Does that make God unjust?
So does this interpretation of the parable mean God commends the dishonesty of the unjust steward?
Well, no. When I personally read this passage, I never thought for a second that Jesus was recommending stealing from my earthly employer as a way to lay up treasure in heaven. And I think Matthew Poole is right that it’s possible that what might be an evil action in one situation can actually be good in other circumstances.
It took me a while to think of an illustration for this, I’m not sure how I ended up imagining this situation, but say I was at home one day, and somehow broke my arm and needed to go to the hospital, dad’s out somewhere, and mum’s car’s at the garage, so mum has to drive me in my car to get me to the hospital. I’d say that would be good of her to drive me to the hospital in my own car. However, if some random stranger broke into my car and drove it off without my permission, that would be stealing, and I would not be at all pleased. (I hope I don’t have a gift of prophecy :-p)
To use Matthew Poole’s words on this parable, “What was knavery in this steward, is honest enough in those who are the stewards of our heavenly Lord’s goods…”
So I think it’s possible for Jesus to say, “even though in this parable the steward was dishonest, I want you to do something similar in your stewardship of the things God has given you to use for his glory”.
Is God Impossible To Please?
But this also raised the question in my mind whether our obedience has to be perfect in order to please God… Can God commend someone because He’s pleased with one aspect of their behaviour (in this case, shrewdness), while disapproving of another aspect of it (in this case, dishonesty)? Does our obedience have to be perfectly pure to please God?
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’ve ever managed to really love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength for as much as a second, so although I may be wrong on this, it seems to me like if the answer is yes, God is indeed only pleased with absolutely perfect obedience, then there’s no point me trying to please Him, because I will never succeed.
I mean, I believe that I’m saved by grace alone, not by my efforts to please God. “There is… no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1), but as a result of being saved, I want to make an effort to please Him by obeying His law, but I know full well that my attempts at obedience fall far short of perfection, so if God is never pleased with any of my less than perfect attempts, I might as well give up and “continue in sin that grace may abound”. But that’s exactly what Paul tells us not to do in Romans 6:1, so I think there are two other options: either it is possible to obey perfectly, and I need to work out how I can achieve that (it’s not possible, see 1 John 1:8), or alternatively it must be possible for Christians to please God with imperfect attempts at obedience.
On this subject I found Kevin DeYoung’s book The Hole In Our Holiness helpful. He has a chapter on The Pleasure of God and The Possibility of Godliness, where he points to examples in scripture of God being pleased with the righteousness of people other than Jesus, such as Job “a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil” (Job 1:8), and Zechariah & Elizabeth who “were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). These people didn’t obey God perfectly, yet God’s Word commends them.
I found this encouraging because it means my efforts to please God are not a complete waste of time. I may not be able to obey Him perfectly in this life, but it is possible for me to please Him with imperfect yet sincere obedience.
However, this knowledge that it’s really possible for us to please God can also be really depressing, because if we start analysing how well we’re doing at pleasing God, we’ll inevitably realise how much more we could be doing to please Him, so our feeble attempts at obedience won’t look very pleasing at all.
So I think there’s a few things to bear in mind…
Firstly, (and this is also pointed out by Kevin DeYoung) in 2 Corinthians 13, when Paul told the Corinthians to examine themselves to see whether they were in the faith, he didn’t mean for them to dwell on how sinful they still were and work out whether someone who did such awful things could possibly be a true Christian; he expected them to find positive evidence that they were in Christ. In fact, he staked the credibility of his ministry on them proving to be true believers; in verse 3 Paul says “you seek proof that Christ is speaking in me”, and his response to the Corinthians is that they themselves are his evidence that Christ is speaking in him, because Paul was the one that ministered to them, and if they examined themselves, they would find that they were in Christ, so Paul must have ministered faithfully. So when we examine ourselves, we don’t always have to look for the worst in ourselves, sometimes it’s good and encouraging to examine ourselves for positive signs of Christ being in us.
Secondly, if we’re feeling hopeless about how few signs of Christ we can find in ourselves, perhaps it’s because we’ve forgotten how bad we used to be. We used to be dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1). Without faith it really is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6), so in comparison, even the tiniest bit of obedience accompanied by faith is infinitely better than being completely dead in our sins.
Matt Chandler illustrates this by describing when his daughter was first learning to walk. He reckons that to start off with she kind of did it by accident. She would be standing still, and then her big head would cause her to start to lose her balance and fall forwards, but she stuck a leg out in front of her, and then again and again, and after a few steps she’d fall over. Now when that happened, the mum and dad didn’t think their daughter was a failure because she fell over. They celebrated those first few steps she did manage to make. Obviously they did expect her to gradually get better at it, and so should we expect to see improvement in our obedience to God over time, but even a few baby steps are worth celebrating when compared to being completely spiritually dead.
And thirdly (the part that allowed me to sleep last Monday night), we should remember that God’s glory is more important than what we think of ourselves. In Romans 5, Paul explains that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. God is glorified by showing grace to us (see Ephesians 2), so when we sin and God shows grace to us, He’s glorified. Obviously Paul immediately goes on to make it clear that that doesn’t mean Christians ought to deliberately go on sinning, but if our goal is really to glorify God rather than ourselves, then we don’t need to get too depressed by our failures, because God is still glorified. He’s still working all things together for good and for his own glory.
Paul describes himself as the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15), yet he also says in 1 Corinthians 4 that he doesn’t judge himself. “It is the Lord who judges me.” I think this tells us that although there is a time for the right kind of self-examination, we’re not to focus on ourselves, trying to work out whether we’re good enough. Tim Keller has written a very short book on that passage in 1 Corinthians (I think it’s actually a transcript of a sermon), called The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, and he refers to C.S. Lewis’ description of true humility: “humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less”. It’s not humble to wallow in self-loathing because of how sinful we are. Truly humble people don’t pay much attention to themselves at all; they’re too busy loving God and other people.
Hopefully that all makes sense and you can see the relevance to the application of Luke 16. I think as we come to try to apply Luke 16v13, we’ll find we really need that knowledge that it’s possible to please God with only baby steps in obedience, because I for one find it very convicting…