Smooth Operator

September 23, 2007


Luke 16:1-13

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.

9 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.

10 He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.

11 If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?

12 And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man's, who shall give you that which is your own?

13 No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.


A husband and wife are sitting in the family room when their two children, ages 10 and 12, walk in. “We’ve got a question,” the younger one announces. “We know you two are worth about 800 grand, and so Frankie and me were wondering about when we get our shares.”

This question hits the parents like a 2x4 upside the head. This “800 grand” that little Chrissy mentioned is remarkably close to their actual worth. Then little Chrissy adds, “I told Frankie that we each get our 400 G’s when we turn 18, but Frankie says we have to wait until you both die. Who’s right?”

The parents do not respond to that. They ask the main question, “Just who says we are worth that kind of money?”

Nobody told us,” Frankie responds. “We used Google and looked it up on the Internet.”

That is when the parents understand that we’re not living in granddaddy’s world. We’re not in Kansas any more.

While this conversation is imaginary, the technology it mentions is not. Finding someone’s financial worth on the Internet is increasingly possible because you no longer have to be a member of Forbes 400 or Fortune 500 to show up in databases. If you have stock options, a high salary, or significant business sales, at least some of that data is available online, and some kids have discovered that they can find those reports. They sift through the filings of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Others use real estate Web sites like to calculate the value of the family homestead and vacation homes. Still others scan lists of donors to find out how much their parents are giving away, so as to estimate how much they have.

As you can imagine, this new knowledge in the hands of savvy offspring is changing the dynamic of families and fueling the sense of entitlement among the younger generation. The Internet is making it possible for them to become smooth operators even before they get their driver’s licence.

Had the Internet been around in New Testament times, the central figure in Jesus’ parable of the Unjust Steward would surely have used it to his advantage as a kid. Now, as a grown man, he is the investment broker for a certain rich man, and he is doing just fine, living well on his income from the rich man’s properties—maybe too well. The rich man is not earning the level of return he expected, and rumor has it that his manager is squandering his property.

So naturally, the rich man demands an accounting of his affairs, which clearly the manager knows is not going to be favorable. So, he calls in two debtors who owe a significant amount to the rich man, and he reduces what they owe. His intention is to gain friends who will be willing to hire him after his current master fires him, which seems sure to happen.

This steward is a smooth operator — so smooth, in fact, that even the boss compliments him on his cleverness.

However, the parable is confusing. Unlike other parables Jesus told, the moral of this story is not obvious. Last Sabbath, we considered the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the moral there was that we should all be Good Samaritans and help our neighbors, and we all understood that. We might not always do it, but we understood it. But in this parable of the Unjust Steward, Jesus seems to be commending dishonesty.

We read in v8, “And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely.” What is that about? “The lord” here is a reference to the owner, the rich man, and not to God, but nevertheless, Jesus never indicates that the rich man’s commendation is incorrect. But surely, Jesus cannot approve of the Steward’s behavior. That would be like praising those kids for laying claim to their parents’ money thanks to the Internet.

Still, this parable is in the New Testament, and so for centuries interpreters have tried to make sense of it, and preachers have generally ignored it, but let us rush in where angels fear to tread, and see if we can unpack this in a way that is helpful.

In the latter part of v8, we read: “... for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” Is Jesus saying that God’s people are naïve when it comes to dealing with worldly things? Was Jesus saying not that we should be dishonest, like the steward, but that we should be shrewd like the steward? But this interpretation does not seem to work well because in the parable the Steward’s shrewdness is linked to his dishonesty.

Perhaps we find a better application of the parable in v9, which reads in a modern translation: “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

But this makes no sense at all—unless Jesus is speaking sarcastically. That is one problem of biblical interpretation. We usually do not know the tone in which the words were spoken. If Jesus is speaking in a straightforward tone, he is saying that money corrupts, but his followers should use it to do good and thus earn themselves a place in heaven. But that is salvation by works, which the Bible condemns.

But what if Jesus is speaking sarcastically? He is saying, You think that you can use something as corrupt as money to get to heaven, but his tone of voice is saying NOT.

Finally, there are Jesus’ words in verse 10: “Whoever is faithful in a little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a little is dishonest also in much.” That is certainly true, and the Unjust Steward was dishonest in little and in much. But what is the point?

Nothing in this parable is as clear as we would like, and if you read enough biblical commentaries, like I did this week, you will find that they do not know any more than we do.

Nonetheless, this parable is in the Bible, and we should consider what we can learn from it. Think about what the children of light should adopt from the children of this age.

If nothing else, this dishonest manager demonstrates initiative, and when put to the right purposes, initiative is a good thing.

Think about the kids who Googled their parents’ wealth. Perhaps their mother should have said to them, “Well, you have gotten into areas that are none of your business, but you have shown commendable initiative, so we are going to look for some ways to put that initiative to constructive purposes.”

We can assume from the parable that we should find ways to use our best and strongest abilities, including our initiative, for God’s purposes. Initiative has a role in our life in the church. Think of how often we speak of wanting our membership to grow, of reaching out to our community, and of making sure that the unchurched hear the gospel. But often that is only so much talk. We need to take the initiative and do something. You have heard the old saying: “Do something even if it is wrong.”

The Unjust Steward was wrong, but at least he did something. Maybe its time we did something, not for ourselves, but for God.

Consider how determined the “children of this age” are in their initiatives. Try letting your subscription to a major magazine or newspaper lapse, and see how many times you receive a contact of some kind from the publisher urging you to renew. In some cases, you will receive between eight and twelve renewal pleas, usually by mail, but sometimes by e-mail and, in the end, even by telephone. And these contacts start well before your final issue and continue for some time afterward. In the magazine and newspaper industries, these contacts are called a “renewal series,” meaning that they intend to take the initiative with us several times before giving up on us as a subscriber. In our efforts to share the gospel, believers would do well to adopt the persistent initiative of the children of this age.

Another point we can draw from this parable is that just as the manager resorted to drastic action to find a new place for himself, drastic action is needed for us to find a place in the kingdom of God. If the direction we have been traveling is away from Christ, then it is time to take the initiative and make a drastic change in direction.

Drastic” is not too strong a word. In other places, the Bible describes repentance as something radical and revolutionary. In Colossians, Paul said, “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly” (3:5). In other words, kill it before it kills you. Deal aggressively with your circumstances.

In our parable, the unjust steward was in tough circumstances. He represents all humankind. Ephesians says that we were dead in trespasses and sin. That was our position without Christ. We were rotting corpses and did not know it.

So our condition demands drastic action. The Apostle Paul is well aware of this, saying in Romans 7:24: “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” I said earlier that we often cannot tell the tone of voice from the printed word, but here we can. Paul is desperately crying out for deliverance from an impossible situation.

In our parable, the Unjust Steward had a career problem. He was about to get fired. He had brought upon himself the wrath of his employer. That is trivial when compared to the problem of humankind. We are dead in our sins, we are under the wrath of God and there is no possibility that we can do anything about our “career problem.”

The only thing that can help is drastic action. God took drastic action. Ephesians 2:8: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.” God sent Jesus to us as a free gift. That is drastic. We did not deserve the gift in any way, form, or fashion, but God sent Jesus anyway, so that when we have faith in Jesus our ugly condition is altered, and we are made alive and made acceptable to God.

That is worth some drastic action on our part. We should be the unjust steward in that we take a radical initiative, but our initiative is not dishonest; It is not of this world at all. We take a radical step of faith that gives us life eternal in the world to come. That makes us smooth operators in the very best sense. Amen.


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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