"Now He was also saying to the disciples, 'There was a certain rich man who had a steward, and this steward was reported to him as squandering his possessions. And he called him and said to him, 'What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.' And the steward said to himself, 'What shall I do, since my master is taking the stewardship away from me? I am not strong enough to dig; I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do, so that when I am removed from the stewardship, they will receive me into their homes.' And he summoned each one of his master's debtors, and he began saying to the first, 'How much do you owe my master?', and he said, 'A hundred measures of oil.' And he said to him, 'Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.' Then he said to another, 'And how much do you owe?' And he said, 'A hundred measures of wheat.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, and write eighty.' And his master praised the unrighteous steward because he had acted shrewdly; for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light.'" (Luke 16:1-8)
This parable speaks of a steward whom his master called into account to answer charges that he had squandered the assets placed in his charge. The steward concluded, even before giving his account, that his stewardship would be taken from him. He also thought ahead and determined that when he lost his position as steward, he would need another means of providing for his needs and that he didn't have the physical ability to do manual labor; nor did he have the courage to beg for his sustenance. We then see that before his accounting the steward had some time, which he used to begin a process of renegotiating with the rich man's debtors whose accounts he managed and for which he was responsible. His goal was to obtain their future favor for gratuitous acts performed toward them in the present. After this process of reducing the amounts each of the debtors owed, we read that the master found out about it and actually praised the steward's shrewdness.
It will benefit our understanding of this parable if we define some key terms used in the context.
First, the Greek word for steward is "oikonomos," which Strong defines as, "a house-distributor (i.e., manager), or overseer, i.e., an employee in that capacity; by extension, a fiscal agent" (Strong's Expanded Greek-Hebrew Dictionary). Thayer adds that the steward is one "to whom the head of the house or proprietor has entrusted the management of his affairs, the care of receipts and expenditures, and the duty of dealing out the proper portion to every servant and even to the children not yet of age" (Thayer's Greek Lexicon). As we make application of this parable, we must remember that we are all stewards during our lives here on earth (Luke 12:42; 1 Corinthians 4:1-2; 1 Peter 4:10).
Second, the Greek word used for squandered means "to scatter abroad, disperse" (Strong's and Thayer's) and, when applied to physical possessions, carries with it the idea of wastefulness. In what we refer to as the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), Luke applied the word's attribute to the younger son who wasted his inheritance in riotous living (verse 13). It's what is meant by the word prodigality and is the opposite of being wise, prudent, careful, and cautious. In this instance, the steward had failed to exercise due care and prudence in overseeing his master's resources and had wasted that which had been put in his charge.
Third, we need to understand what it means to act shrewdly. Sometimes, in our current society, when we speak of people acting shrewdly, we are insinuating that they were somewhat conniving and manipulative--if not dishonest. But in the Greek, the word "fronimoos" simply means to be prudent and wise. Perhaps the ASV and KJV better translate the word by using the word wisely, rather than shrewdly. The master's saying that the steward acted shrewdly was most definitely a compliment and a positive affirmation of what he had done. We need to understand why.
Perhaps the word shrewdly was used because many perceive that the steward in this parable was, in fact, somewhat dishonest and/or unethical in renegotiating the debts of those who owed his master so they would extend favor to the steward later when he was out of a job. Perhaps we need to take another look at the definition of a steward, not from the perspective of our modern-day Western commercial culture, but from that of a Middle Eastern first-century culture.
Regarding stewards during the first century, Eldred Echols, in his book Discovering The Pearl of Great Price states, "Scholars say that the person who is called in Greek the oikonomos (manager) was, in fact, a contractor or business agent who operated on a flexible commission, much as tax collectors like Zacchaeus did for the Roman government. In other words, these agents were bound to collect from buyers the price their employer required for his products. But they could charge whatever they could get above that and keep the difference for their own commission. Often the profit they made was enormous."
If we assume those scholars to be accurate, it would explain the master's favorable reaction. When the steward told the debtors to reduce their bills by 20% and 50%, what he was likely doing was ensuring that his master received what the debtors owed him but giving up the profit that the steward had been seeking for himself. He was forsaking short-term gain for long-term benefits. Thus, we can see a reason for the master's praise of the steward's wise actions. Otherwise, if the steward had given away what was rightfully owed his master, just to secure favor for himself at a later time, we would expect that the master would have had him imprisoned because of his fraudulent, dishonest, and deceitful behavior.
This then gets to the parable's real point. What is our attitude toward riches in the here and now? What is our attitude toward material and monetary possessions? Are we willing to use our blessings now with a view toward our eternal future? When Jesus states in verse 8, "The sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light," I believe He is making the point that those of the world ("sons of this age") are often able to use money and material blessings, with a view toward the temporal future, more effectively than children of God ("sons of light") are able to use them with a view toward the spiritual eternal future.
We can't afford to forget that we are all stewards of our possessions and that what we own doesn't really belong to us, but to God. We are simply blessed to be allowed to use them for a short while; and any so-called profit we make from those blessings entrusted to us really belongs to Him. The godly steward is not governed by selfishness and desire for personal gain, but by benevolence and his Master's best interest. This is why, in the parable, the master praised the steward. Earthly masters highly value such stewardship, and it will be truly valued by Our Master in heaven. Why? We will have replaced selfishness with benevolence that seeks first the good of others.
Immediately following this parable, Jesus went on, in Luke 16:9-13, to make some further applications. "And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home. He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in what is another man's, who will give you what is your own? No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.
In this context, Jesus used the Aramaic word mammon to refer to money. This word is found only here (verses 9,11,13) and in Matthew 6:24, "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon." In both contexts, Jesus assigned personal characteristics to money, wealth, and riches and personified mammon as a rival god.
We must learn that money is not just some abstract means of exchange but a potential god that seeks to dominate and rule our lives if we become its servant. The insidious nature of money makes the warning in 1 Timothy 6:9, 10 all the more serious. "But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows." The parable's teaching is twofold.
We learn to use, to God's glory, the money with which He blesses us, with a view to our long-term spiritual desire to be cared for after we finish our earthly stewardships.
Or, we allow money to be our master all the days of our lives here on earth and find ourselves looking across the great chasm throughout eternity with perpetual regret over our inability to act shrewdly. "But Abraham said, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us." (Luke 16:25,26)
We either use our money to serve God, or we try to use God to serve our money. Will we use our money and material possessions in such a way that we prepare ourselves for an eternal future with God? Just as there came a day for the steward to give an account for that which had been entrusted to him (Luke 16:3), so we also will have a day of reckoning (Isaiah 2:12; Romans 14:12) when we account for our stewardship. "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad." (2 Corinthians 5:10)
Brother Simmons has done a good job of bringing out the meaning of this wonderful parable. Materialism is a great stumbling block for many of God's people. We need to soberly reflect on our Master's words in Matthew 16:26. Does your money help you to serve God, or are you allowing it to master you? (KMG)