Parable of the Unjust Steward

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Jan Luyken etching of the parable, Bowyer Bible.

The Parable of the Unjust Steward (also called the Shrewd Manager) 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.

Passage[edit]

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

Interpretation[edit]

The parable has caused difficulty, since on the face of it Jesus appears to be commending dishonest behaviour.[1] This issue is sometimes addressed by suggesting that the manager is forgoing a commission due to him personally,[2] but not all scholars agree with this interpretation.[3] However, although the master has "a certain grudging admiration"[4] for the manager's "shrewdness," Jesus labels the manager "dishonest."[3] To add to the interpretive confusion, 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.[3] As his master's representative, the agreements he signs with the debtors are therefore binding.[3]

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."[3] When death comes, "the power we have to do good with our money ceases, so we should do good with it now"[4] so that the friends we have made on earth will be waiting for us in heaven.[4] 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.[5]

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),[6] based on an exposition by Martin Luther.[7] Tyndale saw "good works" as the result of faith.[6] 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."[6]

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.[8]

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.[9]

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.[10]

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