By Frederick W. Robertson
Preached January 8, 1849
"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. 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."-Luke xvi. 8, 9.
There is at first sight a difficulty in the interpretation of this parable; apparently there is a commendation of evil by Christ. We see a bad man is held up for Christian imitation. Now let us read the parable.
"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. And 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. Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I can not dig; to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. So he called every one of his lord's debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, A hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, A hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore. 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."
The difficulty we have spoken of passes away when we have learned to distinguish the essential aim of the parable from its ornament or drapery. There is in every parable the main scope, and the ornament or drapery. Sometimes, if we press too closely the drapery in which the aim and intention of the parable is clothed, we get quite the contrary of our Redeemer's meaning. For example, in the parable of the unjust judge there is the similarity, that both God and the unjust judge yield to importunate prayer; but there is this difference, that the judge does it from weariness, and God from love. The judge grants the widow's request, lest, he says, "by her continual coming she weary me;"-and God answers the petitions of His people from love: and encourages earnestness and sincerity in prayer because it brings man nearer to Him, elevating and ennobling him, while it makes him feel his entire dependence on God.
So here in this parable: it is the lord-it is not Christ, but the master-who commended the unjust steward. And he did so, not because he had acted honorably, faithfully, gratefully, but because he had acted wisely. He takes the single point of prudence, foresight, forecast.
Let us consider the possibility of detaching a single quality from a character, and viewing it separately.
So do we speak in everyday life. We quote a passage admiringly, from an infidel writer-for example, Gibbon; but thereby we do not approve his infidelity. We may admire the manly bearing of a prisoner in the dock or on the scaffold, while we reprobate the crime which brought him there. We may speak enthusiastically of a great philosopher; we do not therefore say he is a great man, or a good man. Perhaps we are charmed by a tale of successful robbery; we wonder at its ingenuity, its contrivance, feel even a kind of respect for the man who could so contrive it: but no man who thus relates it is understood to recommend felony. We admire the dexterity of a juggler as dexterity.
So it was with this parable of Christ. He fastened on a single point, excluding all other considerations. The man had planned, he had seen difficulties, overcome them, marked out his path, held to it steadily, crowned himself with success. So far he is an example. The way in which he used his power of forecasting may have been bad; but forecast itself is good. Our subject to-day includes:
I. The wisdom of this world.
II. The pattern of Christian consistency.
I. The wisdom of this world. There are three classes of men. Those who believe that one thing is needful, and choose the better part, who believe in and live for eternity;-these are not mentioned here: those who believe in the world and live for it; and those who believe in eternity, and half live for the world.
Forethought for self made the steward ask himself, "What shall I do?" Here is the thoughtful, contriving, sagacious man of the world. In the affairs of this world, the man who does not provide for self, if he enter into competition with the world on the world's principles, soon finds himself thrust aside; he will be put out. It becomes necessary to jostle and struggle in the great crowd if he would thrive. With him it is not, first the kingdom of God; but first, what he shall eat, and what he shall drink, and wherewithal shall he be clothed.
Note the kind of superiority in this character that is commended. There are certain qualities which really do elevate a man in the scale of being. He who pursues a plan steadily is higher than he who lives by the hour. You can not but respect such a one. The value of self-command and self-denial is exemplified in the cases of the diplomatist who masters his features while listening; the man of pleasure who is prudent in his pleasures; the man of the world who keeps his temper and guards his lips. How often, after speaking hastily the thought which was uppermost, and feeling the cheek burn, you have looked back in admiration on some one who held his tongue even though under great provocation to speak.
Look at some hard-headed, hard hearted man, with a front of brass, carrying out his worldly schemes with a settled plan, and a perseverance which you perforce must admire. There may be nothing very exalted in his aim, but there is something very marvellous in the enduring, patient, steady pursuit of his object.
