For the last several months we have studied “The Parables of Jesus”. We have read and discussed parables about His Kingdom, His Character, His Covenant, and His Coming. Last week we began the final chapter of this series which includes 14 parables about His Children. Jesus told this set of stories to help teach His followers how to live godly lives. They cover several topics such as stewardship, discipleship, humility, responsibility, and prayer.
Before we begin I want to briefly mention the passage that follows today’s parable. It is the story of “The Rich Man and Lazarus” (Luke 16:19-31). Many Christians believe it to be a parable also, but I do not agree. I consider this to be an account of actual events. Jesus is talking about a specific person who was literally named Lazarus that died and went to Abraham’s Bosom, the Old Testament Heaven. The events and characters in the Lazarus passage are not general, symbolic, or representative as they are in a parable. While there may be some exaggeration in parts, I consider this to be a direct account of real events. Therefore, we will not include this story in our series.
Moving back to this morning’s message, “The Parable of the Unjust Steward” is found only in Luke and is one of the most complicated parables to understand. A simple reading of the story can cause confusion. On the surface, the parable seems to commend sinful behavior. For years this bothered me, until I was finally able to comprehend the true meaning of the parable. Hopefully, today’s message will make this clear to all of us.
I. THE PROBLEM - Luke 16:1-3,10-12
Luke includes “The Parable of the Unjust Steward” in a lengthy series of parables and teachings that spans several chapters in the middle of his book. Jesus directs this story primarily to His disciples, but apparently others are present and listening too. The Pharisees who hear this parable take particular offense to it, because it’s meaning challenges their management and use of worldly wealth.
Jesus begins by telling of a rich man who has employed a manager to run his business affairs. Apparently, this rich man rents or leases out properties to various tenants. After some time passes, the rich man receives a report that his manager has been mishandling and/or squandering his property and money. So the rich man calls a meeting in which he demands that the manager give an account for his actions. The manager is unable to justify his misbehavior, so the rich man fires him on the spot. Because he has no other marketable skills, the newly unemployed manager wonders what he will do now in order to survive.
The parable never clearly explains how the manager was mishandling his responsibilities, which allows the reader to speculate. That said, he did lose his job as a direct consequence of his poor management, or stewardship, of the master’s resources. In the same way, when we wastefully squander or selfishly mishandle the earthly wealth that God entrusts to us, we risk judgment. Following this parable, Jesus asks a series of questions that basically boil down to this - if God cannot trust us to be good stewards of earthy money right now why should He trust us with heavenly riches in the life to come? That wouldn’t be very wise now, would it?
II. THE PLAN - Luke 16:4-7
Realizing that he is out of a job, the unrighteous steward immediately devises a plan. He reasons that if he can make friends of the rich man’s tenants, perhaps they will provide for him while he is unemployed. He must act quickly however, before they learn that he has already been fired. So he quickly summons each of them and asks them how much they owe the rich man. One answers 100 measures of oil and he tells them to reduce the debt to 50, and another says 100 measures of wheat so he tells them to reduce the bill to 80. Apparently he has the authority to do this. We can assume that both debtors are extremely pleased with the manager for reducing their indebtedness.
It appears (to me) that the unrighteous manager had been marking up the amount of debt or rent payments being charged unbeknownst to his employer. When the debtors paid, he would keep the markup for himself and give the rich man the remaining amount. Thus, when he reduces the tenants’ bills after being fired, it really does not affect the amount that the rich man receives. The unrighteous manager simply eliminates the amount that he was scamming off the top. Though the tenants are getting a reduction, in actuality it is what they should have been paying all along. He had been cheating them to pad his pockets.
Obviously, the tenants are unaware at this point that the manager has been fired. They do not know that he is and has been acting deceptively, scheming to provide for himself. As such, these debtors are quite happy with the manager when he lowers their bill. All he has to do now is wait a few days and then tell them that he’s been let go. Perhaps they will be more inclined to take him in...
III. THE PRAISE - Luke 16:8-9
The parable never says what happened to the unrighteous manager. His outcome is not the emphasis of this story. Maybe his plan worked, or maybe it didn’t. Who knows? Instead the scene now shifts to the rich man. He has somehow learned what his former manager has been doing - possibly from the overjoyed tenants themselves who may have contacted him to say thank you. The rich man finally puts it all together and realizes what’s been going on.
Surprisingly, the parable ends with the wealthy owner actually praising his former manager for acting shrewdly or astutely. He is not applauding the manager’s deceit, but rather his savviness. Many prominent businessmen, politicians, and so on achieve their worldly success by making decisions that are advantageous to themselves or the bottom line, but are utterly dishonest and immoral. To make a comparison, this would be like describing someone as “a really good liar.” Let’s face it, some people are really good at being bad.
Corrupt sinners are usually able to navigate in a fallen world more effectively than righteous believers. They are most comfortable in such an environment. Christians are more concerned about godly wisdom that leads to eternal life than earthly wisdom that leads to temporal success. Using the unrighteous manager as a negative example, Jesus concludes this parable by urging His disciples to use their earthly money and material possessions to serve others. In this way, all of those who have been blessed by the disciple’s kindness in this life will someday welcome them in Heaven.
CONCLUSION - Luke 16:13
In His explanation of and commentary after telling this parable, Jesus concludes that no one can serve both God and money. Either he will use his money to serve himself (like the unrighteous steward does), or else he will use it to serve God (by blessing others). The parable describes a person who exploits others for his own personal gain. While it acknowledges his earthly shrewdness and cunning, ultimately it teaches Christians to act righteously.
Don’t be like the unjust steward. Use the money that God gives you to help and serve others. Greed, dishonesty, and selfishness might serve some well in this life, but they will lead to destruction in the next. When the money runs out - and it will sooner or later - where will you be then? Be a good steward of that which God allows you to manage.