“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 16:9
The parable of the unjust steward is the thirty-fourth of the forty formal parables of the Gospels. A parable is a made-up story with a meaning within its letter. In its literal sense this parable presents the case of a shrewd man who found himself in a critical position and who devised the means for his support when he was rejected by his lord.
Viewed superficially this parable would seem to encourage fraud. And we even note that the unjust steward was commended for his prudence. In its literal meaning the teaching of this parable is very plain, for everyone can see that the evil or the unjust can perform deeds which are of use to others for the sake of self and the world. Men are continually doing this, performing works of benefit to the community for the sake of praise and honor. The unjust steward had acted prudently and circumspectly – the wisdom of the serpent – so it is said of such, “for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.”
It is a notable fact that the worldly man, who is interested solely in getting the riches of this world for himself, will work harder than the man who puts service to the Lord and the neighbor first.
At first thought it may seem incredible that the evil or unjust are wiser in their life of self and the world than those who know the truth are in obtaining those things which are of service to the love of the Lord and the neighbor. Yet the confirmation of this fact appears when men are seen literally to work themselves to death in the effort to gain honor, position, and wealth. Under the Divine Providence the evil are often permitted to hold positions of trust because they will administer them with zeal and ability, and so be of service to others, although they themselves are wholly in the love of self. “Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee: the remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain.”
Still, it must be clearly understood that it is not wiser to live the life of self and the world than to live the life which leads to heaven. Those fired (the word “wrath” in the foregoing quotation is literally “fury”) with the loves of self and the world are eager and persistent in acquiring every knowledge which can be of service to them and put them ahead of their fellows.
The word “mammon” is the name of the Syrian god of wealth. Its Greek counterpart is Pluto. In the Sermon on the Mount the Lord tells us that we have need of material things, and in this parable we are told to “make friends of the mammon of unrighteousness.” We make friends of this mammon when we use our natural knowledges and natural possessions in service to others, thus turning them into good. So they become a means of introduction into heaven.
We cannot be of service to the world by withdrawing ourselves from it. We cannot even live in this world without natural knowledge and natural goods or possessions. If we did not acquire them for ourselves, they would have to be supplied to us by others.
In the parable the rich man is the Lord, the Divine Man, not merely because all things in the universe are His, but primarily because all goodness and truth are his. He is Goodness itself, Truth itself, and Life itself. The steward is the Church, dispensing the Lord’s spiritual truth; and, in a limited sense each individual man, as a Church in the least form, is a steward of the Lord, having charge of the Lord’s good and truth.
The steward was reported to his lord as wasting his goods. Churches have done this and come to their end. And these Divine goods and truths are wasted by the individual when he neglects or misuses them.
We are all called to account and when so called, we realize that we have fallen short of fulfilling our responsibilities. No one fully lives up to his responsibilities. We all know that we could have and should have done better. We have not learned as much as we could; we have not done all that we could. The steward said, “I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed.” We see at once that we cannot from ourselves know what is true and good, and that we cannot ask the Lord to support us with no effort on our part. Then the question arises: “What shall I do?”
No one can fully pay his debt to the Lord, but he can acknowledge it and do what he can. The debtors in the story represent all our means and abilities. The debts were a hundred measures of oil and a hundred measures of wheat. The oil stands for goodness and the wheat for truth, truth carried out in the daily life. One hundred stands for fullness. We can acknowledge that we owe the Lord all our goodness and truth. We should desire to acknowledge our complete indebtedness. We cannot fully pay our debt to the Lord. The past cannot be changed, but we can let the dead past go and do the best we can with our present means. And the Lord will accept this as sufficient because “he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust.”
Though one cannot go back, he should acknowledge the debt and so write it in his book of life. Then if he will keep the commandments, improve the living present, he will make his future sure. He cannot pay one hundred measures of oil, but he can pay fifty – he can do all that now can be done. Fifty measures of oil mean all the good now possible. The other debtor was commanded to pay back four score measures of wheat. Four score or eighty, since it is twice forty, represents temptations. There were forty days of the flood, the Israelites were forty years in the wilderness, the Lord was forty days in the desert tempted of the devil. To pay eighty measures of wheat is to stand by the truth in temptations both as to our affections and as to our thoughts. It is to direct our lives by the Lord’s Word. This is all that we can do.
All states of human life are outbirths generated by our ruling love. Everything in the character of the worldly man is generated by his love of the world. And so he lives for the world only, and concentrates all his energy on worldly things. And no wonder he is more cunning, in his generation, than the spiritual man is in the world; for the spiritual man places his primary interest in the inner world of the spirit. “The serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field.” The senses are wise in their generation, that is, in outward things and for the sensuous life, but for this only. Serpents are more cunning than lambs or doves. And owls can see better than eagles – in the dark.
Thus in this parable the Lord teaches us that we should be as ready to look after our spiritual interests as worldly men are to look after their worldly interests. Our opportunities, our associations, the outward circumstances of our lives might be made far more profitable to our spiritual life than we generally make them.
And when the Lord says, “Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness,” He is telling us to use the things of this world wisely and prudently in order that we may make them act as friends of our spiritual life and not as enemies. “Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.” Knowledge of every kind is given to the evil as well as to the good. By applying knowledge to a good use it is made a friend. The best of intentions do not make a man a good judge or governor unless he knows how to administer the law with judgment. This is true of every use or occupation; and although the knowledge relating to various occupations and positions is the mammon of the unjust, the Lord teaches man to make it his friend, to convert it into goodness. With such knowledge man can perform good uses, not from love of self and the world, but from love to the Lord and the neighbor, and in this goodness he will be received into heaven to live to eternity, a citizen of the Lord’s kingdom, which is a kingdom of uses.
“Trust in the Lord, and do good; so shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed.
“Delight thyself also in the Lord; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.
“Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass.
“And he shall bring forth thy righteousness as the light, and thy judgment as the noonday.”