Luke 16:1-13 contains the Parable of the Unjust Steward (also called the Parable of the Shrewd Manager). This is Jesus’s most controversial and confusing teaching, because it seems to commend immorality. But if we understand what Jesus was and wasn’t saying, we’ll see it is a fantastic, challenging parable. Read or listen to this chapter from Your Finances God’s Way to learn the important lessons.
Table of contents
- WAS JESUS APPLAUDING DISHONESTY OR DOING SOMETHING ELSE?
- The Parable of the Unjust Steward Teaches us to Take Seriously that We Will Give an Account
- The Parable of the Unjust Steward Teaches us to Prepare for the Future
- The Parable of the Unjust Steward Teaches us to Value the Narrow Window of Time to Use Our Master’s Resources
- The Parable of the Unjust Steward Teaches us to Work Hard
- The Parable of the Unjust Steward Teaches us to Use Money to Make Eternal Friends
- TWO FINANCIAL PRINCIPLES
- WE MUST CHOOSE BETWEEN GOD AND MONEY
In the introduction, I said I wanted you to have the motivation to be a good steward of your finances. What could accomplish this better than a parable Jesus taught about financial stewardship? The parable of the unjust steward is one of Jesus’s most controversial and confusing teachings because it seems to commend immorality; therefore, please bear with me through the groundwork that explains why this is not the case. Luke 16:1-2 opens the parable:
[Jesus] said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.”
The manager here is a steward, which is how it’s translated in many Bibles. Stewards don’t own anything. Instead, they’re responsible for someone else’s possessions, which is why this person is called a manager. Stewards were trusted servants because they had full authority over their master’s possessions and could conduct business transactions in the master’s name.
The master thinks the steward is incompetent (“wasting his possessions”) versus dishonest, so he told the steward he would fire him in the future, versus immediately. This was a mistake because it allowed the steward to keep control of the master’s assets and rip him off. Luke 16:3-8 records the steward’s thoughts and actions after learning of his termination:
The manager said to himself, “What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.” So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, “How much do you owe my master?” He said, “A hundred measures of oil.” 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?” He said, “A hundred measures of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill, and write eighty.” The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.
If you ever learned you would lose your job, you would probably immediately start thinking about what you would do next. That’s what the steward did, but he found his options unattractive. He was “not strong enough to dig,” perhaps because he was old or disabled, and he was too “ashamed to beg,” perhaps because doing so was beneath him after having held such a prestigious position.
More than likely, the steward lived in his rich master’s house. When he was fired, not only would he lose his job, he would also lose his nice living situation. So he decided to win people’s favor so they would “receive [him] into their houses,” and he accomplishes this by meeting with the master’s debtors and decreasing their bills.
If you owed money and someone offered to take 20 to 50 percent off your bill, you would likely jump at the opportunity, but hopefully only if it was done morally. The words “sit down quickly” reveal this was a secret transaction, unauthorized by the master. So why did the master commend the steward’s ingenuity? Everyone in the parable of the unjust steward is immoral: the steward, who ripped off his master; the debtors, who went along with the plan; and the master, who admired the steward’s actions.
WAS JESUS APPLAUDING DISHONESTY OR DOING SOMETHING ELSE?
The confusing part is obvious: Jesus seemed to commend the steward’s dishonesty, right? Wrong. The master did, but Jesus called him dishonest (Luke 16:8).
If Jesus wasn’t commending the steward, what was He doing? This point clarifies the entire parable: Jesus was contrasting two groups—unbelievers and believers. He was saying unbelievers do some things better than believers. The rest of Luke 16:8 makes this clear: “The sons of this world [unbelievers] are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light [believers].”
“Their own generation” refers to the time unbelievers live in, or this life. Unbelievers are shrewder when they deal with the affairs of this life than believers are when they deal with the affairs of the next life. This is another confusing part of the because it sounds like Jesus is commending unbelievers and criticizing believers. Is that what He’s doing? Yes! Verse 1 says Jesus was speaking “to the disciples,” which means this parable is intended as a rebuke to people who claim to follow Him. Some unbelievers are shrewder (more zealous and passionate) with their physical affairs than some believers are with their spiritual affairs. Let’s consider these ways.
