Harmony of the Gospels

(24) Parables of the Unjust Steward, Rich Man and Lazarus
Luke 16:1-31

Parable of the Unjust Stewart

This parable has been greatly misunderstood, and one of the reasons is because it looks as though our Lord is commending a crook.  The steward is a full-blown crook.  Some people think that anyone Jesus mentions in a parable is a hero or an example of a noble character.  If that’s what you think, then be prepared for a shock, because this man is a really bad character.  Luke gives parables by making a contrast.  He is the only gospel writer that does this.  Most parables are parables by comparison.  In this parable the Lord uses as an example a man who followed the principles of the world.  We are told in the Word of God that the world loves its own but hates those who belong to God.  That is what John said in the 15th Chapter of his gospel: “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you.  If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you” (v. 18-19).  A child of God does not belong to this world and does not live by the principles of this world.  In Galatians 1:3-4 Paul says, “… our Lord Jesus Christ, Who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father:”   And in Romans 12:2 Paul says, "And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”  Finally we read in 1 John 2:15, "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.”  The first commandment of the world is “self-preservation.”  A shady business deal is winked at, questionable practices tolerated, and a cleaver crook is applauded by the world.  The law is on the side of the crook and the criminal many times.  Every man, according to the world’s law is considered innocent until proven guilty.  The Word of god takes the opposite approach.  God says that man is guilty until proven innocent.  He says, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”  A man can never be innocent before God, but he certainly can become justified before Him.  “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus…” (Rom. 8:1).  When a man trusts Jesus Christ as his Savior, he is justified by faith.  This is the only way a man can be justified.

(Luke 16:1)  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.

This is the story of a rich man and his unjust steward.  A steward is a man who has charge of another man’s goods.  Abraham had a steward who had charge of all his possessions.  It was Abraham’s steward who went on a long trip to Haran to find a wife for Abraham’s son, Isaac.  David had stewards, and they were in charge of all his possessions, including his children.  Paul tells us, “Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful” (1 Cor. 4:2).  Stewards should use wealth for their masters’ good and not for their own pleasure. God wants us to enjoy His gifts, but He also wants us to use them wisely.

This story is not a depiction of something or someone else.  The rich man is not God, or the devil, or a worldly person.  And the steward is not intended to represent a disciple. The steward in this parable would correspond to the president of a corporation.  He was in charge of the rich man’s goods.  He was guilty of embezzlement and misappropriation of funds.  He was like the bank president who takes off with the bank’s funds.  The unjust steward wasted the goods of his master. 

(Luke 16:2)  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.

Accountability is an essential part of daily living. It is required of the giver and the responsibility of the recipient. The employed are accountable to the employer, the married man or woman to their spouse and family, the citizen to society, and all of us to God.  The steward was summoned and told, “Give an account of your stewardship.”

We are stewards, not owners: the word “my” on any man’s lips is false.  God is the only capitalist.  Our job is not hoarding of wealth or using it for our own pleasure, but the proper circulation and use of it in God’s sight.  God is Creator and Owner of all things. All that we possess comes as a gift from His hand. Our master Jesus Christ will ultimately require an accounting of each person’s stewardship.

Christian stewards can be prepared for that day of accountability by taking seriously their stewardship responsibilities. Whether the managed resource is time, talent, or money, the steward should make an effort to avoid waste, maximize return, and, above all, assure that the investment is pleasing to God.

Time should be used wisely; talents should be shared to build up others and glorify God; money should be spent carefully and wisely. Our desire to carry out these requirements faithfully comes from having an intense awareness of our personal accountability to God.

The day of reckoning had come for this man.  He had to give an account.  Now since he had the signet ring of his master and was the paymaster, instead of drawing up a financial statement, he decided to use the law of the world, which is self-preservation.

(Luke 16:3)  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.

Note that the steward remains silent when the owner accuses him of being guilty of mismanagement.  He doesn’t loudly claim to be innocent, so he must have been guilty, as charged.  The man realizes however that he is in a terrible predicament.  He is not strong enough to dig, meaning perhaps to undertake manual labor of any kind, and he has too much self-respect to go begging.  It makes me laugh when I read this verse—the man may have been ashamed to beg, but he wasn’t too ashamed to steal!  Unfortunately, there are a lot of people like that today.

