Notice first as we read the parable that Jesus is aiming it at His disciples. This means that He is giving instruction about how we as His disciples are supposed to live. We should keep this in mind as we read the parable, especially since the main character may at first surprise us and tempt us to think Jesus must have had some other group in mind.
Introduction: Pastor Herbert Vander Lugt once wrote, “Money can't buy happiness or eternal life. But when invested in Christ's cause, it pays eternal dividends” (Our Daily Bread, February 8, 1995).
I think this pastor has hit on a major lesson of the parable before us this morning, and I hope we will all learn this lesson, among others, as we examine the text more closely. In order to understand what Jesus wants us to learn from this parable, we will examine the passage under two primary headings: 1) the assertion of the parable, and 2) the application of the parable.
I. The Assertion of the Parable
There are essentially three stages to this parable, each centering on the steward. I have called them 1) the steward's predicament, 2) the steward's plan, and 3) the steward's prudence.
1. The Steward's Predicament
The steward's predicament is seen in verses 1-2.
NKJ Luke 16:1-2 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. 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.'”
We know that the steward was not falsely charged because 1) he did not try to defend himself, and 2) he is later called an “unjust” steward in verse 8. So the steward has created a pretty bad situation for himself by misusing his master's money. And now he is about to be out of a job. This leads us to the second part of the parable.
2. The Steward's Plan
The steward's plan is seen in verses 3-4.
NKJ Luke 16:3-4 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. 4 I have resolved what to do, that when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.”
We know this steward was a hired man rather than a slave because a slave would have been severely punished and given some other menial task to do, whereas this man is simply in danger of losing his job. And when he thinks of his future, he doesn't think he will get another job as a steward. He doesn't even contemplate that possibility, no doubt because he was guilty of the charges brought against him and therefore knew no one else would want to hire him. So he thinks about the kind of work he might realistically be able to do and concludes that he may become a manual laborer – someone who has to dig, for which he is not suited – or a beggar – something his pride will not allow him to do.
So, the steward comes up with another plan, a plan that will provide him a place to live for quite some time and, as we shall see, a plan which involves taking even more of his master's money! This leads us to the third part of the parable.
3. The Steward's Prudence
The steward's prudence is seen in verses 5-8a.
NKJ Luke 16:5-8a So he called every one of his master's debtors to him, and said to the first, “How much do you owe my master?” 6 And he said, “A hundred measures [βάτος, bath] of oil.” So he said to him, “Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.” 7 Then he said to another, “And how much do you owe?” So he said, “A hundred measures [κόρος, kor] of wheat.” And he said to him, “Take your bill, and write eighty.” 8 So the master commended the unjust steward because he had dealt shrewdly [φρονίμως].
In order to get the picture here clearly in our minds, I would like to share with you the background discussion of this parable from Klyne Snodgrass, in his Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables:
The amount of the debts is very large, although suggestions of the exact figures vary. One hundred baths of oil … would be equivalent to about 800 or 900 gallons, the yield of possibly 150 olive trees and equivalent to the wages of about three years for the average worker. One hundred kor of wheat would be almost 1100 bushels, probably enough to feed 150 people for a year, the produce of 100 acres, and equivalent to seven and one-half years of labor for the average worker. In each case the steward reduced the bill by the same amount, about 500 denarii or the wages of more than two years for a day laborer. The parable tells of large business dealings. None of the people involved are poverty-stricken peasants or even people with average incomes.
The reason it is important for us to see how big the amounts of the reductions were is so that we can see how much the steward was actually providing for his future. In a culture where reciprocity would have been expected, and where the people whose bills were reduced by so much would have been very grateful, the steward had saved these debtors a total of somewhere between four or five years wages they might have had to pay a day laborer. No wonder he felt confident that they would give him a place to stay when he got fired!
But notice the response of his master, who commended him because he had been so prudent – “he had dealt so shrewdly” – in providing for his future. We might imagine his reaction this way, “You're fired for taking my money, but I've got to hand it to you, you at least were smart enough to provide for your future by ingratiating yourself to these other rich people. And there is nothing I can do about it either, not without looking like a greedy jerk and harming my own future business dealings.”
Now, before we move on, we should consider the difficulty that many have with this parable because it seeks to draw a positive moral lesson from such a sinful character, namely the unjust – or unrighteous – steward. Many have been troubled by this analogy. But I really don't think we should let this trouble us at all, since Jesus is not affirming the rightness of the steward's sinful actions, but of his prudence in preparing for his future. This parable is not so different, then, from another statement of Jesus, in which he describes His future return as being like a thief who sneaks into someone's home:
NKJ Matthew 24:42-44 Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. 43 But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. 44 Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
Now, Jesus is not commending the sinful actions of a thief here, but is only speaking of the unexpected manner in which He Himself will one day return. In the same way, Jesus is not commending the sinful actions of the steward in this parable, but is teaching the kind of wisdom even a sinful man has in planning for his future. Thus this is really another “how much more” parable, which essentially says that, if a sinful man can be wise enough to prepare for his future on earth, then how much more should a believer be concerned to prepare for his eternal future. And this leads us to Jesus' application of the parable.
II. The Application of the Parable
We find the application of the parable in verses 8b-13, and there are at least five lessons we may learn from Jesus' application of this parable.
