Luke xvi. 8. "And the Lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely."
None of our Lord's parables has been as difficult to explain as this one. Learned and pious men have confessed freely, in all ages, that there is much in the parable which they cannot understand; and I am bound to confess the same. The puzzle is, plainly, why our Lord should SEEM to bid us to copy the conduct of a bad man and a cheat. For this is the usual interpretation. The steward has been cheating his master already. When he is found out and about to be dismissed, he cheats his master still further, by telling his debtors to cheat, and so wins favour with them.
But does our Lord bid us copy a cheat? I cannot believe that; and the text I should have said ought to give us a very different notion. We read that the lord--that is, the steward's master--commended the unjust steward. What? Commended him for cheating him a second time, and teaching his debtors to cheat him? He must have been a man of a strange character--very unlike any man whom we know, or, at all events, any man whom we should wish to know--to have done that. But it is said--he commended him for having acted wisely. Now that word "wisely" may merely mean prudently, sensibly, and with common sense. But if the master thought that to cheat, or to teach others to cheat, was acting either wisely or prudently, then he was a very foolish and short-sighted man, and altogether mistaken. For be sure and certain, and settle it in your minds, that neither falsehood or dishonesty is ever either wise or prudent, but short-sighted, foolish, certain to punish itself. Such teaching is totally contrary to our Lord's own teaching. Agree with thine adversary quickly, He says, while thou art in the way with him, lest he deliver thee to the Judge. If thou hast done wrong, right it again as soon as possible; for your sin will surely find you out, and avenge itself. Give the devil his due, says the good old proverb. Pay him at once and be done with him: but never think to escape out of his clutches, as too many wretched and foolish sinners do, by running up a fresh score with him, and trying to hide old sins by new ones. Be sure that if the steward cheated his master a second time, the master was foolish and mistaken, and as it were a partner in the steward's sin by commending him. But if so; why does our Lord mention it? What had our Lord to do, what have we to do, with the opinion of so foolish a man?
It seems to me that the only reason for our Lord's using the words of the text, must be, that the master was right, not wrong, in commending the steward. But it seems to me, also, that the master could be right only, if the steward was right also--if the steward had done the right and just thing at last, and, instead of cheating his master a second time, had done his best to make restitution for his own sins.
But how could that be? We know nothing of what these debtors were. All we know is that one believed that he owed the Lord a hundred measures of oil; and another believed that he owed him a hundred measures of wheat; and that the steward told one to put down in his bill eighty, and the other fifty. Now suppose that the steward had been cheating and oppressing these men, as was common enough in those days with stewards, and has been common enough since; suppose that he had been charging them more than they really owed, and, it may be, putting the surplus into his own pocket, and so wasting his master's goods--that the one really owed only eighty measures of oil, and the other really owed only fifty of wheat; what could be more simple, or more truly wise either, when he was found out, than to do this--to go round to the debtors and confess: I have been overcharging you; you do not owe what I have demanded of you; take your bill and write four-score, for that is what you really owe?
This is but a guess on my part. But all other explanations are only guesses likewise, because we do not know how business was transacted in those days and in that country. We do not know whether these debtors were tenants, paying rent in kind, or traders to whom goods had been advanced, or what they were. We do not know whether the steward was agent of the estate, or house steward, or what he was. But this we do know--that to mend one act of villainy by committing a fresh one, is not wisdom, but foolishness; and we may be sure that our Lord would never have held up the unjust steward as an example to us, or quoted his master's opinion of him, if all he did was to commit fraud on fraud, and make bad worse, thereby risking his own more utter ruin. And this view of the parable surely agrees with our Lord's own lesson, which He draws from it. "And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of righteousness." But what does that mean? Wise men have been puzzled by that text as much as by the parable; but surely our Lord Himself explains it in the verses which follow: "He that is faithful in that which is least, is faithful also in much; and he that is unjust in that which is least, is unjust also in much." He that is FAITHFUL. The unjust steward was commended for acting wisely. Now, it seems the way to act wisely is to act faithfully--that is honestly. Our Lord bids us copy the unjust steward, and make ourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness. Now, it seems, He tells us that the way to make friends of men by money transactions is to deal faithfully and honestly by them. This then was perhaps why the Lord commended the unjust steward, because he had been converted in time, and seen his true interest; and for once at least in his life become just. He had found out that after all, honesty is the best policy; as God grant all of us may find out if any of us have not found it out already. Honesty is the best policy. Faithfulness, as our Lord calls it, is the true wisdom. And in that, as our Lord says, the children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light. The children of this world, the plain worldly men of business, find that to conduct their business they must be faithful, diligent, punctual, accurate, cautious, business-like. They must have practical common sense, which is itself a kind of honesty. They must be men of their word, just and true in their dealings, or sooner or later, they will fail. Their schemes, their money, their credit, their character, will fail them, and they will be overwhelmed by ruin.
