There are a few of Jesus’ parables that are very hard to understand. Arguably the most difficult is found in Luke 16: 1-13.
“…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.’ And 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. For the sons of this world are shrewder in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And 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.
“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? No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
On the surface, it appears the manager finds out bad things about his steward and tells him to turn in his accounts for he is fired. The steward comes up with a plan to help his master’s debtors so he might be able to work for one of them. The plan is to drastically reduce their debt to his master. His master praises him for the loss of some of his assets.
Not only does this not make sense, the meaning is further clouded by Jesus endorsing what the steward did and telling His disciples to do the same so when unrighteous wealth fails, the friends would welcome them into eternity.
Clearly, we are missing something. So, let’s investigate what that might be.
First, understand the job of being a steward in Jesus’ time. The “steward” in this parable was a financial one. The position of a financial steward was to be completely in control of his master’s assets. The only way the master could see the decisions the steward was making was the result; more assets, less, or no change.
Secondly, understand what “money” was in Jesus’ time. Granted there were coins, but the “barter” system still dominated. The barter system was when one person exchanged some of his valuable property for someone else’s valuable property that was different. The difficulty with the barter system is valuable property was usually not a one to one comparison.
An example: how many sheep were equal to one cow? Presumably, trades were done often enough an “average” correspondence between valuable properties was widely known. But, in certain circumstances or when the trade is for future production (like growing wheat) the “average” trade value could be skewed one way or another greatly.
It is easy to fall into the trap that the steward was “dishonest” because he didn’t collect all of what the debtors owed the master. That can’t be true, for the master would not have praised him for being shrewd.
What explains so much more is if his dishonesty was with the setting of the value of the trades. Luke does not provide what the master’s assets were being traded, but for example, suppose it was two cows for 100 bushels of wheat. Perhaps, though, the going rate for two cows was 50 bushels of wheat? By lowering the debtor’s IOU to 80 bushels of wheat, the debtor and the master would both benefit.
It is likely the steward had made similar trades in the past and benefited so much, he decided to use an abnormal amount of the master’s assets in such a way. So much so, the master could tell his goods were being scattered (a more accurate definition of the Greek word ‘ diaskorpizo” than wasted) all over town. That’s why he was firing the steward.
Jesus’ term of “unrighteous wealth” would be the 50 bushels more than “true” value. The point Jesus is making is the steward was changing from wanting the 50 bushels to be his own, to being generous with that inflated “wealth” and giving it to others (the debtors).
This parable is all about generosity. So, let me paraphrase it with the new knowledge.
A rich man had a manager who was making unequal trades with the master’s assets. So much so, the rich man saw his wealth scattered all over town. The master told the steward he was fired and told him to turn over all the accounts of the steward’s business dealings. The manager wanted to make a deal with the master’s debtors so they would hire him. He went to the debtors and substantially reduced the inflated debt to closer to an equal trade. By doing so, the steward greatly reduced what he would gain in the future, but still made a profit for himself, his master, and helped the debtors.
The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness of inflating the value of the bartered trade, then reducing it to a level the master and the steward still benefited; the debtors became happy because they saw the generosity of the master and steward.
Jesus encouraged His disciples to study how worldly people were shrewder in dealing with their own generation than they were. He instructed them to make friends by being generous with unbalanced trade deals so they could all end up in heaven. If they did this, they would demonstrate they had the ability to correctly handle riches of their own. They would show the world they served only God and not the sole pursuit of money.
Parables were used by Jesus to teach people how God wants them to conduct their lives. In this one, God is the “master” and provides the assets He expects people to manage (be stewards). He wants them to faithfully use those assets for their health and well being. People are to seriously think about their wealth, even to the point of observing how successful non-Christians manage theirs.
Jesus bids people to become shrewd in the handling of God given assets, but He wants them to be generous with excesses if they accrue. The Christian should always realize all of what they think they own really belongs to God. They should strive to be good stewards, not desiring great wealth, but seeking to glorify God with their success.
And if we achieve wealth in excess of our needs, God expects us to demonstrate our love for Him by being generous with that overabundance in helping others.