ESV Luke 16:1 He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. 2 And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ 3 And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ 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?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ 8 The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings. 10 “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? 13 No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” 14 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. 15 And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.
There was a man who had a son. And the son asked his father to give him his inheritance even though his father was still alive. So the father divided up his estate between his two sons and the younger son took his share into a far off country and squandered all his father’s estate. Jesus had just finished telling us about this prodigal son when he turned to his disciples and also told them this parable about a steward who likewise squandered the possessions of his master. Our translation calls him a manager, which is a good translation for the word which means someone who is put in charge of and takes care of someone else’s property or business. English synonyms are steward, trustee, or manager. Whatever we call it, it means someone who is working for someone else and managing property not his own. Therefore he is under authority. He is an employee. He follows orders and carries out the business according to the desire and will of someone else.
Therefore, the manager in this parable represents all of us. For all of us are merely trustees, or stewards, of someone else’s property, that someone is God. We are not at liberty to do as we please with the things God has given us. They are not ours. We must follow the instructions and commands of the owner, God himself, as we manage the time, talents and treasures he has placed under out stewardship. They are not ours for our enjoyment, but are given to us to glorify God and expand his kingdom.
But this particular steward, like the prodigal son in the parable just before, squandered his master’s possessions, and was called to give an account, just as we too will be called to account one day soon. This steward was a salaried estate agent in charge of receiving the rent from the sharecroppers who were required to pay a portion of the crop each year to the land owner. In this case the crops were wheat and olive oil, which, by the way, are subtle reminders of Baptism and Holy Communion. This parable begins and ends with his master calling him into account. The first interview is in verse 2, where the master makes him surrender his ledger and financial records. Right here we have our first shock, because the proper way of dealing with such a matter would have been to throw the man into prison. But, instead, the rich man did not punish the steward for his poor stewardship, he merely dismissed him from his job.
However, this left the manager unemployed. He considered what jobs he might be qualified for, but there was nothing he could do. How would he support himself and his family? He was desperate and helpless. Then he hit upon a plan so that people would become his friend and receive him into their homes once he was put out of his job and had become homeless. He called in the debtors and had them slash the amount they owed to his master. One owed 100 baths of oil which was equivalent to 800 or 900 gallons and he slashed the debt in half which was a reduction of about 500 denariae, or about 500 day’s wages. The other owed 100 hins of wheat which was about 1000 bushels, that too he reduced by 20% and was also about the same monetary value.
Then his lord calls him back for a second interview, at which time he commends the steward for being so shrewd. This is especially shocking to us. He had just ripped off a fortune from his lord by canceling a portion of the debts he was owed. And if that’s not enough, Jesus then says, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”
At this point the parable is quite clear, but we are left confused by what it means. We have a dishonest steward who has wasted, squandered and given away a huge fortune of his lord’s wealth, but instead of being thrown into prison, he is praised for his shrewdness. And then Jesus tells us to do likewise, as if both the lord and Jesus are condoning dishonest business practices. So what does this all mean?
First of all we have to understand who the characters in this parable represent. The steward who squandered and wasted the lord’s wealth is us. We are the ones who have not used our Lord’s possessions correctly or in accord to the way he has instructed us. We have been poor stewards because we have used what he has given as if it were our own. We spend the Lord’s money on our own self-interests, our own pleasure. We manage his possessions according to our own desires and what is best for us without ever even asking the owner what he wants done with his property. We think and act as if we were autonomous and were not responsible to anyone but ourselves. For that the standard punishment is to be cast into prison. This is what we all deserve, you and I.
Another character in the parable is the one our translation calls the “master.” However, the word in the original is the word kurioj, meaning, “Lord.” The lord in the parable represents God himself.
The other characters in the parable are the debtors. They owe a huge debt to the lord, and they represent all sinners. All who by their sins have a debt to be paid to God.
Now, with this cast of characters in mind, we are ready to interpret the parable itself. What makes this parable so confusing is that we usually interpret it from the point of view of the steward. But it is not really about the steward, it is about the lord, who is Christ himself. If we consider it from the lord’s perspective, then the focus of the parable is not on the dishonesty of the steward but on the mercy of the Lord. Combining this parable with the three that come before it; the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son, or Prodigal Son, we learn of the Father’s, that is the Lord’s, great desire to do what is necessary to seek and save the lost. Here Jesus reminds each of us today that God always gives infinitely more than we pay for, and it moves us to use his blessings in this life so that others may share his grace. As the master has been merciful to us, we can now be faithfully shrewd stewards of the Lord’s property for the purpose of extending his kingdom.
How, then, does this parable read for us today? First, it tells us we have not been faithful in the use of God’s things for the extension of God’s kingdom. We have wasted them on ourselves and our self interests. We have squandered God’s money and God’s possessions when we do not use them to bring other people into the church to hear the gospel; when we do not use them to help those in need; when we do not reach out to our community where God has planted us to touch the lives of suffering people and call them to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. That is how God has commanded us to manage the resources he has given us. So God calls us into account for our stewardship. And if we examine ourselves honestly, we have fallen short of his commands.
His condemnation therefore, is just and we should be cast out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. But he didn’t do that. He did not cast the steward into prison. However, when the steward found himself in danger of being destroyed, he was powerless to do anything to save himself. He had no means of finding another job. He did not trust in money to get him out of his fix, he trusted in the mercy of his lord to save him. He knew that his lord was an honorable and merciful man. He knew that his lord would forgive the debts of the debtors so he proceeded to slash their accounts. He did not trust in his own abilities, for he knew that he could do nothing on his own or by his own strength or power to save himself in this situation. What he did to was trust in the merciful character of his lord and master.
And so do we when we are confronted with the law of God which accuses us of squandering our Lord’s property and not using it for the extension of his kingdom, we have nowhere to turn. There are no works we can do to save ourselves. We don’t have the strength to dig and we can’t beg. We have only the merciful character of our Lord and God upon which to cast ourselves.
And because he has had mercy on us, we can forgive the debts of others. As disciples of Jesus we are sent out to forgive the debts of sinners by means of proclaiming his word and administering the sacraments. We too go out and summons all sinners to come so that their record of debt can be slashed. For our Lord, Jesus Christ has paid our debts in full. He didn’t just reduce the account, or slash 50%, he paid for them in full. Our sin has been paid for 100% and, as St. Paul says, “He has canceled the record of our debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:14).
So then, in the second interview, the steward received not the anger and wrath of his master, but he received praise for being shrewd. Hence, though sinners and though we have not obeyed God in our use of his property, turning to him in repentance, our sins are forgiven; our debt canceled. An in the last, and final interview, which is the final judgment day, instead of being cast into prison with the evil spirits, we too shall be commended and invited in to the banquet in heaven to dine with the saints of all ages at the table of our Lord.
Jesus himself gives us the clue to the interpretation of this parable in his conclusion: make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings. Jesus moves from the worldly concerns of the steward, to the kingdom of God and eternal life in heaven. The parable was told from a worldly, temporal viewpoint. But the true meaning has to do with our eternal dwelling in the kingdom of God. And by using the treasures and possessions God has entrusted to us as his stewards, we make friends by spreading the gospel and extending God’s kingdom of believers in the world. We make friends by giving alms, doing good to our neighbor, helping those in need. We make friends by bringing and encouraging people to come to the church and to hear the Word of God proclaimed. That is our purpose and mission. That is what Jesus is telling us here, and that is what will bring commendation and praise from God on the Day of Judgment.