In my earlier days as a Christian I was always puzzled by v.9 of this chapter. Surely, I thought, our Lord was not teaching His disciples to make friends by means of wealth, dishonestly gained! According to the common view this rich man's steward was so dishonest that he defrauded his master to a considerable extent in order to secure a better future for himself. This view takes note of some of the recorded facts but not all of them.
As is usual with our Lord's parables the key to interpretation is found in the context. It is so here in v.9. The central theme of the whole chapter has to do with the stewardship of wealth, the wise use of it having one's eyes set on the future life. The lesson is intended primarily for God's people. Now let us note the facts stated by our Lord.
The accusation against the steward was not that he was misappropriating his master's goods for his own use but that he was wasting them, a far different thing. He was a man of the world who, by carelessness and neglect, failed to serve his master's best interests. One proof of this is seen in that he allowed debtors' accounts to run on indefinitely until they reached huge proportions and the Master was being deprived of his just dues. In vv.10-12 unrighteousness is equated with unfaithfulness.
The steward's dismissal from office was not immediate. This surely would have occurred if he had been guilty of gross dishonesty. After receiving notice to quit, his further conduct would come under close watch. Accounts would be scrutinised so that no fraudulent alterations of debtors' accounts could be passed.
No secret was made of the plan he adopted. His master knew of it and commended it! The cleverness of a thief or embezzler, for instance, might impress folk but his conduct certainly would not be approved, least of all by the victim! No right-minded person would say that such a criminal acted "wisely" (Gk. "prudently") however his ill-gotten gains were used.
To accept the common view it must be supposed that every debtor was also an unprincipled person willing to be an accomplice in defrauding the creditor. This is improbable and an unwarranted assumption. Only one explanation covers all the facts, namely, that the steward called each one of the debtors in turn and made it quite clear that it was not to enforce immediate repayment, but that he was about to make a liberal discount, the difference to be met out of his own pocket. By this means he hoped to win friends who would later afford him grateful hospitality. Instead of holding on to present savings, he parted with them in order to secure future benefit. He was a shrewd investor! "The children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light", says the Lord (v.8). In human affairs it is common practice to act similarly. The farmer, instead of milling all his corn, spares some for seed to sow the following season in reasonable hope of a future harvest. The steward, by asking the debtors themselves to make the necessary adjustment of accounts, thus made sure that he, not his master, would be recognised as the benefactor.
This records the lesson our Lord intended to teach. "And I say…", is emphatic in the Greek. The rest of the verse may be paraphrased thus, "Make friends by means of your money so that upon your decease, when it ceases to be of use to you (for gold is not the currency of heaven), you will be welcomed by the friends you made on earth by a wise and generous distribution of what God has been pleased to entrust to you for the purpose". Devoted Christians do this by distributing to the needs of poor saints, by supporting God's servants at home and abroad and by helping in all forms of genuine philanthropic work (Gal 6.9-10). Friends so helped and who have preceded the donor into the presence of the Lord will be ready to welcome him when he gets there. Compare also the Lord's words recorded in Matthew 6.19-20, and Paul's instruction to Timothy in 1 Timothy 6.17-19.
As to the term "the mammon of unrighteousness" used by Christ of riches in general — Mammon was originally a Canaanite or Syrian deity but came into use as representing wealth, a "god" worshipped by men of the world down all the ages. Not all wealth is wrongfully obtained or used of course, but when we consider the whole realm of finance we must admit that much of money is aptly so described.