Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 32: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
1. And he said also to his disciples, There was a certain rich man who had a steward, and he was accused to him that he was wasting his estate. 2. And he called him, and said to him, What is this that I hear of thee? render an account of thy stewardship, for thou shalt no longer have it in thy power to be steward. 3. And the steward said within himself, What shall I do, since my master taketh from me my stewardship? I cannot dig, and am ashamed to beg. 4. I know what I shall do, that, when I shall be dismissed from the stewardship, they may receive me 294 into their houses. 5. Having therefore sent for each of his master’s debtors, he said to the first, How much owest thou to my master? 6. And he said, A hundred baths of oil. And he said to him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. 295 7. Then he said to another, And how much owest thou? Who said, A hundred measures of barley. He saith to him, Take thy bill, and write eighty. 8. And the master commended the unjust steward, because he had acted prudently; for the children of this world are more prudent in their generation than the children of light. 9. And I say to you, Make to yourselves friends of the unjust mammon, that, when you shall fail, they may receive you into eternal habitations. 10. He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much; and he that is unjust in that which is least is unjust also in much. 11. If therefore you have not been faithful in the unjust mammon, who shall entrust to you what is true? 296 12. And if you have not been faithful in what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? — (A little after.) 14. And the Pharisees, who were covetous, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. 15. And he said to them, It is you that, justify yourselves in the sight of men: but God knoweth your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God.
The leading object of this parable is, to show that we ought to deal kindly and generously with our neighbors; that, when we come to the judgment seat of God, we may reap the fruit of our liberality. Though the parable appears to be harsh and far-fetched, yet the conclusion makes it evident, that the design of Christ was nothing else than what I have stated. And hence we see, that to inquire with great exactness into every minute part of a parable is an absurd mode of philosophizing. Christ does not advise us to purchase by large donations the forgiveness of fraud, and of extortion, and of wasteful expenditure, and of the other crimes associated with unfaithful administration. But as all the blessings which God confers upon us are committed by Him to our administration, our Lord now lays down a method of procedure, which will protect us against being treated with rigor, when we come to render our account.
They who imagine that alms are a sufficient compensation for sensuality and debauchery, do not sufficiently consider, that the first injunction given us is, to live in sobriety and temperance; and that the next is, that the streams which flow to us come from a pure fountain. It is certain that no man is so frugal, as not sometimes to waste the property which has been entrusted to him; and that even those who practice the most rigid economy are not entirely free from the charge of unfaithful stewardship. Add to this, that there are so many ways of abusing the gifts of God, that some incur guilt in one way, and some in another. I do not even deny, that the very consciousness of our own faulty stewardship ought to be felt by us as an additional excitement to kind actions.
But we ought to have quite another object in view, than to escape the judgment of God by paying a price for our redemption; and that object is, first, that seasonable and well-judged liberality may have the effect of restraining and moderating unnecessary expenses; and, secondly, that our kindness to our brethren may draw down upon us the mercy of God. It is very far from being the intention of Christ to point out to his disciples a way of escape, when the heavenly Judge shall require them to give their account; but he warns them to lose no time in guarding against the punishment which will await their cruelty, if they are found to have swallowed up the gifts of God, and to have paid no attention to acts of beneficence. 297 We must always attend to this maxim, that
with what measure a man measures, it shall be recompensed to him again,
8. And the master commended the unjust steward Here it is obvious that if we were to attempt to find a meaning for every minute circumstance, we would act absurdly. To make donations out of what belongs to another man, is an action which is very far from deserving applause; and who would patiently endure that an unprincipled villain should rob him of his property, and give it away according to his own fancy? It were indeed the grossest stupidity, if that man who beheld a portion of his substance taken away, should commend the person who stole the remainder of it and bestowed it on others. But Christ only meant what he adds a little afterwards, that ungodly and worldly men are more industrious and skillful in conducting the affairs of this fading life, than the children of God are anxious to obtain the heavenly and eternal life, or careful to make it the subject of their study and meditation.
By this comparison he charges us with highly criminal indifference, in not providing for the future, with at least as much earnestness as ungodly men display by attending to their own interests in this world. How disgraceful is it that the children of light, whom God enlightens by his Spirit and word, should slumber and neglect the hope of eternal blessedness held out to them, while worldly men are so eagerly bent on their own accommodations, and so provident and sagacious! Hence we infer, that our Lord does not intend to compare the wisdom of the Spirit to the wisdom of the flesh, (which could not have been done without pouring contempt on God himself,) but only to arouse believers to consider more attentively what belongs to the future life, and not to shut their eyes against the light of the Gospel, when they perceive that even the blind, amidst their darkness, see more clearly. And, indeed, the children of light ought to be more powerfully excited, when they behold the children of this world making provision against a distant period, for a life which is fading, and which passes in a moment.
