The Mercy of the Master - Looking at Luke - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahonArticles on the Christian Walk, Systematic Theology and Practical Theology
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1 And he said also unto his disciples, There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods.
2 And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward.
3 Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed.
4 I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.
5 So he called every one of his lord’s debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord?
6 And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty.
7 Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore.
8 And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.
One of my favorite New Testament parables is the parable 0f the unjust steward. It is, no doubt, one of the most difficult parables that we encounter in the Bible. Many commentators have varied opinions on its structure, intent and the like. They say this parable will show forth the integrity of Christ Himself, or not, since He makes parabolic use of a wicked servant, and then praises him for his craftiness. Liberals are quick, but not wise, to scandalously deface this parable since they believe it is a way to dishonor Christ. Is the Master in the parable an honest man or a partner in crime? The answer to this will reflect on Christ’s character. Why would Jesus tell us about an honorable wicked man? Here I hope to vindicate the Master from the charges of unthinking and devout liberals who desire to blacken the name of Son of God, while at the same time edify the saints with a most excellent theological teaching. But I shall not venture to stop with edifying the saint, and stopping the mouths of the gainsayers. If the exegesis of this parable be suitable, then I include hoping to win the souls of some to the faith.
This parable is among the eschatological parables. What does this mean? Eschatological parables answer the question “What will a person do when the Kingdom comes upon them?” It elicits a reaction to the parable. And it always deals with the truth of the ultimate reality of a man’s final state. This is an important note to make when dealing with the parable, and helpful in understanding the point of each theological idea housed within the teaching. In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Lazarus is honorable, the rich man is wicked. In the parable of the prodigal son, the father is honorable, and the prodigal is wicked. In this parable, the Master is honorable, and the steward is unjust, or wicked. But all three emphasize the eschatological nature of the coming of the Kingdom of God. What will a man do when the Kingdom comes upon him?
Luke 16:1 demonstrates that the parable was first directed to the disciples. “He also said to His disciples:” Christ desires His disciples to glean something important from this parable, as with all His parables. They are going to learn that they should act the like the world in certain respects. But it is also important to note that in 16:14 the Pharisees are also listening in on Jesus’ conversation with them. Here we can easy apply the parable to the lost as well.
In Luke 16:1b we find an estate manager who has wasted the goods of his Master. The word okinomon [oivkono,mon] refers to the work an estate manger would accomplish on behalf of the Master of the house. He would have been the manager of the Master’s house. He would have, normally, attended to the steady structure and flow of all the Master’s belongings. But there is a serious problem. This estate manager has been wasteful and neglected to use the goods of the Master in an honest manner. The estate is most likely a large area of land rented out to those who would utilize the land to grow crops. The Master was a renter of land, and the steward oversaw these business transactions. They would grow their crops in return for renting the land thus owing rent to the Master. In attempting to comprehend the problem of wasted goods here, we find we must turn to understanding the nature of the culture, and the community. The steward had not inflated the bills, but was making money under the table. If he had changed the public documents which the Master saw and appraised, he would have been exposed immediately. So we know that the steward was wasting the Master’s goods under the table in some manner. It was most likely in monetarily. By stealing, he was being a bad steward of the Master’s property.
How does the Master find out the servant is not being honest? The Master is given information by someone in the community. We know that every one in the community did not know the situation. If the whole community knew, he would have been forced to leave it altogether. They would have never trusted him past this point. But someone has become aware of his dealing, probably another servant of the Master, and informs the Master of the unjust steward’s dealing. “What is this I am continually hearing?” The Master had heard and continues to hear something about this servant.
The steward remains silent. This note is quite important and should be remembered. He is fired on the spot. Both the Master and the steward know this. He has lost his job. He is told to turn in the books, not balance them. He is not make restitution. If he had more time in the Master’s service he may wind up embezzling more money and cause further waste to the Master’s property. Here the listener would be expecting the steward to defend his innocence, but he does not. He is guilty and he knows the Master knows this. He understands that being disobedient before the Master means that there will be a sore judgment. He also knows that he cannot get his job back by making excuses.
Then we see something which is not usual. After being fired, the Master does not press charges or have the unjust steward jailed. We see he is fired but not thrown in to jail where he belongs. Being disobedient incurs a just judgment, but the Master’s character shines through here. The steward is also shown mercy – the mercy of the Master. This is a vital point in the parable. This is something we should not miss.
In Luke 16:3-7 we find the solution that the unjust steward fabricates for his precarious situation. And we also find him being praised for it. His dilemma surrounded his reputation. The moment the community finds out that he is a swindler, he will be cast out of the social structure, then who would have him now? His public image is at stake. He contemplates begging and that is simply not appealing to him – he would be too shamed to take up such a practice. He considers manual labor and says he cannot do it. The Greek here is not clear as to why he cannot do manual labor. It may be he had some physical problem, or it may be that he just does not want to be reduced to such tasks. In either case he does not desire to do this. Instead he devises a plan to preserve his life.