(Luke 16:4)  I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.

This man did not repent; he had no regret or remorse for his actions.  He is crooked, but he would be called clever by the world’s standards.  He thinks and thinks…and all of a sudden we hear him saying, “I’ve got it!  I know exactly how to feather my nest for the time when I will be out of a job.”  He has concocted a scheme that will place a number of people under obligation to him and thereby get their help when he needs it.

(Luke 16:5-6)  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.

This was clearly a scheme to make these debtors personally indebted to him, and to achieve his purpose in such a manner that they would not complain or refuse to show him generosity after he has lost his job as manager.  One by one he called in those who owed debts.  Only two examples are given of what happened next, but these two represent all the others he must have called in.  When the first man arrives the manager asks him, “How much owest thou unto my lord?”   Notice, He says, “My Lord” as if he had not been fired.  The answer is, “An hundred measures of oil,” which was probably about 875 gallons.  The manager then takes from a drawer, strongbox or whatever, the documents which the debtor had himself drawn up, and which he had promised to pay that amount of oil.  He hands that “account” or “promissory note” to the renter and asks him to set down quickly and to change the figure, so that instead of owing 100 measures of oil, he will now owe 50.

(Luke 16:7)  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.

A hundred measures of wheat would be about a thousand bushels.  I don’t know why he didn’t give this fellow the same discount he gave the other fellow, but this man had to pay eighty cents on the dollar, while the first man only paid fifty cents.  Notice that this man is not being punished for these shady dealings. 

(Luke 16:8) 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.

Jesus says that the lord or owner commended the steward, but why would he do such a thing, and because Jesus is the one telling the parable does that mean that He approves of the mans crooked ways?   Not at all!  But the man does have some enviable characteristics.  However, neither the owner nor Jesus are praising the crook for his crookedness, only for his shrewdness, the fact that he looks ahead and makes provision for his future needs.  What’s wrong with that?  Nothing, of course.  When in spite of many precautions and burglar protection devices, a bank is robbed, and the newspapers describe how it was done, people will remark, “Very clever!”  This certainly doesn’t mean that they are recommending the criminal for a Distinguished Service Medal.  It would be great if all true believers were as clever in spiritual matters as these crooks are in plying their trade.

(Luke 16:9)  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.

We do not “buy” friends, but we can make friends for the Lord by the wise use of money. Will people welcome you to heaven because your stewardship made it possible for them to hear the gospel and be saved?

Many see a problem as to why Jesus used such a character as the unjust steward, and even told of his commendation. But the main lesson seems to lie in the larger idea of realizing he is about to be terminated and doing something about it. Men should realize that death comes as a certainty, and that they must prepare properly for what comes afterward.

(Mark 16:10-12) 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.  If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?  And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own?

We are stewards of those things which are material.  We own nothing as believers.  We are responsible to God for how we use His goods.  He says that the men of this world are wiser than the children of light in their stewardship. How many Christians today are smart in the use of the mammon of unrighteousness—money?  Do they use it to gather spiritual wealth?  Money is a foreign currency to those whose citizenship is in heaven.  God will hold you responsible for the misuse of the material wealth He gives you.  There is something wrong with the way Christians give their money.  This would not happen if Christians were as smart as the men of the world. 

True riches are heavenly treasure—God’s gifts to us.  Heavenly treasure is the Christian’s only true and eternal possession.  Yet things and money provide training.  Imagine a surgeon trusting an inexperienced intern to operate on a patient’s heart.  The intern must earn that right by observing the surgeon and assisting him.  As his skill increases he is allowed to do more on his own, but still under the direction of the surgeon.  So if a man proves to be faithful with worldly things such as money, God will trust him with more of the real jewels of heaven.  For if a man is honest with little, he is likely to be honest with much.  That’s why money is important—as a training ground for real living. 

