Aug 24, 2014

The Parable of the Unjust Steward

Luke 16:1–13

When we manage our earthly goods poorly, we’re not merely wasting our possessions. Ultimately, we are robbing God Himself. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his sermon series in the gospel of Luke, calling us to be responsible and generous with the resources that the Lord has given us.


This morning we will begin a new chapter in our study of the Gospel of Luke. I would love to be able to tell you that we will start with the first verse of chapter seventeen. However, that would mean that I have skipped over the entire sixteenth chapter, which would indeed be my preference. One downside of preaching through books seriatim is that texts appear that you would rather flee from having to speak on than address them sermonically. That is where we are at the beginning of chapter sixteen. I am going to tie myself to the mast and pray for an additional dose of the grace of God and that this and next week will be over quickly so I can get on with more pleasant passages.

The sixteenth chapter begins with the parable of the unjust steward, which is almost universally considered by biblical scholars to be the most difficult of Jesus’ parables to understand. I will read Luke 16:1–13. I would ask the congregation please to stand for the reading of the Word of God:

He also said to His disciples: “There was a certain rich man who had a steward, and an accusation was brought to him that this man was wasting his goods. So he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.’

“Then the steward said within himself, ‘What shall I do? For my master is taking the stewardship away from me. I cannot dig; I am ashamed to beg. I have 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 master’s debtors to him, and said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ And he said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ So he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ So he said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ So the master commended the unjust steward because he had dealt shrewdly. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light.

“And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home. He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in what is another man’s, who will give you what is your own?

“No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”

As difficult as this text may be to interpret, and even more difficult to apply to our lives, it is nevertheless the teaching of Jesus our Lord. We are to hear it with ears that He gives us by His Spirit. I urge you this morning, as you struggle with this text, to recall that the source is Christ Himself. Please be seated. Let us pray.

Our Father and our God, we often come into Your presence with plugs in our ears and shields over our hearts to protect ourselves from what we do not want to hear from You. We pray in this hour two things: that You will forgive us for that disposition, and that You will change us by taking the plugs from our ears and the shields from our hearts. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

The Steward Wastes His Master’s Assets

The story starts out in rather simple way. Jesus tells the parable of a wealthy man who had a steward. There is nothing difficult or unusual about that. It was common in the ancient Jewish community that a person of means would hire a manager who would live in the home and be responsible for managing the property and assets of the owner. The steward did not own the assets he managed. They belonged to the master. Nevertheless, he was responsible and had the authority to make decisions in the name of the master that were essentially legally binding.

We read in this story that the steward’s master accused him of wasting his goods. In the parable of the prodigal son, we saw one dimension of what happens to people who waste their goods and waste their lives. In this story, it was a different situation of wasting. The steward was not wasting his own money; he was wasting the money that belonged to his master.

The Steward’s Plan

When the master became aware of the steward’s wastefulness, he called him and said: “What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.” In other words, the master was saying. “You’re fired. You’re finished. I’ve been looking at the books. I see what you’re doing, and you can no longer represent me or manage my property.”

The steward said within himself: “What am I going to do now? For my master is taking the stewardship away from me. I cannot dig and I’m ashamed to beg. I don’t have any other skills. All I know is how to manage the property of a master. I’m not qualified to do anything else. I can’t even dig a ditch and I’m too proud to sit on the corner with a tin cup and beg.”

Then the steward thought, “I have to come up with a solution to my dilemma.” He was facing the most serious crisis of his career. He said, “I have resolved what to do, that when I am put out of the stewardship, they (meaning other debtors) may receive me into their houses.” He called every one of his master’s debtors to him. Jesus only reported what happened in the transaction with two of those debtors, but presumably the same was done with the rest of them.

The steward said to the first debtor, “How much do you owe my master?” The man said, “A hundred measures of oil.” The steward said, “Take your bill, sit down quickly and write fifty.” Then he said to another, “How much do you owe?” He said, “A hundred measures of wheat.” He said, “Take your bill, and write eighty.”

Let us pause for a moment and see what is going on with these transactions between the ex-steward and the debtors.

The Steward Cuts Down Usury

In Jewish law, it was prohibited to charge usurious interests for loans, but businesspeople got around it by increasing the interest in the total charge for the product.

In the oil industry, which was significant, the use of olive oil had a threatening dimension to it with respect to the preservation of products, so it was commonplace to mark up the price of oil by 100%, which included the raw cost of the oil plus the hidden usury or high interest.

The steward knew that the markup was 100%. He said to the debtor: “I’m going to change your bill on behalf of my master. I’m going to cut the cost down by 100%.” Can you imagine the joy of the debtor when he realized he only owed half as much as he had before the steward walked in his door and changed the bill?

