In Luke 16, Jesus tells two parables—the unrighteous steward and rich man and Lazarus—to show that God’s perspective on riches and our perspective are often diametrically opposed. If we want to be truly rich, we need God’s perspective on money.
Jesus tells the first parable to the disciples (16:1), but the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were listening in and scoffing at Him (16:14). So the ensuing instruction and the second parable are aimed primarily at the Pharisees. The entire chapter should make us all stop and think carefully about our attitude toward money.
The parable of the unrighteous steward causes commentators a lot of grief. They call it the most difficult parable in Luke. Jesus is seemingly praising a scoundrel. But a careful look reveals that Jesus is not praising the man’s crookedness, but rather his shrewdness in using a present opportunity to provide for his inevitable future needs.
Jesus calls the man “unrighteous” (16:8), thereby condemning his wrong ways. But He is saying that we can learn a valuable lesson from this pagan scoundrel, who is wiser than many “sons of light,” in that he saw what was coming and he used what had been entrusted to him while he could to prepare for the future. The lesson for us is:
A faithful steward will use his Master’s money shrewdly to provide true riches for eternity.
Jesus is telling us that there is a way you can take it with you, namely, by wisely investing the resources that God has entrusted to you now in things that matter for eternity.
1. Faithful versus unrighteous: Be faithful, not unrighteous, in financial matters.
The first contrast, in verse 10, is between “the one who is faithful” and “the one who is unrighteous.” Jesus is saying, “Do not be unrighteous as the steward in the parable was, but be faithful stewards,” as those who will give an account to the Master. There are two crucial concepts here:
The concept of stewardship: God owns it; I manage it.
Implicit in Jesus’ teaching, both here and elsewhere, is that God owns everything and we are stewards or managers of what He has entrusted to us. We are stewards of our time, our abilities, and our possessions and money. In the parable, the steward was squandering his master’s possessions (16:1).
- There is much debate over whether his action of reducing the bills of his master’s debtors was illegal or legal.
- Some argue that his master had cleverly violated the Jewish laws against charging interest, and that the steward was rectifying the situation and putting the master in the awkward position of going along with the adjusted bills or else openly being guilty of charging interest.
- Others say that the steward was giving up his own commission on the sales.
- Others say that the steward was stealing from his master. We can’t know for sure, but it seems to me that the steward was not doing anything illegal or the master would have prosecuted him.
And yet, while staying within the letter of the law and acting within the authority given to him, the steward was not acting in his master’s best interests, but in his own.
Even though the master lost a lot of money through the steward’s actions, he grudgingly had to praise him for his shrewdness. But the fact is, although shrewd, the steward was still unrighteous or unfaithful because he was using his master’s money for his own selfish ends, not for the master’s profit.
One of the key concepts of being a steward is that the steward does not own what the master or owner has entrusted to him. He merely manages it for the owner’s purposes. If the steward begins to act as if he owns it, spending the owner’s resources for his personal betterment rather than for the owner’s benefit, he is an unrighteous, not a faithful, steward.
The principle of stewardship is a fundamental concept of Christian living. When you keep it in focus, it radically affects how you live. To be faithful as a steward, you must keep in mind at all times that you do not own your money; God does. You do not own your car; God does. You do not own your house; God does. You do not own your own life; God does.
To forget or ignore God’s purposes and to live as if what we have is ours to use for our purposes is to abuse our stewardship by being unfaithful.
The concept of accountability: Some day I must give an account to God for my stewardship.
Every business manager knows that the owner will be checking the books to see how things are going. If the business has been earning a profit for the owner, then the manager may get a raise. But if the manager has been skimming off the profits to finance his new yacht and his Mercedes, he’s going to be in trouble when the books are examined.
The idea of accountability is inherent in the concept of management or stewardship.
Crucial to being a good steward is understanding the owner’s purpose for his business. In the world, the purpose usually is to make all the money you can.
But what is our Master’s purpose? Jesus tells us in verse 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.
Jesus reminds us that the world uses for unrighteous purposes, but which believers can use for God’s purposes.
Jesus means that just as the unrighteous steward used his master’s money to make friends for himself, so that when he got fired they would welcome him into their homes, so we should use our Master’s money to make friends for ourselves in heaven.
It refers to the friends who have become Christians because of our faithful stewardship. When earthly riches fail, as they surely will when we die, we will have friends in heaven who are there because of our godly actions.
