One of the more difficult parables in the Bible to understand is the parable of the wasteful steward in Luke 16. Jesus tells about a steward or manager of accounts for a rich man who discovered that he was wasting his master's money. His master told him, "What is this I hear about you? Turn in an account of your management, for you can no longer be manager." The steward said to himself, "What am I going to do since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg." Then he had an idea, "I know what I will do so that whenever I am turned out of the management position people will take me into their homes." So saying, he called for each one of his master's debtors. He asked the first who came, "How much do you owe my master?" He replied, "A hundred 'baths' of oil." So the steward told him, "Take your contract and quickly mark it down to fifty." He said to another, "How much do you owe?" That one replied, "A hundred 'cors' of wheat." He told him, "Take your contract and mark it down to eighty."
Having told this parable, Jesus concluded by saying that the master commended that unjust steward for acting prudently. This has caused all kinds of problems for interpreters. It looks to many people like the steward was wasting more of his master's money for his own benefit. Of course, he was still manager, and it was within his power to discount the loans. But even so, he was doing it for his own personal benefit so that people would feel obligated to him after he lost his job.
Why would Jesus tell a parable in which such wasteful behavior would be considered prudent? And why would He say that the master commended the steward for reducing his accounts receivable? It looks like the master lost in this deal.
There are two keys to understanding this parable. The first is Jesus' explanation in verse 12: "If you have not been trustworthy in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own." That which is our own is that which we can keep. We often like to say that we own a number of things: our clothes, our cars, our houses. But in reality we can keep none of these things: our clothes wear out, our cars break down and we tire of them and trade them off, our houses are sold when we move. If they don't wear out before we do, we wear out before they do and lose them in that way. The only things we can really keep, the things we can keep for all eternity and thus really are our own, are the treasures that we have laid up in heaven. The other things that we like to say we own are really God's and we are just using them while we are here on earth.
This brings us to the second key. That is the realization that each of us is the wasteful steward. God has entrusted everything that we say we own to our stewardship. It is really His and we are just using it, hopefully for His glory and His purposes. But the fact is that we waste much of what He has entrusted to us, spending it on our own desires. And so He has said that each of us will have to give an account of how we have managed what He has entrusted to us. He has said that our time of stewardship is coming to an end, that is, when we die. The question is, what will we do with God's wealth entrusted to us in the short time that we have left here on earth? Will we continue to spend it on ourselves, or will we use it to make friends who will welcome us into eternal dwellings?
This is the reason why the master in the parable commended the steward for his actions. The master represents God. He wants us to use His wealth to help others, not to spend it on ourselves. He wants us to show the same kind of grace and forgiveness to others that He has shown to us.
Wealth is God's way of training us and testing us while we are on this earth. This is why Jesus says in verse 11, "If then you have not been trustworthy in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust to you that which is real?" Again, He says in verse 13, "No one can serve two masters. . . . . You cannot serve God and mammon." May we serve God with the wealth with which He has entrusted us and so be commended as prudent in His sight.
This article orginally was published as:
Terry, Bruce. 1997. Who is the Wasteful Steward?
Gospel Advocate 139 (October): 40.
Terry, Bruce. 1997. Who is the Wasteful Steward? Gospel Advocate 139 (October): 40.