Parable of the Unjust Steward
The Parable of the Unjust Steward or Parable of the Penitent Steward is a parable of Jesus which appears in Luke 16:1-13. In it, a steward who is about to be fired curries favor with his master's debtors by remitting some of their debts.
He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.
“One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will 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 he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”— Luke 16:1-13, English Standard Version
The parable on the face of it, 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 some scholars disagree with this interpretation. However, although the master has "a certain grudging admiration" for the manager's "shrewdness," Jesus labels the manager "dishonest." To add to the interpretations, several different sayings about money were attached to the parable here. It is a matter of debate whether sayings about trust or serving two masters apply to this parable.
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 emphasises 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." Anglican Charles Daubuz (1720) was among those who saw in the "eternal habitations" promised to the unjust steward a negative prediction of the grave, not a promise of heaven. 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.
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 that of other people who were less strict.
A Confessional Lutheran apologist commented:
Jesus' parable of the unjust manager is one of the most striking in all the Gospels. Obviously, it would be pressing the parable beyond the point of comparison to interpret it as an endorsement of dishonest business practices. Jesus' point is simply to show us what money is really for. Typically we think of ourselves first when we answer that question. But Jesus invites us to realize that, first, our money isn't really ours -- we're simply managing it for its real owner, God. Second, even "filthy lucre" can be pressed into the service of God and our neighbor. When it is, the benefits will last beyond this life -- which the things we buy for ourselves won't. For example, money can be used to spread the Gospel, through which the Holy Spirit will gather believers into Christ's church. We will enjoy blessed fellowship with these believers forever, long after the money itself is gone.
According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the parable is about an agent who, knowing he is about to be fired for usury, repents of his sin, asking the debtors to only pay what they owe his master - rather than pay him as well. This is in line with what John the Baptist tells the tax collectors and soldiers about exploiting tax payers and debtors earlier in the gospel.
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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.
- Daubuz A Perpetual Commentary on the Revelation of St. John 1720 "Everlasting Habitations, is an euphemismus of the oriental stamp, to signify the Grave, or State of the Dead, ."
- 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.
- WELS Topical Q&A: Luke 16:9 - Welcomed Into Eternal Dwellings
- USCCB Bible, Luke 16:1-8 commentary The parable of the dishonest steward has to be understood in the light of the Palestinian custom of agents acting on behalf of their masters and the usurious practices common to such agents. The dishonesty of the steward consisted in the squandering of his master’s property (Lk 16:1) and not in any subsequent graft. The master commends the dishonest steward who has forgone his own usurious commission on the business transaction by having the debtors write new notes that reflected only the real amount owed the master (i.e., minus the steward’s profit). The dishonest steward acts in this way in order to ingratiate himself with the debtors because he knows he is being dismissed from his position (Lk 16:3). The parable, then, teaches the prudent use of one’s material goods in light of an imminent crisis.
- USCCB Bible, Luke 3:12-14 Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He answered them, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.” Soldiers also asked him, “And what is it that we should do?” He told them, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.”