Each of us must ask ourselves the sober question, “Am I managing the resources God has entrusted to me with a view to giving an account some day in light of His purpose of being glorified among all the nations through the spreading of the gospel?”
God is a generous and gracious Father, who gives to us not only enough for our basic needs, but also for our enjoyment. So, it is not wrong to enjoy many things beyond the bare essentials. But, if we grasp the concept of faithful stewardship and accountability, our focus will not be on our own financial success, but rather on the financial “success” of God’s enterprise, namely, the gospel.
Temporal versus eternal: Lay up treasures in heaven.
The second contrast consists of three contrasts that all point to the same thing, namely the temporal versus the eternal. Jesus is saying that the faithful steward will provide true riches for eternity in contrast to this unrighteous steward who provided himself only with temporal provisions.
Isn’t it ironic that to us, money is a big deal, but to God it’s “a very little thing”! If you don’t think that money is a big deal to people, even to God’s people, just ask some dear old saint to part with his or her riches for the sake of God’s work and see what kind of response you get!
God views our money as a very little thing. It is the litmus test by which God tests us to see if we can handle true riches, namely, souls. If we are faithful in managing the money God gives us for His purposes, He will entrust eternal souls into our care.
We will have eternal rewards in heaven, even if we don’t have much in terms of earthly possessions. The ironic thing is, you are 100 percent certain to lose all the money you accumulate on this earth—it will fail (16:9). You are 100 percent certain to keep all the rewards you lay up in heaven—they are your own (16:12), secure where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in to steal (Matt. 6:20).
And yet, most of God’s people major on laying up money on earth and minor on laying up treasure in heaven! Puritan Thomas Adams put it, “To part with what we cannot keep, that we may get that we cannot lose, is a good bargain. Wealth can do us no good, unless it help us toward heaven.”
God versus Mammon: Choose your Master.
In verse 13, Jesus draws the third contrast, that we either can serve God or money, but not both. So we must make a basic decision as to our choice of masters.
It is a delusion to think that you can own money. That is not one of the choices. Either God owns you, including your money, or your money owns you. Those are the only choices.
Most of us would like to think that there is some middle ground, where we can mostly serve God, but also keep one foot in worldly wealth. Jesus draws the line in the sand and makes us ask, “Who is my Master: God or money?”
Use present opportunities to provide for inevitable future realities.
Jesus is saying that unbelievers are often more shrewd in figuring out how to secure temporal wealth than believers are in figuring out how to secure eternal riches.
By shrewd, Jesus does not mean dishonest, but rather, as Webster defines it, “clever, discerning awareness; practical, hardheaded cleverness and judgment” (Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary [Merriam-Webster], p. 1091).
How was the unrighteous steward shrewd? In at least two ways. First, he was shrewd in that he seized an opportunity while he still had time to act. He saw the handwriting on the wall: his days were numbered! He was going to get fired. So he quickly went into action, using his authority while he still had time, to get on the good side of his master’s debtors.
The application for us is, if we hear of a window of opportunity for the gospel, we should do all we can to seize it while we can. If we hear of a good investment opportunity that is reasonably certain to earn a decent profit and we have the funds to invest, we would probably jump at the chance.
In the same way, if we hear of an opportunity for the gospel and God has given us funds to invest, we should go for it.
Second, the unrighteous steward was shrewd in that he used his present resources to provide for his inevitable future realities. He knew that he was going to be fired. While many would have despaired, he went into action, using what he had to provide for his future security.
The application for us is, we know that the time is soon coming when the money of unrighteousness will fail. We will die or Christ will return, and money won’t do us any good in heaven. But we can use our money now to store up treasures in heaven by making eternal friends through the gospel.
Can you imagine the joy someday of meeting someone in heaven who says, “Thank you for giving to the cause of world evangelization! Because you gave, missionaries came to my country and I got saved.”
Ecclesiastes 5:10-17 (ESV)
Myth #1 Wealth brings satisfaction (vs. 10). He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity.
Myth #2 Wealth solves every problem (vs. 11). When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes?
Myth #3 Wealth brings peace of mind (vs. 12). Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep.
Myth #4 Wealth provides security (vs. 13-17) There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, 14 and those riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand.
15 As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand. 16 This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind? 17 Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger.