Parable of the Unjust Steward
The Parable of the Unjust Steward (also called the Shrewd Manager) is a parable of Jesus which appears in only one of the Canonical gospels of the New Testament. According to Luke 16:1-13 a steward who is about to be fired curries favor with his master's debtors by forgiving some of their debts.
And he said also unto his disciples, There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods. And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward. Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. So he called every one of his lord's debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore. And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.
He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much. If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man's, who shall give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.
— Luke 16:1-13, King James Bible
The parable has caused difficulty, since on the face of it Jesus appears to be commending dishonest behaviour. This issue is sometimes addressed by suggesting that the manager is forgoing a commission due to him personally, but not all scholars agree with this interpretation. However, although the master has "a certain grudging admiration" for the manager's "shrewdness," Jesus labels the manager "dishonest."
The manager in the parable is probably a slave or freedman acting as his master's agent in business affairs. As his master's representative, the agreements he signs with the debtors are therefore binding.
The parable shares the theme of other passages where "Jesus counsels the disposition of possessions (and hospitality) on behalf of the poor with the understanding that, while mammon will vanish, eternal treasure will have thus been secured." When death comes, "the power we have to do good with our money ceases, so we should do good with it now" so that the friends we have made on earth will be waiting for us in heaven. This interpretation was also espoused by early church writers, such as Asterius of Amasia:
When, therefore, any one anticipating his end and his removal to the next world, lightens the burden of his sins by good deeds, either by canceling the obligations of debtors, or by supplying the poor with abundance, by giving what belongs to the Lord, he gains many friends, who will attest his goodness before the Judge, and secure him by their testimony a place of happiness.
English Reformer William Tyndale was at pains to emphasise the consistency of this parable with the doctrine of justification by faith, writing a booklet on the parable called The Parable of the Wicked Mammon (1528), based on an exposition by Martin Luther. Tyndale saw "good works" as the result of faith. Tyndale also pointed out that the steward was not praised by Jesus for his conduct, but merely provided as an example of wisdom and diligence, so that "we with righteousness should be as diligent to provide for our souls, as he with unrighteousness provided for his body."
The Anglican theologian J. C. Ryle, writing in 1859, rejected a number of allegorical interpretations of the parable, and gave an interpretation similar to that of Tyndale:
Let us contend earnestly for the glorious doctrines of salvation by grace, and justification by faith. But let us never allow ourselves to suppose that true religion sanctions any trifling with the second table of the law. Let us never forget for a moment, that true faith will always be known by its fruits. We may be very sure that where there is no honesty, there is no grace.
Pitcharan - a less known author from India, has given this interpretation:
Jesus’ target audiences are two groups of people – one that was despised and frowned upon by society and another that enjoyed much honour and respect. Both shared this common love– amassing wealth. The openly corrupt taxmen are referred to as ‘children of this world’; the Pharisees who fanatically kept the Law, believing it to be the ‘Light of Life’, are described as ‘children of light’. The taxmen had no qualms about adopting dishonest means but were known for their liberal spending habits and for using ill-gotten wealth freely to gain favors and friends. The Pharisees amassed wealth through legally right ways but were known to be tightfisted with their hard-earned money.
The former are commended for their worldly shrewdness and wooed to give up dishonest ways and receive their own heavenly treasures by proving trustworthy with what belongs to others. The latter are commended for their honesty and advised to freely use money to gain the friendship of saints who would welcome them into ‘eternal dwellings’, when their legalistic righteousness fails to gain them salvation. Both are candidly told to break free from the love of money and seek God with an undivided heart.
The Pharisees who loved money heard all this and were sneering at Jesus (Lk 16:14). Though there is no mention of how the taxmen responded, we have reasons to believe that the likes of Matthew (also called Levi) and Zacchaeus, were indeed converted by this teaching.
David Flusser, in a book titled Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls, has taken the phrase "sons of light" to mean the Essenes; their closed economic system is contrasted with other people who were less strict.
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- Daryl Koehn, "Integrity as a Business Asset", Journal of Business Ethics, (2005) 58: 125–136
- The Catholic Study Bible, Oxford University Press, 1990, footnote to Luke 16 v 1-8a
- Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, Eerdmans, 1997, ISBN 0-8028-2315-7, pp. 590-595.
- John Phillips, Exploring the Gospel of Luke: An expository commentary, Kregel Publications, 2005, ISBN 0-8254-3377-0, pp. 216-217.
- Asterius of Amasia, Sermon 2: The Unjust Steward, Sermons (1904) pp. 45-71.
- William Tyndale, The Parable of the Wicked Mammon (1528), also printed in The Works of the English reformers: William Tyndale and John Frith, Volume 1 (1831), pp. 83–161.
- Mike Pincombe and Cathy Shrank, The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Literature, Oxford University Press, 2009, ISBN 0-19-920588-4, p. 109.
- J. C. Ryle, Expository thoughts on the Gospels, with the text complete, London: Wertheim, Macintosh, and Hunt, 1859, p. 199.
- Charlesworth, James, ed. (1992). Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls. New York: Doubleday. p. 181. ISBN 0385478445.