The Parable of the
Message by Pastor Eric Chang
We continue in our study of God’s Word in Lk 16:1-13. This parable of the Lord Jesus is known as the Parable of the Unjust Steward. It is sometimes also called the Parable of the Dishonest Steward. I find that this parable is particularly appropriate to be preached at this time [Note: This was a year-end message preached in December 1978.] because this is a parable which teaches us to look forward and to prepare to give an account of ourselves. It teaches us to live our lives in such a way that we are able to account for ourselves on that Day when we see the Lord Jesus, i.e., to live our lives in such a way that we plan ahead. That is, of course, exactly what we need to do at the New Year.
Here is a parable that is very important. Luke 16:1 reads: “He” – i.e., the Lord Jesus – “also said to the disciples…” So, please notice that these words are spoken to the disciples, and so spoken to Christians in particular. Now, one basic problem caused by this parable to some people is this: How can the Lord Jesus commend or praise a dishonest steward? How can the Lord Jesus use a dishonest person as an example of shrewdness, that is, of wisdom or of having foresight? A quick answer to that is: the Lord Jesus is not commending him for his dishonesty, but for his foresight. But that still does not erase the objection as to why a picture has to be drawn from someone who is dishonest, even if his dishonesty is not being commended.
Let’s look at the first verse. What is the charge that the master is bringing against the steward? Well, the charge brought against him is that he is wasting his master’s goods. Now, wasting is not the same as dishonesty. To waste something is not necessarily to be dishonest. It is to be careless; it is to mismanage a thing. But it does not mean to be dishonest. Now, that is the first important point to bear in mind.
The second thing I should mention to you is that in v8, the word translated in the RSV as “dishonest”, in the original means ‘wrongdoing’, to do something wrong, which is a very general, a very wide term. But the English translators have decided not so much to translate as to interpret, and have put the interpretation on the word ‘dishonest’, thus giving the word a particular slant. The word is ‘wrongdoing’ – anything that you do wrong. Now, wasting your master’s possession is wrongdoing, is it not? But, it is not necessarily dishonest. A person who is careless in what he does is guilty of wrongdoing. But carelessness is not dishonesty. Dishonesty involves cheating. But you may disagree saying, “Aha! See what he did with the master’s debtors! The debtor owed one hundred measures of oil and this man cut it in half! Now, that is dishonest.” Well, whether that is dishonest or not, we shall see in a moment and understand this on the basis of Jewish Law.
Central Point of The Parable: Stewardship
First, let me get to the central point of this parable. What is the point of this parable? Stewardship. It all concerns stewardship. What does stewardship mean? The word translated here as ‘steward’ is the word from which we have the English word ‘economics’ or ‘economy’. The Greek word is “oivkonomi,a [oikonomia]”. It shows that the English word is simply, in fact, a transliteration (that means taking the word over letter by letter) of the Greek word, so that the English word is actually borrowed from the Greek word. “oivkonomi,a[oikonomia]” actually is composed of two sections: ‘oikos’ which means house and ‘nomos’ which means law. So, it is the law of the house, that is, the principles of running a household. Economics is the principle of how you finance your household, or in bigger terms: how you finance a company or how you finance a nation. So, basically the idea originally started with reference to household management or ‘domestic science’. Thus, from that we have developed this idea in English of economics, of how money matters are to be managed or how finances are to be managed.
A steward, then, is somebody who is in charge of a household. He has to run a household. Now, the steward in this parable, in fact, is in charge of a business because it is dealing with wheat and oil. So, this household is a business household, of which a rich man was the owner of the whole setup and appointed this steward as his business manager. Thus, again, you can see why the English word has this meaning of financial management, of economics.
Now, having got this point clear, we can see that the whole parable is concerned with stewardship. In fact, all the references to the word ‘stewardship’ in the Lord’s teaching occur only in this parable, with only one exception. The word ‘stewardship’ occurs 3 times and they are all in this parable. The verb ‘to be a steward’ occurs 1 time in the NT and it is in this parable. The noun ‘steward’ occurs 4 times in the Lord’s teaching: 3 times in this parable and 1 more time outside of this passage, that is, in Lk 12:42, which has a lot to do with this passage, as we shall see in a moment. So, we can see immediately that this passage concerns stewardship, being a steward.
