By S. Kent Brown
Both Jesus’ meeting with the rich young ruler and the parable of the Unjust Steward deal with the goods of this world, but in very different ways. In the case of the ruler, who will not have known poverty, he takes the initiative and approaches Jesus (Matthew 19:16–26; Mark 10:17–27; Luke 18:18–27). Perhaps he has heard of Jesus and is impressed; perhaps as a person of means he is less than sincere when “he kneeled to him” (Mark 10:17). His motive matters little. What matters is how Jesus treats the man’s question: “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18). In response, Jesus mentions a few of the Ten Commandments. Importantly, according to Mark and Luke, Jesus places the honoring of parents in last place, an emphatic position (Mark 10:19; Luke 18:20). We need little imagination to see that Jesus has families on his mind.
In his turn, the ruler affirms—perhaps sincerely, perhaps smugly—that he has done “all these” from his youth. Now Jesus presses the man and exposes his weakness for the goods of this world: “One thing thou lackest,” he intones. “Sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.” If that were not enough, Jesus invites the man to turn from his current lifestyle and “come, follow me” (Mark 10:21; Luke 18:22). As we all know, the man retreats, going “away grieved: for he had great possessions” (Mark 10:22). At this moment, everything is about to change.
At first, to his disciples who witness the interchange Jesus says, “How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:23; Luke 18:24). In a word, the wealthy will experience terrible difficulty entering the kingdom, something that Jesus has been warning about for months. To reinforce his point, Jesus frames the impossible—that “it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25). Dumbfounded, the disciples cannot understand how a man of means, who is a Jew and has been keeping the commandments, can be left out. Incredulously, they ask, “Who then can be saved?” Now comes the thunderclap.
Jesus explains, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God” (Luke 18:27). But what does Jesus mean? How does this declaration answer the disciples’ question about who can be saved? At this very point, the Joseph Smith Translation comes to our aid and adds words of Jesus that explain his saying. Similar adjustments appear in each of the synoptic gospels. “And he said unto [the disciples], It is impossible for them who trust in riches, to enter into the kingdom of God; but he who forsaketh the things which are of this world, it is possible with God, that he should enter in” (JST Luke 18:27). With these words, Jesus throws open the door of the kingdom to the wealthy of the earth. His answer comes like a fresh breeze, free and clear and untouched by noxious odors. According to Jesus’ words, it all depends on whether property and money have captured the persons of means. If those individuals are not tied to wealth and are willing, as Jesus says to the rich young ruler, to “sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, . . . [and] follow me,” the doors of the kingdom stand wide open to receive them.
The parable of the Unjust Steward presents a completely different approach to the goods of this world and their alluring character (Luke 16:1–12). Spoken to “his disciples,” the story has to do with “a rich man” and his “steward” (16:1), and teaches important lessons to those who will soon undertake the tasks of leadership in Jesus’ Church.
The steward is evidently a free-born man and is the treasurer for his master’s estate. If he were a servant or slave in the usual ancient sense of these terms, he would not have other employment options, as he hints (16:3). As time passes, the steward is discovered to be defrauding his wealthy employer who demands that he give “an account” of his activities (16:2). In a desperate effort to ingratiate himself to some of his boss’s business associates, and thus to provide a future soft landing for himself, he calls them in and reduces their bills (16:5–7). At that, “the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely” (16:8). In this context, the adverb translated “wisely” (Greek phronimōs) means something like shrewdly or cunningly, although the adjective of this term generally carries the more positive sense of wise in other passages (see 12:42).
The question is how does this story apply to Jesus’ disciples. Surely, the master’s positive praise for his wayward steward, even if grudgingly given, mirrors Jesus’ own judgment about the scene he has just painted. Presumably, very few of the wider group of disciples are “rich” as the lord in the story is. Hence, Jesus’ intended connection for his followers must be to the steward and his actions. We focus on two interpretations among several. First, it is obvious that the steward acts quickly and firmly in the face of a crisis. Since Jesus will soon turn over the reins of his Church to the Twelve and other disciples, the decisive actions of the steward serve as an example of how to deal with crises that will surely arise. Second, in contrast to the steward’s fraudulent ways, Jesus enunciates principles of proper stewardship at the end of the parable, principles that his future leaders are to follow: “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much” and “if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own?” (16:10, 12).
In this light, it seems plain that Jesus tells the story as both an example of what the leaders of his burgeoning Church are to do when facing emergencies and a statement of the principles that are to guide them, especially as they become stewards of property and money donated by others as sacred gifts.
—Based on The Testimony of Luke by S. Kent Brown, an e-volume in the BYU New Testament Commentary Series, available at Deseret Bookshelf; see byuntc.com for sample pages and the table of contents).