UNDERSTANDING THE PARABLE

OF THE UNJUST STEWARD

 

by Doug Ward, PhD

The parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1-8) is generally considered to be one of the most puzzling parables of Jesus. Ostensibly the parable tells the story of a steward who, when accused of financial malfeasance, wastes even more funds in an attempt to ingratiate himself with his employer's clients. The steward is then, inexplicably, commended by his employer. Finally, disciples of Jesus are encouraged to emulate the steward's example.

My glib summary exaggerates the difficulty of Luke 16:1-8, but I think it does portray the kind of frustration experienced by many readers of this passage. In trying to decipher the parable of the unjust steward, I have always had the feeling that I must be missing some essential piece of information.

One main reason for our problems with the parable is the great cultural distance separating us from the Mediterranean world of 2000 years ago. Some of the customs and values of Jesus' day differ significantly from those of modern Western societies. For assistance in bridging this cultural divide, we can turn to the work of biblical scholars and commentators. These experts can help us to understand confusing passages in their historical and scriptural context.

To gain some insight into the meaning of Luke 16:1-8, let us then see what scholars have to say about this mysterious parable. Armed with some extra information, we should find ourselves better equipped to grasp the parable's message for both ancient and modern Christians.

Honor and Shame

The parable begins with the words, ``There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions'' (Luke 16:1, NIV). The original audience of the parable, a group of Jesus' disciples, probably pictured the rich man as an absentee landlord who had hired the steward to manage a large estate. Such a scenario was apparently common in first-century Galilee [1, p. 50].

There has been much speculation about what specific crime or crimes the manager was accused of committing. Landry and May [2, p. 297] point out that the Greek word for ``wasting'' in Luke 16:1 is also used in the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15. Luke 15:13 states that the prodigal son ``squandered his wealth in wild living.'' Landry and May comment,

``Our view is that the steward of 16:1-8a probably is engaged in similar types of behavior. His crime might best be described as misappropriation of funds, much as a modern executive with a budget at his/her discretion might illicitly spend some of these funds on personal items'' [2, p. 298].

If the manager had been living in luxury at his master's expense, it is easy to imagine how word of his behavior eventually would have reached the rich man. We can also understand that the rich man would have been upset to hear about the steward's behavior and would have acted speedily to correct the situation. What is not as obvious to modern readers is the possibility that the master's primary concern was not the wealth the steward had allegedly stolen. Even more critical than lost money was the shame brought upon the rich man by the fact that his steward's thievery had become common knowledge.

The importance of honor and shame in the Mediterranean culture of Jesus' day is one of those key cultural differences that we can learn about from biblical scholars. In those days, a master's standing in the eyes of his peers was partly determined by his ability to control those under him. A master whose assets were wisely managed by a loyal steward would have been viewed highly by others. On the other hand, the misdeeds of an employee would have resulted in a loss of honor for the master.

Landry and May [2, pp. 298-299] present several examples illustrating the close connection between a servant's behavior and his master's honor. One particularly striking incident, recorded by the ancient Roman writers Dio Cassius and Seneca, involved a master whose servant broke a crystal goblet at a banquet attended by the Emperor Augustus. Before Augustus intervened on the servant's behalf, the master planned to have the servant ripped apart by lampreys for this innocent mistake! Such a punishment was out of proportion with the value of the goblet, but it apparently reflected the shame felt by a master whose servant had slipped up in front of the emperor.

In summary, the rich man in our parable had not merely been defrauded by his steward-he had also been dishonored. Whether or not the allegations against the steward were true, the steward was publicly viewed as a thief, and it was that perception which was most damaging to the master. The master announced to his steward, ``Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer'' (Luke 16:2).

The Steward's Resourcefulness

With his dismissal imminent, the steward faced a major crisis. Being a steward was the only work he knew (v. 3). But who would hire a steward who had cheated and disgraced his previous employer? The best way for the steward to either regain his position or find another similar position would be to somehow restore his master's honor. But how?

At this point the steward came up with a plan (v. 4). He ``called in each one of his master's debtors'' (v. 5). These debtors may have been tenants who farmed the rich man's estate in exchange for a certain percentage of their crops [1, p. 53]. The steward then proceeded to reduce the amount owed by each of them (vv. 5-7).

By reducing the tenants' bills, the steward decreased the rich man's profits, but he also improved the rich man's reputation. To understand why, it is important to remember that a steward generally acted as his master's agent. So when the steward reduced their debts, the tenants would have assumed that he was carrying out orders from his master and thus would have viewed their lower bills as a sign of the master's generosity. Instead of seeing the rich man as ``the master who couldn't keep track of his steward,'' they would have thought of him as ``the kind master who treats his tenants with consideration.'' Although the master lost some profits, he gained back something more precious to him: a measure of his esteem in the eyes of others. For this the master commended the steward (Luke 16:8).

The preceding explanation, proposed by Landry and May in [2], provides the most convincing answer I have heard to the major question raised by the parable: Why does the master commend the steward? By taking into account the importance of honor in the culture of Jesus' day, this explanation gives us a better idea of how the parable's original audience might have understood the motivations of the master and the steward.

