The Prudent Steward.
"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. 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. 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. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. So he called every one of his lord's debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. 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. 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. And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations." -- LUKE xvi.1-9.

On the face of this parable a difficulty presents itself, all the more formidable in that it lies not in the critical, but in the moral department. In almost all the other examples, the acts attributed to human agents are either morally blameless in themselves, or are manifestly exhibited in order to be condemned: but here, an element of injustice is inseparably mixed up with the prudence which is commended in the conduct of the steward. The difficulty lies in this, that the specimen of worldly prudence presented in order to suggest and stimulate spiritual prudence in securing the interests of the soul, is dyed through and through with the loathsome vice of dishonesty. It is not easy, at least for us, to gather the lesson which this man's prudence contained, out of the dishonesty in which in was steeped.

When we read the parable we may detect a feeling of surprise creeping over our minds, that the Lord, who had the whole world and its history before him whence to select his examples, should have chosen a specimen of worldly wisdom, damaged by an admixture of downright falsehood, in order to stimulate thereby the spiritual zeal of his own disciples. The three following observations will, in my judgment, explain and completely remove the difficulty: -- (1.) The Holy One, precisely because he is perfectly holy, can come closer to the unholy than we who are infected with sin and susceptible of injury from contact with impurity. Jesus talked with the Samaritan at the well, and permitted the sinner to wash his feet with tears in Simon's house. His own disciples and the Pharisees wondered by turns why he came so close to the unclean; but if they had been free from sin as he was, they could have handled it freely when in their ordinary ministry it crossed their path. Inflammable matter must be kept far from fire; whereas matter that is incombustible may, when a necessary cause occurs, safely pass through the midst of the flame. (2.) A shorter parable in another place presents and explains the same difficulty: "Be ye wise as serpents, and harmless as doves." Serpents are proposed to the disciples as examples to be imitated; but it is the wisdom only and not the hurtfulness of the serpent that their Master enjoins them to imitate. Foresight and dishonesty are not more closely or inseparably united in the character of the cunning steward than wisdom and hurtfulness in the nature of the serpent. In both alike the Master meant that one quality which is commendable should be selected for imitation, and the other quality which is vile should be cast away with loathing. (3.) The key-note of the parable is expressed in verse 8: "The children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light." The line of interpretation must be drawn through this point, and all the scattered features of the picture brought up or brought down to meet it. Thus the tinge of dishonesty that runs through the prudence of the steward, so far from rendering his case unsuitable for the purpose of the Lord, imparted to it additional appropriateness and point. The methods, as well as the ends of the worldly, were different from those of the spiritual. This example shows that, from the ungodly man's own view-point, and according to his own maxims, he prosecutes his object with energy and skill. Let the Christian, with his clearer, purer light, prosecute his high aim by holy means with an energy and zeal similar to those which the ungodly exhibit in the pursuit of their gains or pleasures. It was the design of the Lord not simply to give his disciples generally an example of wisdom, but to give them specifically an example of the wisdom of the world -- the wisdom that neither fears God nor regards man. An example of prudence taken from a good man's history, and exercised under submission to the law of God, would not have suited the Master's purpose so well as the one that has been chosen.

It is important to notice at the outset, that in this instance the Lord addresses his instructions specifically to his own disciples. The three parables which are recorded in the preceding chapter were spoken to the Pharisees; immediately after these, and in continuation of the history, the evangelist intimates that "he said also unto his disciples, There was a certain rich man," &c. Besides those lessons which he gave to the multitude, teaching how the distant may come near, he gave this lesson to those who had already come near, in order to incite them to diligence in the course which they had chosen: this Teacher rightly divides the word of truth, giving to each his portion in due season. In this lesson the diligence of worldly men is employed to rebuke the slothfulness of Christians. Those who make perishing things their portion are thoughtful, inventive, energetic, decisive in prosecuting their object; how thoughtless and slow are the heirs of the kingdom in the work of their high calling!

"A certain rich man had a steward." We learn here, incidentally, how evenly balanced are the various conditions of life in a community, and how little of substantial advantage wealth can confer on its possessor. As your property increases, your personal control over it diminishes; the more you possess, the more you must entrust to others. Those who do their own work are not troubled with disobedient servants; those who look after their own affairs, are not troubled with unfaithful overseers.[86]

[86] A case came up lately in an English court of justice, in which a certain duke prosecuted his butler for malversation in his charge. It appeared in evidence that the defalcation on the account for wine alone amounted to L.1500. This fact incidentally reveals two things: -- How great is the wealth of these British princes; and how little that wealth is under their own control.

