Of all the parables told by the Lord Jesus, the parable of the unjust steward, recorded in Luke 16:1-8, is, perhaps, the most difficult to interpret. Commentators have grappled with the morality of the parable – how can the lord commend the manifestly unjust actions of his steward? Some have responded by arguing that in order to properly understand the parable, we must import additional cultural information – arguing that the steward’s discount represents the removal of an illicitly levied interest charge, or, alternatively, that the steward is simply removing his own commission on the deal. Both of these approaches are open to the same objection: parables do not generally require us to import this level of cultural information to grasp their meaning. Indeed, one of the remarkable – though unsurprising – features of the parables of the Lord Jesus is their ability to transcend culture and communicate their message clearly across great distances in time and space.
In any case, these attempts to sort out the morality of the parable become unnecessary when we grasp that the steward is commended, not for his character, nor for his actions, but “because he had done wisely” (v8). It is his wisdom, or, better, his shrewdness that is praised. This steward is presented to us, not as a paragon of probity, or as an ethical exemplar, but as a picture of prudence.
So it is the steward’s shrewdness that we are to emulate. And that being so, we would do well to ask in what way was the steward shrewd? The answer is simple: he used the resources that were available to him for a limited period of time to ensure his long-term blessing. He was about to be put out of his stewardship. The auditors had been called in, and he knew well that his accounting would not withstand their scrutiny. Days at most, and probably only hours, were available for him to make provision against the future. At any moment his master’s assets would be taken from his control, and he would no longer be able to use them to better his condition. The situation called for prompt and decisive action, and prompt and decisive action was what the steward took. The urgency of the situation is underlined for us in his instructions to the debtor to “sit down quickly” (v6). In the rapidly diminishing time at his disposal, he used the resources available to him to ensure his future blessing; this is why his master calls him “shrewd.”
As Christians, our situation resembles that of the steward in a number of significant ways. Like him, we have been entrusted with assets that are not our own. In the immediate context of the passage, the focus is on financial assets, our wealth. It is important not to lose sight of this; our money is not our own but is entrusted to us by God. And, like the steward, we have only a short period of time in which to exercise our stewardship. None of us knows when we may be called to give an account of our stewardship, but even at its very longest, the time that remains to us is short – vanishingly, alarmingly, terrifyingly short. And while the steward’s earthly comfort depended on how he used the brief time available to him, it is our eternal reward that is determined by our faithfulness here and now.
Seen in this light, the parable of the unjust steward is challenging in the extreme and should lead us to ask ourselves whether we have demonstrated the prudence that this man did. Tragically, often it is true that “the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light” (v8). Planning for the future is something that our unsaved friends, neighbours and colleagues do all the time. They set their goals – educational achievement, career success, provision for retirement – and allow those future goals to shape their present priorities and actions. The goals for which they aim and in which they invest are earthly, temporal, and ultimately meaningless, but they pursue them with a diligence and care that should be a rebuke to us. Too often, we, who should have our sights set firmly on rewards of eternal and enduring value that really matter, are mere dilettantes by comparison, without purpose, determination or focus. The solemn reality is that if many of us ran our business or did our job with the same effort that we invest in our spiritual life, we would starve. Would that we might emulate, not the steward’s dishonesty, but his wisdom.
In the verses that follow the parable, the Lord makes it clear that the steward’s value as an example is limited to his shrewdness. We are expected to be faithful in our stewardship, as he was not, and that faithfulness is crucial, for it is the key to our present usefulness and our future blessing: “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?” (vv10-12). “That which is least” describes our material possessions – except they are not our possessions, because they are also described here as “that which is another’s” (ESV). Your money, your house, your car and all the stuff that you own is not really yours. God has given it to you so that you might faithfully steward it, and in faithfully stewarding it, demonstrate your fitness to be trusted with “that which is your own.” And if you or I fail in that responsibility, we need hardly expect that God will entrust to us that which is of real value – either now or in eternity.
Luke 16 is dealing primarily with material possessions. The parable of the talents in Matthew 25 makes a similar point but is, perhaps, broader in its application; the talents include what is material, but they also embrace the whole range of what we have received from God – abilities, spiritual gift, education, opportunities and more besides. The parable recognises that these gifts have not been identically apportioned to everyone. But, like Luke 16, it highlights the crucial factor in our stewardship – not success or prosperity, but faithfulness to our Lord in the period of His absence. And it reminds us that our present faithfulness (or failure) will have eternal consequences.
It has been said that our life is “training for reigning,” and so it is. It is also a proving time for service. Our stewardship will be audited, and the scope of our eternal service and the scale of our eternal reward will depend upon the outcome of that audit. May God help us all to be faithful stewards of all that He has entrusted to us.
 All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.