Of course Jesus didn’t commend the unjust steward for dishonesty! But what can you make of the following after Jesus told his parable:
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?
How can cultural differences reconcile what Jesus was teaching with what we know to be right and honest?
…we intend to show that the…Unjust Steward is an eschatological warning to sinners…a dishonest steward discovers that his master expects obedience and judges those who fail him. The steward also discovers extraordinary mercy. He decides to risk everything on the unqualified mercy of his master…if he fails, he goes to jail…. His plan was the right one and he is praised for it…. Our need for a more precise understanding of the culture that informs the text is perhaps greater in this parable than in any other.
A thorough study of the culture reveals there were 3 types of “agent” positions that could describe this steward, but he was likely paid as an estate manager. The debtors are renters of the land for which they must pay fixed amounts of produce. When the master accuses the steward of wasting his goods, he could’ve had him thrown in jail. Instead, the master was merciful and decides just to fire him. By asking the steward to turn in the books, he was fired and the steward’s only maneuvering room was that no one knew it yet.
A steward like this would be desperate to consider a digging job, but this steward considers all his options, even begging. He decides
to risk everything on the quality of mercy he has already experienced from his master…. If he succeeds, he will be a hero in the community…. He is in too much of a hurry for titles. The debtors are not greeted with even “Friend” or “Sir” …To the second he says almost rudely, “And you.” He must finish before the master finds out what he is doing…it is clear that the debtors assume the entire bill-changing event is legitimate…that the steward is still in authority…. If there is any doubt about this…they will not cooperate…the steward naturally takes credit for having arranged the reductions…. The bills are not due. These sudden reductions come, as it were, “out of the blue.” The steward may quietly let it be known, “I talked the old gentleman into it.”
Then when the master finds out he’s trapped. He can make the whole village upset by saying that it was all a scam that this unjust steward pulled off without authorization. Or he could enjoy his sudden popularity and praise in the village. Perhaps in a reluctant way, the master acknowledges to his steward that the steward had acted wisely given what was accomplished. At any rate, it apparently changed the master’s mind to extend even more mercy and give the steward one more chance.
One of the Old Testament definitions of “wisdom” is an instinct for self-preservation…there is an unusual feature to this story. The storyteller in the East always has a series of stories about the clever fellow who won out over the “Mister Big” of his community. The remarkable feature of this parable is that the steward is criticized as “unrighteous” and called a “son of darkness.”
Christ’s admonition is that sinners turn to God—their judge—and wisely plead for his mercy. Use the wisdom of self-preservation, even as the heathens do when it comes to money. He’s not commending dishonesty, but he is warning that we’re all accountable, facing judgment. And yet God is merciful if we repent and believe in the only One who can help us.
Have you exercised this self-preservation yet?
The above artwork is edited, originally scanned from Jesus and His Times, by Reader’s Digest.