16:1 Then Jesus said to the disciples, "There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.
16:2 So he summoned him and said to him, 'What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.'
16:3 Then the manager said to himself, 'What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.
16:4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.'
16:5 So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?'
16:6 He answered, 'A hundred jugs of olive oil.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.'
16:7 Then he asked another, 'And how much do you owe?' He replied, 'A hundred containers of wheat.' He said to him, 'Take your bill and make it eighty.'
16:8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.
16:9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
16:10 "Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.
16:11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?
16:12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?
16:13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."
This is one of the toughest parables in the canon of parables of Jesus, because it seems like he's preaching the exact opposite of what he preaches everywhere else. I've seen lots of godly people turn somersaults to interpret this parable. Lots of commentaries try to address this by changing the meaning of certain parts to mean something else. Well, I prayed and mediated on this passage, and I didn't want to avoid it any longer. I'm going to tackle it.
First, we should look at what it's NOT. We have so many parables from Jesus that are about the kingdom of God (the KoG is like, etc) and about how to live a Christian life, that we assume that this is another such parable. For example, Jesus could be saying that the kingdom of God is something that is gained deceitfully, or if you are unable to cheat your way into the kingdom, then quickly put yourself at a disadvantage so that God will say, "well done, crooked and deceitful servant!"
But Jesus never says that this is a "kingdom of God" parable. He's just telling a story about a worldly, ungodly person. His point is that if this person, who is chaff, is able to figure his way out of his problem when the chips are down, why cannot the children of light? If, with the aid of the money he has stolen, the wicked steward is able to quickly right his wrongs, why cannot the children of light use their money for God's kingdom in the same way?
The confusing phrase, the one that upsets the apple cart, is "dishonest wealth." The NASB uses "unrighteous wealth." What confuses us Christians is that when we read that phrase, we assume it means "wealth gained dishonestly." Why, as a Christian, would I even be in possession of dishonest wealth? But here is Jesus assuming that his children all have this sort of money lying around and they aren't using it properly.
Now, everywhere this phrase "dishonest wealth" is used there is a footnote. Down at the bottom of the pages we find that the direct translation is "mammon." What is mammon? Well, we've seen that word before, and we know that it means money, right? It's just the word they used in ancient times for money. Well, I think it is much more than that. Mammon is a god--a false god, but a god nonetheless--an idol that we bow down to. Mammon is the god of wealth, and because every single person on earth is affected by it--from the Amish to the celebrity to the starving child in the third world--we can't just destroy the idol. We can't just burn all the money we have, because it is a necessary tool for life. That's why it is the worst competing god in existence. Notice in the last verse above that Jesus doesn't say "you cannot serve God and Baal" or even "you cannot serve God and Satan." He says God and Mammon.
So, this dishonest wealth was probably not gained dishonestly, but Mammon as a whole is dishonest, unrighteous, ungodly. We are in possession of ungodly things and there's nothing we can do about it. Jesus is telling us in this parable how we must handle this god we interact with each day. Just as the wicked steward used his wealth to make friends among the ungodly, we are to make friends among the saints. We are to use this money to build Christian community here on earth.
This is not the only place where the final, recognizable verse is used. Here is the context of the verse in Matthew 6:
24 “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?
28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin,
29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.
30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’
32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.
33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
The parable of the wicked steward is nowhere near the verse this time, but the verse leads into the popular passage about not worrying about food and clothing. Why? Because Mammon will overpower you the most through those two necessities. We spend our money on food and clothing for survival, and then we quickly move onto food and clothing as luxuries. It's the slipperiest of slippery slopes.
The passage ends with one of the most famous verses in scripture. Seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you. This mirror's Jesus' exhortation to us in the parable. We must use mammon for the kingdom of God, to build his kingdom on earth. We must not use it selfishly. Even the wicked know how to use the money wisely when rubber meets the road.
Let's look at one last passage about mammon, to tie all of these thoughts together:
1 Timothy 6
Teach and urge these duties.
3 Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness,
4 is conceited, understanding nothing, and has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words. From these come envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions,
5 and wrangling among those who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.
6 Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment;
7 for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it;
8 but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.
9 But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.
10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.
11 But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.
12 Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.
13 In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession...
Paul is exhorting Timothy concerning false teachers, but notice where he quickly goes. Arguments and contesting among leadership is founded in that false god mammon. And the antidote is being content. We are content by pursuing righteousness, godliness--the kingdom of God--just as Jesus says in the sermon on the mount. We fight this good fight by making a good confession. Does this mean confessing all of your sins in front of many witnesses?
Does it? The next verse answers that. Jesus made the good confession in front of Pontius Pilate. Did Jesus confess his sins? No he didn't have any. Jesus confessed to Pilate that he was the son of God, that he WAS the king that they were about to crucify him for. He confessed his divinity. And so, too, are we, in front of many witnesses, to confess that Jesus is LORD.
That is how we seek the kingdom of God, that is how we use mammon for the kingdom, to make friends among the saints: by first confessing Jesus as LORD.