The steward summons the debtors. They believe he has a message from the Master. He desires them to reduce their bills and make them about 500 denari less in each case than they were before. The bills are reduced by amounts of produce, but the equivalent of the reductions is about the same amount in cold hard cash. This is a substantial decrease overall. He indirectly asks these questions as if he still has authority and expresses the Master’s generosity and the debtors believe him. Usually it would have been the case to argue the land owner down on the price. But in this case the debtors agree to the reduction, which is sometimes common as a result of crops production, famine, soil problems, etc. If they knew the unjust steward’s plan they would not threaten their relationship with the Master by cheating him. They had no idea the steward was cheating the Master here.
In Luke 16:8 we find the Master praising the steward for his craftiness (or shrewdness.) He is praised for his “wisdom.” This does not mean the Master is a partner in crime with the steward, he most certainly is not. So why does the Master praise the steward? As a result of the debtors decrease and help economically, they now love the Master more. What will the Master do? Will he take back the generosity shown? If he does, then though he may be right, he will lose respect with the community. They will be angry with him. This joy will be turned to disappointment and the Master does not want this to happen. He stays silent. They view him as heroic, a hero in their eyes. As a result of his silence, he is acquiescing to the reduction. Instead of voicing a rebuttal and fixing the misunderstood situation, the generosity and mercy of the Master is seen again. He praises the wisdom or hokmah of the steward. This is the principle of life-preservation found all through the Old Testament. The steward had a resolution to preserve his life. It was a matter of survival. As it says in
Proverbs 4:7, “Wisdom is the principle thing…” Wisdom here is the idea of self-preservation. We know the Master does not praise a crooked heart because he does not hire back the steward. Rather, the Master chose to pay the price for the steward’s life. He commended the life-preservation principle, not the act of deception. In choosing to pay the price for the steward, he is metaphorically “saved.”
Jesus then comments on this parable by stating that the sons of the world are more crafty, or self-preserving, than the sons of light. They hold a sense of self-preservation more shrewdly as a result of temporal sustenance, than the sons of light do in spiritual matters. The parable, then, ends in a rebuke from the Lord.
Before I draw some doctrinal points out of the text, I want to remind us of the eschatological nature of the Kingdom. We must be reminded that this is a parable that deals with eschatological judgment. What will the listener do when they hear this parable? How will the listen react? The kingdom of God has come upon you, now what will you do with its message? Christ had said, Matthew 4:17, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And the writer of Hebrews makes the point that, “it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment (Heb. 9:27).” As the steward was commanded to turn in the books, that his work could be critiqued, so one day everyone will stand before the Judgment seat and the books will one day be required of them. As the steward was not expecting the Master to do this on the day he did, or to confront him at all for that matter, so men of the world think in this same way. But the books will be required by them nonetheless.
I would like to make two important points in light of the coming of the Kingdom of God.
The first point is concerning the Master’s character. The Master in the parable is God. The steward is man. The Master acts in a certain respect towards the steward. God shows Himself to be unwaveringly righteous. He is just in His judgments. Jeremiah 9:23-24 says, “Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, Let not the mighty man glory in his might, Nor let the rich man glory in his riches; But let him who glories glory in this, That he understands and knows Me, That I am the LORD, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight,” says the LORD.” God delights in being righteous and in judging rightly. He delights in these. Job 36:17 states, “But you are filled with the judgment due the wicked; Judgment and justice take hold of you.” It seems God is all consumed with the act of judgment and justice in this verse. In Isaiah 9:7, the prophecy concerning the Messiah, God’s government is made up of judging rightly and being just, “Of the increase of His government and peace There will be no end, Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, To order it and establish it with judgment and justice From that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.” We even find in John 5:22-24 that all judgment is given unto Master Jesus. He is the One who will discern between good and evil on the souls of men.
Though the Master is righteous, He is also merciful. Mercy is the underlying theme of this parable. Judgment is the house where Mercy lives. And this is Jesus’ point – the source of salvation, the source of real life-preservation is in the Master’s mercy. Even the Apostle James says in 2:13, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Mercy is that which Christ desires to give, and men do not deserve. It is a disposition to be kind and forgiving to those who are under your power, though they are undeserving. The steward deserved to go to jail, and men deserve to go to hell. But Jesus says that if you cast your whole life on the mercy of the Master, you will be saved. This is what the steward did. He cast himself completely and wholly on the mercy of the Master and was redeemed. The disciples to whom Jesus was speaking must learn that like the steward with his worldly agenda, the sons of light should be casting themselves wholly on the mercy of the Master in every situation.
