the principles of the Old Covenant), who will commit to your trust the true riches?" This Greek word for "true" nearly always contrasts the New Covenant with the Old.

With memory of this sober warning (and perhaps with allusion to it) Paul was to write his solemn charge: "O Timothy, guard the deposit (of sound teaching)" (1 Tim.6 :20). "The good deposit which was committed unto thee keep through the Holy Spirit which dwelleth in us" (2 Tim.l :14).

Jesus continued the antithesis: "And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own?" Whereas the Law of Moses was designed to exalt the holiness and glory of God, the gospel gives greater emphasis to forgiveness and redemption of the sinner.

The Pharisees, hearing Jesus repeat his allusions to "mammon", mistakenly assumed that he was speaking in a derogatory way about their attitude to money, and, having no argument to use, they responded with open derision. The fact that these Pharisees thought that in the parable Jesus was talking to his disciples about a wise use of money is surely as good a proof as could be wished that that is not what he intended. Not until the last parable of all did these hostile critics grasp what Jesus was after (20 :19). Even the disciples were capable of mistakes of this sort: Mt. 15 :5; 16:7.

The failures of Pharisaism

Jesus now bade them think again about his parable, for it was intended as a picture of themselves: "Ye are they which (like this steward) justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men (the eminence and high reputation which these Pharisees sought at the expense of true religion) is abomination in the sight of God." There Jesus used a word which the Old Testament reserved for idol-worship, but which the medico Luke would employ as a technical term for nausea. You Pharisees make God feel sick!

Jesus went on: "The Law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass than for one tittle of the law to fail."

A good paraphrase of that key expression would be: "and they all handle it roughly." The same Greek word is used of Israel at the foot of mount Sinai: " Let not the priests and the people break through to come up unto the Lord" (Ex.19:24LXX). At this place Bagster's edition of the Septuagint has a footnote: "Luke 16 :16 perhaps refers to this passage." What Israel in the wilderness had not dared to attempt physically, the Pharisees had had the effrontery to do spiritually (Jn.10 :1). With their subtle distortions of the moral requirements of the Law they far surpassed any of the later casuistry of the Jesuits. How well Jesus had summed it all up: "Take thy bill and write four score."

He now cited a concrete example by correcting the Pharisees' unprincipled attitude to divorce: "Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery." The basic principles of God's law of marriage were clear enough but these men were unscrupulously ready to "bend" them, using their religious authority to dilute divine truth and the moral obligations of the people.

The gospels furnish other examples of Pharisaic equivocation by which they adulterated the robust principles of God's law. A man could swear impressively by the temple and his words be utterly empty of force or binding value. If, however, he swore by the gold of the temple (the golden altar of incense or the mercy-seat?) his oath was to be regarded as binding. How easy to overreach one's fellow in business if he happened not to know of these artifical distinctions! And how dishonouring was all this to the God in whose honour the entire temple was consecrated!

Similarly, a man could callously evade his sacred obligation of providing support for an aged parent. They had a cynical fiction that all that was consecrated (in theory but not in practice!) to the temple service was therefore not available for such a profane use as ministering to the wants of a needy father or mother. It was after castigating this particular enormity that Jesus, openly angry at such hypocrisy, quoted bitterly: "In vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men" (Mt.15 :9).

A like danger in the Ecclesia

The parable of the unjust steward, with the commentary which Jesus appended to it, is now seen to have been a thorough exposure of the evil Pharisaic practice of adulterating the law of God with human sophistry. Specially, it was a direct warning to his apostles that the day would soon come when they would be in positions of authority and responsibility among the Lord's own people. To them also would come the temptation to whittle down the exacting standards of Christ's teaching for the sake of human considerations. "It is easier for heaven and earth to pass than for one tittle of the law (the law of Moses, the law of Christ now) to fail" (v.17). Paul appears to have seen the parable in this light, with apt reference to his own work in the ecclesias (1 Cor.4 :l-5).

Who shall say that the warning thus taught has never been needed? The ecclesia has always had this problem to contend with, how best to resist the eroding effect of worldly circumstances on "the good deposit" of Christian truth, both faith and practice, how best to combat the insidious temptation to live a casuistic existence on both sides of the fence at once.

This same problem has beset the present generation just as much as any other. Examples are not hard to seek.

The parable stands today as a warning to those who now lead an ecclesia of Christ, that without vigilance and scrupulous honesty in moral judgement the same will happen (has happened) again.

Notes: Lk. 16:1-18

Put out; s.w. Acts 13 :22: Saul displaced to make way for David. Here, a similar new order.
Bill; s.w. Jn 5:47; 2 Tim. 3 :15 etc; in each place, with reference to the Old Covenant. For the idea in this verse, cp. Mic.3:11.
A few other examples of the use of ek in Luke's gospel are: 17:7; 22:3; 23:55; 1:71, 74, 78; 4:35, 38; 5:17; 6:42.

When ye fail (AV) is a reading which will have to be let go. There is too much MS support for RV: "when it fails." In any case, AV can hardly mean, in line with the parable: When you are exposed as failures there will be a much better future for you. RV reading: "when it fails" speaks of the day of God's rejection of the old Mosaic administration, the day when stewardship of the gospel is put in the hands of the apostles.

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