Can Wicked Be Wise?

Posted: July 30, 2017 in Luke, Uncategorized

Luke 16:1-13, “Can Wicked Be Wise?”

Is it possible to learn something good from something evil?  Is it possible for the wicked to be wise?  Although our gut reaction might be “no,” Jesus gives us an example of the opposite.  In fact, our common experience shows this to be true.  How do most children learn to keep their hands away from the stove?  By burning themselves on it.  How do many drivers learn not to speed?  By receiving a ticket and paying a fine.  Sometimes, good lessons can be learned from bad circumstances.

Such is the case in Luke 16, with what has got to be one of the most perplexing parables from Jesus.  Unlike the parable of the Good Samaritan, or the parable of the Prodigal Son, each of which have fairly obvious lessons, the parable of the Unjust Steward does not…and Jesus even provides an explanation!  What He teaches seems so unusual – so unlike anything He taught elsewhere.  Does Jesus really commend unscrupulous financial practices?  Is an unrighteous man really praised for his scheming actions?  Did Jesus really tell His disciples to basically do the same thing?

These are all good questions, and fortunately there are good answers…as long as we take the Bible in its proper context.  It is when we rip Scripture from its context that we typically get into trouble, and that is certainly the case here.  It is quite common for this passage to be reduced down to nothing but a tithing message.  It is also common for much of the teaching to be ignored, with focus put only on the “unrighteous” aspect of money, and the warning that it should not be our master.  And to be perfectly clear, there are at least elements of each of those things here…but they aren’t the main point.  As with all parables, we have to interpret it in light of the main point/idea, and we only see it by looking at the entire context.

So what’s the context?  Easy: Chapter 16 comes after Chapter 15.   That may sound simplistic, but it’s easy to forget due to the chapter divisions, which are not original to the text. (These were later editorial decisions.)  Originally, the stories would have flowed seamlessly together, which gives much assistance in our interpretation.

Remember that Chapter 15 contained three parables spoken to the Pharisees, all with one primary lesson: God rejoices in finding lost ones.  The tax collectors & other sinners, of whom the Pharisees were disturbed that they were welcomed by Jesus – these were the very ones over whom the angels rejoiced.  God the Father was overjoyed over every single sinner who repented, because it meant that one who had been lost, was found.  More than that, the Pharisees were themselves lost, though they didn’t realize it.  They had estranged themselves from God the Father, who held out His grace to them…if only they would be willing to receive it.

So it is with all that in mind that Jesus turned to His disciples to teach another parable.  Those who were lost did many things wrong, but there were still some lessons that could be learned from them.  The Pharisees may have missed the main point about the kingdom of God, but at least they were concerned about getting into the kingdom. They may have been trapped in their legalism, but at least it mattered to them how they were seen by God.  They were busy making preparations for the future, even if they went about it the wrong way.

That is the context that cannot be ignored.  Yes, how we handle money is important, but how we prepare for eternity is crucial!  What we do with one goes a long way in demonstrating what we think about the other.

So learn the wisdom from the wicked.  Do what it takes to prepare for the future.  Do what it takes to be ready for eternity.

Luke 16:1–13

  • The parable (1-8)

1 He also said to His disciples:

  • Although it’s not evident in the English, the Greek is pretty clear that this thought it to be connected with the earlier parables.  There are two conjunctions in the original, the first of which is untranslated in the NKJV.  The NASB brings it out by saying, “Now He was also saying to the disciples…”  Although we cannot say with firm conviction that Jesus gave this teaching in the immediate moments following the Parable of the Lost Sons (Prodigal Son), there’s no question whatsoever that Luke connected these parables together.  It underscores the need to keep the earlier context in view.
  • Although the general context remains the same, Jesus’ primary audience changes.  Earlier, He spoke the three parables to the Pharisees (although others surely stood around listening).  This time, He spoke this parable to His disciples, even with the Pharisees still present (as seen in vs. 14).  What Jesus was about to teach was not a lesson for unbelievers, but for believers.  The unbeliever needed to repent & come to faith – a person who is lost needs first & foremost to be found.  The believer needs wisdom on how to act now that he/she is in the faith.  That’s what the disciples needed to hear.
  • Although it can sound repetitive, it does need to be emphasized that this is a parable; not a historical account, nor an allegory.  Not every teaching Jesus gives is a parable (something which we’ll see later in Chapter 16 with the account of the rich man & Lazarus), but this one is.  Generic unnamed people are mentioned – a typical earthly scenario is described – and Jesus even follows this particular teaching with (at least a bit of) an interpretation.  Those are all indicators of parables, telling us to look for the main point & not to try to find hidden meanings behind every character & action.
  • Jesus begins by introducing the setting…