In the parable of the unjust steward the lord Jesus is saying, “Do you think God is going to trust you with heavenly riches if you are not using properly that which He has given you on earth?”  Money is a spiritual matter.  You are responsible not only for giving it, but for investing it where it will yield the highest dividends in people reached for Christ.  The believer’s rule is expressed beautifully by Paul in these words, “We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but what is not seen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is not seen is everlasting” (2 Cor. 4:18). 

(Luke 16:13)  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.

Jesus here is repeating His teaching given in the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 6:24.  Mammon represented money, riches, or worldly possessions. Jesus used the illustration to depict a divided heart, one devoted to both money and God. Jesus’ point is that service to Mammon prohibits giving wholehearted devotion to God. The Pharisees tried it but it cannot be done. How can you serve both righteousness and unrighteousness?  The world measures people by how much they get, but God measures them by how much they give.

“Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”   This does not mean a man cannot be wealthy and still serve God. But the love of money is the root of all evil (I Tim 6:10).  If a person desires wealth, then he ceases to please God.  A man’s loyalties cannot be divided, and God demands that everything be subservient to Him.


Jesus Answers the Couvetous Pharisees

(Matthew 16:14-17)  And the Pharisees also, who were covetous, heard all these things: and they derided him.  And he said unto them, Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God.  The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it.  And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail.

The Pharisees claimed that their wealth was proof that they are righteous; but God’s verdict is different from men’s.  Jesus unmasked these hypocrites.  What He told them amounted to this, “You pass yourself off to men as people who are keeping God’s Law.  But your righteousness is a fake.  On the inside you are the very opposite of what you want people to think you are.  However, God has your number.  He knows that your religion is a sham.  For the things that men see and admire about you is an abomination to God.”  We are not promised treasures here, but instead our rewards are to be heavenly, and occur after the Judgment Day.   There are groups around today who claim that God can be persuade to give monetary gifts to those who plant a seed by sending money to their ministry.   Once again that is not promised in the Bible.  Christians are not to seek compensation in this life for doing good deeds. 

“The law and the prophets were until John.”   John the Baptist marks the turning point in history.  Until the coming of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, the only message Old Testament saints had was the Law of Moses and the prophets.  Since John’s time the Kingdom of God has been available to all. 

“Since that time the kingdom of God is preached.”  John and Christ announced a new relationship with God--the long-awaited kingdom age.  John announced it as being “at hand” (Mt 3:2) or as having come near. But even after John the Baptist was in jail and out of the picture, Jesus was still saying that the kingdom had not arrived, but was still “at hand” (Mk 1:14–15).

“And every man presseth into it.”  Since the Jews rejected Christ’s offer of the physical kingdom age and His rule over them, that dispensation and ministry was never inaugurated, though it will be after the Great Tribulation (Mt 24:29–31; 25:31; Rev 19:11–20:6). But from the time of Christ to this day the gates of salvation have been flung open and men can meet the spiritual requirements for entrance into heaven. In fact, the publicans and sinners often sought entrance with great intensity and determination, while the Pharisees usually made no conscious efforts to enter.  The Pharisees tried to circumvent the Law, but the Law remains in effect.  It would be easier for heaven and earth to cease than for one letter of God’s law to lose its authority.


Jesus Speaks on Divorce

(Luke 16:18)  Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.

If this were the only verse in scripture on divorce, there would be no divorce for a Christian.  Jesus emphasized that marriage is a lifelong commitment. Mosaic Law required a “certificate of divorce” when a man wanted to divorce his wife.  God states in Deuteronomy 24:1, “When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house.”   Pharisees made light of God’s marriage ordinance as stated in Genesis 2:24, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.”  Some teachers held that a man could divorce his wife for any reason, no matter how trivial. For example, the famous rabbi Hillel taught that a man can divorce his wife if she served him food that had been slightly burned.  Rabbi Akiba even permitted a husband to divorce his wife if he found someone prettier.  Only in rare cases could a wife divorce her husband. But God hates divorce.  Malachi 2:16 states, “For the Lord God of Israel says That He hates divorce, For it covers one’s garment with violence,” Says the Lord of hosts. "Therefore take heed to your spirit, That you do not deal treacherously.”  Jesus taught that divorce was a provision made simply because of the hardness of the human heart. God’s original intention, however, was that a husband and wife remain in permanent union.  In Matthew 5:32 the Lord allows only one exception to the marriage contract:  “But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.”