Disciples Are All Stewards of God
Now, the question then is: How does all this apply to me? I mean, we do not want to study a parable that has nothing to do with us. So, the question to ask is: What has this parable got to do with us as disciples? The Lord Jesus told this parable to his disciples, to Christians, so it must have a message. What is the message? Well, a basic point in Scripture and in the Lord’s teaching is this: you and I, we are all stewards. We are all stewards to God. Every one of us who has become a Christian has been bought by God. As the apostle Paul says in 1Cor 6:19-20, “We have been bought with a price; we are not our own.”
You see, when you become a Christian, you do not just believe in Jesus. That is not all there is to becoming a Christian. When you become a Christian, you do not say, “Oh, I’m a Christian now.” What is the difference between your being a Christian now and not being a Christian before? You may reply: Before, I did not believe in Jesus; now I believe in Jesus. That’s the difference.” Is that all the difference there is to being a Christian?! Oh no! Before you were not religious and now you are going to become religious? Are you going to hang a cross around your neck? Is that what it means to become a Christian? That is a very small part of the meaning of being a Christian that once you did not believe, now you believe that Jesus died for your sins. That is true, but that is only part of the meaning.
The most important thing about becoming a Christian is this: that now you belong to God and you belong to the Lord Jesus. You do not belong to yourself anymore because God bought you, as the apostle Paul says: we have been bought with a price; we are not our own. If any of you are young Christians or have just become Christians, I would like you always to remember this. Becoming a Christian does not just mean that from now on you go to church, whereas before you did not go to church. It does not just mean that before you did not read the Bible, now you are going to read the Bible. It does not just mean that before you did not believe in God, that he sent Jesus to be the Savior of the world, no! But it means that now you belong to God through Jesus Christ; you do not belong to yourself.
“Okay, now I belong to God, but what does that mean?” Well, that means that you do not live for yourself anymore. It means a fundamental change in the direction of your life! You must understand this point. Before, you lived for yourself; now, you live for God! “Ah!” you say, “That means to say I am going to become a preacher?” No. No. No. Not so fast! You are not going to become a preacher yet, unless God has any special plans for you. It takes a long time before God has trained you to become a preacher or become a servant of God. And if God ever gives you that privilege, then that is an unusual privilege. Not everybody is going to be called to that. That does not mean, that you are inferior. Oh, no! It just means that your calling is different. That is not your calling. But if you are going to be called, you will know it in due time. God will make this point clear to you.
Then you say, “What does it mean that I belong to God and I live for him?” It means from now on, all your thinking, whatever you do, whether you are studying in college, whether you are working at a particular job, the motivation for whatever you do is to do it for God. That is why Paul says to the Corinthians, “From now on, whatever you do, you do it to his glory.” If you are studying, you are studying for him, for his glory, and you are thinking, “How can I use this for him?” Your whole life is now orientated to God.
Disciples Are Stewards of Eternal Life
What has that got to do with stewardship? Oh, it has everything to do with stewardship. It is because when you belong to him, you give yourself to him. And he gives himself to you! That is the beauty of it! Becoming a Christian not only means you belong to him, but also that he belongs to you! It is just like in a marriage. In a marriage, you do not just belong to the other person. That other person also belongs to you. It does not all just go one way, you know; it goes both ways. God has committed himself to you. In giving himself to you, he has given to you life, eternal life in Christ. That means to say you are a steward of eternal life. To be a steward is to be in charge of whatever is entrusted to your care.
Eternal life is given to you, not just so that you can enjoy it for yourself, but that you can have this as a possession and do something with it. Now, life is not there that you eat life. Do you eat life? No, you do not eat life. So, what do you do with it? Do you smell it? No, you do not. So, what do you do? Do you put it on? No, you do not put on life either. What do you do with life? What is the use of life? Well, life is for living. It is to do something with it in the way you live, the way you speak, the way you think, the way you act. It is a whole new direction and purpose that God has given to you. That is the exciting thing about being a Christian: that you have been entrusted with the responsibility of eternal life, not just the privilege of eternal life, but the responsibility of eternal life, to share it with others, to do something with it. This point is so important in the Lord’s teaching that he has several parables about it: The Parable of the Pounds, the Parable of the Talents, and so on. Each one is telling us that when we became Christians, we were entrusted with something of great value. We became stewards of God.
