“The master commended the dishonest steward for his prudence; for the sons of this world are wiser in with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into eternal habitations.” (excerpt of Luke 16:1-13 )
The story of the unjust steward is perhaps one of the most difficult parables in all of scripture to interpret. On the surface it seems as if Jesus is exalting the actions of a man who is clearly described as dishonest and then commending his example to his disciples. Luckily, however, there are several indications that suggest that this is not at all what is being taught here—though this, by no means, makes its teaching any less challenging.
The opening scene of the parable is essentially one of judgment. The master has heard reports that his steward is mishandling the property under his management and fires him immediately. But two details are worth noting: first of all, the steward does not defend himself or appeal to mitigating excuses, and as such basically admits his guilt and acknowledges that these excuses would have no validity in the eyes of the master; he is in the wrong and nothing he can say will be sufficient to excuse that. Second of all, despite his certainty that the steward is guilty, the master shows him mercy that is both undeserved and uncommon. Whereas he could have had him imprisoned and forced to repay the losses of his wasteful behavior, he simply lets the steward go.
Ken Bailey argues that this last detail is key to understanding all that the steward does next. Based on the masters response, the steward quickly acts in such a way as to stake everything on the master’s already evident mercy. He cannot regain his job, but he might be able to regain security through those debtors he helps. If the steward succeeds, the master will likely deem it worth his while not to bring the steward’s actions to light since the master will come out looking good in the eyes of townsfolk; but if the steward fails he will most likely be submitted to an even greater punishment than what he originally deserved.
We know how the story ends, which is precisely the problem most of us have in understanding the story. The master acknowledges the shrewdness of the steward and does not hold him accountable for his actions, apparently tacitly condoning them. But it is important to note that Jesus does not exalt the actions of the steward. He, himself, calls them dishonest. Rather, in telling this story he is using a rabinnic principle found elsewhere in the Gospels (often signaled by the phrase “how much more…”) which argues from a lesser example to a greater point. We see it, for example, in the parable of the widow and the unjust judge, where the point made was that if she got what she wanted from persistence with such an unjust judge, how much more might we from a God who is loving and merciful?
In this light we see that Jesus uses this parable not to teach us to imitate the actions of the unjust steward, but rather imitate his spirit of staking everything on the mercy he has already received from the master. And to a certain extent, he even wants to place ourselves in the shoes of the steward. Like him, all that we have comes from the master and is entrusted to our care, and we will be called to account for our stewardship of what has been entrusted to us. And like him, we too will most likely be found guilty of mishandling that which has been entrusted to us.
Only in this light does Jesus’ cryptic teaching about making friends by means of unrighteous mammon begin to make sense: just as the steward acted in order that people would receive him into their houses (v. 4), we too are called to act so that we will be received not by others but into eternal habitations (v. 9), that is heaven; and we are to do so staking all that we have not on merit, but on the mercy of the Master. Curiously, Luke Timothy Johnson notes that in light of Luke’s language elsewhere about laying up treasure in heaven (12:33) there can be no doubt that Jesus’ teaching here refers to almsgiving—that is, giving to those who cannot give back, even loving those who cannot love back. They, like we, are all in desperate need of mercy from the master and we are called to extravagantly extend mercy to them trusting that, in so doing, by the mercy of God we, too, “may be received in the eternal habitations.”
Don’t worry if you didn’t see that coming. It’s not at all obvious from our linguistic and cultural perspective, but it becomes apparent in the teaching that follows, where Jesus repeats the term “unrighteous mammon” and then closes by referring to Mammon (a Semitic idiom for money and possessions, translated here as “money”) as an idol, something that can be served in contrast to God.
The message is clear: we can either be driven by our devotion to mammon—that is acquiring, storing up material possessions, which will ultimately fail—or we can store for ourselves treasures that do not fail in “the eternal habitations” by giving freely giving of our possessions to those in desperate need for mercy.
In neither case are the possessions ever really ours. They are entrusted to our care and our stewardship them is a mark of our faithfulness to the Master and our trust in his extravagant mercy.
Kathleen Durham is the Vice President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.