This parable in Luke 16:1-9 is called “The Parable of the Unjust Steward.” He was accused of embezzlement but it was never proven. Yet the fact that he could not prove his innocence implies that he might have been guilty. However, the lesson is more about the steward’s shrewdness than his alleged mismanagement. In the east, wealthy people hired stewards, or household managers to oversee the business of their estate. They were authorized to buy and sell, assign duties to the servants, and use their master’s signet ring to settle transactions.
When the manager’s integrity was called in question, he was required to give an account of how he had been managing his master’s finances. He thought about his options. He didn’t want to go back to a manual labor job, and would never stoop to begging. Then he realized what he could do so that if he lost his position, he would have a place to stay until he could secure new employment. He would settle accounts with his master’s debtors thereby gaining their favor.
“So he called every one of his master’s debtors to him, and said to the first, 'How much do you owe my master?' And he said, 'A hundred measures of oil.' So he said to him, 'Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.' Then he said to another, 'And how much do you owe?' So he said, 'A hundred measures of wheat.' And he said to him, 'Take your bill, and write eighty.'”
The steward resolved two problems with one solution. He settled some debts for his employer and made some new friends in the process. “So the master commended the unjust steward because he had dealt shrewdly.” His master applauded his savoir-faire and might have thought it a good idea to keep this man in his service.
Jesus’ next words are pointed. “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light.” These words are out of the ordinary and thought-provoking. The Message version suggests an excellent rendering of these verses. “Now here's a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens.”
Instead of being offended or alarmed by this statement, stop and ponder its implication. Christians are in the world but are not to be of the world, as Jesus taught, but Christians cannot afford to have their eyes closed or their heads in the sand when it comes to functioning successfully in this world.
Again, the Message offers some enlightenment in its translation of Luke 16:9: “They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you'll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.”
Jesus was teaching those with ears to hear to be smart in the same way as some people in the world have become smart – “streetwise… surviving by their wits… but for what is right! It’s an ability to function effectively in the world without taking advantage of anyone and without compromising personal integrity. It is developing an eye for advantageous opportunities and useful solutions, using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, and being innovative and resourceful.
When Jesus commissioned His 12 apostles to go out preaching and healing, He said, “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” (Matthew 10:16) The Greek word for “wise” is the same word translated “dealt shrewdly ” in Luke 16:8 (“wisely” in KJV). It means to show clever resourcefulness in practical matters.
The first usage in the New Testament of this word translated “wise” is in Matthew 7:24. Jesus said “Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock.” Christians today certainly need this kind of wisdom.