The Parable of the Unjust Steward Teaches us to Take Seriously that We Will Give an Account
The steward learned he was going to have to stand before his master and “give an account of his management,” or stewardship, and he took that seriously. Some unbelievers take more seriously that they’ll stand before an earthly, human master—whether a boss or employer—and give an account, than believers take seriously that they’ll stand before their Master, the God of heaven and earth, and give an account.
Following college, I’ve done four things professionally. First, I was an officer in the Army. Second, I was a supervisor at a distribution center for a major box store. Third, I was an elementary schoolteacher. Now I’m a pastor. In each of these professions, I received evaluations. While I wasn’t afraid— just like we don’t need to be afraid when we go before the Judgment Seat of Christ—I did want to do well. I took my evaluations seriously and tried to please whomever I worked for at the time.
How much more seriously should you and I take standing before Christ? Considering all He’s done for us, how much more should we want to please Him? If we strive to be faithful for an earthly, human master, how much more should we strive to be faithful for our Lord and Savior? And when it comes to faithfulness, few stewardships are more important than that of our finances.
The Parable of the Unjust Steward Teaches us to Prepare for the Future
Again, Jesus isn’t commending the sinful way the steward prepared for the future, but He is telling us to learn from his planning and foresight. The steward said, “When I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.” He used his present circumstances to prepare the best future for himself.
It’s sad when unbelievers prepare for their temporary futures better than believers prepare for their eternal futures. How tragic is it when unbelievers work harder for their earthly lives than believers work for their heavenly lives?
The Parable of the Unjust Steward Teaches us to Value the Narrow Window of Time to Use Our Master’s Resources
The steward learned he had a little time before he would lose his job, and he took advantage of this window. We too have a narrow window of time. Our lives are short:
- Job 7:7—“Remember that my life is a breath!”
- Psalm 102:3—“My days are consumed like smoke.”
- Psalm 144:4—“Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow.”
- James 4:14—“What is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.”
We should use the little time we have before “losing our jobs,” which is to say before our lives come to an end. As Jesus said, “We must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work” (John 9:4). We must take advantage of the narrow window we have.
The steward used what he had at his disposal, which happened to be the resources the master entrusted to him. Similarly, what do we have at our disposal? Because we’re stewards, we have the resources the Master has entrusted to us. Not only our finances, but also our time, relationships, possessions, money, talents, abilities, and gifts. Are we using these resources to the best of our ability? Are we using to the fullest what the Master has entrusted to us for His glory and honor?
The Parable of the Unjust Steward Teaches us to Work Hard
Consider these statistics:
- American employees work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers.
- Americans average 47-hour work weeks.
- Twenty-five million Americans (21 percent of the workforce) work at least 49 hours per week, and 11 million Americans (9 percent of the workforce) work more than 59 hours per week.
- Four out of five Americans spend their lunch break at their desk so they can keep working.
- Americans receive 15 vacation days per year, while workers in Asia receive 19 and workers in Europe receive 28. You might be quick to say, “We should get more vacation!” The problem is 51 percent of Americans don’t use all the vacation time they have. When Americans take vacation, 61 percent admit to doing some work during that time.1
- Many Americans spend part of the year working for nothing, donating on average the equivalent of $561 to their employers.
Think of how hard unbelievers work to make money and get ahead. All the overtime—early mornings, late evenings, and 60-, 70-, even 80-hour work weeks. All the sacrifices—sleep, relationships, health, enjoyment, pleasure, and hobbies. Jesus’s point can be summarized this way: What if Christians worked as hard for God’s kingdom as unbelievers work for their earthly kingdom?
We should ask ourselves: How much effort do we invest in our relationship with Christ? We go to church on Sunday, but what about Monday through Saturday? How much time do we spend serving Him? What have we sacrificed for the Lord, such as enjoyment, pleasure, or hobbies? Are there early mornings or late evenings we’ve given Him in prayer and Bible reading?
