One of the ways to understanding the parables of Jesus is to identify who the audience is. Sometimes He decides to speak to the hearing of only His disciples, sometimes, the Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees and sometimes there is a mixture of all aforementioned sects. When He spoke to the hearing of His disciples, one would seem to think that the message to be learnt would be of immense importance as speaking directly to the present day disciples. The Pharisees, Scribes, Teachers and Sadducees represented the Nation of Israel (The Jews). When Jesus refers to a dog, harlots, publicans and tax collectors, He is usually referring to the Gentile Nation – any Nation aside the Nation of Israel.
In this parable, there was a mixture in the audience (The Disciples and the Pharisees), so one would have to be very careful in getting the message portrayed. The Pharisees were those who were “lovers of money” and who “justified themselves before men” and exalted that which was an “abomination before God.” Please let us be reminded that this story is not a real story but a fictitious one; but there are lots of lessons to be learnt as we continue to grow in our daily work with God through the Holy Spirit – the story never happened but Jesus used it as a vehicle to drive home some key points to His hearers.
This is quite a different parable in that,in most of Jesus’ parables, the main protagonist is either expressive of God, Christ, or some other positive character. In this parable, the characters are all wicked – the steward and the man whose possessions he manages are both grubby characters. This should alert us to the fact that Jesus is not exhorting us to emulate the behavior of the characters, but is trying to develop on a larger principle.
The story presented here is that of a rich man who employed a steward or a manager to help manage the day-to-day affairs of his company and business. The rich man heard the so-many things that the manager was doing with the company’s finances – how he had run huge personal bills and expenses on himself (not the company). Not only did he run huge expenses on himself, he also wasted the resources to the extent that the company was going to go under, to borrow from our modern day terminology and jargon. He was fast becoming a bad manager and something has to be done as soon as possible in terms of mitigation.
A steward or manager is a person who administers the possessions of another. The manager had complete authority over all of his master’s resources and could execute business deals in his name. This requires the utmost level of dependency or trust in the manager. At this point in the story, it may not be obvious that the master is probably not aware of his manager’s dishonesty but this is made more evident later on. The steward is being released for apparent mismanagement, not fraud. This explains why he is able to conduct a few more transactions before he is discharged and why he is not immediately thrown out on the street or imprisoned.
The rich man therefore called on his manager to let him know about the mismanagement of his resources and his intention to fire him. The rich man told his manager to hand over the books completed and audited. At this stage, Jesus’ hearers would have no problems with this because the general consensus as they listened and judged the manager in their mind would be that the manager had done wrong and ought to be discharged from his job. Their eyebrows would also be raised in expectation of the next phase of the story knowing that their master would not tell endless or half stories. In their minds, there would be so many questions as to what the manager would then do with his life and more so where would his boss start from after the amount of damage done. There is more to this story!
The manager begins to plot (as he would be too proud to beg and obviously would have no strength to work) on what to do because, not too long from then he would be out of his job. He started to reduce the debt owed by several of the master’s debtors in exchange for shelter in the eventuality that he might become homeless. He cheated his master by telling the client owing a hundred sacks of wheat to write that he owed fifty; to another he told to write eighty. His master heard what he did and decides to commend him for the act of his shrewdness.
This is where the confusion comes in: his boss commended him. The question is, why would his master commend him as he continues to destroy his business empire. The master commended the manager because the manager knew how to look out for himself; for streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law abiding citizens. They are constantly alert, looking for ways and angles to survive by their wits. The story ends there because we were not told what happened to the rich man and the manager.
How does this apply to us, you may wonder or decide to ask.
Jesus in helping us to apply this parable or story said, “ I want you to be smart in the same way – but for what is right – using everyday adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good.” Jesus is drawing dissimilarity between the “sons of the world” (i.e., unbelievers) and the “sons of light” (believers): Unbelievers are wiser in the things of this world than believers are about the things of the world to come. The unjust steward, once he knew he was about to be put out, maneuvered to put others’ debt to himself. He did so by cheating his master (who more than likely was cheating his customers). He made friends of his master’s debtors who would then be obligated to care for him once he lost his job.
The term “unrighteous (or worldly) wealth” seems to strike readers the wrong way. But Jesus is not saying that believers should gain wealth in an unrighteous way and then become generous with it. “Unrighteous” in reference to wealth refers to:
- The means in acquiring wealth;
- The way in which one desires to use the wealth;
- The corrupting influence wealth can have that often leads people to commit unrighteous acts.
Given the way in which Jesus employs the term, the third explanation seems the most likely. Wealth is not inherently evil, but the love of money can lead to all sorts of sin.
Paraphrasically, the children of this world are wiser than the children of light because they know how to be selfish when it comes to taking care of themselves (they always come first in everything), than the children of light to the kingdom with which they belong. Christians are half as responsible in their responsibilities to God and the Gospel. When we apply the same enthusiasm to God, His Work and Word, as we desire to fill our bank accounts, then the bible declares the commendation of God towards us. This enthusiasm channeled in the proper direction is what Jesus seems to be commending here and not the phony UNJUST manager.
Therefore, Jesus made other comments to drive home His point in this story. If you’re honest in small things, you’ll be honest in big things; if you’re a crook in small things, you’ll be a crook in big things. If you’re not honest in small jobs, who will put you in charge of the store? No worker can serve two bosses: He will either hate the first and love the second, or adore the first and despise the second. You can’t serve both God and the Bank.
When the Pharisees, a money-obsessed bunch, heard Him say these things, they rolled their eyes, dismissing Him as hopelessly out of touch. So Jesus spoke to them: “You are masters at making yourselves look good in front of others, but God knows what’s behind the appearance. What society sees and calls monumental, God sees through and calls monstrous.
As believers we ought to think about the life after death, which is our tomorrow and our future. No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and serve money at the same time.