9. Make to yourselves friends. As in the words which were last considered Christ did not enjoin us to offer sacrifices to God out of the fruits of extortion, so now he does not mean that we ought to search for defenders or advocates, who will throw around us the shield of their protection; but teaches us that by acts of charity we obtain favor with God, who has promised, that to the merciful he will show himself merciful, (Ps 18:25.) It is highly foolish and absurd to infer from this passage, that the prayers or approbation of the dead are of service to us: for, on that supposition, all that is bestowed on unworthy persons would be thrown away; but the depravity of men does not prevent the Lord from placing on his records all that we have expended on the poor. The Lord looks not to the persons, but to the work itself, so that our liberality, though it may happen to be exercised towards ungrateful men, will be of avail to us in the sight of God. But then he appears to intimate that eternal life depends on our merits. I reply: it is sufficiently plain from the context that he speaks after the manner of men. One who possesses extensive influence or wealth, if he procure friends during his prosperity, has persons who will support him when he is visited by adversity. In like manner, our kindness to the poor will be a seasonable relief to us; for whatever any man may have generously bestowed on his neighbors the Lord acknowledges as if it had been done to himself.
When you fail. By this word he expresses the time of death, and reminds us that the time of our administration will be short, lest the confident expectation of a longer continuance of life should make us take a firmer grasp. The greater part are sunk in slumber through their wealth; many squander what they have on superfluities; while the niggardliness of others keeps it back, and deprives both themselves and others of the benefit. Whence comes all this, but because they are led astray by an unfounded expectation of long life, and give themselves up to every kind of indulgence?
Of the mammon of unrighteousness. By giving this name to riches, he intends to render them an object of our suspicion, because for the most part they involve their possessors in unrighteousness Though in themselves they are not evil, yet as it rarely happens that they are obtained without deceit, or violence, or some other unlawful expedient, or that the enjoyment of them is unaccompanied by pride, or luxury, or some other wicked disposition, Christ justly represents them as worthy of our suspicion; just as on another occasion he called them thorns, (Matt. 13:7, 22.) It would appear that a contrast, though not expressed, is intended to be supplied, to this effect; that riches, which otherwise, in consequence of wicked abuse, polluted their possessors, and are almost in every ease allurements of sin, ought to be directed to a contrary object, to be the means of procuring favor for us. Let us also remember what I have formerly stated, that God does not demand sacrifice to be made from booty unjustly acquired, as if he were the partner of thieves, and that it is rather a warning given to believers to keep themselves free from unrighteousness
10. He who is faithful in that which is least. Those maxims are proverbs taken from ordinary practice and experience, and it is quite enough if they are generally true. It will sometimes happen, no doubt, that a deceiver, who had disregarded a small gain, shall display his wickedness in a matter of importance. Nay, many persons, by affecting honesty in trifling matters, are only in pursuit of an enormous gain; 298 as that author 299 says: “Fraud establishes confidence in itself in small matters, that, when a fit opportunity shall arrive, it may deceive with vast advantage.” And yet the statement of Christ is not inaccurate; for in proverbs, as I have mentioned, we attend only to what usually happens.
Christ, therefore, exhorts his disciples to act faithfully in small matters, in order to prepare themselves for the exercise of fidelity in matters of the highest importance. He next applies this doctrine to the proper stewardship of spiritual graces, which the world, indeed, does not estimate according to their value, but which far surpass, beyond all question, the fading riches of this world. Those persons, he tells us, who act improperly and unfaithfully in things of small value, such as the transitory riches of the world, do not deserve that God should entrust to them the inestimable treasure of the Gospel, and of similar gifts. There is, therefore, in these words an implied threatening, that there is reason to fear lest, on account of our abuse of an earthly stewardship, we fail to obtain heavenly gifts. In this sense, what is true is contrasted with riches, as what is solid and lasting is contrasted with what is shadowy and fading. 300
12. And if you have not been faithful in what belongs to another. By the expression, what belongs to another, he means what is not within man; for God does not bestow riches upon us on condition that we shall be attached to them, but makes us stewards of them in such a manner, that they may not bind us with their chains. And, indeed, it is impossible that our minds should be free and disengaged for dwelling in heaven, if we did not look upon every thing that is in the world as belonging to another
Who shall entrust to you what is your own? Spiritual riches, on the other hand, which relate to a future life, are pronounced by him to be our own, because the enjoyment of them is everlasting. But now he employs a different comparison. There is no reason, he tells us, to expect that we shall make a proper and moderate use of our own property, if we have acted improperly or unfaithfully in what belonged to another. Men usually care less about abusing, and allow themselves greater liberty in squandering, their own property, because they are not afraid that any person will find fault with them; but when a thing has been entrusted to them either in charge or in loan, and of which they must afterwards render an account, they are more cautious and more timid.
