Notes on Unjust Steward
The master still receives what he is supposed to and the debtors are still paying what they owe the master but they have benefited from what the servant has done and will be indebted to him and will help him. He has maintained good relations with the master and sacrificed his worldly possessions to have favor with the people around him and his Master.
So, you can’t serve two masters, he is not serving money or wealth but he is serving the master. We should be willing to sacrifice our own worldly wealth for eternal favor
Extra: The manager in the story was claiming 50% extra for himself and his “services.” He was “clever in a crisis” and knew when to give it up. He realized that he would benefit in the long run by making friends with his master’s creditors after he was fired. After all, he cut them a big break. He used his “extra” well and wisely, not, at first, to his own benefit, but eventually that’s what happened. We might think that we have nowhere near 50% extra time, treasure or talent, that is, abilities to do things others cannot. But most, if not all, of us actually do. No matter how busy we are there really is time to stop and give our time to others who need it more than we do. The same is true of talent and treasure. Most if us really do have “extra” money if we really are honest. Most of us can help others- with chores, dishes, laundry, errands, etc. Most of us can use our abilities to help others who might find a task harder than we do. Now, it is true that we should help others just because they need help, not because there is something in it “for me.” However, it is also true that helping others helps us in the long run. It is just such behavior that will give us a favorable hearing when we are called into the main office to be “audited” by none other than God himself.
Self-Interest: Jesus is taking a practice from the business world and saying that we should adopt that same practice in our spiritual and religious lives, making the necessary changes, of course. We all know that businesses that cheat customers do not stay in business long. They must take the customers interests seriously and put those interests above their desire for immediate profit. They must put personal gain second if they are to personally gain at all, especially in the long run, where it really counts. It is so ironic that only those businesses that behave this way survive and thrive. So, in their own self-interest, they are motivated, maybe even forced, to act in the interest of the customers. Where there is irony there is revelation and Jesus shows his genius for finding it even in the business world. He is teaching that it is in our own best self-interest to be “interested” in the welfare of others. The steward gave up his own personal profit, his share, his benefit, and reduced the burden on those in debt to his master. He did so not because he “loved” his customers, but because he “loved” himself. He was looking out for his own interests, namely, that they would become his friends when he was unemployed and support him. Jesus knows the inner workings of human beings. He knows that we do not begin to love selflessly until we have had enough practice in loving for less than the noblest motives. That is fine with Jesus. He taps into our basic need to look out for ourselves, our instinct for self-survival and shows us how we can use it to good purpose. When he says, “Love your neighbor as yourself” he is recognizing that there is a legitimate and proper form of self-love. Here, he is expanding on that basic commandment. He is saying that it is on our own best self-interest to treat others the way we want to be treated. The four attachments” to this story- this e-mail from the Lord, if you will- make the same point in different ways. They teach us that reciprocity will reign when we are judged. We will be treated by God for all eternity the very way we treated others while we lived in time. Therefore, it is prudent, clever, enterprising however we wish to translate the Greek adverb phronimos to give up what we used to think was in our best interest to do the right thing and serve the interests of others. Loving others is a form of authentic self-love. Amen.
In verse one, “Then Jesus said to the disciples,” After his three parables about the joy of finding what was lost, Jesus gives an example of a man who “found” himself, came to his senses regarding his dishonesty, and found a way, by forgoing his personal profit, out of an almost certain disaster by using both his money and intelligence wisely. This is directly addressed to the disciples of Jesus, but verses fourteen to thirty-one, indicate that it was meant for the Pharisees to hear as well.
“There was a rich man who had a manager,” Large estates, then and now, are frequently managed by an executive acting in the name of a landlord, who himself is frequently an absentee. In Palestine this would be a freeman with virtually full power to enter into contracts, sell goods, manage personnel, etc. much like a modern day CEO. The owner could call an audit at will. In this case, there must have been more than enough evidence of extortion or incompetence for the owner to call an audit for he seems to have made up his mind even before the audit as to the outcome.
In verse three, “Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me?” Apparently, the steward knew the outcome as well. Considering his options he found only one palatable. Too out-of-shape and, perhaps, lazy to dig ditches and too proud to beg, he wisely lit upon a strategy which would at least assure him “friends” among those whom he formerly extorted.
In verse five, “So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one. We are told only two instances of what the steward did. He might have managed a farm where the tenants paid rent in kind, but more likely this was a business where merchants received goods on credit and gave promissory notes in their own handwriting to the steward-manager. Now, Jewish law prohibited charging interest to a fellow-Jew. To get around this, debts were translated into commodities like wheat and oil. Thus, the business could have dealt in anything, not necessarily wheat and oil, but the books were kept in those terms. Enter the concept of “creative bookkeeping!
In verse six, “He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’” The Greek identifies this liquid measure as a batos, a “bath” being about eight to nine of our gallons. The total value would be about a thousand denarii, one denarius was a common worker’s days’ wage. Halving that amount would be about five hundred denarii off the original bill. This represents the interest the manager was charging. Interest at fifty percent was not uncommon in the ancient world. Jesus has left out whether the owner would get the interest or the manager was pocketing it for himself. The story makes more sense if the latter is the case. We can only assume the bill would be paid quickly before “late charges” mounted up.
In verse seven, “Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.” A “container” was a dry measure, about five gallons. The total value would be about twenty five hundred denarii. The dollar reduction is the same as the first, about five hundred denarii off, representing about twenty five percent interest.
In verse eight, “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” We take this as part of the original story and Jesus’ primary application of its lesson. He applauds the already dishonest steward for acting, in the end, prudently. He does not commend the, usually, prudent steward for acting, in the end, dishonestly. The word for “prudently” in the Greek is phronimos, a word used in the New Testament for “the eternal attitude.” God’s wisdom. It is the key to interpreting this parable. As the steward saw the urgency of the situation and changed his behavior to prepare for it, so, too, the disciple sees the urgency and imminence of death and judgment and changes his or her behavior accordingly, wisely, prudently. One is to write off all debts, forgive all, forgo all self-centered interest before it is too late.
In verse eight, “children of this world are more prudent.” In this first of four interpretative sayings Jesus upbraids his disciples for being less alert to the imminent end-time death and judgment, than their worldly counterparts are to foreseeable crises and less resourceful and responsive.
In verse nine, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” “Dishonest wealth” translates “the mammon of injustice.” “Unjust” refers not so much to the individual person as to the age in general. It was Jesus’ way of describing the worldly attitude as opposed to the eternal one. “Dishonest wealth” does not mean so much wealth acquired dishonestly as the nature of the wealth. It is this-worldly wealth and therefore “dishonest.” Disciples are to use this wealth for charitable purposes, give it away, not keep it, and when the day comes when it will be “worthless wealth,” that is, the day of eternity, having given it away will ensure a friendly reception in heaven.
In verses ten to twelve, trustworthy. The dishonest steward betrayed the trust his master put in him by misusing goods that were not his own. In this third application Jesus says that disciples will not be entrusted with heavenly wealth and responsibilities if they have not already shown themselves faithful over worldly wealth. The money we think we own is not really ours. We ought not to dispense with it at will. We are stewards holding it in trust. Yet, how we manage it will help determine whether we are entrusted with true wealth, that is, heaven.
In verse thirteen, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” If we are enslaved by “worldly wealth” and all it entails, we cannot be a slave of God. Serving God is no part-time job. It requires exclusive, loyal, full-time service, uncompromising in honesty and generosity.