“There was a certain rich man who had a steward, and an accusation was brought to him that this man was wasting his goods. 2 So he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.’

  • Culturally speaking, a “steward” was a household manager.  In fact, the Greek word says this almost explicitly (“law of the house”).  Just as wealthy people often employ others to help them manage their estates & holdings today, so was the case then.  So far, so good…there’s nothing unusual about any of this.  What happened at this point was that this particular steward had an “accusation” made against him.  The master had heard that his steward was squandering his wealth, and he threatened to fire him.
  • Right off the bat, this seems like an unusual scenario to put forth to the disciples.  After all, those who follow Christ ought to live their lives above reproach.  It’s not that we will never have accusations made against us, but those accusations shouldn’t stick.  Our love for Jesus will be seen in our lives.  In the case of employer/employee relationships, a Christian is to have a solid work ethic, as we do our job as if we’re doing it unto the Lord Himself. (Col 3:23)  That being the case, it’s plain that Jesus does not present the steward as one of His disciples.  So what is there to learn?  It is how the steward handles his predicament that Jesus points out to us.
  • As an aside, the Greek word for “accusation” is interesting.  It is the verb form of the same root that is often used to refer to the devil. (διαβάλλω / διάβολος ~ diablo [Spanish]).  Depending on the context, the word could be translated “slander,” although that’s not the case here as the accusation seems to have been accurate (judging by the steward’s response).  One dictionary notes that the word refers to charges that are made “with hostile intent.” (NIDNTT)  The point?  Whether or not this sort of accusation is true, the people who bring the accusations do so to bring harm. 
    • What an appropriate name for the devil!  He is indeed a slanderer!  Whatever he says against us, he says in order to bring harm.  Keep in mind that it doesn’t meant that what he says is always completely untrue.  Yes, the devil is a liar & the father of lies (Jn 8:44), but the devil doesn’t have to lie in order to bring accusations against us.  We often provide him ample firepower through our sins.  All he needs to do is simply tell parts of the truth to bring condemnation to us.
    • Don’t listen to him!  Yes, the devil accuses, but we have Someone who answers those accusations on our behalf.  The Lord Jesus is our Advocate (1 Jn 2:1) – He comes alongside us in our defense.  Obviously we want to live our lives in such a way that there is no room for accusations, but when there is – when we fall & the devil condemns us and slanderously charges us – remember that you do not stand on your own.  You stand upon the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, who will always stand in defense of those who belong to Him!
  • As for the steward, the charges against him were true.  He makes no attempt to defend himself or his actions.  Instead, he starts making plans for the door…

3 “Then the steward said within himself, ‘What shall I do? For my master is taking the stewardship away from me. I cannot dig; I am ashamed to beg.

  • The steward knew he was in trouble, so he starts thinking through his options, only to find that he doesn’t have many.  Although the Temptations sang that they were “ain’t too proud to beg,” that wasn’t the case for the steward! J  He was “ashamed to beg.” We can imagine the irony!  He would have gone from collecting debts for his master to begging money for himself.  Neither did he believe he could “dig.”  Either he was too weak, too lazy, or too proud for that sort of work.
    • Although the point of Jesus’ parable was to show the shrewd plan of the unrighteous steward, what else could the steward have done?  He could have taken responsibility for his actions, attempted to make things right, and done some honest work.  Would it have been difficult?  Yes, and a humbling experience as well…but it would have been the right thing to do.  Too many people look for someone else to bail them out of trouble, rather than just doing the hard work that is necessary.
  • As the steward sat pondering all of this in fear, he had a sudden brainstorm.  Vs. 4…

4 I have resolved what to do, that when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.’

  • Although he was certain to get canned, he hadn’t gotten fired yet.  So what does he do?  He comes up with a plan to curry favor while he still has the opportunity.  The steward figured he could ingratiate himself to others, to buy a bit of friendship for himself, so that when he was put out of one house, he could find provision in another house.