This overseer cheated his master, and concealed the fraud for a time under the folds of complicated accounts; but, as in all similar cases, this career of wickedness came suddenly to an end. Some person discovered the facts and informed the proprietor. When suspicion was raised inquiry could not be resisted; and, when an inquiry was instituted, the crime could not be hid. The steward seems to have given up his case as soon as he was accused; he uttered not a word in his own defence. There was no proof on one side, and no denial on the other. The case was clear, and the process summary; sentence of dismissal was pronounced on the spot. But the proprietor was still in a great measure at the mercy of this unfaithful servant; the accounts were all in his hand, and the owner could not instantly resume the power which he had delegated. The agent accordingly was ordered to prepare and submit a balance-sheet, on which his successor might proceed to administer the estate.

There was not much time for deliberation: the decree of dismissal had already passed, and as soon as the state of accounts could be made up, this once comfortable and important personage must be cast penniless upon the world. Now or never, he must do something for himself. With habits, both mental and physical, cast in another mould, he cannot win his bread as a labourer; and his pride revolted against the prospect of becoming a beggar on the spot where he had long been owned as master by the multitude. His resolution is quickly formed, and as quickly carried into effect. He will employ his present opportunity, so as to provide a refuge for himself in his future need: he will so deal with the money while it is still in his hand, as that he shall not be left destitute when he is driven from his place.

In prosecution of his purpose, the steward summoned his master's debtors one by one into his presence. He held their acknowledgments for goods received, or their signatures for the amount of rent which they had agreed to pay for their lands. Having in his hands the documents which bound the debtors, he might have read off from these the amount due by each; but it suited his purpose better to ask the obligants what sums they owed, and to proceed wholly upon their voluntary acknowledgments. The first owed a hundred measures of oil, the second a hundred measures of wheat. What these quantities may have been in relation to our standards is a question which possesses only a critical and antiquarian interest: it has no bearing on the interpretation of the parable, and therefore we pass it without further notice. The absolute amount of the debt has no influence on the meaning of the parable; the point which is really important is the proportion between the amount owned by the debtors and the amount exacted by the steward. Olive oil and wheat were two of the staple products of the country, and the obligations in regard to them may have been incurred either in transactions of a mercantile character, or in those which intervene between landlord and tenant.[87]

[87] Probably the rents were paid in kind, and these were the arrears which the tenants acknowledged.

The method of the overseer is short and simple: apart from considerations of morality, conscience, and divine retribution, it seemed a short road to the accomplishment of his purpose. He surrendered to the debtors their obligations, and received in return obligations for smaller amounts, in one case for fifty, and in another for eighty, instead of a hundred. These two cases are submitted as specimens: others were treated in a similar way. Of course the steward could not obtain from these debtors any obligation in his own favour for the portion remitted, which could be enforced in a court of justice; for the proof of the claim on the one side would have revealed his guilt on the other: but it was assumed between the parties that the benefit conferred should in due time be substantially acknowledged and repaid. The steward counted that in the day of his distress those men on whom he had conferred favours would receive him into their houses.[88]

[88] Of the same nature were the long leases of ecclesiastical property in England at low rents, granted by the living incumbents, in consideration of a sum of money in name of fine paid to themselves.

It was expected, moreover, that the proprietor, or the steward whom he might afterwards employ, could not exact more than the smaller sums, for which they possessed the acknowledgments of the parties. We could indeed conceive a case in which the injured owner could lead a proof of fraud in the transaction, and enforce from the obligants the original amounts; but it is not probable that, in an age when records were defective, and the two parties immediately connected with the fraudulent transaction deeply interested in concealing it, such a suit could be successfully carried through.[89]

[89] A case emerged lately in the courts of this country, in which a proprietor, who had lost very large sums by the unfaithfulness of his agent, prosecuted the parties for restitution, on the ground of the agent's bad faith in the transactions. The case was protracted, and I lost sight of it before the solution was reached; but it is enough for my present purpose that a plea was actually raised to obtain from one debtor the price of a hundred measures of oil instead of fifty, which he acknowledged, on the alleged ground that the absconded steward had corruptly and for his own interest sacrificed the rights of his employer.

