The parable found in Luke 16:1‒9 seems so dishonest. For example, what is so great about what the steward did? Also, what is the “unrighteous mammon” all about?
I have noticed that this passage contains several potential misunderstandings. First, let’s review the setting. Jesus was addressing His disciples. In those days, a rich man would have a steward, or manager, of his estate. The steward would be entrusted a certain amount of money at his disposal for caring for the master’s affairs, and the steward could have for himself whatever money was left over after those affairs were taken care of. So the more thrifty or shrewd the steward was, the more money could go into his own pocket. In Jesus’ parable, the manager came under surveillance for wasting his master’s goods (Luke 16:1). So the master called the steward in to give an account of himself (v. 2). Implied here is the probability that the steward would be dismissed. The steward feared that possibility because he didn’t think he had the physical strength to do manual labor, and he was too ashamed to beg (v. 3).
So in his last hours or moments as a manager, he quickly thought up a scheme to win favor with potential friends who could help him in the worst scenario; he called in his master’s customers and asked each how much he owed the master. The steward reduced the amount owed, thinking that his action would obligate those individuals to be kind to him. He was trying to befriend his master’s customers (“they may receive me into their houses,” v. 4).
The steward’s actions, of course, were dishonest, but amazingly the master commended the steward (v. 8). Then we have the statement about the unrighteous mammon, which you noted (v. 9).
Here, then, are some potential misunderstandings: (1) Jesus was approving dishonesty; (2) we should make friends of the mammon of unrighteousness, as the steward did; and (3) worldly, ungodly people are wiser than believers.
Concerning point 1, Jesus was not approving dishonesty. Nowhere is the steward commended for his dishonesty or crooked behavior. Rather, his master cited him for doing wisely as far as the thinking of the unbelieving world is concerned. There is a difference between thinking in a godly manner and in a carnal, worldly manner. In the eyes of sinful mankind, the steward used his head. We see this type of rationalization in the business world today. However, let’s not ignore some qualities about the steward that we should emulate: he was quick, decisive, and prudent, for example. Believers in Christ can legitimately grow in such areas.
Concerning point 2, we should make friends of the mammon of unrighteousness, just not in the self-serving way the steward did. “Mammon” is a word for “money” here, and it is of itself an amoral commodity of the world we live in. It can be use unrighteously, as implied here, or it can be used righteously. The passage is stating that believers ought to use the currency that the world also uses (which is unrighteous) for righteous purposes: to win souls for Christ and thus develop spiritual friendships that will last throughout eternity. We need to use the money, which the world also handles, in ways that will glorify God.
Regarding point 3, worldly, ungodly people are not wiser than believers, except in the unsaved’s own secular, unrighteous realm. There they often excel in “wisdom,” in planning for the future and managing money. More importantly, believers are not always as careful about spiritual issues as the world is about secular, temporal issues.
Nevertheless, our future as believers is in Heaven. That is the most important focus of life. As the steward faced dismissal, every human faces death and must be prepared for what comes afterward. We believers need to be as prudent about spiritual realities and responsibilities in the light of eternity as the unbelieving world often is about the temporal things of life (2 Corinthians 5:10). Luke 16:10‒13 goes on to address the importance of faithfulness. We believers are the stewards; Christ is the master. We are responsible to Him for how we use the resources He has given us.
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