The Parable of the Unjust Steward Teaches us to Use Money to Make Eternal Friends
At the end of the parable of the unjust steward, Jesus said, “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” (Luke 16:9). “Unrighteous wealth” refers to earthly wealth. It’s called unrighteous not because it’s evil, but because it belongs to the world. Unfortunately, when some teach this parable, they say it’s about giving of your time, energy, or expertise. There are verses in the Bible that tell us to give of our time, energy, and expertise, but in this parable, Jesus is talking specifically about money. The problem with applying this parable to things other than money is that people would rather give anything but money, so when they come away thinking they can substitute money with something else, they use this parable as their justification for doing so. But Jesus has money in view here. So no matter how much we give of something else, if we’re not giving money, we’re not obeying the Lord.
The steward used the money he had at his disposal (his master’s money) to make friends for himself that would receive him into their houses. Spiritually speaking, we should do the same. Every believer is a brother or sister in Christ, but Jesus says people who come to salvation because of our giving are friends we have made for ourselves “by means of unrighteous wealth.” In other words, we should use our earthly wealth to help spread the gospel so others can become Christians.
The phrase “eternal dwellings” refers to heaven; that’s where our everlasting homes are located. We should use our Master’s money to make friends who will “receive [us] into eternal dwellings,” or welcome us into heaven when we arrive. Imagine the beauty of this: We make friends for eternity when we invest in the gospel and people are saved!
Earlier we read that God expresses joy when a person comes to salvation: “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10). Knowing this should also encourage us to give to the spread of the gospel, because anyone who loves the Lord wants to bring Him joy. To emphasize the importance of this, Jesus taught two financial principles.
TWO FINANCIAL PRINCIPLES
Principle One: If We Can’t Be Faithful with Money, We Can’t Be Faithful with Much Else
In the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) and the parable of the minas (Luke 19:11-27), Jesus said something like, “Because you have been faithful in little, I will give you responsibility over much.” In the parable of the unjust steward, Jesus said something similar, but with a specific focus on money:
One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? (Luke 16:10-12).
This is straightforward: If we’re faithful with a little we can be faithful with much, but if we can’t be faithful with little, we won’t suddenly become faithful with much. When we give our children small stewardships, if they don’t handle those well, we don’t give them bigger stewardships and expect them to do a better job. But in these verses, Jesus doesn’t refer to other stewardships— such as time, relationships, and talents—as He does in the parables of the talents and minas. Instead, He focuses on money, and we know this because of His second use of the phrase “unrighteous wealth.”
While Jesus is saying people who aren’t faithful with small amounts of money won’t be faithful with larger amounts of money, that’s not the point He’s making. He didn’t say, “If you have not been faithful with the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you more wealth?” Instead, He said, “Who will entrust to you true riches?” True riches are not physical, earthly riches. They are spiritual, heavenly riches.
The words “very little,” which occur twice, refer to the “unrighteous wealth” or earthly riches. The words “in much,” which also occur twice, refer to the “true riches” or heavenly riches. Jesus says earthly riches are “very little” because money is the foundation, or are the training wheels, of faithfulness. If we can’t be faithful with earthly wealth, we can’t get rid of our training wheels and be faithful with heavenly wealth. If we haven’t been trustworthy handling physical riches, God will not let us handle spiritual riches, or the true riches of the kingdom.
“That which is another’s” is God’s, because as stewards, “our” money is God’s money. If we’re unfaithful with His money, He won’t “give [us] that which is [our] own,” referring to eternal rewards, in that we keep them forever. This doesn’t mean that if we’re bad with money we’re not Christians or we lose our salvation. But it does mean it’s going to hurt our treasure in heaven. Poor financial stewardship reveals hearts that are focused on earth instead of heaven, preparing for earthly futures instead of heavenly homes, and God takes notice. There are few eternal rewards for people who have been poor financial stewards because they haven’t invested much in eternity (heaven).