In like manner, the cost of wheat had a lesser spoilage problem, so the markup on wheat was normally around 20%. In the case of the man who owed one hundred bushels of wheat, the steward marked it down 20% to eighty bushels. He did away with all the usury and interest charges hidden in the price and, once again, made a great friend of that debtor.

The steward was not doing all of this out of the goodness of his heart. He was doing it to feather his own nest. He knew he was fired and had nowhere to go, so he was making friends with all the debtors by cutting their bills radically.

If you do not know what usury is, exorbitant rates of interest, look at the interest charges given by loan sharks. They are heavy and usurious, only to be exceeded by your normal credit card companies. The interest rates charged by credit card companies in this country are as usurious as it gets, and it is plain wicked. Do not get yourself ensnared by them.

Shrewdness Commended

The master found out what the steward had done. He didn’t say: “You dirty rotten crook. What have you done? You’ve cost me a lot of money. You’re more incompetent than I thought you were.” Rather, in the parable, Jesus had the master commending the steward for his actions.

Notice what He said: “The master commended the unjust steward.” But it wasn’t because he dealt unjustly. He did not praise the steward for his dishonesty. He did not salute him for his corruption. Rather, Jesus said, “He praised him for being so shrewd,” and so He made the point of application that “the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light.”

It is not unusual for Jesus to talk like this. Elsewhere, He told us to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. We are usually just the opposite of that in our actions as Christians. We are harmless as doves, but we are also as foolish as them as well. We are not shrewd. We do not think strategically. We do not concern ourselves for the long haul, and certainly not for eternity. What follows will show that Jesus’ basic concern in this text was that just as this unjust steward looked out for his well-being for tomorrow, so believers are to look out for their future in heaven.

How Much More?

The central matter Jesus addressed in this text was money. So, the parable became even more complex when He said to His disciples: “And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home. He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?”

One of the methods by which Jesus taught parables was contrast and comparison. He frequently used the concept of “how much more?” We will see later, in the parable of the unjust judge, that a corrupt man, who regarded neither God nor men, took bribes but was not interested in dispensing justice. The importunate woman kept pursuing him. She begged, bothered, and pestered him until he finally decided to hear her case, even though he did not want to be bothered. Jesus said: “How much more does God hear the cries of His people than a crooked and corrupt judge will listen if you pester him enough?” Not only will God hear your prayers but how much more will He hear them.

Jesus was saying in the parable of the unjust steward that if unbelievers in the secular world are shrewd and smart enough to look out for their best interest for tomorrow, how much more should the people of God look to the future of heaven? If the corrupt person is smart enough as a steward to manage his money well, how much more is that incumbent upon the children of light to manage their money as God requires?

When Jesus said, “Make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon,” He was not saying to go out and steal money. “Unrighteous mammon” was an idiom used in that day simply to describe worldly goods. Jesus was saying, “Be careful about how you use your worldly goods,” because every one of us has worldly goods and is a steward of those worldly goods. Everything that you and I have comes from God. We do not own it; He does. We are stewards in the kingdom of God. God requires from us not unjust stewardship but just stewardship.

A Word about Tithing

I want to say a word about giving and tithing. I know many multitudes of ministers who will never talk about tithing from the pulpit. They say that Christians who are truly born of the Holy Spirit do not need to be preached to about tithing. They just do it naturally, or I should say, supernaturally. For them, it is a given that if you are a Christian, you tithe. If you are a believer, you give at least 10% of your income to the kingdom of God. What Christian would not do that? They say if people are church members and do not tithe, all the preaching about it and pleading, cajoling, begging, and trying to persuade them will not change them. Their hearts are hardened, and they are not going to do it. All you are going to do is make them mad and they’ll go somewhere else. So, they keep the peace and do not talk about it.

I will say this: it breaks my heart how many opportunities there are to advance the kingdom of God that cannot be addressed for lack of funds for the simple fact that people in the pews consistently, persistently, and impenitently rob God.

If you are a tither, if you give 10% of your money to the work of the kingdom of God (whether to the just local church or to other Christian ministries as well), that will not get you into the kingdom of God. No one has ever bought themselves into the kingdom of God. There are those who have tried, but you cannot buy your way into the kingdom of God. You can give all the money you have to the church, but it will not get you into heaven. Only Christ in His poverty can get you into heaven. I would not advise anybody to give to the causes of the kingdom of God in order to get into the kingdom of God.

There are people who tithe who are not believers. They are unregenerate. They are not in the kingdom. They are not in a state of grace. You can be a tither and not be saved, and you can be saved and not be a tither. Not everybody who fails to tithe is an unbeliever. It is possible that a person can never tithe yet still be a Christian and go to heaven, but the possibility is remote.