Stewardship of Physical Life and Spiritual Life
We were entrusted with eternal life. Now, life is something! For example, some of you who have married and have children know what it means to be entrusted with stewardship. When you have your first child, it suddenly hits you, “I am now entrusted with a life! I’ve got this life in my hands to look after.” Suddenly, the responsibility of stewardship hits you. You have got a life to care for, a person to look after, to bring up. There is a person whose life is going to be in your hands. What you make of that person is a tremendous responsibility. How many parents have looked back and said, “I have really made a mess of the life that was entrusted to me, not just my life, but the life of my children.” Do they grow up to love the Lord? Do they grow up to live a meaningful life, a life of service to others, a blessing to others, and a glory to God? Suddenly, the responsibility dawns upon you. Of course, you also have a responsibility for your own life, the way you live your life. You are going to have to give an account to God, just like this steward in this parable. That is the whole point of this parable. You and I are going to stand there, and God is going to say, “What did you do with the life that I gave you?” In this sense, all people are going to be responsible to God.
Even if you are not a Christian, the life that you have now ultimately comes from…where? From your parents? Yes, but where did your parents get their life from? From their parents! And where did your grandparents get their life from? It goes on and on. And so, where did the first people get their life from? From God, of course! God is our heavenly Father, the author of all life: physical and spiritual. If you have physical life, you are going to have to explain to God what you did with the life that he gave you.
Christian has a double responsibility. He has to account not only for his physical life, he has also to account for his spiritual life, the eternal life that God has given to him. So, being a Christian means greater responsibility. Of course it also means greater privilege; if you have more that is given to you, you have greater privilege, and greater is your responsibility.
Spiritual Economics: Living with Goal, Direction and Plan
Now think carefully as we face the New Year, “What am I going to do with this year before me? How shall I live this life in such a way that in that Day when I stand before the Lord Jesus and he asks me, “What did you do with the New Year?” You had best plan ahead! Do not wait for the time to come and only then ask, “What am I going to do with today? What am I going to do with tomorrow?” If you live like this, you are going to waste your life. You will be wasting your time if you have no goal, no direction. Anyone who has done economics knows that nobody runs an economy by just waiting to see what is going to happen tomorrow. You must plan ahead. You must have a 1-year plan, a 5-year plan, a 10-year plan, or whatever it is. Economics has to do with planning: planning ahead. Know how to use that time. Think ahead: “What are my spiritual objectives for the New Year?”
When you look back, what was last year like? Did you fumble your way through the year with your physical life and with your spiritual life? Then you have not understood ‘spiritual economics’. There are principles by which you have got to live by if you are going to get anywhere.
This is the problem with the steward in our parable. So many people, maybe even the majority, live one day at a time. They fumble from day to day hoping for the best. “糊里糊涂 [hú lǐ hú tú]” –– muddled, as the Chinese say. They have neither direction nor purpose. They do not know what they are doing. And so, if you are “糊里糊涂 [hú lǐ hú tú]” –– muddled, you will also become “马马虎虎 [mǎ mǎ hǔ hǔ]” –– sloppy and careless, the literal translation being ‘horse-horse-tiger-tiger’, which means you do not know whether you are dealing with a horse or with a tiger; it all seems the same to you. Imagine if you went into a place and you thought what you saw was a horse; I should think you would be in rather bad shape, if it was really a tiger. Maybe that is where the Chinese proverb “马马虎虎 [mǎ mǎ hǔ hǔ]” comes from. Tigers and horses are all mixed together. You do not know which is horse and which is tiger. That is muddled “糊里糊涂 [hú lǐ hú tú]”, you see. You cannot live the spiritual life like this. You had better sort out which are the tigers and which are the horses. The horses will get you somewhere, but the tigers will get you to the wrong place, the place that you do not want to go to, of course –– into its stomach. The horses will get you where you want to go. So, you had better distinguish which is which.