You see energies of the highest order are brought into play. It is not a being of mean powers that the world has beguiled, but a mind far-reaching, vast; throwing immortal powers on things of time; on a scheme, perhaps, which breaks up like a cloud-phantom or melts like an ice-palace.
It is a marvellous spectacle-a man reaching forward to secure a habitation, a home, that will last. A man counting his freehold more his own than the pension for life: sagacious, meeting with entire success: the success which always attends consistency in any pursuit. If a tradesman resolve to save and be frugal, barring accidents, he will realize a competency or a fortune. If you make it your business to please, you will be welcome in society. So we find it in this parable.
This man, one of the world, contrived to secure for himself a home. And the children of this world are consistent, and force the world to yield them a home. It is no use saying the people of the world are not happy.
I shall now endeavor to explain this parable. The term "steward" is not to be taken exactly in its modern meaning. The tenants paid their rents, not in money, but in kind, that is, in produce, and the rent was a certain proportion of the crop and would therefore vary according to the harvest. Say, for illustration, the landlord-here called "the lord"-received as rent the tenth part of the crop; then, if the produce of an olive-yard was a thousand measures of oil, "the lord" was entitled to a hundred measures. And similarly in the case of an arable farm, a rent of a hundred measures of wheat would represent a crop of a thousand measures. According to the parable, it appears that it depended on the good faith of the tenant to state truly the amount gathered in; and against false returns the chief check was provided in the steward. If he acquiesced in the deception, there was generally no detection or check. We read in this case he permitted the bill to be taken, and an account given, in the one instance of eight hundred, in the other, of five hundred instead of a thousand measures. Thus he got gratitude from the tenants, who considered him a benevolent man, and counted his expulsion an injustice. We have here a specimen of the world's benevolence and the world's gratitude. Let us do the world justice. Gratitude is given profusely. Help a man to build his fortune, and you will win gratitude.
The steward got commendation from his lord for his worldly wisdom. Such is the wisdom of this world-wise in its contriving selfishness; wise in its masterly superiority; wise in its adaptation of means to ends; wise in its entire success.
But the success is only in their generation, and their wisdom is only for their generation. If this world be all, it is wise to contrive for it and live for it. But if not, then consider-the word is, "Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee; then whose shall those things be that thou hast gotten?"
II. In contrast with the wisdom of the children of this world, the Redeemer shows the inconsistencies of the children of light. "The children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light."
This is evidently not true of all. There have been men who have given their bodies to be burned for the truth's sake; men who have freely sacrificed this present world for the next. To say that the wisest of the sons of this world is half as wise as they, were an insult to the sanctifying Spirit.
But "children of light" is a wide term. There is a difference between life and light. To have light is to perceive truth and know duty. To have life is to be able to live out truth and to perform duty. Many a man has clear light who has not taken hold of life. Many a man is the child of light who does not walk as the child of life.
So far as a man feels that eternity is long, time short, so far he is a child of light. So far as he believes the body nothing in comparison with the soul, the present in comparison with the future; so far as he has felt the power of sin, and the sanctifying power of the death of Christ; so far as he comprehends the character of God as exhibited in Jesus Christ-he is a child of light.
Now the accusation is, that in his generation he does not walk so wisely as the child of the world does in his. The children of the world believe that this world is of vast importance. They are consistent with their belief, and live for it. Out of it they manage to extract happiness. In it they contrive to find a home.
To be a child of light implies duty as well as privilege. It is not enough to have the light, if we do not "walk in the light." "If we say we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth."
And to hold high principles and live on low ones is Christian inconsistency. We are all more or less inconsistent. There is no man whose practice is not worse than his profession. No one who does not live below his own standard. But absolute inconsistency is, when a man's life, taken as a whole, is in opposition to his acknowledged views and principles. If a man say that "It is more blessed to give than to receive," and is forever receiving, scarcely ever giving, he is inconsistent. If he profess that to please God is the only thing worth living for, and his plans, and aims, and contrivances are all to please men, he is wise for the generation of the children of the world; for the generation of the "children of light" he is not wise. See, then, the contrast.
