Called to Faithful Stewardship.
There is probably little controversy in stating that one who is sincerely trying to live an obedient "Christian life" finds a high level of conflict when attempting to maintain Christian values in a world that actively works firmly against them. Christians are constantly bombarded with the world's messages of materialism, consumerism, and greed. Government-supported lotteries, as well as televised reality and game shows, fill the mind with false dreams of great fortune. Who has not dreamed of what they would do with a great windfall of wealth? The entertainment media presents a false image of glitz and wonder when it presents what people wish the world to be rather than what it really is. The stimulation of people's base desires is what sells advertising, and that is what drives the public media. This culture bombards us with images that normalize the rich, famous, and powerful, portraying them as beautiful, successful, and happy.
The true "reality" is a world that is predominantly godless and secular (purposeful redundancy here.) Where there is no God, there is no sin, and no clear definition of right and wrong. The only limits on secular human conduct are those agreed to by contemporary culture. This is the culture within each and every Christian is immersed. How does one relate to this culture? Should all of the ways of the secular world be rejected? Balancing the secular and sacred influences in one's life is not a trivial task when God has called Christians to remain pure in Him, and yet serve as salt and light in this perverse world.
From which source are Christians to receive authoritative teaching: the secular world system or the sacred source of God's Word? Certainly, a balance is in order, with God's Word having full authority in all areas of our lives to which it speaks. Because of this, Jesus' ministry was predominantly one of teaching. Jesus taught His disciples how to live in a way that honors God while they (and we) also immersed in a perverse generation. He often demonstrated the contrast between a life that is dedicated to this world system to one that is dedicated to the Kingdom of God, encouraging us to follow Him as He showed us God's kingdom purpose.
As Jesus taught his disciples, including the twelve apostles and a larger number of close followers, He often spoke of issues directly related to everyday living. He was also speaking to a culture that is removed from us by two thousand years of cultural change and an even greater difference in language structure and usage. Consequently, it is sometimes difficult, yet necessary, to understand a little about the culture of the people to whom Jesus was teaching to fully understand the content of His message. We find this as Jesus shared parables that presented images of situations and circumstances that were more common in the ancient near-east than they are today. In Chapter 16, Jesus continues the teaching of parables that, again, draw from contemporary mores while He addresses this issue of how we can relate and interact with the things of this world in a manner that brings glory and honor to God.
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. 2And 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.
Jesus presents a parable, a fictional story that involves two persons. The first is a rich man who had great possessions and a community of debtors who owed him. This second person is his steward, a paid employee who was responsible for managing the rich man's possessions, and most pointedly in this narrative, was given the responsibility to manage the debts that people owed the rich man. This form of management, presented by Jesus in this parable, was a common one in their culture. Under both the Mosaic and traditional laws of the Jews, the charging of interest or usury to a Jewish debtor was not allowed (Ex. 22:55, et. al.), and all such debts had to be fully repaid on each year of Jubilee (Lev. 25:9-15, et. al.). However, neither law was actually practiced by the rich. A loophole in the law was created through the use of a steward in the management of such debts. The master would not be considered guilty of any law broken by his steward, leaving the steward free to overcharge the debtor and pass only a portion of the proceeds on to his master. Since the steward did not actually own the property that was loaned, he was not responsible for any usury that was exacted.
Such is the setting for this parable. If the steward and the master were both unjust, as was often the case in a culture that characteristically looked continually for ways to get around their extensive system of laws, this system of rationalized usury brought great gains to both the steward and the manager. There was no means under the law that the debtor could find a resolution for this injustice.
If the master in this parable was a dishonest man, he would have no reason to be addressing concerns about the steward's actions, ignoring any pleas concerning the injustice that was taking place. However, in this pairing, Jesus presents a master who appears to be a just man. The charge brought against the steward is literally one of mishandling of the master's accounts. With this form of "hidden usury" being the norm in their culture, those listening to the parable would be able to quickly and accurately identify with the situation. Perhaps many of them had first-hand experience with their Jewish system of loans and the ways that this system was abused to charge them exorbitant interest. They may have experienced large costs of financing to lenders who, through their stewards, were brutal in their demands for repayment. So, when Jesus describes the response of the master to the steward's management of his accounts, the people's attention was certainly piqued. Here we have a master who is honest, one who is requiring a reconciliation of his accounts from the steward prior to the steward's dismissal for his handling of those same accounts.
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.
