As the U.S. faces a series of economic crises — from the tax cliff Dec. 31 to political gridlock and hubris that prevent any U.S. economies — we consider Christ’s parable of the unjust steward. It speaks of jealously developing spiritual capital, but also using earthly goods shrewdly.
It offers a warning against indifference to the mammon of this world (money, assets, investments).
Two of my sons are into a second week of memorizing the 14 verses of this parable and Christ’s difficult explanation of it. Thanks to the commentary of Matthew Henry I get past my sense of bafflement to explain it to the boys and make use of the parable at mealtime.
Christ commends the unjust steward in his parable in Luke 16 not for his dishonesty, but for his shrewdness, his calculation to deliver himself from his master’s wrath. The master is about to fire him for wasting his goods, and the steward curries favor with the master’s tenants and debtors by writing down their debts.
Wastrel in parable — that’s us
The steward represents you and me. We have not made improvements in the world that God requires, and a Christian should judge himself to avoid the judgment of God. “What is this I hear about you? Give account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.” The master is troubled, surprised. Our discharge from our posts is at death, and the dismissal is just because we have wasted our master’s goods.
Then the steward said within himself, “What shall I do? *** I cannot dig,” for he is lazy; “I am ashamed to beg.” He is proud. He labors not under a natural disability, but a moral one. So he called every one of his master’s debtors to him, and said to the first, “How much do you owe my master?” And he said, “a hundred measures of oil.” So he said to him, “Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.” *** Even though the steward is being ousted for dishonesty, he continues in his sin. Henry says, “So rare is it for men to mend of a fault though they smart from it.”
Master praises servant’s ingenuity
So the master commended the unjust steward because he had dealt shrewdly. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light. The lord is not praising him for his abuse of office nor his deceit, but his wisely making friends for himself. Henry supposes that perhaps the master realizes the debt reduction does well for him, too, as the easing of the burden on his debtors and subjects makes him gracious in their eyes. A man who drove hard bargains is now merciful.
This picture is one of local economy, where your neighbors are your borrowers, debtors, investors and investees. Rights are second, humanity first; profit yields to need.
“Now this forecast of [the steward’s], for a comfortable subsistence in this world, shames our improvidence for another world,” Henry says. The children of the world are wiser than us because they are better at consulting their worldly interest and advantage than are we. The ungodly use their mammon today to support themselves in the hereafter. We also are to steward our mammon and our spiritual assets to support ourselves in two hereafters. Tomorrow. And the world to come.
Christians realize the goods they have don’t really belong to them, but are provisional grants from God for their use, to further the kingdom. For a lost soul, property and money are an unrighteous mammon. God’s people use unrighteous mammon toward the end not of purely earthly happiness, but toward everlasting reward.
“A tradesman,” Henry says, “is said to fail when he becomes a bankrupt. We must all thus fail shortly; death shuts up the shop, seals up the hand. *** It ought to be our great concern to make it sure to ourselves, that when we fail at death we may be received into everlasting habitations in heaven. Christ is gone before, to prepare a place for those that are his, and is ready to receive them.”
To be truly rich, according to the scriptures, we should be rich toward God, rich in Christ, the kingdom of God and the righteousness thereof. “To a man that is faithful in the unrighteous mammon, he gives true riches,” Henry says. We should steward our earthly goods and preserve them. They may be taken from us in a cataclysm. But eternal riches are inseparably ours.
Matthew Henry, The Matthew Henry Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1977, 1960). Ed. Rev. Leslie F. Church. Henry is indispensable and penetrating. For sons and other people I’ve gotten copies as gifts at McKay’s.