Discussions About the Unjust Steward
At the completion of the parable itself, Luke 16:10-13 teaches us the lessons to be learned from that parable.
10 He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much.
Most of us need to raise our standard of behavior, because we tend to allow ourselves the luxury of committing small sins which, we hope, will escape God’s notice. I first noticed this about 25 years ago and began to apply it to my own life. I suspect that others may need some upgrades in their own lives as well.
Most of us are not rich enough to be great sinners, but if we are to be entrusted with great things later, we must be honest and faithful with what we have today. On a prophetic scale, these parables speak of Israel and Judah and, by extension, the stewardship of the birthright, priesthood, and scepter. If we have asked God for spiritual authority (the scepter), we ought to use righteously what we have today. If we have asked God to be one of the manifested sons of God (the birthright), we ought to use righteously what we have today. Likewise, we are to use the priesthood of the believer to serve God and man.
Although grace is free, authority and sonship are not. These require faithfulness in using what we now have, for this is how we develop the way of life necessary for greater authority and the benefits of sonship.
Faithful Use of Mammon
Luke 16:11 continues,
11 If therefore you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous mammon, who will entrust the true riches to you?
By “unrighteous mammon,” Jesus means earthly goods or wealth. In the parable, the unjust steward misused his master’s earthly goods (“mammon of unrighteousness”). When we are entrusted with such goods, we must use them according to the mind of the master. Any time we utilize another person’s money or goods strictly for our own benefit, we declare ourselves unfit for greater responsibility.
This does not mean that we should not spend money on ourselves that God has given us. Perhaps the standard of measure we ought to use is whether our actions require secrecy or not. When Adam and Eve sinned, they hid themselves from God (Gen. 3:8). In the parable of the unjust steward, it is plain that he had hidden his actions from his master, because the time came when someone reported his actions to the master.
There is also righteous secrecy, for Jesus said in Matt. 6:3, 4,
3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
The unjust steward, however, used his master’s goods for his own advantage, knowing that his master would disapprove if he should discover what he was doing. This is what the religious leaders were doing in the temple. They were oppressing the people and using their positions of leadership to increase their own power and wealth in the guise of increasing the Kingdom of God.
The parable of the vineyard in Matthew 21 shows that they were usurping the vineyard (Kingdom) for their own use, and that they would soon be brought into account. The Kingdom would soon be taken from them and would be “given to a nation producing the fruit of it” (Matt. 21:43).
It is plainly stated here that the caretakers of the vineyard were to be replaced, whereas in the case of the unjust steward, the parable ends by asking the people what the master ought to do with him.
Luke 16:12 continues,
12 And if you have not been faithful in the use of that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?
An employee is responsible to handle the goods of others wisely and according to the will of the employer. If he does so, he is paid or rewarded with money or goods that he can call his own. In other words, his authority over the goods of others is limited by the will of the owner, but that which he himself has earned through labor, he may spend as he wishes.
On a higher level of sonship, Paul says in Gal. 4:1 that while we are yet minors, we are no different from servants. We were begotten as sons through our Passover experience (when we were justified by faith in the blood of the Lamb), and we learn to be faithful sons during our journey through Pentecost.
If we are faithful in the use of divine authority and sonship, these things will be given to us as a reward. Why? Because we prove that we can handle such responsibility and not misuse it. When the law is fully written on our hearts through experience and testing, God knows that He can trust us with the scepter, the priesthood, and the birthright.
Trying to Serve Two Masters
Luke 16:13 concludes the main lesson of the parable, saying,
13 No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.
The unjust steward, of course, was trying to serve two masters. Greed turned out to be his real master. The question here is not whether we may possess earthly goods while still serving God. The problem comes when we try to “serve” both God and mammon. If we are ruled by greed, we will not truly serve God. Greed is what causes us to misuse what God has given us. If we consider ourselves to be stewards (or managers) of God’s estate, then we will never usurp authority and use what is God’s as if it were our own.
While this discussion is given in terms of material goods, it is really about the use of Kingdom authority. King Saul was given authority over God’s vineyard many years earlier, but he did not rule as a steward. He thought of himself as the king having sovereignty, rather than as a steward of the throne of Christ. In usurping the throne, he oppressed and bankrupted many people. Many of these fled into the wilderness and cast their lot with David.
After the first year of his reign, Saul no longer served God. He served the god of greed. The Bible has many examples of such character. But David was a man after God’s own heart, because he understood that the throne was not his own. He was responsible before God “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly” with God (Micah 6:8). He was not free to do as he pleased. Even kings must serve God, that is, Christ who is the King of Kings (Rev. 19:16).
The Scoffers’ Objection
Luke 16:14 says,
14 Now the Pharisees who were lovers of money, were listening to all these things, and they were scoffing at Him.
The parable of the unjust steward was told to Jesus’ disciples (Luke 16:1), but it was in a public setting where the Pharisees could hear. Luke tells us that they were philargyros, or “lovers of money.” In other words, they served mammon rather than God. Hence, they could not be expected to agree with Jesus parable or its explanation. No doubt they understood that it was directed at them.
Jesus then speaks directly to those Pharisees in Luke 16:15-17.
15 And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable [bdelygma] in the sight of God.”
The Greek word bdelygma is the equivalent of the Hebrew word shiqquwts, which is often translated “abomination.” The root word is shaqats, “to detest, consider impure, account as filthy.” It is used in the law to describe unclean food (Lev. 20:25), and also of dung, dead bodies, and homosexual relations (Lev. 20:13). It is also used of idols and idolatry (Jer. 16:18; Ez. 16:36).