This brings us to be more explicit. Jesus Christ is the only fountain of saving mercy. Zechariah 13:1 says, “In that day there shall be a fountain opened.” The day spoken of here is the context of the Shepherd being struck and the sheep being scattered. It has a reference to the saving work of Christ. The fountain is Jesus Himself. In Joel 3:18 a similar statement is made, “A fountain shall flow from the house of the LORD And water the Valley of Acacias.” Jesus Christ is the only Savior, Redeemer, Satisfaction, Messiah, Lord, Word of Life, the only One who can bear the wrath of God for sinners. He is the Lamb, the sacrifice once for all for the remission of sins. He is the life-gate that some men may enter into heaven. Those who cast themselves on His mercy. There is no other name under heaven by which men must be saved other than by Jesus Christ.
All other mercies which God bestows upon the sons of men are nothing in comparison to the saving mercy of Jesus. How can they compare? Christ is such an inexhaustible fountain that sinners cannot ever out desire the mercies of Jesus Christ. They can never want more mercy than He has to dispense to them. He is an overflowing fountain of infinite mercy. For everyone who casts themselves on His mercy their “cup runneth over.” All those other temporal mercies find their eternal significance in Him. For instance, though God may be merciful to men with all the bounty of the world, they hold them in short duration if they are without Jesus Christ. The bounty of the world is fleeting. The mercy of Christ in saving grace is eternal. People try to take their possessions with them, like the movie stars who burry themselves in their cars, or with their money, or are decked out in fine apparel and their best clothes in their coffins. But temporary benefits only find their purpose in Jesus Christ, the fountain of God’s mercy. For there are two kinds of mercy to be found: 1) One is a perfecting mercy – this is the mercy given to the saints. Even in the meager necessities of eating and drinking are given to us as His infinite mercy. They perfect the saints, and further the sanctification of the saint. But there is another kind of mercy which I am going to deem; 2) it is a condemning mercy. This is the condemnation attached to the bounty God shows to wicked men. He judges them for the way they have handled the Master’s estate. They misuse the Master’s goods and waste them. Thus, they are judged for their sinfulness, their rebellion, their waste. Though God showers them with bounty that they do not deserve, they use it wastefully, and procure His unhindered wrath stored for them on the Day of Judgment. To use goods wastefully is to use them in a manner which does not give god all the glory. In this, the lost man is painfully guilty.
After observing the character of the Master, the second point to be made is the action of the steward. The Master is Christ, and the steward is analogous to disciples of Christ in certain respects. The steward entrusted everything to the quality of mercy in the Master. This was not a blind faith! It was a trust based on knowledge. He knew the Master was righteous and merciful. He did not guess nor hope He was like this. He knew the Master would act in the manner He did because the steward intimately knew the character of the Master. Since he knew the Master would do what He did, he also knew the people would then care for him after losing his job. The plan was completely based on the character and response of the Master. It was a stratagem for life-preservation!
Disciples who follow Jesus need this same kind of trust. Some people through the gospels exemplified this. In Matthew 8:10 we find the faith of the Gentile centurion, “When Jesus heard it, He marveled, and said to those who followed, “Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!” Christians are exhorted in 2 Cor. 3:3 to recall their trust in Christ, “And we have such trust through Christ toward God.” And in John 12:36 Jesus stresses the belief of those who are sons of light, “While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” This is something that Christians must do all the time, not just sometimes. The distinction made between those who are sons of light and those who are of the world is one of self-preservation. The difference between the two is that the sons of the world are zealous to preserve their life in temporary sustenance, where the sons of light should be zealous in that which is spiritual. They should be wise as serpents but harmless as doves.
In application of this parable there is a twofold appeal to be made; there are two eschatological applications. The first appeal is to those stewards of the Master’s goods who are without Christ – those who are lost. The question must be put to you, “What are you doing with the Master’s goods?” All men are stewards of the Master. Are you a good steward or evil steward? If you would say, “I am my own Master,” then there is no doubt you are a wicked servant, unjust and wasteful of the Master’s goods. You do not care that Master Jesus has bestowed upon you the temporal delicacies that you enjoy. As with Psalm 73:9, “They set their mouth against the heavens…” Or, in other words, you are saying, “I will do what I want.” In essence, you are speaking like Pharaoh did to Moses, “And Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, nor will I let Israel go (Exodus 5:2).”