Some readers might object to this explanation on the grounds that it pictures the steward as redeeming himself, whereas Luke 16:8 still characterizes him as ``dishonest'' (NIV) or ``unjust'' (KJV). (Landry and May refer to the parable as the ``parable of the prudent steward.'') One can argue, however, that these labels refer back to the steward's original transgressions. There is a parallel situation in Luke 18:5-6, where in another parable Jesus calls a judge ``unjust'' even after that judge has ruled justly in a particular case. Both the steward and the judge behave well under duress, but there is no evidence that they have made lasting changes in their lives.

Lessons for Disciples

Having investigated the motivations and actions of the characters in the parable, let us now consider the overall message of the parable for its intended audience, disciples of Jesus (Luke 16:1). For guidance on the application of the parable, we can turn to Jesus' remarks in Luke 16:8b-13.

First of all, it should be noted that Luke 16:1-8 is one of several parables in which Jesus draws a lesson from the example of a far-from-perfect individual. Such examples involve ``how much more'' reasoning, an argument form often employed by ancient Jewish teachers. (The technical term for this type of reasoning is kal v'khomer, Hebrew for ``light and heavy.'') For example, in the parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8), Jesus argues that if an unjust human judge will grant justice to a persistent petitioner, then God surely will be responsive to the prayers of his people. Similar teachings are recorded in Luke 11:5-13.

In the case of the parable of the unjust steward, the comparison is between the steward and the disciples of Jesus. The steward is commended for being ``shrewd'' (NIV) or ``wise'' (KJV) in Luke 16:8. If the steward, one of the ``people of this world,'' can exercise this quality, how much more should Jesus' disciples, the ``people of the light,'' be able to do so!

In Luke 16:8, the Greek word for ``more shrewd'' or ``wiser'' is phronimos. Ireland [1, p. 83] points out that Jesus often commends this quality in his disciples, especially in the context of being spiritually prepared for the end of this age and his return. The same Greek word is used, for example, in Matt. 7:24; 24:45; 25:2, 4, 8, 9; Luke 12:42. This suggests that Jesus was making the following sort of analogy in his parable: Just as the steward was called to account for his use of his master's resources, so will Jesus' disciples be accountable for their use of the resources, physical and spiritual, that they have received from their Master. With his job about to be taken away, the steward faced a crisis. Unless he could restore honor to his master, his future looked grim. Similarly, disciples of Jesus face the imminent return of their Master. In preparation for that event, they should live in a way that brings honor to Jesus.

Jesus states in Luke 16:8 that citizens of his Kingdom often lack the wisdom of ``people of this world.'' There are several ways in which one could imagine a disciple falling short in this area. Perhaps that disciple lacks the sense of urgency that led the steward to successfully provide for his future. Perhaps the disciple lacks a wholehearted commitment and does not sufficiently value God's calling. Or perhaps the disciple is sitting and waiting for the Master's return but not treating this life seriously enough.

In Luke 16:9-13, Jesus instructs disciples in how to live wisely in anticipation of his return. In Luke 16:9, he urges us to invest in our eternal future by using our ``worldly wealth'' in an appropriate way. Elsewhere he stresses the same idea when he speaks of being ``rich toward God'' (Luke 12:21) or of storing up ``treasure in heaven'' (Luke 12:33). We might think of this as a sort of currency exchange, where we trade in money-which has no value beyond this life-for eternal riches.

How does one carry out this kind of transaction? Luke presents a great deal of instruction on the proper use of wealth, often juxtaposing good examples and bad examples:

Luke 12:13-21 tells the story of a ``rich fool'' whose goal is to accumulate as much wealth as possible. Disciples, on the other hand, are to trust in God's provision and use their resources to help the poor (vv. 22-34).
Our parable in Luke 16 is followed by the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (vv. 19-31), in which a beggar and a selfish rich man find their circumstances reversed in the next life.
The example of the rich young ruler who is unwilling to part with his wealth (Luke 18:18-30) is followed by the example of the wealthy tax collector Zaccheus, who repents and pledges to give half his possessions to the poor (Luke 19:1-10).
The early Christians ``shared everything they had'' (Acts 4:32), while the deception of Ananias and Sapphira defrauded and dishonored God (Acts 5:1-11).

These examples show that proper use of wealth is characterized by generosity and concern for the needy, while improper use of wealth is characterized by selfishness and greed. As Jesus states in Luke 16:13, our use of riches is an indicator of where our true loyalties lie.

Luke records that some who ``loved money'' scoffed at these teachings of Jesus (Luke 16:14). In answer, Jesus affirmed in verse 17 that his teaching was consistent with the words of the Torah (see e.g. Deut. 15:1-11).

Although our worldly resources will not last beyond this life, Jesus emphasizes that God has given us these resources in order to prepare us for greater responsibilities in the world to come (Luke 16:10-12). Let us then be wise stewards, managing what God has given us in a way that will honor our Master and prepare us for an eternal future in his Kingdom.

References:

1. Dennis J. Ireland, Stewardship and the Kingdom of God: An Historical, Exegetical, and Contextual Study of the Parable of the Unjust Steward in Luke 16:1-13, E.J. Brill, Leiden, The Netherlands, 1992.
2. David Landry and Ben May, ``Honor Restored: New Light on the Parable of the Prudent Steward (Luke 16:1-8a),'' Journal of Biblical Literature, Volume 119 (2000), pp. 287-309.