Hence, Jesus was telling the Pharisees that greed was an idol in their heart and was detestable in the sight of God. One can only imagine their reaction to this. The implications of this were enormous, because of the law in Lev. 7:21,
21 And when anyone touches anything unclean, whether human uncleanness, or an unclean animal, or any unclean detestable [sheqets] thing, and eats of the flesh of the sacrifice of peace offerings which belong to the Lord, that person shall be cut off from his people.
The Pharisees had been eating unclean spiritual food, which had rendered them unclean. This was illustrated in Ezekiel 4 as eating food cooked with dung—an abomination. Dung represents heart idolatry, such as greed. Hence, the Pharisees had touched an abomination and were disqualified in the sight of God from offering sacrifices in the temple. Presumably, these Pharisees were also priests who ate of the sacrifice of peace offerings. The divine judgment was “that person shall be cut off from his people.”
This correlates with the firing of the unjust steward in the parable.
The Injustice of Violence
Luke 16:16 continues,
16 The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since then the gospel of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it. 17 But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail.
The context shows that Jesus was still addressing the Pharisees on account of their scoffing. Their heart idolatry was evidenced not only by their greed but also by their attempt to force their way into the Kingdom of God by violence. The religious leaders were being fired from their position as steward and caretaker of the vineyard, but they refused to go quietly. Instead, they decided to force their will upon God.
This would soon take place when they crucified the rightful Heir of the throne in order to “seize his inheritance” (Matt. 21:38), even as they had already killed the prophets before Him. This accusation goes beyond the parable of the unjust steward, who limits his actions to mere theft and misappropriation of money.
These verses are found also in Matt. 11:12, 13, where the context is in Jesus’ discussion about John the Baptist and his imprisonment. Hence, the violence and force employed by the religious leaders is comparable to that which was seen in Herod’s treatment of John. It is the violence of opposition to the gospel of the Kingdom, which would continue for many years when they persecuted the Church.
But in spite of this opposition, the law and the prophets will be fulfilled. Jesus’ view of the law is the correct one, and so the Scriptures will be fulfilled according to His New Covenant understanding. The law will not fail to prophesy accurately.
Lightfoot offers us a paraphrase of this passage in order to get a better sense of what Jesus was telling the Pharisees:
“You laugh me to scorn, and have my doctrine in derision, boasting yourselves above the sphere of it, as if nothing I said belonged at all to you. Nor do I wonder at it; for whereas the Law and the Prophets were until John, yet did you deal no otherwise with them, but changed and wrested them at your pleasure by your traditions and the false glosses ye have put upon them.
“And when with John Baptist the kingdom of heaven arose and made its entry among you … every one useth violence and hostility against it, by contradiction, persecution, and laughing it to scorn. And yet, though you by your foolish traditions have made even the whole law void and of none effect, it is easier certainly for heaven and earth to pass away, than that one tittle of the law should fail.” (pp. 164, 165)
So says John Lightfoot in his 17th century English language. As a Hebrew scholar, he had a good understanding of the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders.
The Injustices of Divorce
Luke then adds one final example of injustice allowed by the religious leaders. Luke 16:18 says,
18 Everyone who divorces [apoluo, “separates from, puts away”] his wife and marries another commits adultery; and he who marries one who is divorced [apoluo] from a husband commits adultery.
This verse would seem terribly out of place, if we did not understand the context where Jesus was giving examples of injustice being committed or allowed by the religious leaders of the day. Even so, this passage is mistranslated and misunderstood, and is really a short summary of what Jesus discussed elsewhere in more detail.
First, it should be noted that the Greek word for “divorce” is not apoluo but apostasion (Matt. 5:31). The word apoluo, as used in twice in the verse above, denotes a separation, not a divorce. Jesus was not saying that it was a sin to give his wife a certificate of divorce. After all, Jesus had just said that the law would not fail. How could He then say that the law regarding divorce (Deut. 24:1-4) had been put away?
The fact that the word apoluo is used, rather than apostasion, says much about this. The law commanded that if a man wants to separate from his wife, he must give her a bill of divorce. He could not simply send her out of the house without giving her a written divorce that gave her the right to be remarried (Deut. 24:1-4, KJV).
The NASB translators had little understanding of this law, and so they mistranslated apoluo as “divorce.” Under God’s law, if a man finds cause to divorce his wife, he must give her a written bill of divorce (apostasion) before sending her (apoluo) away. This law was meant to protect the woman from being sent away without the right to remarry. The bill of divorce was proof of her legal right to remarry.
Unfortunately, it was common in other cultures, and even among the Jews, for a woman to be sent away without a bill of divorce. In such cases, if she remarried, both she and her new husband were adulterers, for she was still married to another man. This is the injustice that Jesus addressed in Luke 16:18. The verse is very brief, but it summarizes the passage in Matt. 5:31, 32, as well as Matt. 19:8, 9.
As I explained more fully in my book, The Bible Says: Divorce and Remarriage is NOT Adultery, it was a sin to put away one’s wife without a bill of divorce. If a man married a woman who had been put away without a bill of divorce, then he committed adultery, because she was still married lawfully to the husband who had sent her out of the house. This was a great injustice to the woman, and Jesus’ teaching made it clear that the first husband was causing her to commit adultery. In other words, he was more liable than she was in the sight of God.
The clear implication in both Matt. 5:32 and again in Luke 16:18 is that the topic was about putting away one’s wife without a bill of divorce. This is the only way to understand these passages without putting away the law. The lawful causes for divorce are not discussed here, because even Deut. 24:1 includes no such discussions.