The way many people live their Christian lives is quite terrifying. In fact, even the way they live their earthly lives is terrifying. They just do not know where they are going. Live as Christians who know where you are going. The Lord Jesus say, “I know where I have come from. I know where I am going.” (Jn 8:14) If you do not know where you have come from and if you do not know where you are going, then it is pitiful. That is the plight of the non-Christian. The non-Christian does not know where he comes from; he also does not know where he is going. Oh, he knows he has got to make a living and he hopes that he is going to get a promotion from time to time. But that is not life! Life is knowing where your whole life is heading. The Christian must understand his goal. Do you understand your goal?
Spiritual Economics: Living for the Glory of God
Do you know what you are here to accomplish? Well, one thing is important. If you are a Christian, God has entrusted to you his grace and you have got to do something with that grace. You are going to explain what you have done with that grace. Make sure you know how to use it. Tonight I hope you will think it through: “How am I going to live the Christian life in such a way that it is going to be a wonderful year, an exciting year, a year of possibilities, a year of achievements for God and for the blessing of others?” That is wonderful! Think it through.
I cannot tell you how you are going to live your life; you have got to work this out, as I do not know what kinds of graces are committed to you. But one thing is sure: every Christian is a servant of God. 1 Pet 2:16 tells us that every Christian is a servant of God. The apostle Peter says, “So, live your lives as servants of God.” Do not think it is just the pastor or the preacher who is a servant of God. In the Bible, every Christian – that means you! – is a servant of God. And because you are a servant of God, you have a stewardship, a task to perform.
Thus, here we can read 1 Pet 4:10-11, which tells us that every Christian is a steward. “As each” – as each Christian – “has received a gift,” – a gift of God’s grace – “employ it for one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who utters oracles of God” – who speaks the Word of God – “whoever renders service…”. If your gift is not in the spiritual area of speaking God’s Word, you can render service, like last Sunday, we were giving gifts to the brothers and sisters in need among us. That is rendering service. Continue to do that. “…whoever renders service, as one who renders it by the strength which God supplies; in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.” Now there is the goal. “To him belong glory and dominion for ever and ever.” To “him” is who? It is, of course, God. To him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. The goal is to live for the glory of God!
I do not know that there is any more meaningful purpose in life than to have direction in life. The Christian life is a life of meaning, of purpose, of direction. Make sure that you understand the direction. Many times non-Christians do not want to become Christians because they see that Christians do not seem to have any direction in life, they do not seem to have any clear purpose. I hope that if you are living with non-Christians, they will see, “Wow! These Christians really have purpose. They have direction. They have goal. They have objectives. Their lives are purposeful and systematic.”
So, here in this passage, we see the application of this parable. The apostle Peter tells us that we are all stewards of God’s very grace, that is, the grace of eternal life and all other gifts that he has given to us. Has he given you a gift of speaking? Use it for God! Has he given you a gift to play the piano? Use that for God! Have you got a gift of languages? Use it for interpretation, translation, whatever. Has he given you a gift to write? Use it for God! Plan this year, saying, “I am going to write a number of articles for God.” I am sure the Newsletter Team will be delighted, but never mind about them; God will be more pleased.
So many people have gifts and what do they do? They let it rot away. They bury it and it rots in the ground. I know so many people who have so many gifts. If every Christian in the church used his gifts to the maximum for God, imagine the glory that would come to God, and the blessings that would come to other people – it is just incalculable. Just sit down and think about it. Use your initiative! Where is your spiritual drive? What is your spiritual ambition? Anything that you have can be used for God’s glory.
Stewardship in Practical Ways
Take for example, our simultaneous translation system. Not too long ago, somebody came from the 4M Organization (Christian Media Organization) to study our system, which was built by one of our brothers here. He was saying to me, “Ah! This is a very good system.” He was sitting there with pencil and paper, following out the electronic diagram of this system, copying it for the Winter Conference. So, now you know, for those of you who were at the Winter Conference, the translation system at that conference was copied from our brother here, who designed the entire system. See how God’s work is blessed, how it is being enhanced – through electronics! Oh, yes! There is scope in every area to be used!
Just think about it. Use some initiative. Soon you will find what great things the Lord can do even through us who seem to be so insignificant. It is just wonderful. I do not know what gifts you have; it is for you to think. Use your initiative and find in what way you can serve God. Let nobody say, “I have got nothing in which to serve God.” Sure, you have got something. Everybody has something.