We thus ascertain Christ’s meaning to be, that they who are bad stewards of earthly blessings would not be faithful guardians of spiritual gifts. He next introduces a sentence: You cannot serve God and mammon; which I have explained at Mt 6:24. There the reader will find an explanation of the word Mammon 301
14. And the Pharisees, who were covetous, heard all these things. They who imagine that Christ was ridiculed by the Pharisees, because he chose to employ a plain and familiar style, and made no use of swelling words, 302 do not sufficiently comprehend what Luke means. Haughty and disdainful men, I do acknowledge, view the doctrine of the Gospel with contempt; but Luke expressly declares the reason why Christ was the object of their derision to have been, that they were covetous Entertaining a firm and deep-seated conviction that the rich are happy, and that there is nothing better for men than to increase their wealth by every possible method, and earnestly to guard whatever they have acquired, they reject as foolish paradoxes 303 all the sayings of Christ which had a contrary tendency. And, certainly, any one that speaks of despising riches, or bestowing alms on the poor, is regarded by the covetous as a madman. Horace’s words on this subject are well known: 304 “The people hiss at me, but I am well satisfied with myself.” 305 But if, even when they are condemned by universal opinion, they continue to flatter themselves, how much more will they ridicule as a fable that philosophy of Christ which is far removed from the ordinary belief?
Some other pretense, I have no doubt, was held out by the Pharisees for ridiculing and evading a doctrine which opposed their vice. But we must attend to the motive by which they were actuated; for it is a disease which almost always prevails in the world, that the greater part of men affect to despise whatever does not fall in with their corrupt morals. Hence the ridicule, and jest, and merriment, with which the word of God is frequently assailed; for every man fights in defense of his own vices, and all imagine that their witticisms will serve for a cloud to screen their criminality.
15. It is you that justify yourselves before men. We see that Christ does not give way to their disdainful conduct, but constantly maintains the authority of his doctrine in opposition to their mockery; and it is the duty of all the ministers of the Gospel to pursue the same course, by meeting ungodly despisers with the dreadful judgment of God. He declares that the hypocrisy, with which they deceive the eyes of men, will be of no avail to them at the judgment-seat of God. They were unwilling to have it thought that their mockery was intended as a defense of their covetousness. But Christ affirms that this venom breaks out from a concealed ulcer; just as if one were to tell the mitred prelates of our own day, that their hostility to the Gospel arises from the severity with which it attacks their hidden vices.
But God knoweth your hearts. He says that they reckon it enough if they appear to be good in the eyes of men, and if they can boast of a pretended sanctity; but that God, who knoweth the hearts, is well acquainted with the vices which they conceal from the view of the world. And here we must attend to the distinction between the judgments of God and the judgments of men; for men bestow approbation on outward appearances, but at the judgment-seat of God nothing is approved but an upright heart. There is added a striking observation:
What is highly esteemed by men is abomination in the sight of God. Not that God rejects those virtues, the approbation of which He hath engraved on the hearts of men; but that God detests whatever men are disposed, of their own accord, to applaud. Hence it is evident in what light we ought to view all pretended acts of worship which the world contrives according to its own fancy. How much soever they may please their inventors, Christ pronounces that they are not only vain and worthless, but are even detestable.
“Que ‘quelques uns’ me recoyvent;” — “that ‘some persons’ may receive me.”
“Et en escri cinquante;” — “and write fifty of them.”
“Du vray ’thresor’ qui s’en fiera en vous?” — “who shall entrust to you the true (treasure?)”
“S’il est trouve qu’ils n’ayent en aucun soin d’exercer charite envers leurs prochains, et n’ayent pense qu’a despendre en tout exces et a leur plaisir, les biens de Dieu;” — “if it is found that they have given themselves no concern about exercising charity to their neighbors, and have thought only of spending in every excess, and at their own pleasure, the gifts of God.”
“Et mesmes plusieurs sont contens d’user de simplicite et fidelite en de petites choses, a fin d’attraper puis apres un grand profit tout d’un coup;” — “and many are even willing to practice honesty and fidelity in small matters, in order afterwards to seize all at once on a large profit.”
“D’une chose caduque, et qui n’est qu’une ombre;” — “with a fading thing, and which is only a shadow.”
“Et la aussi on trouvera la signification de ce mot Mammona, lequel est ici mis, et que nous avons traduit Richesses ” — “And there will also be found the meaning of the word Mammon, which is used here, and which we have translated Riches.”—In an earlier portion of this Commentary, to which our author refers, (Harmony, vol. 1 p. 337,) no direct or formal explanation of the word Mammon is to be found; but a careful reader of the expository remarks on Mt 6:24 will easily perceive that Calvin understands riches to be one of the two masters spoken of in that passage. An indirect definition of the term is afforded by his French version of the text, both in Matth. 6:24, and in Lu 16:13, “Vous ne pouvez servir a Dieu et aux richesses;” — “you cannot serve God and riches.”
“En affectant des termes exquis, et bien remplissans la bouehe;”— “by affecting nicely chosen words, and that fill the mouth well.”
“Comme choses absurdes, et contre l’opinion commune;” — “as absurd statements, and opposed to the common belief.”
“Horace, Poete Latin, dit parlant en la personne d’un avaricieux;” — “Horace, a Latin Poet, says, speaking in the person of a covetous man.”
“Populus me sibilat, at mihi plaudo.”— Sat. 1. 1:66.