The Unjust Steward
William Bacon Stevens, 1857
Jesus told his disciples: "There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, 'What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.'
"The manager said to himself, 'What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I'm not strong enough to dig, and I'm ashamed to beg — I know what I'll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.'
"So he called in each one of his master's debtors. He asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?' "'Eight hundred gallons of olive oil,' he replied. "The manager told him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.'
"Then he asked the second, 'And how much do you owe?' "'A thousand bushels of wheat,' he replied. "He told him, 'Take your bill and make it eight hundred.'
"The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted wisely. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings."
Commentators, while they have done much to explain the parables, have also done much to obscure them. They have sometimes created more obstacles than they have removed, and, by their multifarious explanations, have involved passages in perplexity, which before were clear and simple.
It is the duty of the biblical scholar to study when to let the subject plead its own cause, and when to play the able advocate for its rendering or its doctrine — but never to overlay the words of God with human explanations, however ornate or beautiful.
These remarks apply with some force to the parable under consideration, which some of the ancient fathers looked upon as the most difficult and obscure of all; and one learned divine has gone so far as to declare that it is not only difficult, but impossible to give its true meaning.
The error under which most of the expositors of this passage have labored, has been that of attempting to fit an interpretation to every circumstance and incident of the parable, instead of attempting to seize upon and elucidate its main scope and design. "A parable, and the moral accommodation of it, are not," as one well observes, "like two planes, which touch one another in every part — but like a globe upon a plane, which only touches in one point."
Though this may not be true of all the parables, it is certainly very near the truth as it respects this, for the one point of contact here between the parable and the moral accommodation of it to men, is the word "wisely:" the incident in the first part of the parable being designed to show that the steward acted "wisely," or with temporal prudence and foresight, in making provision for the future; and the latter part of it, or application, being intended to urge upon us in reference to our soul's future, a spiritual wisdom, corresponding in its prudence and foresight to this wise acting in the things of earth.
"Wisely," then, seems to be the key word of the parable, opening before us "the two-leaved gates" of the similitude and the application.
Let us examine the similitude or parable first, and then the moral or application. In applying the term "wisely" (or "shrewdly") to the unjust steward, it signifies merely temporal wisdom, sagacity, discernment, foresight to perceive danger, and wit to provide for it, according to the best classical usage of the word as found in the writings of Aristotle, Xenophon, Plato, and Euripides. In this strictly worldly sense, the unjust steward acted "wisely," in making full provision for the future.
When accusation was made against him that he had "wasted" his master's goods, and he was called upon to answer to the charge by giving an account of his stewardship, he was at a loss how to proceed, and asks the anxious question, "What shall I do?" The charges against him, he knew to be true; dismissal from office must inevitably follow an examination of his accounts; how therefore to acquire a livelihood when discharged from his present lucrative station, perplexed his mind. Unaccustomed to labor — he could not work; puffed up with pride — he could not beg; and between his inability to do the one and his unwillingness to do the other — he had but a poor prospect for the future.
He soon settles the matter by adding iniquity to iniquity, and completing a long course of dishonesty by open fraud. He makes his resolve, comforts himself with the assurance that it will secure him a home, and then proceeds to carry his plan into operation.
He immediately summons his master's debtors, looks over the various amounts which they had obligated themselves to pay for their lands or dwellings, rentals which, to this day, in Eastern countries, are mostly paid in the produce of the land, as corn, oil, wheat, wine. Finding that the first to whom he spoke was bound for "a hundred measures," or about a thousand gallons of olive oil (a valuable article of oriental commerce), he tells him to take his "bill" or lease, erase the hundred, and "sit down quickly and write fifty," thus, cancelling at a stroke one-half his debt.
He then calls a second, and learning from his answer that he was to pay "a thousand measures of wheat," or over 1400 bushels, he directed him to strike off one-fifth, and thus make his obligation but "eight hundred." Two, only, are mentioned — but the tenor of the narrative implies that there were other debtors, and that the like reduction was made in all their contracts; and this the steward could easily do, because he was the one to whom the revenue was paid; and as these "bills" or obligations were in the handwriting of the renters, countersigned and witnessed by the steward; hence, it was very easy so to collude with the debtors as to produce the changes in the debt of each which are specified in the parable. The result of this was, that he placed each under an obligation to himself, varying, probably, with the ability of each to meet that obligation, and thus made sure of a welcome among these "debtors" when his master should discharge him from his stewardship.
He reasoned upon the general law of reciprocity, and though he was faithless to his master, he believed these obliged debtors would be faithful to him.
For this act of worldly wisdom the master of the steward was forced to commend him, for, though he saw the crime, he could not but praise the foresight and sagacity by which he secured to himself both friends and home.
Much unnecessary obloquy has been thrown upon our blessed Lord, by attributing the commendation of the unjust steward to Him, rather than to the master of the steward. From the time of the emperor Julian, who made this an occasion of vilifying the character of Christ, down to the neological interpreters of the present day, it has been made an instrument, either of attacking the character of Christ, or of giving Divine support to knavery and fraud. The peculiar construction of the original Greek words, as well as the propriety of the thing itself, renders it certain that the "master" indicated, was the steward's master, and not Jesus Christ. It was, then, the same "master" mentioned in the third verse, "for my master takes away my stewardship;" and the same "master" mentioned in the fifth verse, "How much do you owe unto my master?" who, in the eighth verse, "commended the unjust steward, because he had acted wisely."