Even in the most elementary way you will have something to offer. For example, each of us sometimes has one or two dollars to spare, maybe even more. Do you know what your one or two dollars could mean to somebody who has not had a square meal in two or three days? Make it your business to find out who is in need, so that you can help that person. That is serving God as much as preaching the Gospel. That is any time as much serving God as standing up here and preaching. You have served God by giving two dollars to somebody in need, because that person will be thanking God, “Lord, how gracious you are to me that your love has moved the heart of my brother and sister to care for me.” You have served God! There is no work too small in God’s eyes. Sometimes the greatest work is the so-called “small and insignificant” work.
Or maybe there is somebody who is lonely; you can visit that person. Maybe there is somebody you can make a phone call to, even just one phone call. You do not have time? Or is 10 cents too much? One phone call can bring so much encouragement to somebody. That is serving God. That is stewardship at its most practical level and that is what the Lord Jesus is talking about here. Yet, it is precisely here, in the little things that we have failed and failed so pitifully.
Essential Requirement of Stewardship – Faithfulness
Look at these words in Lk 16:10: “He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much”. “And he who is not faithful in a very little is also not faithful in much.” Unfortunately the RSV has done interpretation rather than translation and put in the word “dishonest”. This whole parable is concerned about faithfulness. That is the point. You were not dishonest if you did not phone a friend in need, but you were unfaithful. And the worst thing that can be brought against a steward is that he was unfaithful, thus the word in the original is a;dikoj for wrongdoing. We will look at this in more detail as we proceed.
This is what the apostle Paul says in 1 Cor 4:2: “What is required of a steward is faithfulness.” Paul says, “I am a steward of the Gospel of Christ” in v1 and in v2 he goes on to say, “What is required of a steward is faithfulness.” So, just like the apostle Paul, you and I, we are all stewards and what God expects from us is faithfulness. He is faithful to us. It is our business to be faithful to him.
Stewardship – Accountable for Authority Granted
Once we understand the central point of this parable, the meaning is very plain now. We are now ready to look at what happened to this steward. This steward was guilty, we are told, of being ‘wasteful’. The word translated ‘wasteful’ in the English is the Greek word which means to scatter: “diaskorpi,zw [diaskorpizo]”. This is precisely the charge and we must understand it very exactly.
What does it mean ‘to scatter’? Well, when we look at the way this word is used, the same word in the Greek is used in Mt 26:31, where it speaks of the shepherd, the Lord Jesus, being struck down and the sheep being “scattered.” Now, if you strike down a shepherd, the sheep have no leader, no one to care for them. Then, of course, they will scatter. They do not know what to do. There is nobody to manage them anymore. There is no one to care for them anymore. The sheep just scatter away. It is used also in Jn 10:12 [here in the Greek, without the prefix “dia”: “skorpi,zw” skorpizo]. In this case, the hireling flees because he sees the wolf coming. He takes flight! He says, “I’m not going to lose my life defending the sheep.” So, he runs away and he leaves the sheep to be torn apart by the wolves. Those which are not killed are scattered; they go in all directions, running for their lives. It is also the same word that is used in Lk 15:13, that is, in the parable we studied last time, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. There we saw that what the prodigal son did was that he ‘wasted’ his possessions. In this case, the RSV has translated the word “diaskorpi,zw” as “squandered”. He squandered his possessions; he scattered his possessions.
Now, it is very important to notice that when it says that he scattered his possessions, we need to understand the principle: a steward has authority. Every Christian has authority. You have authority because you are a servant. The only person who has authority is the servant because a servant is delegated that authority. I have authority in the Gospel because I am a servant of Christ. Precisely because I am a servant, I have authority to preach the Word of God, to carry out his work. You have authority because you are God’s servant, as the apostle Peter has already told us, each one of us. Each Christian has authority over that which is entrusted to him.
Because you have authority, you are accountable. If you did not have responsibility, you would not be accountable, as we saw in the case of predestination. If a person is not responsible, he cannot be accountable. The only way he can be accountable is that he is responsible. Now if you deny that he has responsibility, that he has no mind of his own, that he has no choice of his own, then of course, he cannot be responsible for his actions. The whole point, Scriptural teaching [tells us], is that we are all responsible for our actions because we have been entrusted with that authority. You have to explain what you are doing to God on that Day.