The wisdom of the steward consisted in forecasting. He felt that his time was short, and he lost not a moment. Every time he crossed a field it was with the feeling, This is no longer mine. Every time he left his house he felt, I shall soon leave it to come back no more. Every time he went into a tenant's cottage he felt, The present is all that may be given me to make use of this opportunity. Therefore, he says with dispatch, " Take thy bill, and write down."
Now the want of Christian wisdom consists in this, that our stewardship is drawing to a close, and no provision is made for an eternal future. We are all stewards. Every day every age of life, every year, gives us superintendence over something which we have to use, and the use of which tells for good or evil on eternity.
Childhood and manhood pass. The day passes: and, as its close draws near, the Master's voice is heard-"Thou mayest be no longer steward." And what are all these outward symbols but types and reminders of the darker, longer night that is at hand? One by one, we are turned out of all our homes. The summons comes. The man lies down on his bed for the last time; and then comes that awful moment, the putting down the extinguisher on the light, and the grand rush of darkness on the spirit.
Let us now consider our Saviour's application of this parable.
" 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. 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. If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man's, who shall give you that which is your own?"
There are two expressions to be explained.
1. "Mammon of unrighteousness." Mammon is the name of a Syrian god, who presided over wealth. Mammon of unrighteousness means the god whom the unrighteous worship-wealth.
It is not necessarily gold. Any wealth; wealth being weal or well-being. Time, talents, opportunity, and authority, all are wealth. Here the steward had influence.
It is called the mammon of unrighteousness, because it is ordinarily used, not well, but ill. Power corrupts men. Riches harden more than misfortune.
2. "Make friends of" This is an ambiguous expression. Those who know it to be so scarcely are aware how widely it is misunderstood. To make friends of, has, in English, two meanings. To make friends of a man, in our idiom, is to convert him into our ally. We meet with those who imagine that the command is to make riches our friends instead of our enemies.
But the other meaning is "of," i. e., out of, by the use of, to create friends-in a word, to use these goods of time in such a way as to secure eternal well-being.
"Make to yourselves friends." I will explain "friends" as a home. There may seem to be great legality in this in junction.
Yet on this subject the words of Scripture are very strong. "Sell that thou hast, and give unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven;" "Provide yourselves bags that wax not old; a treasure in the heavens, that fadeth not away;" "Lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through and steal." Do not be afraid of the expression. Let it stand in all its bold truthfulness. Goodness done in Christ secures blessedness. A cup of cold water, given in the name of Christ, shall not lose its reward.
Merit in these things there is none. Oh, the man who knows the torment of an evil heart, and the man who is striving to use his powers wisely, is not the man to talk of merit in the sight of God. There is no truth more dear to our hearts than this-not by merit, but by grace, does heaven become ours.
But let us put it in another way. Wise acts, holy and unselfish deeds, secure friends. Wherever the steward went he found a friend. The acts of his beneficence were spread over the whole of his master's estate. Go where he would, he would receive a welcome. In this way our good actions become our friends.
And if it be no dream which holy men have entertained, that on this regenerated earth the risen spirits shall live again in glorified bodies, then it were a thing of sublime anticipation, to know that every spot hallowed by the recollection of a deed done for Christ, contains a recollection which would be a friend. Just as the patriarchs erected an altar when they felt God to be near, till Palestine became dotted with these memorials, so would earth be marked by a good man's life with those holiest of all friends, the remembrance of ten thousand little nameless acts of piety and love.
Lastly, they are everlasting habitations.
If the children of the world be right, it is not all well with them; but if the children of light be right, it is well everlastingly.
Nothing is eternal but that which is done for God and others. That which is done for self dies. Perhaps it is not wrong: but it perishes. You say it is pleasure, well-enjoy it. But joyous recollection is no longer joy. That which ends in self is mortal; that alone which goes out of self into God lasts forever.