5 “So he called every one of his master’s debtors to him, and said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 And he said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ So he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ 7 Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ So he said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’

  • Much has been said about the types of measures that Jesus described, and there are indeed very specific descriptions in the text.  Both are Greek transliterations of the Hebrew measurements: the liquid “bath” for the olive oil & the grain measurement of “kor” for the wheat.  Yet the type of measurement isn’t really the main issue at the end of the day, nor is the fact that the measurements cut don’t appear to equal out.  One was cut in half, whereas the other was cut by 20%.  According to some scholars, the monetary value of each cut was the same…but again, it misses the point.  What was the point? That the amount was cut at all.  This was the whole plan of the steward.  He took the opportunity he had to make friends with his master’s business partners.  If they saw him as doing them a favor, then they would be more likely to do him a favor when the time was needed.
  • Question: Was it illegal? Probably not.  That’s not to say that what the steward did was ethical, but it whatever the surrounding circumstance, it was probably legal.  Remember that he was commanded to “give an account” of his dealings, and he was already being watched & reported by others in the community.  If the servant had tried to swindle his master out of money, no doubt he would have put himself at risk.
  • So what was he doing?  That much is debated.  Some believe that the steward was knocking off his own commission from the transaction.  Others believe that he was getting rid of illegal usury.  Some theorize that he had already bumped the price illegally, and was getting it back to where it was supposed to be.  Still others suppose that the steward was trying to make his master look generous, and have other people speak well of the steward himself.  In the end, all the guesses are simply that: guesses.  In Jesus’ interpretation, He tells us none of these things.  The only thing we can know for certain is that this was the plan of the steward to be received into the houses of other people – this was his exit strategy as he looked at the very real potential of getting fired.
  • And it worked!  Vs. 8…

8 So the master commended the unjust steward because he had dealt shrewdly. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light.

