By Reuben Archer Torrey
A very puzzling passage in the Bible to many is the story of the unrighteous steward recorded in Luke 16:1-14. Once when this passage was assigned by the International Sunday School Committee, a lady told me that she had made up her mind not to teach it. She said, "The three points of difficulty are first, that Jesus should hold this dishonest scoundrel up for our imitation; second, that the rich man should commend his unrighteous steward; and third, that Jesus should command the disciples to make themselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness."
We will take up these three points in order. By noticing exactly what is said, we will soon see that in each point, if we adhere strictly to the very words of Jesus, the difficulty will disappear, and the incident instead of staggering us will be profoundly instructive along the line where instruction is greatly needed today.
1. Why did Jesus hold this "dishonest scoundrel" up for our imitation?
The answer is found in the text itself. Jesus did not hold him up for imitation.
He held him up, first of all, as a warning of what would overtake unfaithful stewards, how they would be called to give account of their stewardship, and their stewardship be taken from them.
Having taught this solemn and salutary lesson, one that is much needed today, Jesus went on to show how "the sons of this world are for their own generation wiser than the sons of the light" (v. 8, RV). They are wiser at this point, for they use their utmost ingenuity and put forth their utmost effort to make present opportunities count for the hour of future need. "The sons of light" often do not do that. Indeed, how many twentieth century sons of light, who profess to believe that eternity is all and time is nothing in comparison, are using their utmost ingenuity and putting forth their utmost efforts to make the opportunity of the present life count most for the needs of the great eternity which is to follow?
The average professed Christian today uses the utmost ingenuity and puts forth his utmost effort to bring things to pass in business and other affairs of this brief present world. But when it comes to matters that affect eternity he is content with the exercise of the least possible amount of ingenuity and with the putting forth of the smallest effort that will satisfy his conscience.
Jesus did not point to the steward's dishonesty to stir our emulation--He plainly rebuked his dishonesty, but He did point to his common sense in using the opportunity of the present to provide for the necessities of the future, and would have us learn to use the opportunities of the present to provide for the necessities of the future, the eternal future. Even in pointing out his common sense, Jesus carefully guarded His statement by saying that the unjust steward was "wiser for his own generation." He knew only the life that now is, and from that narrow and imperfect standpoint he was wiser than "the sons of light" from their broad and true standpoint of knowing eternity.
There are other utterances of our Lord and Saviour, where wicked and selfish men are held up by way of contrast to show how much more godly men, or even God Himself, may be expected to act in the way suggested (e.g., Luke 18:6-7; 11:5-8; Matthew 12:11-12).
The first difficulty then in the passage has disappeared upon careful scrutiny of exactly what is said.
2. Why did the Lord commend the unrighteous steward?
The answer to this too is very simple. The Lord Jesus did not commend the unrighteous steward.
This is evident by a single glance at the Revised Version of verse 8. The Authorized Version, it is true, reads, "The Lord commended the unrighteous steward." Now if we were to leave it standing that way there might be some possible doubt as to whether the "lord" was the lord of the steward, or whether it was the Lord Jesus, who relates the parable. The Revised Version removes this possible ambiguity by translating it "his lord" (that is, the steward's lord) who commended the unrighteous steward. It was not the Lord Jesus who commended him, but his own lord, and he only commended his shrewdness. That the interpretation of the Revised Version is the correct interpretation of the verse is beyond dispute, for the Lord Jesus is the speaker, and it is He that speaks about the one who does the commending as "the lord," evidently not speaking about Himself, but about the lord of the unjust steward. It is only by careless reading of the passage that anyone could make "the lord" of this passage the Lord Jesus. The Lord Jesus, far from commending him, flatly calls him "the unrighteous steward," and furthermore warns against unfaithfulness in stewardship (vv. 10-11).
So the second difficulty entirely disappears on a careful noticing of what is said.
3. Why did Jesus command His disciples to make themselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness?
This difficulty disappears when we get the correct and exact biblical definitions of the terms used.
First of all, what does "the mammon of unrighteousness" mean? It means nothing more or less than money. Money is called "the mammon of unrighteousness" because it is such a constant temptation to sin and selfishness (e.g., the case of the scoundrel above mentioned), and because "the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil" (1 Timothy 6:9-10, RV). Jesus in passing would lift a word of warning against the perils of money by speaking of it as "the mammon of unrighteousness." He often packed a whole sermon into a single phrase.
In the second place, what does "of" mean when our Lord tells us to make ourselves friends "of" the mammon of unrighteousness?
The answer to this question is found in the Revised Version, where "of" is properly rendered "by means of." So then what Jesus bade His disciples do (and what He bids us do) was to make friends by means of money; that is to say, to so use the money God entrusted to them in the present life as to make friends for themselves by their use of it, and (as the context shows) to make these friends among God's poor and needy ones, who would go to the eternal "tabernacles" (v. 9, RV) and be ready to give their benefactors, who had used money to bless them, a royal welcome when their life here on earth was ended and their money had failed. In other words, Jesus simply put into a new and striking form His oft-repeated teaching, not to keep our money hoarded, not to spend it on ourselves, but to spend it in doing good, especially to God's needy ones, and so invest it in heavenly and abiding securities (cf. Matthew 6:19, 21; 19:21, 29; 25:40; 1 Timothy 6:17-19; Proverbs 19:17).
That this teaching of Jesus was clearly understood by His hearers is proved by verse 14 (RV), where we are told that the Pharisees, "who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they scoffed at him" (RV).
So the third and last difficulty has disappeared, and this passage stands out in glorious light, teaching with great force a lesson that our day greatly needs to learn. Money is a stewardship, and he who seeks to enjoy it in the brief present, and not rather so to expend it that it will bring him interest for all eternity, is a fool. Even the petty shrewdness of "the sons of this world" rebukes him.