But in the meantime, during this time, you are responsible for your own life right now. Does God interfere with your life? No. Does he tell you every night, “Give me an account right now”? No, he is waiting for the accounting day. The day of accounting is the Day of Judgment, of course. Right now, you are responsible for what you are doing. God does not intervene right now, does he? No. What you do with your life right now is your responsibility. Let us remember that very clearly. If you do not use your gifts for God, God does not intervene just at this moment. He will intervene later. Oh, this is so important to grasp!
What is the point of emphasizing the authority of the steward? It is to tell us that this steward has the right to do what he is doing right now. He will have to explain what he has done later, but he has the right to do what he is doing right now. And if he is acting within his own rights, then he is acting under responsibility.
Understand The Parable in the Light of Jewish Law
The next point to understand is this. If the steward was being dishonest, as the interpretation of RSV puts it, then why did he only remit, out of 100 measures of wheat, only 20 kors, 20 measures? After all, of the oil he had remitted half. So why only remit 20% of the wheat? You do not make friends by remitting so little, it is only 20%. The fellow is still landed with 80 measures of wheat to be returned yet. OK, his burden has been reduced a bit, but not all that much. If he wanted to make friends, why did he not say to the debtor, “OK, forget the whole thing! After all, it’s all my master’s anyway. Forget the whole thing.” Why should he not say that? If he is going to remit that much, he might as well remit the whole thing. Even for the oil, why just half, why not relieve the debtor of all of it?
Now, to understand this point, you need to understand Jewish law. What I am telling you now is based on a very important work by Prof. Derrett (J Duncan M Derrett) of London University in England called “The Law in the New Testament”. There he has clearly explained this on the basis of Jewish law. Once you understand this, you will understand that the steward has not done anything dishonest in his last act, his closing act. (Whatever he did before is another matter. He had been wasteful before. He had been bad before this; he had been doing wrong before.) The Greek word in v8 of RSV translated “dishonest” actually just means, as I said earlier, ‘wrongdoing’ in the wide sense of the word. He was guilty of wrongdoing, but he was not guilty of dishonesty. That is very important to understand. He was not dishonest and the Lord Jesus is not commending any dishonest steward.
What do you do when you do business? Well, the whole purpose of business is to give something out at interest and to collect back the interest. Every bank functions on this principle. Every business organization functions on this principle: to make profit. And so, you have trust companies in Canada, for example, whose business, of course, is to lend money. If you want to buy a house, they lend you money. Right now, the interest rate would run at perhaps 11%-12%. So, you would have to be paying interest on your mortgage. You will find that half your life, you are spending, trying to pay off the interest. In fact, anybody who buys a house – I read the newspaper the other day – for $35,000 will, by the time he pays off his house 20 years later, have paid another $35,000 in interest. In other words, you will have paid a total of about $70,000 for a $35,000 house. Now you know how these trust companies can build all these buildings and make an awful lot of money. But you have to borrow the money because you have not got $35,000 to pay for the house, and you have got to just accept the fact that you have to pay back with interest.
You see, doing business in Jewish society in those days was quite similar. Now, that gives us a pretty good idea of this oil, doesn’t it? The debtor owes the master 100 measures of oil. And the steward cuts it down to 50 measures. Why? It is simply because you need to understand Jewish law. Well, the practice was, at that time, that oil carried an interest of 100% over a period of time. It is rather like your trust company that over a period of 20 years, you have paid virtually 100% interest over to the trust company. So, you see, this is the point that we find here.
What has happened is that the master, who is the ultimate owner of everything, had put this steward in charge of his business. The steward, of course, had done some business, and he had loaned out commodities. In those days people did not usually loan money, because money, of course, is always subject to inflation and other problems. So, even in those days, they loaned out commodities instead. Commodities were the basic trading items. People used oil and wheat, which were the stable things, for trading. This is still the practice today. The steward had loaned out 50 measures of oil. And now he was going to get back 100 measures, of course. So, how much does this man owe his master? 100 measures of oil. That is 50 measures plus 50 measures of interest on it.