  • The master “commended” him!  He praised this servant who had been accused of wasting his wealth & resources.  At best, the steward had been irresponsible with what was not his own – at worst, he had been guilty of embezzlement.  Yet the master praised him, even expressing admiration for him.  Why?  Because he was wise.  “He had dealt shrewdly.”  We don’t use the word “shrewd” too much anymore.  One English dictionary defines it as “1. Having keen insight; astute. 2. Artful; cunning. 3. Sharp; penetrating.” (American Heritage)  The Greek word is directly related to wisdom.  Yet how was this wise or astute?  We typically think of Biblical wisdom as relating to righteousness – and rightly so, for that is what the Bible teaches.  Proverbs 2:6–7, "(6) For the LORD gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding; (7) He stores up sound wisdom for the upright; He is a shield to those who walk uprightly;"  Someone who is truly wise in the Biblical sense is someone who follows after the Lord God.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 9:10).  It is when we know God and worship Him rightly that we can start walking in the ways He wants us to walk, i.e., in wisdom.  So how could the actions of the steward be considered wise?  Why would he receive praise?  This is where our English word helps clarify the context.  The steward was not wise in a moral sense, but he showed insight in a financial sense.  He was cunning in his plans.  That was the reason for the master’s praise.  This wasn’t an endorsement of his past, nor was it necessarily an endorsement of his scheming.  It was simply an acknowledgment that the steward had taken the initiative & thought creatively.  The steward had thought ahead to his future, and took decisive action to get there.  That much (at the least) could be admired.
  • What does Jesus say about it all?  He agrees with the shrewdness of it.  People of the world sometimes act with more creativity and wisdom than the people of God.  At least from the perspective of insight and understanding, “the sons of this world” often have more effectiveness “than the sons of light.
    • We don’t want to be like the world, but we can certainly learn from the world.  Why is it that people pack out football and baseball stadiums, but churches are not filled?  Why are the Coca-Cola & Nike logos more recognized than the cross, in regards to its actual meaning?  The corporations of this world have made themselves known – they have actively reached out to every corner of society.  The church?  Not so much.  This wasn’t always the case!  When the church first began, it was so influential that people were getting saved on a daily basis. (Acts 2:41)  When the gospel started to spread beyond Jerusalem, the reputation of the apostles was that they were people who were turning the world upside-down. (Acts 17:6)
    • So what happened?  The church learned the wrong lessons.  Instead of maintaining the insightfulness and fervor of this steward of the world, the church adopted the identity of the world.  At a certain point, the church became indistinguishable from the world.  Once Christianity became the established official religion of the Roman Empire, it was watered down and had become political.  By the time of the Middle Ages, the Catholic church owned an incredible amount of land, and acted just like many of the other European lords: trading titles, favors, and politics.  (In point of fact, the Roman Catholic church is still incredibly wealthy in terms of land.  A 2011 Business Insider article listed the pope as the 3rd in the world in regards to landholdings, having less land only than the king of Saudi Arabia & the queen of England. )  The church went from turning the world upside-down to being the world, and thus it lost much of its true influence & purpose.
    • What was needed was a return to the gospel – a return to the foundations of the Christian faith.  That’s exactly what took place during the Protestant Reformation, and (hopefully) is still taking place today.
  • Again, Jesus is not commending the worldliness or wickedness of the steward in the parable, or of the “sons of this world” in general.  He simply makes the point that they have been shrewd in their dealings.  Like the ancient sons of Isaachar, they understood the times & knew what to do. (1 Chr 12:32)  Christians likewise need to have insight as to what needs to be done, and have the zeal to go about doing it.  This is how Jesus sets up the three lessons to be learned from the parable.  Vs. 9…
  • The lessons (9-13)

9 “And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home.

  • Lesson #1: The best present use of worldly money is for eternal causes.  The steward used the means he had at his disposal to make friends for the future.  He was about to be put out of one household, and so he did what was necessary to prepare for a future one.  Likewise for us.  For now, we are given charge over worldly stuff: “unrighteous mammon” – and Jesus never once tries to whitewash it to make it sound better than it is.  If it’s not of God, then it is not of true righteousness.  If it is of the earth, than it is worldly/unrighteous.  That’s not a judgment so much as it is a plain fact.  But worldly stuff can be used for our eternal futures.
  • Question: Is Jesus saying that the kingdom can be bought?  Is He saying that someone can give so much money (or possessions) that he/she can purchase his/her way into heaven?  Absolutely not!  He’s saying that the stuff of earth can be used with people of the earth in such a way that it opens the way for heavenly things.  Money is not a key into heaven; it’s a tool that can be used by people going to heaven.
    • It’s been often said, “You can’t take it with you, but you can send it on ahead.”  You can’t take money with you to heaven, but you can invest in heaven while you’re on earth.  To some extent, the thought that we can send our wealth ahead of us is true, but people often get the wrong idea about it.  It’s not that we can build up a heavenly bank account with our name on it – we’re not looking forward to an eternal IRA.  What we can do is use our resources for kingdom purposes.  We cannot purchase ourselves a home in heaven, but it’s possible to use our resources in such a way that it helps someone else go there.  When we support missionaries or give money to evangelistic causes, we’re using unrighteous mammon in a righteous way.  When we use our money to share the love of Christ, helping other people see Jesus, then we’re helping them to receive an “everlasting home.
  • BTW – what on earth is “mammon”?  The first time the Greek word appears is actually in the New Testament, and it seems to have been a loan-word from Aramaic. (ממון )  One dictionary notes that when the Aramaic word appears in the rabbinical writings, it is “not merely money in the strict sense but a man’s possessions, everything that has value equivalent to money, and even all that he possesses apart from his body and life.” (NIDNTT)  So it does refer to money, but it doesn’t only refer to money.  Yes, cash can be used for the kingdom of God, but so can many other things.  How is your home being used for the gospel?  Your car?  Your cell phone?  That’s not to say that everyone is commanded to give everything away and live with nothing.  Granted, if you are ruled by your possessions & your wealth is keeping you from faith in Jesus, then yes – by all means, get rid of your stuff.  That was the lesson Jesus said of the rich young ruler. (Mt 19:21-22)  But if you can serve Jesus with your possessions, then by all means, do it!  Use them to help someone else come to faith.  Use them to help you live your life as a witness of the Lord Jesus.  Money/mammon is a tool; use it for the glory of God.

