The Steward and the Rich Man
Fr. Scott A. Haynes
A MEDITATION UPON LUKE 16:1-13
And he said also to his disciples: There was a certain rich man who had a steward: and the same was accused unto him, that he had wasted his goods. And he called him, and said to him: How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship: for now thou canst be steward no longer. And the steward said within himself: What shall I do, because my lord taketh away from me the stewardship? To dig I am not able; to beg I am ashamed. I know what I will do, that when I shall be removed from the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.
Therefore calling together every one of his lord's debtors, he said to the first: How much dost thou owe my lord? But he said: An hundred barrels of oil. And he said to him: Take thy bill and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then he said to another: And how much dost thou owe? Who said: An hundred quarters of wheat. He said to him: Take thy bill, and write eighty. And the lord commended the unjust steward, forasmuch as he had done wisely: for the children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light. And I say to you: Make unto you friends of the
mammon of iniquity; that when you shall fail, they may receive you into everlasting dwellings.
He that is faithful in that which is least, is faithful also in that which is greater: and he that is unjust in that which is little, is unjust also in that which is greater. If then you have not been faithful in the unjust mammon; who will trust you with that which is the true? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another's; who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or he will hold to the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.
Understanding the parable of the rich man and his steward (Luke 16:1-13) demands that we pay attention to the finer points, lest we jump to wrong conclusions. The steward wasted the rich man’s property. As he was being dismissed as the rich man’s steward, he was considering his future options for employment. He did not want to do manual labor because he was a lazy man. Nor did he want to beg for money because he was proud. But he had to figure out how to support himself. At last, he made up his mind to personally visit all his master's creditors and reduce their debts. Our English Gospel text reads,
“The master commended the unjust steward, because he had dealt wisely (phronimos).”
But if you look at the original Greek text, a more literal translation would be,
“The master commended the steward (oikonomos) of the unjust.”
Thus, we do not have an “unjust steward” but a “steward of the unjust.” Who are the "unjust" being referenced? It is the Gentile community. The Jews considered the Gentile people to be ipso facto "unjust" ("unrighteous"), because they had not received the Law. The Gentile nations were not among God's chosen people.
The master, who likely moved within exclusively Jewish circles, had commissioned this steward (oikonomos) to act on his behalf with the Gentile community, to do his business, to avoid personally lowering himself in dealing with the unrighteous Gentiles. While the steward was guilty of wasting the rich man’s property, he was honest in collecting the master’s debt payments. This is a reminder that while every man is capable of stupendous acts of holiness, any man can also foolishly give in to fiendish evil.
To further grasp the dynamics of this scene, it helps to keep in mind that throughout this era of history, stewards were agents of their masters. The steward received accolades for his efforts in repaying his lord (master) in full. The debt that was reduced was in actuality his own commission. In the first century, the master did not pay the steward a wage. Instead, a steward's income was derived from the addition of service charges to bills of his master's debtors. Only the steward knew what portion of the bill the master's was and what portion was the steward's, thus the debtor had no idea who was owed what when he received the bill from the steward. The steward would take his cut of the debtors' payment and send the rest to his master when the client paid their bill.
Was this steward charging exorbitant interest rates to both his master and his master's creditors in order to pad his own bank account? It is a possibility. However, upon learning that he was to be let off, he accepted the creditors' invoices and negotiated a lower balance owing to him. Consequently, he is attempting to gain favor with these creditors in the hopes that one of them would hire him because of his "generosity."
The amounts by which these debts are reduced has meaning too. The Scripture records:
“How much dost thou owe my lord? But he said: An hundred barrels of oil. And he said to him: Take thy bill and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then he said to another: And how much dost thou owe? Who said: An hundred quarters of wheat. He said to him: Take thy bill, and write eighty.”
In Judaism, the number 50 recalls the year of the Jubilee, the year when all the slaves are freed, the debts are all forgiven. Perhaps this is a reference to the Jubilee. As one man’s debt is reduced to 80, this might be an extension of the number eight, symbolic of the Day of Resurrection, the eschaton. This calls to mind the whole idea that all nations will live in submission to God's will through learning the Holy Gospel.
As the steward reduced the debtors' payments and won their friendship by doing away with his fee, they now owed him something. By befriending his creditors, he converts a potentially disastrous situation into an opportunity. One lesson we learn is to manage resources wisely. The steward had to learn that being rich in friends was more important than making money on commission.
Jesus distinguishes between worldly wealth and real riches in this parable. In most English translations we read,
"Therefore, if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to you the true riches?"
But referring to the original Greek text, we learn a more accurate translation:
"Therefore, if you have not been faithful in the mammon of the unrighteous who will commit to your trust the true riches?"
We transform money into mammon when we make an idol of it. If we worship earthly riches and set these above God's law, we make that money into mammon. We make money unrighteous, by being unrighteous, and unjust ourselves.
If we are faithful in little things, then God will entrust us with greater things. If the steward could be faithful in the way he dealt with the money of the Gentiles, then the master could entrust him in dealing honestly with greater matters. In a spiritual sense, God tests our honesty and trustworthiness by examining how we manage small things. If we show ourselves honest and upright in dealing with earthly matters, the Lord gives us true riches.
When we read about “making friends of the mammon of iniquity,” we need to improve our understanding by closely adhering to the original Greek text, which renders this passage accordingly,
"I say to you make friends for yourselves by the mammon (riches) of the unrighteous, that when you shall fail, they may receive you into everlasting dwellings."
When the Scriptures refer to the monetary riches of the Gentiles, the unrighteous, it is not to say that the riches of the Gentiles were gained by unlawful means. Here the Lord is reiterating that if we are merciful to the unrighteous, knowing the burden of their debt, then we also will be accepted into God's kingdom, His everlasting dwellings. As we show mercy to others, the Lord will show that same mercy to us.
The pursuit of material success is not inherently evil. In this world, having money is only a means to an end, allowing us to get food, clothing, and shelter, as we care for our loved ones, and share with the poor. It is legitimate to enjoy the fruits of our labors, but we are to be mindful of the less fortunate. The problem arises, though, when material wealth begins to dictate how we spend our lives. Churches and hospitals may be constructed, and the destitute can be provided for, with the help of our financial donations. To idolize mammon (riches) is to use money for selfish, illicit purposes, which can destroy our families and culture.
Reading the full chapter of this Gospel, we learn that the true riches of God are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, all fruits of the Holy Spirit. These spiritual riches have nothing to do with material possessions. No earthly riches could ever afford to buy these heavenly treasures.
The saying, "You cannot serve both God and mammon," reminds us that if you love God, then you will use the resources He has given you to further His kingdom and the welfare of His people. Whether we have a penny in our pocket or a bank account with millions, we must exercise our stewardship over that money responsibly. Perhaps we could examine someone's bank account to learn what is important to them, what they idolize.
Jesus urges us to put our faith in the Father, not in material possessions. God is the rightful owner of whatever we own, and we must utilize it for his glory. There are millions of people who act as though this life is permanent while in fact it is just transient. They spend their entire lives trying to achieve success in the material world and amass the "things" that appears vital but is ultimately meaningless.
"Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return" (Job 1:21).
When the hearse carries our casket to the cemetery, we do not fill up a U-Haul to take everything with us. The money we have earned or inherit is something that passes through our hands. We are to be honest and faithful stewards so that we can render a good account to our Master.
If you are in this world just to get money so you may purchase more possessions, then money has become your god, and you have no time or interest in serving the one true God.
"No man can serve two masters. For either he will hate the one, and love the other: or he will sustain the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon" (Matthew 6:24).