The culture of 21st-century North American idolizes money and wealth. The exponential growth of casinos, lottery schemes, fantasy sports, and preoccupation with the lives of rich celebrities all reflect a society that worships money. The Christian is not immune to the desire to accumulate wealth. However, in the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-14) the Lord gives us the proper perspective on money. We learn that money is not an end in itself, but rather a test of faithfulness. Money’s true value lies in its potential to be used for eternal purposes.
DIFFICULTY OF THE PARABLE
This is one of the more difficult parables to interpret. Expositors have puzzled over the Lord’s commendation of a man using corrupt business practices. One interpretation of the master’s commendation is that the parable should be understood in the context of the business practices of the day. The Jews were forbidden to charge interest on loans to fellow Jews (Exo 22:25). However, this prohibition was circumvented by drafting notes for a higher face amount including the interest. So, a man wishing to borrow 50 bushels of wheat might sign a note to repay 60 bushels. By this method, the creditor earned a return while avoiding the technical prohibition against charging interest. Under this interpretation, the steward effectively called the notes and had them rewritten for the original debt, excluding the interest amounts. The master could not protest the amounts without admitting to unlawful practices. The steward thus won the favor of the debtors and the commendation from his master for his shrewdness.
A second interpretation is that perhaps the unjust steward used his own funds to make up the difference to his master. So, the debtors received a discount, but the master received full payment. The master is able to rightly commend the unjust servant, as he was not harmed. This interpretation has the advantage of being most consistent with the conclusions the Lord draws about wealth beginning in verse 9. However, the text is silent on this point.
While some parables are rich in symbolism (i.e., Parable of the Sower), others are designed to highlight a single truth. Perhaps the Lord told this parable to emphasize a singular point: the importance of using money to achieve future benefits. While the parable commends the man for his shrewdness in using money to secure his future, the Lord clearly condemns the man as a “dishonest manager.”
MEANING OF THE PARABLE
The wisdom of the steward is that he used his position and wealth to prepare for the future (v9). The Lord is teaching His disciples that, like the shrewd manager, they should use their present resources to accumulate eternal riches. Christians are to use money for spiritual purposes as wisely as the world uses it for temporary gain.
The true value of money lies in its potential to be used to make “eternal friends.” By using our resources to fund gospel outreach and to assist fellow believers, we make friends for heaven. The great value of money is that it can be used to finance God’s work on earth, financing missionaries, funding Bible translations, building new halls, helping believers in need. Those saved and blessed through our funds will welcome us into heaven.
How marvelous that what is temporary and transient can be used for God’s eternal glory! The Lord calls on us to use “unrighteous mammon” for His purposes. Mammon is a transliteration of an Aramaic word referring to wealth. By calling it “unrighteous,” the Lord is saying that money itself has no moral value. The Pharisees had made riches an evidence of God’s blessing and a sign of personal righteousness. The Lord reminds them that money has no intrinsic worth; its real value lies only in its eternal potential. Furthermore, there is a limited time period in which money can be deployed for eternal purposes. There will come a time when “it fails,” when the opportunity to invest the funds is gone.
LESSONS FROM THE PARABLE
The Lord uses this parable to teach a number of lessons about money which are contrary to our 21st century way of thinking.
Lesson No.1 – Money is not true riches (vv10-11). Earthly wealth is only a testing ground to prove whether or not we can be trusted with real riches. Earthly riches are temporary and transient; true riches are received in eternity. How we use our money, either for self-fulfillment or for God’s purposes, will determine our capacity to receive real, eternal riches.
Lesson No. 2 – Money is not our own (v12). The Lord upends conventional thinking. We say that “if a man can’t handle his own things he is not fit to handle the things of others.” The Lord reverses this by saying if we can’t manage the things of others we can’t be entrusted with true wealth of our own. In doing so He reveals that earthly wealth is not our own but “another’s.” It has been entrusted to us by God. It is a stewardship. We are accountable for how we use it. If we fail in our stewardship of earthly resources which are God’s, then we are unfit to receive our own eternal riches.
Lesson No. 3 – Money can become our master (v13). Money has a particular danger. It can become our master, controlling our lives and making us independent of God. It can become the over-arching goal of our lives. Some believers sacrifice Scriptural principles for financial gain, only to experience spiritual loss for themselves and their family. The Lord warns that it is impossible to serve both God and mammon. We can serve one or the other, but not both.
The key lesson of this parable, then, is that money’s real value lies in its potential to be used for eternal purposes. By faithful use of our earthly resources we can translate our money into eternal riches.