Jesus’ teaching on divorce corrected the lax interpretation of the Jews based on their loose understanding of Deuteronomy 24, where Moses “permitted” divorce because of the “hardness of your hearts.”  While our Lord corrected and interpreted the Old Testament law, He did not eliminate it. The Law was part of God’s inspired truth and therefore it will not fail. In our day, the error of the Pharisees, trying to get out from under the implications of God’s marriage ordinances, is being repeated.  All sorts of excuses are being offered for divorce.  In the case of most divorces today, it is sin; but God will forgive this sin the same way He does all other sins.  For all sin was accounted for at the Cross and there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.


Jesus Recounts the Incident of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Poor Man)

This is another great parable of Jesus, but only Dr. Luke records it.  I believe this is a true story taken from real life just like His other parables.  Jesus used illustrations that were familiar to His hearers.  They knew exactly what He was talking about. He uses the name of one of the individuals in the parable; the Lord would not have given the name of someone who did not exist.

(Luke 16:19)   There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day:

The rich man was in the habit of dressing up in purple and fine linen.  Obtaining purple die from shellfish was an expensive process, so it’s not surprising that a purple outer garment was worn by the rich man in this parable.  This man also wore some ritzy underwear here called “fine linen.”  Add to this that he was living in dazzling splendor day in, and day out.  He was not just rich, but he belonged to a class that we would call “filthy rich.”  He was a show-off and he was in love—with himself.  He was utterly selfish and that becomes apparent as the parable moves along.

(Luke 16:20-21)  And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.

Here are two men at the opposite ends of the social and economic ladder.  One man represents the top echelon in riches, and the other man represents the lowest extreme in poverty.  No two men are farther apart in every way.  Lazareth having been laid at the rich man’s gate indicates that he couldn’t walk, and further more he was a beggar totally unable to care for his own needs, he was also covered with sores.  The rich man could not help but see Lazareth since he was at his gate every day.  He was eager to eat the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table, but we’re not told that he received those scraps.  Dogs were regarded as unclean animals, so when they licked his sores it added to his misery.

(Luke 16:22)  And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried;

When the beggar died there was no funeral.  They just took his body out and threw it into the valley of Gehenna where garbage was thrown and burned; this is the place where they threw the bodies of the poor in that day.  The minute the beggar stepped through the doorway of death, angels became his pallbearers and his soul or spirit was carried by them into Abraham’s bosom.  While on earth he had placed his trust in God, and now God had ordered the angels to take his soul to paradise.  He who had yearned to receive crumbs and scraps is now reclining at heavens table, where a banquet is being held. The rich man also died and was buried.  He had a big funeral, and the preacher pushed him all the way to the top spot in heaven.  The only trouble is the preacher got his directions mixed up; the rich man went the other way.

(Luke 16:23)  And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.

Notice two things here: The lost go to a place of conscious torment.  Also people know each other after death. We do not lose our identities.

It says of the rich man, “And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments.”  Between death and resurrection the soul or spirit of man goes either to be with the Lord, if he is saved (II Cor 5:8; Phil 1:23), or into conscious torment, as here. Resurrection reunites the body to the soul, and the state of existence continues to be either with Christ, or in the punishment of eternal duration (Mt 25:41, 46).

Remember, the rich man did not go to Hades because he was rich; he went there because riches were his god. Abraham was a wealthy man, and yet he was in paradise. Money can help send people to heaven (v. 9), or it can help send people to hell.

(Luke 16:24)  And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.

The rich man becomes the beggar, while the beggar is now the rich man.  This story tells us that the unfairness here is set right in heaven, and that departed ones are not asleep but fully awake; that some are saved and others are suffering.  If all this is understood, it will become clear that the one great truth that is being emphasized is that once a person has died his soul is separated from his body and his condition whether blessed or doomed is fixed forever.  There is no such thing as a second chance. 