10 He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much.

  • Lesson #2a: Faithfulness is demonstrated.  The servant didn’t have faithfulness in the beginning, neither did he have it in the end.  He was unjust through & through, even though he was cunning in the way he carried out his plans.  If we want to be thought of as faithful by others, then we need to be faithful in the way we act. 
  • You can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she begins a project.  The way someone begins is often the way they finish.  If someone is careful in the beginning, they will likely be careful through the end.  If someone is lazy in the beginning, that isn’t likely to change partway through.  First impressions are often accurate as a whole.
    • It doesn’t have to be this way.  This is the good news of the gospel!  Through Jesus, our lives change.  Though we began as unjust, we do not have to remain unjust.  We can have a new start because we are made new creations.  Just keep in mind, that doesn’t happen without Jesus.  On our own, we most certainly will remain unjust & unfaithful.  It is only in Christ that our outcomes change (both for the present & for eternity).
  • On a purely practical level, there’s something to be said about starting small.  Many people want life to be handed to them on a silver platter.  We want to hit the lottery, and be given massive amounts, with no work going into it beforehand.  That’s not usually the way life works.  Those who want larger responsibilities have to start with smaller ones.  That’s true in business as well as ministry.  It is when we prove ourselves faithful in smaller things that eventually we are given larger things.  When the word of the Lord was given to Zechariah regarding the rebuilding of the temple, he was told not to despise the day of small things. (Zech 4:10)  Yes, the new temple was starting out small, but it would eventually get bigger.  It’s a similar principle here.  Be faithful with the little things, and trust God to give you more as He sees fit.

11 Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful in what is another man’s, who will give you what is your own?

  • Lesson #2b: Faithfulness in worldly treasure demonstrates capability with heavenly treasure.  Things go from lesser to greater.  This goes hand-in-hand with vs. 10.  Those who are faithful with little are given the opportunity to be faithful in much – and that directly relates with the “true riches,” the things of God.  Again – this is not a reference to salvation.  Be careful about equating “true riches” only with the promise of eternal salvation.  Salvation is a gift; not a wage.  Salvation is grace; not something that be earned.  We are not looking to prove ourselves worthy of the gospel, because we can never be worthy of it…all we can do is humbly receive it through faith in Christ.  So – if it isn’t the gospel, what are the “true riches”?  Jesus does not tell us directly, but He likely refers to kingdom responsibilities: ministry opportunities, and the like.  Are we faithful to demonstrate the love of Christ to those around us?  If not, why would we expect a larger platform?  Are we faithful to use the spiritual gifts the Holy Spirit has entrusted to us?  If not, why would we expect anything beyond what He has already given?  Again – first, we use what we have.  Only after that, can we be trusted with more.  Whatever resources you have, first use those things for the glory of God, and see what happens from there.
  • Question: Does this mean we have to be competent money managers to be competent in the kingdom?  Does this mean that unless a person has made wise investments & has gained worldly wealth, that they will not be granted responsibility from God in the future?  No.  It does mean that we need to be faithful stewards of what we’ve been given.  Not everyone has been entrusted with a skillset for the stock market, or the wealth to invest if he/she wanted to.  But we’ve all been entrusted with something.  God has given us skills, gifts, resources, and abilities.  How have we used those things for His glory?