Note that the dishonest steward, when faced with the dilemma, is concerned only with himself and his own future. Unlike his master, his world view is entirely self-centered. He is accustomed to his comfortable standard of living, one that came from both his steward's salary and from the money he made by overcharging his master's debtors. As the steward of the property, he did not have to perform manual labor, but instead simply lived comfortably off of the excesses he charged. It is in this way that we can see how his sin against his master could be translated as "squandering." Comfortable in his rich and leisurely lifestyle, the concept of manual labor is as unconscionable to the steward as is begging on the streets. Consequently, faced with his new-found job loss, he is in a position of having to scramble to find a way out of this dilemma that will protect his personal interests.
I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.
Up to this point in the narrative, the steward has been cheating the master's debtors, though those debtors probably have little or no knowledge of the extent of his dishonesty. The steward recognizes that he needs to come up with a solution to this dilemma that would leave him with a "golden parachute," a resolution that would land him safely in a job that is as comfortable and secure as the one he currently has. He has to come up with a scheme that will not reveal his dishonesty to the debtors, and do so in a manner that will actually engender their trust in him. It would also be advantageous for him to come up with a scheme that will make him look good to his Master, perhaps allowing him to keep his job. So, the steward is "resolved;" he has determined a plan of action that should meet his own needs.
So he called every one of his lordís debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? 6And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. 7Then 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.
How would you respond if your mortgage lender called you into his office with a concern about your mortgage balance, and upon arriving at the office discover their intent to cut your debt in half? If you knew that the previous rate of payment was excessive and illegal you would probably want to take the lender to court. However, if you trusted your lender, you would be astonished and pleased with this unexpected gift. You would have a tremendous spirit of thankfulness to both the agent and to the lender to whom the debt is owed. This is exactly what the unjust steward did. Calling in the debtors one-by-one, he returned their accounts to their appropriate balance, and by so doing, surrendered his excessive usury with the hope that he would find future acceptance among the debtors. At the same time he made the master look quite beneficent to the debtors.
The action taken by the unjust steward may reveal a level of wisdom that is out of character for his position. Had he been a wise steward in the first place, he would not be in this predicament. We see that he was overcharging the debtors anywhere from 20% to 50%, an amount large enough to be easily discovered. However, even this worldly and self-centered thief demonstrated a level of wisdom by determining a resolution that not only fully reconciled the master's accounts, but also demonstrated a step of faith as by so reconciling he would be cutting himself off from his future ill-gotten gains.
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.
When one understands the context of this parable one can see how the master could commend the unjust steward for his response to the dilemma. Many commentators and scholars who are not concerned with the biblical context of this parable have a very difficult time explaining how the master could commend the steward. Further confounding their thesis is the fact that Jesus uses the word, "kurios" to describe the master in these latter verses. Though used to refer to the master of a large holding, the same word is also used to refer to the Lord God in His covenant relationship with mankind. What did the steward do that was so commendable? First he demonstrated wisdom in his solution, even though the primary motive for his action was self-centered. Second, he was stepping out in faith by cutting off his future income supply. His solution would probably save him his job with the master, and he could continue to live off of the regular master's salary, but doing so honestly from this point forward. His solution was one of confession as he admitted (at least to himself) that he had been stealing, and repentance as he turned from his system of thievery.
It is clear that this is not the pattern of confession and repentance that leads to salvation, as even the steward's motives were self-centered, he never admitted that he had been a thief, and he did nothing to restore to those what he had taken (as is done by Zaccheus, Luke 19:8). In this we can understand Jesus' statement as he then comments on the parable. Though this steward was a worldly man with no interest or intent of righteousness, he still understood and implemented the process of confession and repentance. He recognized how his greed was going to bring about his demise, and he put in place a plan of repentance.
As Jesus looks across the multitudes and teaches a gospel of confession, repentance, and salvation, He illustrated how even the "children of this world" can demonstrate a wisdom that is even greater than what is seen among those who are the "children of light." This second allusion can be understood one of two ways. The "law-abiding" scribes and Pharisees considered themselves the "children of light," and all others as the "children of the world," as law breakers and sinners (the argument that initiated this series of parables, starting in chapter 15.) Jesus shows the self-righteous Pharisees that they do not necessarily have the corner market on wisdom. If the "children of light" refers to those who have truly placed their faith and trust in God, Jesus is pointing out that even the unrepentant have the capacity to understand the need for confession and repentance. If the children of the world have the capacity to do this, the children of light certainly should be able to do so.