All lost men will be called to turn in the books. The “books” are the story of your life. All your deeds, thoughts, actions, ideas, and the like used in relation to the Master’s service will be taken into account. Remember, you are the possession of God. Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness, The world and those who dwell therein.” Everything belongs to the Master, even your never-dying soul. The books refer to life and death as in Revelation 20:12-15, “And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.” So you see, you are in a grave place. You will be judged as to whether you are a good steward or an unjust steward. If you do not have Jesus Christ, then you are an evil steward, and will be judged as one. Do you have a sense of self-preservation? I would appeal to your self-love. Lost men love themselves. They desire to care for themselves above all things. If you really cared for yourself, then you would throw yourself on the mercy of the Master and beg his forgiveness for your wickedness. Be as the steward and give yourself wholly over to His character, His mercy. Since judgment is inevitable, what will you do? Christ is your only hope. You are not under the favor of God because you are doing well for yourself. You are not in a state of mercy though temporary mercies surround you. Peter makes this plain of those who are just stewards. See, just stewards need to be made that way by the Master. They were wicked and evil, like you, and He changes them. 1 Peter 2:10 says, “who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.” People are not born in a state of mercy, but of condemnation. The moment they are conceived they are unjust stewards before the Master. They must be changed and renewed.
Why is it then that you do not come to Christ? Why is it that you do not throw yourself on the mercy of the Master? If you knew His character you would know that he is both Just and Merciful. The reason you do not come to Christ, the fountain of everlasting salvation, is because you do not know His nature. This is the difference between you and the steward. The steward cast himself fully on the mercy of the Master, on what he knew to be true about the nature of the Master. When people say that “God is so good,” or that “God has been so helpful to me,” or that “God is wonderful,” you really have no idea what they mean because you do not know the nature of the Master. But it is worthy to note that even the lost, unjust steward knew the Master well in the parable. Do not be content with the mercies themselves, but the God of those mercies seek with all diligence. Come to know Him, not just the bounty He provides for you. These mercies (cars, houses, family, children, friends, jobs, food, etc.) will be destructive mercies to you unless you know the Giver of these mercies savingly. The Apostle James shows that those bountiful gifts will even rise up to condemn you later. James 5:1-3 says, “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days.” In that day, while you are burning in everlasting fire in hell, you will be reminded of your bad stewardship, and how all these temporal possessions now stand to condemn you. You will say, “How foolish was I to be content with all those earthly possessions!” The steward in the parable thought he was Master, until he was called to give an account by the Master. It was a sore wake up call for him, and completely unexpected. The Day of your Judgment is the same. It will come upon you when you least expect it. You could be summoned at any moment to turn in the books.
For those who are lost and Christless, you ought to call to the Master while He will hear and send Christ’s mercy to you. For that will not always be the case. Psalm 27:7 says, “Hear, O LORD, when I cry with my voice! Have mercy also upon me, and answer me.” Psalm 32:10 states, “Many sorrows shall be to the wicked; But he who trusts in the LORD, mercy shall surround him.” Psalm 145:8 tells us of the great mercy and compassion of God, “The LORD is gracious and full of compassion, Slow to anger and great in mercy.” If you cry out to Him now, and cast yourself heartily on His mercy, He may forgive you, change you and turn you into a steward that glorified Him.
A second appeal must be made to the disciples of Christ – those who are really the Master’s servants. In light of temporary blessings the wicked steward was praised for his self-preservation. As a disciple of Christ you have already been saved from the wrath of God, so does this parable apply to you? It is true that you have been saved if the Spirit has worked in your heart and has converted you. In 1 Peter 1:3 the Apostle says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,” So then, how does this parable apply to you? If Master Jesus is merciful to wicked servants who squander His estate and the temporary blessing he provides for them, how much more will He be merciful to His children whom He loves with a saving love when they come into their times of crisis and cast themselves on His mercy? In this light the parable applies to all God’s elect.
How are you handling the various trials in your life? How are you coping? Well, coping is a very poor word indeed. Rather, how are you triumphing in those times of crisis. You are the same as the steward in the parable in this respect: you have knowledge that Master Jesus has given you about Himself. You know what He is like. He has revealed this to you and has given you the Word of God to further build this knowledge up. He is all merciful and always ready to do you good. Be a son or daughter of light, wiser than the children of this generation, and continually and forever trust in the mercy of the Master to bring you through all your hurts and pains. No matter what the trial may be, even to the greatest trials we can face, we ought always to trust in the merciful nature of the Master, for He knows what is best. Christ is exceedingly glorified in this way. His cross is the fountain of mercy where His people may continue to drink his blessings. The Psalmist says in 13:5, “But I have trusted in Your mercy.” Keep this in your mind always. Say it constantly with the Psalmist, “Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever (Psalm 118:26).” Know it theologically as Eph. 2:4-5 teach us, “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved).” And always remember the Master’s mercy from its past effects.
You see, Christians are not exempt from turning in the books. Romans 14:12 says , “So then each of us shall give account of himself to God.” You are a steward, and you will be judged for your stewardship. How excellent if Christ could be all the more glorified by you and your testimony, that you trusted wholly on His mercy in all times of crisis and for all things. Trust in the mercy of the Master, cast yourself on His ways for all things and in every circumstance.