13 “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”

  • Lesson #3: Money cannot be our master.  In all of this teaching about money & the use of it, we have to remember: it’s not about money; it’s about Jesus.  The unjust steward was commended for his ingenuity; not his love of money.  His love of money is seemingly what got him into trouble in the first place!  That’s what caused him to be wasteful and have the accusations come against him.  If he had loved God more than money, he would have avoided all of the other stuff altogether.
  • If there’s one thing we know as American evangelicals, it is that money is constant temptation. This isn’t true only for Americans – this is true the world over.  People in every culture and country throughout history have sought wealth, which is evidenced by the fact that the Bible has so much to say about it!  According to some, money is the subject of nearly half of Jesus’ parables, and the Bible has nearly 2000 verses regarding money (as opposed to 500 verses regarding prayer). ( )  Whether or not the statistics are truly accurate or not, it is clear the Bible has a lot to say on the matter, for the plain reason that money is a stumbling block to many.  We look at wealth as an idol, and for many people, that is exactly what it becomes.  And it’s not only the rich that do it; it’s the poor as well!  Anyone who thinks about money from morning till night, who desires all that money can provide, who covets what they do not have, etc., that’s a person who worships money (despite whether or not they personally possess it).  And just like all idolatry, it is something that needs to be eradicated.  Why?  Because as Jesus said, it is impossible to “serve two masters.”  If our master is money, then it is not the Lord.  If our master is our bank account, our job, our possessions, or even our dreams & desires, then we are serving those things, and not God.
    • Question: Is it really that drastic?  Is it really an either/or choice?  Yes.  Think about it: we cannot travel both east and west at the same time – we have to choose a direction.  We cannot follow two different sets of direction at once.  It’s no different with our directions in life.  What we serve dictates what we will do.  What our goals are determine how we will act to achieve them.  Even if you have two goals, one will always be subservient to the other.
  • We have to choose whom we will serve!  This was the question posed by Joshua to the children of Israel when they had entered the Promised Land, and it is the same question that faces us today. Joshua 24:15, "And if it seems evil to you to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”"  Choose whom/what you will serve!  You can certainly choose to serve wealth, if you want…it wouldn’t be unusual at all if you did.  After all, that’s what many other people in our culture choose to serve.  But there are consequences with that choice.  A choice to love money means that you will come to despise Christ, because no one can serve two masters.  If you choose to serve comfort, you will resent the difficulties you face as a Christian. If you choose to serve your ego, you will rebel against making Jesus first place.  If you choose to serve physical pleasures, you will reject purity and serving the Lord with your body.  Whatever other master you choose, if it is not the Lord God, you will eventually end up hating God.  It’s no different with money.  If you choose to serve wealth, riches, and mammon, then that is what you will love, and any professed love you have for Jesus will take a backseat and eventually turn to resentment.  Thus you cannot serve both.  You must make a choice. Choose to serve Jesus!

Is there any wisdom in the wicked?  In a sense, yes.  The unjust steward was not wise in the way he got himself into trouble, but he was certainly cunning in the way he dealt with it.  He saw his need for the future, and did what it took to provide for himself.  He took the opportunity he had remaining to him, and he ran with it.

Those are the lessons we need to learn as Christians.  No, we are not to be like the world in their actions.  We aren’t to look like them, nor seek after the things that they seek.  But as far as them trying to provide for themselves and using the opportunities they have at their disposal – yes, we can do likewise.

First, we are to recognize we face an eternal future, and we need to be prepared for it!  Most importantly, this means we need to belong to Christ as one of His own, choosing to follow Him as our Lord & Savior.  Do what it takes to follow Christ, letting nothing hold you back.

Second, once we belong to Christ, we need to be faithful stewards of what He’s given us.  Use what He’s given you for His glory.  Money isn’t to be our master; it’s to be our servant.  It’s a tool that can be used to share Jesus around the world, and around the corner.  God has given us all kinds of opportunities…let’s not let a single one pass us by!


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