If you are trying to test your own spiritual condition and ask whether you really in a state of grace, do not look at your church attendance. Look at your checkbook because your checkbook will tell you where your heart is. Your checkbook will tell you how much you love the Lord and how committed you are to His kingdom.

Tithing Is a Small Thing

In Jesus’ terms, tithing is a small thing. Do you remember what He commanded the Pharisees? He said, “You tithe your mint and your cumin, but you omit the weightier matters of the law” (Matt. 23:23). What does that mean? The tithe is not the weighty matter; it is the lesser matter. It is a little thing. It is a simple thing. It is so easy that any Christian can do it, and the failure to do it, as Malachi said in the Old Testament, God considers as robbery.

The prophet asked, “Can a man rob God?” (Mal. 3:8). How is it possible to rob God? The answer given is by withholding your tithes and offerings. It is not something that we are told to do grudgingly, but joyfully. The Lord loves cheerful givers.

Jesus was saying: “You use your worldly wealth for the wellbeing of the kingdom of God. You will not get to heaven by doing that, but when you get there, you will be greeted by all the people whose lives were blessed because of your gift and your sacrifice, which is no sacrifice.”

Faithful in Little, Faithful in Much

Jesus went on to say: “He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?” It was a rhetorical question. The answer is obviously that God will not.

If you are not faithful with how you handle your worldly goods in terms of the kingdom of God, if everything else comes first and you give God what is left, how can you expect Him to bless your life? Malachi 3:10 is the one time in Scripture that God says to His people: “Test me. Put me to the test. Be good stewards. Bring in your tithe and your offerings and see if I don’t open the heavens for your life.”

The next time I meet a tither who tells me that they regret tithing will be the first time. What a great joy, what a great privilege to give something little back to the God of all grace who gives us every good and perfect gift out of His bounty. If you are not faithful on these things, who will commit to your trust the true riches? If you have not been faithful on what is another man’s, who will give you what is your own?

You Cannot Serve Two Masters

Jesus drove His point even further: “No servant can serve two masters.” Can you imagine going to the slave market in the ancient world and seeing a fine young specimen for a slave like a Joseph put on the market? One says, “I bid fifty denarii for this slave,” and another bidder says, “I bid seventy denarii,” and they get in a bidding war over who will own the slave. Finally, the slave auctioneer says: “I’m going to give you joint ownership over this slave. You can both own him. Slave, you must serve this master, and you must also serve that master.” The slave would ask: “Wait a minute. What if they disagree? What I do then?” You cannot do it. You cannot serve your worldly goods and serve the kingdom of God.

If your worldly goods are your master, Christ cannot be your master. If Christ is your master, your worldly goods cannot be your master. It is not rocket science; it is simple. This is what Jesus said, but you want to have both. You want to have Jesus as your Lord and rob Him every Sunday. That cannot be done, “For either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other.” Jesus did not say you may not serve God and mammon. He said you cannot. You cannot serve God and mammon.

A Responsibility before God

I have preached about stewardship, tithing, and the biblical responsibilities that we have because it is my duty. I am responsible to let you know what your responsibilities are. I always do it reluctantly.

As many times as I have spoken on this subject, only once have I had somebody come up to me and say: “Now I understand it. I have not been a tither but from this day forward, I’m going to meet my responsibility before God.”

The message I typically hear is this: “You can preach all you want preacher, but I believe that’s an Old Testament principle and it doesn’t apply today,” or, “I can’t afford it.” Translated, they’re saying, “I can’t live my present lifestyle and give 10% of my annual income to God.”

Sometimes I feel like I am on a fool’s errand, but the Word of God will not return to Him void. If there is still a shield on your heart, take it off. If not, ask yourself, “Am I really a regenerate person?” I think it is possible for a person to really be a reborn, regenerated Christian and not tithe. I think it is possible; I just do not know how that can be.

What Kind of Steward Are You

Tithing is not a big thing, as if Jesus were asking you to be burned at the stake or thrown to the lions in the Circus Maximus. Jesus called this a little thing. When Jesus asked you to tithe, He was asking for a little thing. If you cannot give Him a little thing, how can you really worship Him and honor Him?

This is a serious question of your soul. That is why I lie in bed awake at night, wondering: “Did they hear it? Do they get it? Do they love the Word of God, or is this cultural Christianity?” On the other hand, I would say that our congregation probably has more tithers in it than any church I know, and that is a good thing. However, as long as there is one sheep out there in the wilderness fleeing from their responsibility, I am not going to sleep well, because this is something we all are called to do.

You are not accountable to me on this matter. I did not make the rule, but you are accountable to God. I am accountable to God to make sure that you know where your accountability lies. So, this morning I ask you to ask yourself, “What kind of steward am I, a just one or an unjust one?”

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.