Why was the interest so high on oil in those days? That was a precaution against fraud. You see, the oil that was used was usually olive oil. The problem with oil is this: that when you return the oil, there are a number of tricks you can play on oil. Do you know what kind of tricks can be done with oil? Oil is lighter that water, of course. For example, if that jar had water below the oil, the only way to find out would be to pour out all of its contents, and then you would find it was not purely oil. Many people got caught on that. But there is another way to carry out deception. You can use cheaper oil and mix it with the more expensive olive oil, and so, you can still cheat your creditor. It was precaution against this that the interest rate on oil was so extremely high; it was because it was so easy to be cheated on oil.
Thus, you might say that the other part of the interest was a kind of an insurance policy. Rather like today, you take out a mortgage and you take an insurance on the mortgage, so that if for some reason you cannot pay off the mortgage, then the insurance company will come in. That means to say, you have to pay both the mortgage and the insurance. So, you have to pay extra. That is exactly what was happening then.
On the other hand, wheat paid an interest of only 20%-25%. This other debtor had borrowed 80 measures of wheat. Now with the interest due on it, he had 100 measures to pay back.
Jewish Law: Charge No Interest to Your Brother
So, now, what was the steward doing? Well, we see that he is in trouble. He is going to get kicked out of his job, right? He is in trouble now because of his past laziness, his past mismanagement, his past carelessness. So, he has to do one good thing before he gets kicked out, to have at least one or two friends around the place. It is so that when he gets kicked out, he has got someone who still has some sympathy for him, who might still give him some financial help. They would remember how he had been kind to them, and they would be willing to do him a favor.
But you may say: it is still cheating because the interest is owing to the master. Is it not? Ah, now, that brings us to another interesting point of Jewish law. Actually under Jewish Law, taking interest was not allowed at all! You have to understand this point of Jewish law so you can understand the parable. You see, understanding the parable is not just reading it; you have got to have quite a bit of background knowledge. Of course, the Jews who were listening to the Lord Jesus understood perfectly what he was saying.
Actually, according to Jewish law, no Jew should take interest – or usury as it was called – from a brother in need. You do not take interest because it was generally assumed that if a person had to borrow, that person was in need. Therefore, according to Jewish law, you had to let him have what he needed without saying, “OK, I want this thing back with interest later.” That is not loving your neighbor as yourself. You just let him have it and he returns it to you without interest. So, under Jewish law, for example, in Lev 25:36-37 and in Deut 23:19-20, etc. – there are lots of these references – the Jews were not to take interest from one another.
But later on, of course, by the time of the Lord Jesus, they were not borrowing these things just because they needed them. They borrowed them for business purposes. Therefore, the Pharisees then decided to disregard the law in Leviticus and Deuteronomy and allow people to take interest. That is the background to it. That means to say, taking interest was permitted by the Pharisees as a business consideration, but not permitted by the Law.
Now you see what has happened. This steward remits the interest part to the debtor. He cannot remit the part which belongs to his master; that would be dishonesty. He cannot remit that part; but he can remit the part that has to do with the interest. So, the oil is 50 measures loaned out and 50 measures of interest. He cannot remit the part which belongs to his master, but he can remit the part that has to do with interest. In doing that, he actually is fulfilling the Scriptures; he is refusing to take usury from a fellow brother of Israel. As for the wheat part, of course, why he remits only 20% is because the 20% is the interest, but the 80% belongs to his master; he cannot remit that part. That is not his possession. He is responsible for it, but he cannot remit what is not his own. But he can remit the interest, and nobody can accuse him on that point.
The Steward’s Wrongdoing: Unfaithfulness, Not Dishonesty
I hope you can see the point of this beautiful parable that the Lord has told us. This steward had been unfaithful. The charge against him was unfaithfulness, not dishonesty. Those who do not understand Jewish law on this miss the point here. He had been unfaithful in that he had not done a good job of caring for the things entrusted to him. But now, at the last moment, he was trying to make friends.