And that is just what too often the children of light forget. The children of light have a higher light, a deeper teaching from God, than the children of the world. They have a great insight into what ought to be; they see that mankind might be far wiser, happier, better, holier than they are; they have noble and lofty hopes for the future; they desire the welfare and the holiness of mankind. But they are too apt to want practical common sense. And so they are laughed at (and deservedly) as dreamers, as fanatics, as foolish unpractical people, who are wasting their talents on impossible fancies. Often while their minds are full of really useful and noble schemes, they neglect their business, their families, their common duties, till they cause misery to those around them, and shame to themselves. Often, too, they are tempted to be actually dishonest, to fancy that the means sanctify the end; that it is lawful to do evil that good may come; and so, in order to carry out some fine scheme of theirs, to say false things, or do mean or cruel things, not for their own interest, but, as they fancy, for the cause of God: as if God, and God's cause, could ever be helped by the devil and his works. And so they cast a scandal on religion, and give the enemies of the Lord reason to blaspheme. So it was, it seems, in our Lord's time--so it has been too often since. The children of light--those who ought to be of most use to their own generation--are sometimes of least use to it, through their own weaknesses and follies. They will not remember that he that is not faithful in that which is least, in the every-day concerns of life, is not likely to be faithful in that which is greatest; that if they will not be faithful in the unrighteous mammon--that is, if they cannot resist the temptations to meanness and unfairness which come with all money transactions, God will not commit to them the true riches--the power of making their fellow creatures wiser, happier, better. If they will not be faithful in that which is another man's--in plain English, if they will not pay their debts honestly, who will give them that which is their own--the inspiration of God's indwelling Spirit? Would to God all high religious professors would recollect that, and be just and honest, before they pretend to higher graces and counsels of perfection.
This lesson, then, I think our Lord means to teach us. I do not say it is the only lesson in the parable; God forbid. But I think that our Lord's own words show us that this IS one lesson. That, however pious we are, however enlightened we are, however useful we wish to be; in one word, however much we are, or fancy ourselves to be, children of light, our first duty as Christian men is the duty which lies nearest us--that of which it is written: "If a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the Church of God?" And again, "If any provide not for his own and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel." Our first duty, I say, as Christian men, is to be just and honest in money matters and every-day business; and over and above that, to be generous and liberal therein. Not merely to pay--which the very publicans in our Lord's time did--but to give, generously, liberally; lending, if we can afford it, as our Lord bids us, hoping for nothing again; and remembering that he who giveth to the poor lendeth to the Lord, and whatsoever he layeth out, it shall be repaid him again.
Yes, my friends, we must all needs take our Lord's advice--make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness, that when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations. WHEN YE FAIL-- literally, when you are eclipsed, as the sun is eclipsed. That must happen to all of us, to the best, the wisest, the most famous. Each must be eclipsed, and passed in the race of life, and forgotten for some younger man. Each in turn must fail. One may fail in money--the mammon for which he toiled may take to itself wings and fly away; or he may fail in his plans, noble plans, and useful though they seemed; and he may find, as he grows old, that the world has not gone HIS way, but quite another one; or he may fail in health, and be cut down and crippled, and laid by in the midst of his work. And even if he escapes all these disasters, he must needs fail at last, by mere old age, when the days come "when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;" when the sun and the light are darkened, and the clouds return after the rain, when the strong men bow themselves, and those who look out of the windows are dark; and he shall rise up at the voice of a bird, and fears shall be in the way, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets. Think for yourselves. What would you wish your end to be-- lonely, unhappy, without the love, the respect, the care of your fellow- men; or surrounded by friends who comfort your failing body and soul on earth, and receive you at last into everlasting habitations?
Make friends, make friends against that day, whether or not you make them out of the mammon of unrighteousness. If you have been unrighteous, bring friends back to you, as the steward did, by being just and fair, by confessing your faults freely, by doing your best to atone for them. And if you have no share in the mammon of unrighteousness, still make friends. Make them by truth and justice, make them by generosity and usefulness. To ease every burden, and let the oppressed go free, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and what the very poorest can do--comfort the mourner; to nurse the sick, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and so keep ourselves unspotted from the selfishness of the world--This is that true Religion, acceptable in the sight of God the Father--and happy he who has so served God. Happy for him, when he begins to fail, to see round him attached hearts, and grateful faces, hands ready to tend him, as he has tended others. And happier still to remember that on the other side of the dark river of death are other grateful faces, other loving hearts, ready to welcome him into everlasting habitations--and among them, and above them all, one whose form is as the Son of Man, full of all humanity Himself, and loving and rewarding all humanity in His creatures, saying, "Inasmuch as ye did it to one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto Me."