1. We must wisely plan for our eternal future.
This is the point of the last half of verse 8.
NKJ Luke 16:8b For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light.
In the context this statement is an accusation by Jesus against His disciples – the “sons of light” – who often seem less concerned about their heavenly future than the sons of this world are about their earthly future. But Jesus wants us to be planning throughout this life for the next one. That this is Jesus' point is clear from the parable and also from the next point that He makes.
2. We must use our money in this life to reap rewards in the next life.
This is taught in verse 9.
NKJ Luke 16:9 And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail [NU has the third person form of the verb and reads “when it fails”], they may receive you into an everlasting home.
Whether the original text has the second person pronoun – “when you fail”– or the third person pronoun – “when it fails” – makes little difference, because the person's death is in mind either way. We fail ultimately when this life ends, and our money certainly fails us when this life ends as well.
The point Jesus is making is that if we use our unrighteous mammon, the money of this world, which tends to corrupt and which can be so easily misused, to help others, then they may ultimately receive us into our eternal dwelling. That is, they may be influenced by our kindness to trust in the Lord for themselves, and therefore may just be there to welcome us as we inherit our eternal reward.
I think Vernon Grounds illustrated this point well when he once wrote in commenting on this parable:
A mortician at Forest Lawn Cemetery in California told author Gilbert Beers about a man who many years ago spent $200,000 on his own funeral. Estranged from his wife and children, that bitter man squandered all his money on his own burial and left them nothing.
Because the casket and other expenses added up to only $100,000, he ordered that the remaining $100,000 be spent on orchids! Only three people attended that memorial service. What a warped sense of values! What a waste of money that might have been used to help the needy or to support a worthy cause! And what a lesson we can learn from such egocentric folly!
We all need to ask ourselves if we are squandering the resources God has entrusted to us on worthless things. If so, we need to heed what Jesus said in Luke 16:9, “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (NIV).
When we use our resources to benefit others, especially to communicate the gospel to them, we reap eternal dividends. Someday they may be at heaven's door to greet us. Let's be good stewards of what God has given us. (Our Daily Bread, January 28, 1996)
I think this makes the point pretty well, but before moving on it is important to emphasize, as does the New Geneva Study Bible notes, that “salvation by works is not being taught.” Instead, Jesus is indicating that “the loving help given to others in this life is a sign of genuine discipleship and salvation already enjoyed rather than a meritorious ground of salvation” (p. 1636).
3. We must recognize that faithfulness with what we have – not how much we have – is the important thing.
This is taught in verse 10.
NKJ Luke 16:10 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.
Notice that the focus is on one's character. A faithful person is a righteous person rather than an unrighteous or unjust person. How we handle money in this life is indicative of our character, whether the amount of money is little or great.
4. We must recognize that God will not entrust us with the true riches of the kingdom if we cannot be faithful with riches of this world.
This is taught in verses 11-12.
NKJ Luke 16:11-12 Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful in what is another man's, who will give you what is your own?
We can actually find this same principle applied in others ways in Scripture as well. Consider, for example, what Paul says to Timothy about the qualifications for elders. He says that an elder must be “one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence,” and then goes on to ask, “for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?” (1 Tim. 3:4-5). In the same way, I think Jesus is aiming this lesson especially at His closest disciples who would go on to be leaders in the Church. If they can't handle stewardship over earthly things, then how will they be able to handle stewardship of the things of God? And if they can't serve faithfully under the authority of other men, then how will they be able to be given authority of their own in the kingdom?
Notice that both of these questions expect a negative answer, namely that God will not entrust true riches to those who can't even handle worldly riches, and He will not give anyone things of their own to oversee if they can't oversee things on behalf of others.
5. We must remember that how we use our money indicates who our true master is – God or mammon.
This is taught in verse 13.
NKJ Luke 16:13 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.
How easily we are enslaved by worldly riches! And how gracious Jesus is to warn us about it! We all too easily think we can serve both, perhaps serving mammon just a little bit and God just a little bit more. But Jesus makes it clear that there can be no divided allegiance here. It is an either/or proposition. And if we serve mammon even a little bit, then we love it rather than God, and we serve it rather than God. Period.
Conclusion: I think a devotional by Haddon Robinson helps to drive home this final point and provides a good conclusion to this message. He writes:
Godfrey Davis, who wrote a biography of the Duke of Wellington, said, “I found an old account ledger that showed how the Duke spent his money. It was a far better clue to what he thought was really important than the reading of his letters or speeches.”
How we handle money reveals much about our priorities. That's why Jesus often talked about money. One-sixth of the Gospels' content, including one out of every three parables, touches on stewardship. Jesus wasn't a fundraiser. He dealt with money matters because money matters. For some of us, though, it matters too much.
Jesus warned that we can become slaves to money. We may not think that money means more to us than God does. But Jesus did not say we must serve God more than we serve money. The issue isn't what occupies first place in our life, but whether we serve money at all. Pastor and author George Buttrick said, “Of all the masters the soul can choose, there are at last only two—God and money. All choices, however small, however the alternatives may be disguised, are but variants of this choice.”
Does your checkbook show that Jesus is the Master in your life? (Our Daily Bread, May 20, 2005)
That is a very good question, isn't it?