If he had simply said to these people, these debtors, “I remit to you 20%,” they would know he was being dishonest. Would you be a friend of a dishonest man? Do you think that if he was doing something dishonest, he could come to them and hope for help from them? Would you help a fellow who is blatantly dishonest? Of course not! He would not make any friends. He would lose whatever friends he ever had. His last stroke will be worse than his first one. You see, if his last act were dishonest, he would have no friends left at all. No, no! He was not going to be dishonest. His last work had to be a good work if he was going to have any friends.
Therefore, this parable should not be called the Parable of the Dishonest Steward. It should be rightly called the Parable of the Unfaithful Steward. He was unfaithful, though not in his last act. He had been unfaithful before that, that is why he was dismissed. But he was going to put everything right as far as possible in his last act.
Put Things Right with God While You Still Have Time!
Now you can see the whole point of what the Lord is saying. The Lord Jesus is saying to us: “Put things right while you still have time.” Before you come to the Day of accounting, put things right, like this unfaithful steward. He was bad before. He was slothful. He was lazy. But now in his last act, he put things right as much as possible, so that he would still have some friends left who would help him out, and say, “Well, he was lazy. He was unfaithful to his master in not doing a good job. But after all, he was also obedient to the law in his last work.”
So, the lesson of this parable then is: Get right with God! Put things right while there is still time because the time is fast running out. Now, this is a beautiful parable. We can see now and I hope you can fully understand the message of this parable. Bear it well in mind.
Now, exegetically, there is one last point I would like to point out to you. It is this word which is translated as “dishonest” in v8 of RSV. I mention this to you because some of you who study the Word of God want to know the Scriptural facts. The Greek word translated as ‘dishonest’ is ‘avdiki,a.’. The word ‘adikia’, is also used in 2 Cor 12:13, where it certainly does not mean dishonest. There, it is used of the apostle Paul, who is charged with doing something wrong to the Corinthians because he refused to take money from the Corinthians. Now, not taking money cannot be a charge of dishonesty, can it? Of course not! So, you can see that the word that is translated ‘wrongdoing’ does not, by any means, necessarily imply dishonesty.
The same word is also used in Lk 13:27. There the RSV has translated it as ‘iniquity’, “workers of iniquity”. Now, who are these workers of iniquity who will not be able to enter into the kingdom of heaven? Well, we read in v24 that these are the people who did not strive to enter in at the narrow gate. They were spiritually lazy. Let me tell you something, brothers and sisters. You do not have to do anything bad to be condemned on that Day: You just do not do anything, just be lazy! God has no time for spiritually lazy people. These people did not strive to enter in through the narrow gate. They did not strive to enter into the kingdom of God. They did not strive to enter into eternal life. That was their guilt; that was their crime, and they are called the “workers of iniquity”. If you do not do what is good, then, by default, you have done what is bad.
In Mt 25:26, in the Parable of the Pounds, you will find exactly the same thing. This servant who buried his one pound in the ground, did he do anything bad? No, he just buried it in the ground. He did not steal anything from anybody. He did not cheat anybody. He just buried it in the ground. Yet, what are the words that the master addresses to him? “You wicked and lazy servant”. [NKJV] Wicked! Why was he wicked? He simply said to the master, “I’m giving back what’s your own. You entrusted me with one talent; I return to you one talent. You entrusted me with one pound; I return to you one pound.” He is wicked precisely because he was unfaithful. That was his charge. What is entrusted to you, you do something with it! You do not go and bury it. That is the importance of this parable. Thus, I hope now that you are able clearly to understand this matter.
We have been entrusted with many things. Many things! And particularly, this parable is concerned with the way we use our money. Notice in v9, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon”. Money is called ‘unrighteous money’. We are told “…the love of money is the root of all evil” in the Word of God. (1 Tim 6:10-KJV) It is the root of all evil to love money. Not that money itself is evil, but the love of it is evil. But, here, the money that we have – we are stewards of it – we can make use of it in such a way as to bring glory to God. Make friends for God with that money and you will find that, then, you will be a good steward of that money.
So, whatever you have, you are going to explain to God what you did with it. I find that this is a tremendous challenge. Pray that by God’s grace, through this year ahead, you are going to plan your spiritual campaign. You are going to work out your spiritual economy. You are going to work out a one-year plan: how to live this year, to bring forth maximum benefit to others and maximum glory to God!
End of message
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