Would you explain what the story in Luke about the servant that is going to lose his job, and he goes about calling in the people that owes his master money or whatever and he cheats his master? I don’t get it.
This passage is found in Luke 16:1-13 and it is fourth in a series of stories Luke is telling about Jesus to make a point about who he is and what his mission was (and is today). Read in isolation, it appears to endorse unethical behavior… and it does… if it means only what it says. Taken as a part of a group of stories that are told to make a point about theology and the new covenant that Jesus was bringing, it is an exciting and wonderful story.
Here is the text from the NIV:
Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2 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.’
3 “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— 4 I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’
5 “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
6 “‘Nine hundred gallons[a] of olive oil,’ he replied.
“The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’
7 “Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’
“‘A thousand bushels[b] of wheat,’ he replied.
“He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’
8 “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. 9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
10 “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. 11 So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?
13 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
I’ve read a dozen or so commentaries and who knows how many papers on this parable. It seems to upset a lot of people. What follows is my take.
This passage – and it does have some disturbing elements – comes after three other stories. Let’s note them and then come back to this. In Luke 15, Jesus is approached by those who are upset that he eats with sinners. That was a big deal at the time for in the 1st century, you were whom you ate with. It was a sign of fellowship and brotherhood – which is why Jesus giving Judas a sop of bread was such an amazing act, but I digress…
Jesus then tells the story of the Lost Sheep. Everyone there can understand why you would go after a lost sheep, even though the stupid sheep got himself lost and you had a lot of perfectly well behaved sheep at home who might like your company. He then tells the story of the Lost Coin. Again, everyone understands that you don’t just value the money in your pocket – but ALL your money. When a lot of your money disappears, because you value it, you will go after it. Again, you had perfectly good money already but you have something missing and it is valuable enough to go for.
Then… the parable of the Prodigal Son (also known as the parable of the Loving Father), one of the most famous of parables. There, a son who is not worth saving IS saved and a saved son is corrected. This went against Pharisaical teaching. They taught that only the saved were valued. Now, Jesus goes into this story – the parable of the unjust steward or the parable of the wise steward, take your pick.
The steward was accused of wasting the master’s possessions. Note: “accused” not “proven guilty of.” Regardless, the steward realizes he needs to take action and take it quickly. He moves to deal with the bad debts that he has allowed to accumulate and writes them down in order to clear the books. This is a common practice today with all financial institutions. When a debt has gone bad, banks try to sell off the debt by selling a home for less than is owed them because any money is better than no money. Credit card companies negotiate payment schedules, often cutting percentage points on the interest or lowering the balance owed just so they can get something. This steward had allowed the master’s money to be tied up in bad debts too long. The threat of losing his job drove him to clear the books in a way that is not unusual today and wasn’t that unusual then.
Jesus has the man commended and then warns that the children of this world are often wiser in dealing with debts and their own kind than are the children of God. What is the point?
Pharisees and their ilk were convinced that the only ones who could be saved were those who earned it through holy living; those who owed no big spiritual debt to God. Jesus comes along and writes down everyone’s debt and that was offensive to them. He would fellowship sinners and offer to forgive their debt. He would forgive the fallen woman who cried over his feet, even warning the Pharisees present that “they who are forgiven much, love much. Those who are forgiven little, love little” as a way to convict them of their own sin; their refusal to love each other.
Sheep accept the wayward lamb back into the fold without recriminations. Money doesn’t care that the lost coin is back in the bag. Yet, families can be upset when a father forgives a wayward child because they have been good so surely they should always have a higher place in the family than their dissolute sibling…right? Jesus says no. He tells the story of the manager – a story every one of them would understand and many of them had probably had their debt “adjusted” to their benefit at some time – and applies that to the new spiritual reality he was bringing. He was here for sinners. He was the physician who came for the sick… and why would the healthy be upset that the doctor was taking care of sick people and not them, even if the sick were that way because of mistakes and bad decisions they had made? Shouldn’t we be happy that they were made well? Instead of being upset that huge debts were being written down or off entirely, shouldn’t we be glad that God does that now?
In other words, this isn’t a lesson on how to run your business but on forgiveness and the new Kingdom. However…Jesus does go on to speak of wealth and possessions. This throws scholars into a curve at high speed and many fly off into the weeds as they wrestle with verses 8-13. Some have gone so far as to say those verses could not have been in the original but were added later. I don’t think we need to go that far.
We are told to use our goods like this steward did. Does that mean we are to be dishonest? Not at all. It means that we are to write down the value of our goods and use our money wisely so that we are commended by our bosses AND by those who need us or owe us money. In other words, we put people before money. We put people before law. We value people more than we value our system – religious or financial. Remember that the Bible teaches us that love is greater than anything else, that those who wish to receive mercy must be merciful, that those who want friends must prove themselves friendly, and that we are to forgive our debtors as we ourselves are forgiven. While we normally think of those admonitions in terms of sins against us, this parable would say that we are to also consider money and goods in the equation, forgiving debts and clearing the books. It may appear unjust to the world, but it shows that we have the same spirit that Jesus had.
Later, Paul would tell us that we were to work hard with our hands so that we could give to those who were in need. That dovetails nicely with this parable. We are to use our goods more wisely than the world uses its goods (and Jesus indicates the world is quite wise when it comes to money) for a greater good, for a greater Kingdom. I’ve had businessmen tell me that this would be ruinous for them if they lived it out while others have told me that it makes sense to them and then gone on to give me examples of doing exactly what this steward did and the benefits that accrued to them – financially and emotionally – afterward. It reminds me of the book “In His Steps” by Charles Sheldon about a town that decided to only do what Jesus would do. It is an amazing book and easy to find. If read honestly, it will also stick with you and change you so – fair warning.
Jesus was speaking to a very rigid people – legalists like Pharisees and Essenes who would brook no deviation from the ceremonial law and who routinely tossed out the unworthy. His statements here would have been very controversial then (as they are now in some circles) and offensive as well. But Jesus had a knack for offense. In a world that wouldn’t allow for any deviation, Jesus called for his followers to make accommodations as needed to save the lost and win them for the Kingdom. Rigid churches might want to pay attention to this parable, even if – especially if – it makes them squirm.