The lord, that is the injured proprietor, commended the unjust steward, because, or in that, he had done wisely. The difficulty here lies on the surface, -- lies, as it were, in the sound; upon a close examination it vanishes. First of all, the lord who praised the steward is, as the translators have indicated by printing the word without a capital, not the Lord Jesus, the speaker of the parable, but the master, whom the cunning agent had robbed. Further, this praise obviously did not indicate moral approval. The master praised the servant when all was over, not for the faithfulness with which he had been served, but for the cleverness with which he had been cheated. The commendation which the master bestowed upon the servant was that of sharply looking after himself. It is the commendation which one whose house has been robbed during the night might bestow in the morning upon the robber, after noticing how adroitly he had opened the locks, and carried off the booty.

This nefarious transaction was, from the perpetrator's view-point, cleverly planned and promptly executed. It was no sooner said than done; delay might have ruined the steward's prospects. He must have everything done before he is summoned actually to transfer his books to his successor's hands. He provided in his own way for his own future need; the plan was well-contrived, and successfully carried into effect. This praise, but expressly and only this, the injured master bestowed upon the man.

"And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations." Such is the lesson which the Lord draws from the picture. Difficulties, indeed, adhere to the phraseology in its details; but the interpretation, in its main line, is determined and made evident by landmarks which can neither be overlooked nor removed. The mammon of unrighteousness means the world with all its business and its possessions; mammon is denominated unrighteous, generally on account of the manner in which it is employed by worldly men, and specially on account of the case in hand, where a gross injustice was perpetrated without scruple, and as an ordinary matter of business. Alas, how prevalent is this form of unrighteousness still! Although justice in a large measure pervades and so sustains the vast commerce of the country, many mean tricks insinuate themselves between its mighty strata, corroding its fabric, and undermining its strength.

In counselling the disciples to acquire for themselves friends from the mammon of unrighteousness ([Greek: poiesate heantois philous ek tou mamona tes adikias]), the Lord obviously adopts the terms of his spiritual lesson from the structure of the parable which conveys it. By remitting part of their debts the steward made the debtors his friends; he won them to his side, and made sure of their sympathy when his day of need should come. His prudence and skill were commendable, but the fraud which was mingled with them is neither approved by the Lord, nor prescribed as a pattern for the disciples.[90] Nor is it difficult to lift the pure lesson from the impure ground on which it lies. The steward could not reach his unrighteous object except by a crooked path; but the ends which a Christian strives to attain neither require nor admit the employment of falsehood. Use the world in such a way that it shall help and not hinder the interests of your soul and of the world to come.

[90] The Emperor Julian adduced this parable in order to prove that the doctrines of Christ were adverse to good morals. This is precisely the place where the apostate, seeking reasons to justify his apostasy, will most readily find what he seeks.

The position of the phrase, [Greek: eis ten genean ten heauton], in or for their own generation, near the end of the sentence, determines that it is applied equally to both parties. It is implied that both classes, the children of the world and the children of light, look after their own affairs; and it is intimated that the one class attends to its business more earnestly and more skilfully than the other. This man cleaves to the world as his portion, and that man has chosen the Saviour as his: but, in point of fact, he who has chosen the inferior object prosecutes it with the greater zeal. The superior energy of the worldling in the acquisition of gains is employed to rebuke the Christian for his slackness in winning the true riches. This is the main lesson of the parable.

The specific form which the lesson assumes is, -- Provide now for future need, and make the opportunities of time subservient to the interests of eternity.

The characteristic features of the steward's skill were, that when his dismissal was near, he occupied the short time that remained, and the resources still at his disposal, in skilfully providing for the future. We are stewards in possession still, but under warning; do we employ the time and the opportunities that remain in making our calling and election sure?

Many precious possessions have been placed in our hands by the owner of all; health of body and soundness of mind; home and friends; good name or great riches, or both conjoined; -- these and many others have been by their owner placed under our charge, that we should lay them out for him. Soon the stewardship will be taken from us. "When ye fail," -- that is, when we can no longer retain our hold of time and life; when flesh and heart are failing; when a mist comes over the eye, so that it can no longer see the circle of weeping friends that stand round the bed of death, -- have we an everlasting habitation ready to receive the departing spirit?

More particularly the practical question is, Have we disposed of earthly possessions and opportunities, so that they helped and did not hinder the acquisition of an incorruptible inheritance?