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.
This is a very difficult phrase to interpret, with commentator's and scholar's opinions addressing ideas that are widely varied. If taken outside of the context of this parable, and if taken literally in this English translation, Jesus' words sound quite uncharacteristic of His overall mission and message. Out of context we might think that we are being commanded to become intimate friends with the ungodly people of this world so that when we fail we can depend on them to accept us. However, even this approach leaves the remainder of the statement obscure.
Taken in context, we need to address the usage of two words: "friends" and "mammon". "Make yourself friends" can also be understood as "establish an appropriate relationship with." Note that the relationship is not described as one made with people, but rather is one made with "mammon," a transliteration of a word that simply refers to the things of this world that are considered as intrinsically valuable. Put together, the command here is for those who are faithful to God to establish an appropriate relationship with, or usage of, the objects of value in this world. When driven by greed and self-centeredness, the possessions of this world quickly enslave their owners, diminishing their ability to serve God in spirit and in truth. The excessive greed of the unjust steward brought himself under the scrutiny of his Master, just as an inappropriate relationship with the things of this world bring the faithful under the scrutiny of the LORD. However, when an individual correctly understands the purpose and opportunity that the things of this world can have in the life and ministry of a faithful Christian, the result is a reward in heaven (everlasting habitations).
We see how the unjust steward was undone by his greed for personal possession, but exhibited confession and repentance that resulted in the praise of his master. Likewise, this world has a tremendous draw that can pull down even the most determined Christian, yet when the possessions of this world are brought under the control of the Holy Spirit in one's life, the result is likewise the praise of The Master.
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.
At this point, Jesus brings the parable to its application. The manner in which the faithful manage their wealth speaks volumes about their true nature. This is also one area where today's Christians need some serious instruction. In my 50 years of young and adult Christian life there has been one observation I have always made concerning every congregation in every denomination I have encountered: the budget of the struggling church and the welfare to the needy community never add up to a tithe of the members of the church. In every church I have encountered, if an even conservative estimate of the true tithe of its active membership is calculated we find the church budget to be in the neighborhood of 5% to 10% of that tithe value. This is not a researched number, but one of personal observation and an estimate that has been studied and verified by faith-based research groups. One only needs to go through the church roll and make a conservative estimate of the income of each of its members, and divide by ten. The results of this exercise may be astonishing, and will probably not be too encouraging. The last time I calculated this estimate for my own church fellowship, I determined that the total giving to the operational expenses of the church was about one fifth of a tithe of the income of only those members of the church who attend regularly. This is probably a comparatively good figure, though it represents less than the church budget, resulting in a shortfall that can impact missions and ministries of the church.
The point is simple: Christians as a body of faith have a long way to go in order to get this problem with faithfulness in their possessions under control. When we look at our checkbooks we find out exactly just how faithful we are with what we have been given. The biblical model for giving is at least a tithe to the regular needs of the church that is then supplemented with additional offerings and gifts. Furthermore the biblical model for a tithe is literally "one tenth," though the appropriate definition of a tithe for a Christian is more fully determined by listening to the Holy Spirit. When we prayerfully listen to the prompting of God concerning our giving, we may come away with an even more generous commitment. However, it becomes difficult to impossible to be so generous in our response to the needs of God's work when we have already encumbered our resources in the appointment of those objects that meet our own wants: houses, land, cars, boats, recreational vehicles, big-screen televisions, toys, etc, etc, etc. We encounter debt when we borrow to have that which we cannot afford, only to find ourselves enslaved to loan payments that diminish our ability to serve God faithfully with the wealth that God has given us.
Just as the unjust steward was responsible for managing his lord's accounts, every child of God is a steward of that which the Lord God, kerios, has provided, whether it is "least" or whether it is "much." And, just as the unjust steward was keeping more for himself than the Master intended, Christians are always strongly tempted to keep more for themselves than God intends, giving God the leftovers only when there are some. This sin diminishes the true joy of the steward, and also encumbers the work of the church and impoverishes and overstresses its ministers. Churches are notorious for minimal support their pastors when a simple obedience to the tithe would fully eliminate this terrible testimony of the congregation.
If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?