The fire in hell is unquenchable.  It devours forever and ever.  Hell is a place where there is “outer darkness.”   It is a place where evil spirits are kept “in everlasting chains under darkness.”

Note that the rich man’s character has not changed any.  He still views Lazareth as a servant, and is not ashamed to ask a favor from the very person who never received a favor from him.

(Luke 16:25-26)  But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.  And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.

Abraham answers in a friendly manner, even calls him son.  By his answer Abraham intends to indicate that there are two reasons why his request cannot be honored: to grant it would be (a) improper, and (b) impossible.

It would be improper, because it would be contrary to justice.  “During your lifetime you received your good things; that is those things you considered good, namely, being dressed in purple and fine linen, and living in dazzling splendor, day in, day out.  Those matters were first on the list of your priorities.”  It’s implied that living a life that was helpful to his fellow man, and helpful to Lazarus, and that glorified God, was not on his list at all.  Now then, he will receive what is coming to him.  On the other hand, Lazarus who received bad things, but not his bad things, since he didn’t bring them upon himself is now being comforted, and that’s the way it should be. 

It would also be impossible.  Abraham tells the man that there is a vast chasm, a yawning gorge separating the lost from the redeemed.  Crossing from one side to the other is forever impossible.  Once a person passes from this life his probation is ended, and his eternal destiny is fixed. It has been appointed by God that once a man dies, then comes the judgment (Heb 9:27).

(Luke 16:27)  Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house:

Notice the concern for his living brothers.  He wanted them to repent, change their minds before it was too late.  If the lost could come back they would preach the gospel to us. 

But note that he is not asking that anything be done for people in general, only for his five brothers.  And even now he seems to not be able to get rid of the notion that Lazarus is a messenger boy.

(Luke 16:28-31)  For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.  Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.  And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.  And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.

The rich man pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus back to his brothers to warn them that they must repent of their evil life in time to avoid joining him in this place of torment.  He tells Abraham that they will certainly repent if someone that was dead talks with them.  How wrong he was!  Someone from the dead did actually appear to the people.  His name was Lazarus (but not the Lazarus of the parable).  The story is found in John 11.  Was the result that everyone was converted?  Not at all!  The result was that Christ’s enemies were determined to put to death the risen Lazareth, and were more determined than ever to destroy Jesus. 

Jesus rose from the dead.  But those who refused to believe Moses and the prophets were not convinced, and certainly were not converted.  The important lesson is: Accept scripture as the Word of God, and by God’s grace, live the kind of life it demands, and which is also the type of life that Jesus illustrated.

16:19 To be clothed in purple indicated great wealth. Purple was an expensive dye made from mollusks found in the Mediterranean Sea (see chart, Colors in the Bible). Lydia, a believer from Thyatira, was a seller of purple cloth (Acts 16:14). Purple was worn by royalty and represented luxury. The “fine linen” probably refers to expensive Egyptian linen undergarments.
16:21 Food was eaten with the hands, not utensils, in Jesus’ time. In order to clean their hands during the meal, the wealthy used hunks of bread. The bread was then dropped on the floor, here described as “crumbs which fell.” The beggar waited for the bread to fall so that he could eat.
16:22 Lazarus, the beggar, was God’s faithful servant. When he died, he was not buried. When unknown or unclaimed beggars died, their bodies were not buried but thrown into the burning garbage heap (“Gehenna”) outside the city. Lazarus is portrayed in the afterlife as leaning his head on Abraham’s bosom (perhaps reclining against Abraham’s chest at a great feast table), indicating close fellowship. Luke identified the poor man by name (Lazarus), but he left the rich man unnamed.
16:26 The rich man’s fate was irreversible and eternal. The chasm or “great gulf fixed” was unbridgeable. The rich man was kept in misery in Hades, and Lazarus could not cross over the chasm to help him. Upon death, the respective destinies of the rich man and the poor man had been sealed for eternity.
17:2 Millstones were circular stones used for grinding grain. Some were small enough for women to use; others were so large that they required an animal’s strength to operate. “Little ones” may refer to young believers or (possibly) believers of any age.


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