At this word 'wisely,' the parable proper ends. And now, with a sort of parenthetical remark, that "the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light," Christ enforces the true moral of the parable in the emphatic words, "I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings." In which application to His disciples, "yourselves" answers to the "steward" of the parable; the "friends" to the "Lord's debtors;" "when you fail," to the removal of the steward from his office; and "the welcome into eternal dwellings" is antithetical of the temporary lodgings into which the steward was received by his earthly friends, when "put out of the stewardship;" and all turns upon the word "wisely," which is the hinge of the parable.
This we learn from looking into the parable itself. Why was it uttered? To teach us to waste goods entrusted to us? to teach us to cheat and defraud our employers? to show us how to make our fellow-men accomplices in our crimes? to commend injustice? Certainly not! So that we are shut up to the word wisely as the true pith of the parable, or else must discard it as teaching nothing worthy to be learned.
What, then, in reference to the wise actings of this steward, would our Lord have us imitate? What are the real lessons which this parable was designed to teach? That we should use our riches with a wise reference to our soul's future existence, and, regarding them as treasures given us in trust, and ourselves as stewards, amenable to our Divine Lord — so spend our "worldly wealth" in the cause of God, the extension of the Church, and the relief of human misery, as that we do by a figure of speech "make friends" thereby; "friends" who, when we "fail," or "die," shall, as it were, receive us "into everlasting habitations."
"We shall find friends there," says Luther, "for the good deeds we have done, the kindness and beneficence we have shown to the poor; these shall not only be witnesses of our brotherly and Christian behavior — but shall also be commended and recompensed. Then one shall come and say, 'Lord, here is a person who gave me a coat, a little money, a piece of bread, a cup of water in the time of need!' Yes, as Christ tells us in the 25th chapter of Matthew, He Himself, shall come forth and testify before His Heavenly Father, angels, and saints what we have done for Him, and how we have thereby approved our faith." Luther also adds this important remark, "it is not works which gain Heaven for us — but Christ freely grants eternal life to those who believe, and give evidence of their faith in works of love and the right employment of their earthly goods."
Riches, termed here "worldly wealth," or the false, fleeting, uncertain riches of earth, in the abstract have neither moral good nor evil. They are, so long as unused, passive and innocuous. It is riches in motion which gives them a definite character; and here they move under two laws, and in two directions, the law of selfishness and the law of love: the direction towards God — and whatever tends to advance His glory; and the direction towards earth — and whatever abets its lusts and pleasures.
As, then, we cannot live in the world without making use of wealth after some sort, so must we use it as to make friends by it — not consuming it upon our lusts, not squandering it in frivolous schemes and pursuits, not hoarding it up for family aggrandizement; for then it truly becomes unrighteous mammon — one of the most powerful instruments of vice and wickedness! Then truly, as the heathen poet writes, is "gold more destructive than the sword;" and becomes, as an Apostle declares, "the root of all evil." But we must appropriate it to works of mercy, feeding the hungry, relieving the poor, assisting the afflicted, ministering to the heirs of salvation, extending the gospel of Christ; thus putting it out to interest in God's service, so that in the end we shall receive unfading riches for filthy lucre, with the interest of grace here, and glory in Heaven.
This is the way to "provide ourselves bags which never wear out;" "a treasure in the heavens which never fails," where no thief steals, no moth destroys, no rust corrodes. Into these habitations, all will be received when discharged from earth, who have that faith which, working by love, brings forth the fruits of righteousness and true holiness. The steward was received into the wooden tenements or clay-built cottages of his master's debtors, and by earthly and mortal friends. The friends have long since departed, the dwellings have long since crumbled away; but "the friends" which the right users of money make, are in Heaven, and the "habitations" into which they will welcome us are "everlasting;" for the inheritance of the Christian is "incorruptible, undefiled, and passes not away."
Let us imitate then the foresight of the unjust steward in making provision for the future — by acting wisely for the eternal interests of our souls. Let us imitate the alacrity and promptness of the unjust steward, who lost not a moment in view of his imminent discharge, to secure friends and homes — by being as prompt and eager in the prospect of our failing life to gain the favor of Him who is "a friend, that sticks closer than a brother," and a mansion among the "everlasting habitations;" "for we know," says Paul, "that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens."
And finally, let us remember, that it behooves "the children of light" to be as wise, as cautious, as circumspect, as far-seeing, as prompt in devising, and as liberal in executing every good plan for the salvation of souls, and the glory of God, as "the people of this world are shrewd in dealing with their own kind."
Yet how seldom is this the case! How very far the spirit of Christian enterprise falls below the level of worldly enterprise! We need then, as "children of light," to go to the "Father of lights" for that illumination which will enable us to act with more judgment, tact, zeal, and forecast in our spiritual concerns, beseeching Him that He would strengthen us "with the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, and daily increase in us your manifold gifts of grace, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and true godliness, and fill us, O Lord, with the spirit of your holy fear, now and forever!"