Luke 16:1-9: He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a steward, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his goods. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.’ And the steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the stewardship away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that people may receive me into their houses when I am put out of the stewardship.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ And 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?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ The master commended the dishonest steward for his shrewdness; for the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing 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 the eternal habitations.
Wow! Did Jesus just commend theft? It certainly seems so, he just said that the steward was good to cheat his master out of money, and then for us to do the same. Admittedly, this is one of the hardest parables to understand, especially not understanding how things worked back then. Let’s see if we can shed some light on this confusing parable.
The people hearing this understood the how things worked among the middle-class such as the stewards and the tax collectors. The stewards and tax collectors worked as middlemen between the authority (landowners and Romans) and the people, they were given free reign to do their jobs so long as their masters received what they were expecting. In the case of the steward, the master rented his land out to the tenant farmers at a rate determined by the landowner…sort of. In actuality the stewards would jack the rent up and pocket the difference as an added income to what the landowner paid them; not much different than today, with processors and grocers between us and the farmers. The rent was rarely in money but would be in a measure of the crop, so the landowner would get a share of the crops, some he would keep and the rest the steward was to sell and return the profits to the master.
What was happening here was that the steward was selling the crops for more than the master expected then pocketing the rest instead of turning it over, so he was padding the bill on both sides of the transaction (the tenants and the merchants). The other stewards caught wind of this and turned him in to the master. Now, when the master finds out that he has been cheated he fires the steward. The steward doesn’t want to actually work for a living, and surely doesn’t want to beg, so he devises a plan – a clever one at that.
The steward decides to cut his losses, forsaking his ill-gotten gain for help in the future. He calls in the tenants and cuts what they owe the master; only he doesn’t cut the master’s actual share, he cuts out the extra he added. The master still gets what he is owed, but the tenants see it as having their bill reduced, making them very happy with the steward. The master hears about this and, seeing that he is still getting what was owed him, remarks as to how clever the steward was; of course, he doesn’t get his job back, but he does have a lot of new-found friends who will probably be willing to help him out.
Jesus then tells us how much smarter the steward was in the ways of the world than we are (children of light) in the ways of the Kingdom. Is he telling us to cheat others? No! What he is saying is that we must become as shrewd as the steward and give up world treasures for the greater treasure, the promise of eternity in Heaven. We cannot serve two masters – this world and God, so choose the one of greater value and live accordingly.