And he said also unto his disciples, There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods. And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward. Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. So he called every one of his lord’s debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore. (Luke 16:1-7)
And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations. He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much. If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own? (Verses 7-12)
No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. (Verse 13)
The parable of the unjust steward seems to mystify many of Christians. The conduct of this steward, in asking people to pay less than the original contract, seems contrary to our notion of good stewardship.
Our problem is a misunderstanding of the role of a steward. The owner of a large domain had many responsibilities and did not want to be troubled with arranging for the farming of his agricultural land. So he engaged a steward to handle that, on the proviso that the steward would provide the lord with his needs from the land. The steward would be remunerated by adding enough to each tenant’s payment to cover the needs of his own household. On a large estate, the second largest house was usually be the home of the steward.
In this parable, it appears that in some cases the steward was taking as much for himself as for his lord. The waste that he was accused of was in placing a burden on the tenant farmers that they could hardly bear. He is called unjust, not because of unfaithfulness to Mammon, but because of his close alliance with mammon, which itself is unrighteous (verses 9 and 11). As eventually happens to all who trust in Mammon, he finds himself betrayed.
The light now dawns and he turns around. Before, he had oppressed others in demanding payment to the maximum of their ability. Now, he administers grace to his master’s debtors in releasing them from a portion of their debts. It is within his power while still a steward to do this and it appears that he erased the portion that he was taking for himself. He now sees that in the long term it will be in his best interest to do what he can to lighten the burdens of others.
Verse 8 says “And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely”. Jesus instructs us to take the conduct of the steward for our example. This interpretation may be problematic for Christians who see stewardship as being principally concerned with the gain and care of material wealth. We say that it is God’s will that we exercise good stewardship of our material possessions in order to be able to share with others and support mission programs. Is it possible that at times we are motivated more by the portion that we want for themselves than by the portion that we plan to give to God?
What place do the needs of others have in the minds of Christians who are trying to be good stewards? How much room is there for compassion in this type of stewardship? It is convenient to decide that the poor are poor because they don’t want to work and don’t take care of what they do have. We make a distinction between the “deserving” poor and those not so “deserving”, which provides a neat way out when faced with those whose needs are very real, though self-inflicted.
The conclusion of this parable is found in verse 13: “No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” This is integral to the explanation of the parable of the unjust steward. To separate it is to find the parable confusing and perhaps meaningless.
It seems to me that in order to be “good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Peter 2:10) we need to consider the needs of others, not only in material things but also in the use of our time and talents.