There is a place and a use for temporal things in making sure of the life eternal. How constant has been the tendency of fallen humanity to run wildly into opposite extremes of error; because the Popish system gives worldly possessions too high a place in the concerns of the soul, we may readily fall into the error of giving them no place at all. We lean hard over against the superstition that expects by alms, and money paid for masses, to smooth the spirit's path to peace beyond the grave; but when we have refused to make money directly the price of our admission into heaven, we have not exhausted our duty in regard to its bearing on our eternal weal. The property, and money, and occupations of time may instrumentally affect for good or evil our efforts to lay up the true riches. According as they are employed, they may become a stumbling-stone over which their possessor shall fall, or a shield to cover his head from some fiery darts of the wicked one.[91]

[91] For example, their competence and the comforts which it brings shield women of the higher and middle classes in this country, in a great measure, from certain snares of the devil in which multitudes of their poorer sisters miserably fall. If those who enjoy this protection throw away their advantage by turning that which is a protection on one side into a temptation on the other, and so bring themselves to an equality over all with the less favoured classes, the fault is their own. It is proved by obvious facts that worldly possessions may be placed between you and temptation, as cotton bales and sand bags may be employed to ward off cannon shot from stone walls. They are capable of being turned to some account in advancing our eternal interests; for our inheritance in heaven, the world is useful, if it is rightly used.

Could it be truly said of any who are lost that the mammon of unrighteousness brought them to the place of woe? or, conversely could it be truly said of any who now stand round the throne in white, that the mammon of unrighteousness became the friend who introduced them to that everlasting habitation? I reply, this mammon is not and cannot be a cause either of being saved or being lost; but it, as well as all other things in time, may become instruments in the saving or destroying of a soul, according as it is wisely used or foolishly abused. For example, in the next parable, it was sin and not wealth that ruined the rich man; many richer men than he have walked with God on earth, and entered rest when they departed. Wealth was not his destroyer, yet he so used his wealth as to permit the wicked one to bind his soul with it as with chains over to the second death. On the other hand, it was neither the poverty nor the sores of Lazarus, nor both together, that saved him; many as destitute of money and as full of sores as he are never saved. Christ was this man's Saviour, -- Christ alone; yet, his poverty became in God's hands, and through his servant's faith, the instrument of shielding him from temptation and purging his dross away. In the same subordinate and instrumental sense in which the rich man's wealth was his ruin, the poverty of the poor man saved him. But these results are not uniform -- are not necessary; they may be -- they often are reversed. The wealth of a rich man may help him heavenward, and the poverty of a poor man may press him down toward the pit. The cardinal point of the parable is, employ the mammon of unrighteousness -- this world's affairs all, with forethought, skill, decision, and energy, to further your own salvation; turn all to account for the gain of godliness.

A ship leaves our shores bound westward to an Atlantic port: the wind, being from the north, beats on her right side all the way. She makes a quick voyage and reaches her destination in safety. Another ship at another time leaves these shores for the same destination: the wind, blowing from the south, beats on her left side. She wanders from her course and is shipwrecked. Whence these opposite results? Was the first ship saved because she met a north wind, and the second lost because she fell in with a wind from the south? Nay, verily: but because the one so received the wind, from whatever point of the compass it might blow, as to be impelled by it onward in her course: and the other, instead of wisely employing every wind to help her forward, allowed herself to drift before the wind that happened to blow.

Mammon, the world -- ah, is it not adverse to the interests of our souls? What then? Believer, adversary though it be, you may make it your friend. A skilful seaman, when once fairly out to sea, can make a wind from the west carry him westward! he can make the wind that blows right in his face bear him onward to the very point from which it blows. When he arrives at home, he is able to say the wind from the west impelled me westward, and led me into my desired haven.

Thus if we were skilful, and watchful, and earnest, we might make the unrighteous mammon our friend; we might so turn our side to each of its tortuous impulses, that willing or unwilling, conscious or unconscious, it should from day to day drive us nearer home.

The parable is in this peculiar, that in the moral lesson which the Master enforces at the close, he retains and employs the phraseology of the story. "Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness," &c. The meaning is by the context made plain, and the reader may translate the metaphor as he proceeds. The steward, while he remained in his place, so handled the property in his power as to secure for himself a home when he should be removed from his place: in like manner let men so use material possessions while they live on earth, that these very possessions shall be found to have helped them toward their eternal rest. When a man's ways please God, he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him. These things that are enemies, and that overcome many, you may make your friends; you may turn to them such a side, that every time they strike they shall press you nearer rest, and at their last stroke impel you through the narrow entrance into the joy of your Lord.

xxiv the prodigal son
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