Principle Two: Serving God or Money
Let’s make sure we understand imperatives and indicatives so that we interpret the second principle correctly. Imperatives are commands, such as, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” “Pray without ceasing,” and “Forgive as you’ve been forgiven.” Indicatives are statements—they indicate something, such as, “You are an heir with Christ,” “You have been forgiven,” and “You are justified by faith.”
Sometimes we confuse imperatives and indicatives. For example, Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world…He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit” (Matthew 5:13-14; John 15:5). These are indicatives, not imperatives. Jesus isn’t telling us to do something, such as, “Try hard to be salt, light, and produce fruit.” Instead, He’s telling us we are something: “You are salt, light, and fruit producers.”
The second principle in Luke 16:13 is also an indicative rather than an imperative: “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 [money].” Wouldn’t we expect Jesus to say, “You cannot serve God and another master”? Instead, He said, “You cannot serve God and money.” Money can become our master and make us its slave. When that happens, God is no longer the Lord—or Master—of our life. Because this is an indicative (versus an imperative), He is not commanding us not to “serve God and money” or be more devoted to Him than money. Instead, He’s indicating we “cannot serve Him and money.” If we’re devoted to money, we’re not devoted to Christ. If we’re devoted to Christ, we’re not devoted to money. It’s one or the other.
Saying we can serve both God and money is like saying we can walk in two different directions. We can have two masters if they want the same things. For example, children have two masters—their mother and father—and it works because (hopefully) both parents want the same things. But God and money want different things:
- If money is our master, we’ll waste our lives living only for the present. We won’t use our resources for the next life. When we make it to heaven, we’ll find ourselves without eternal rewards or friends to welcome us.
- If God is our master, we’ll serve Him by making money serve us. Instead of being mastered by money, we will master money. When we make it to heaven, we will receive our eternal rewards and be welcomed by our friends because we have used our money to invest in the next life.
WE MUST CHOOSE BETWEEN GOD AND MONEY
Two accounts in the Old Testament help illustrate the decision we face. After Joshua led the nation of Israel into the Promised Land, they encountered the false gods of the Canaanites. Years later, the people never forsook the Lord, but sadly, some engaged in idolatry. They probably thought they could add the worship of idols to the worship of God. Joshua knew otherwise. He brought the people together and told them these famous words:
Fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord (Joshua 24:14-15).
Joshua knew it was impossible for the Israelites to serve the Lord and the false gods in the Promised Land. It was an issue of service and faithfulness. To serve the gods of the Canaanites was to be unfaithful to God. To be faithful to God meant putting away the false gods. The same is true for us: to serve money is to be unfaithful to God, and to be faithful to God means refusing to serve money.
Perhaps you’re thinking, This is a little dramatic. Joshua was dealing with idols, but we are only dealing with money. But twice, Paul associated covetousness with idolatry:
- “Put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5).
- “This you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (Ephesians 5:5).
Covetousness is idolatry because when we covet, we desire something more than we desire God. Because the first commandment forbids idolatry, and the tenth commandment forbids covetousness, the Ten Commandments begin and end with the same commandments. When we covet money, it becomes an idol that is comparable with any of the ones Joshua was confronting. We can serve money as much as the Israelites could serve the false gods of Canaan, and we would be making the same choice they had made when they served the false gods of Canaan: the choice to not serve God.
Fast-forward seven centuries and consider a similar situation. Ahab was the king of the northern kingdom of Israel. He and his wife, Jezebel, led the nation to worship Baal. God raised up the prophet Elijah to bring the people back to Himself. In the dramatic showdown on Mount Carmel, Elijah said, “How long will you falter between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him. But the people answered him not a word” (1 Kings 18:21). Again, the people had to choose, but sadly, their silence showed the choice they had already made.
Do you have any trouble choosing between God and money? If so, before beginning the next chapter, please repent. Put off a love of money and put on a love of God. Choose not to serve money and instead, choose to serve God.
Let me encourage you by concluding this chapter with Joshua and Elijah’s words rephrased to apply directly to our situation with money:
Fear the Lord and serve Him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away serving money and serve the Lord. If it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether God or money. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. How long will you go faltering between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if money, then follow it.