If Jesus' point is not firm enough, he draws it even closer to the heart of every listener. If we cannot act faithfully and responsibly with the things of this world which we can easily understand and apply for our own use, how can we be trusted with the true riches: the resources of God's grace? God has entrusted the faithful with the gospel message and the commission to carry it to the entire world. God has entrusted the faithful to demonstration compassion and grace to all of His creation. We cannot be trusted to complete that task when we choose to mismanage our worldly wealth and possessions. This is some serious stuff. Jesus often preached on the impact that love of this world has to destroy the effectiveness of a Christian's ministry or even the viability of the call (i.e. vs. 13).
And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another manís, who shall give you that which is your own?
Jesus follows the hard-hitting statement of verse 11 with this even harder one in verse 12. One can easily see how the greed of the unjust steward would not inspire his master, or any of those debtors he cheated, to be particularly generous with him. Jesus expressed how difficult it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven because one who is self-sufficient, like the unjust steward, is often fully focused on their own wealth and are enslaved to it, never feeling a need to turn to God, never feeling a need to apply the resources that God as provided with a stewardship worthy of God's calling. What is "our own" in this verse is the free gift of eternal life that God extends to every person, without regard to economic station. Unfaithfulness in the stewardship of what God has given us is a precursor to the rejection of His offer of eternal life.
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.
Finally, though Jesus is not ending his teaching on stewardship, He closes the application of this parable with a simple statement. In order to be faithful to God, one must make a choice. I have often described those who cannot fully make that choice as "Mugwumps," those who sit on the fence with their "mug" on one side and their "wump" on the other. They want the rewards of faithfulness without actually demonstrating faithfulness. They want the sensual pleasures and experiences of this world and yet attempt to maintain their state as a member of a church fellowship. They may do a minimum of "good works" to rationalize their station, but their true nature is as fully exposed to God as the accounts of the Master in this parable. One cannot be a Mugwump and be faithful to God.
So, how is one to hold and manage wealth (which, of course is a relative cultural concept) and be faithful to God at the same time? The answer is found here in verse 12. God is to be the One Master. This is not an authority that can be given to mammon, the things of this world. When God is the master, one comes to realize that one is only a steward of what already belongs to God. God provides for all our our needs, and the wealth we manage is part of that gift. The unjust steward was keeping a portion of that wealth for himself, and he was threatened with expulsion from the master's house. The same is true for all people. If we reject God's teaching on the nature of our wealth, keeping it for ourselves rather than managing it for Him, we are no different than that unjust steward. Those who maintain a tight hold on the things of this world and never turn to God in faith, face the same rejection from God. When the faithful exercise self-centered stewardship their relationship with God similarly suffers.
When the lure of worldly wealth keeps us from acknowledging our need for God, and we end our days without ever turning to God in faith, we will find ourselves fully rejected by Him in the final day. When those who have placed their faith and trust in the Lord continue to mismanage the wealth of their stewardship, they also invite all manner of judgment upon themselves, and minimize their effectiveness as ministers of the gospel.
The management of personal wealth is an extremely important issue to the Christian, one that may be arguably the most controversial and most damaging to the success of the spread of the gospel in this world. For this reason, Jesus often taught about the subject, yet it is one that Christians often do not want to hear.
So, how do we resolve our own measure of disobedience? If the LORD is telling me that my stewardship is lacking, what can I do. Jesus showed us in this parable that even the unrepentant and self-centered child of the world knew what to do: he resolved to come up with a plan to remedy the situation, a plan that would both reconcile the books and bring him the praise of his master. The clear statement here is that those who are the faithful, the "children of light" have this same opportunity: to reconcile the books and bring upon themselves the praise of their Master. Just as the unjust steward put together a solution, we can do the same. The solution for each individual will be as unique as the situations the individuals have created.
- We may need to make some changes to our spending patterns in order to honor God with our spending.
- We may be surrounding ourselves with unneeded things while we leave God's work largely unattended.
- We might look at the places where we are placing our income to determine if they have become our masters, and if so, find ways to reduce their authority.
- We may find we are living beyond our means, honoring our own wants while we have little or nothing left over with which to honor God. If so, it may be time to cut up the credit cards and start living on what we have rather than taking even larger amounts of money away from our future.
God has given each of us the intelligence to recognize the context of our stewardship and to put in place an intentional and positive plan to manage what He has given us in a godly way, a way that will both meet our needs and honor the LORD who provided it for us. When we have done this we will come to enjoy the wonderful blessing of witnessing what God is doing through us as we support His kingdom work. We will also be able to look forward to those words, spoken by the Savior when He says of us, "Well done, my good and faithful servant."