The exhaustive theology in the Parable of the Unjust Steward
One of the most difficult parables to understand is that of the Unjust Steward, found in Luke 16; it has consistently flummoxed scholars and has a wide spectrum of interpretation. Its trouble is that it reads like something from the apocryphal gospels, sounding more like something you would find Jesus saying in the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Judas Iscariot! It is rare to hear it preached upon, and I was surprised to learn one of my fellow lay preachers recall an instance at a funeral of a banker he knew, in which it was used.
I had suggested this passage to these learned and experienced lay preachers in a regular meeting we share, and I was delighted when they accepted. There are many odd and challenging parts to Holy Scripture, and I would say that your faith is rewarded more when you engage, rather than ignore such parts: if Jesus says something weird or untoward, it is likely that it carries a deep significance.
Why does Jesus speak in parables? It was the theologian C.H Dodd in his work, parables of the Kingdom, who defined parables as:
‘At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt to its precise application to tease the mind into active thought.”
However, it was Jesus himself who answered his disciples on the matter; He alludes to Isaiah 6:9 (‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’) when he answers in Mark 4:11 (cf Matt 13:13; Luke 8:10):
‘And He was saying to them, “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but for those who are outside, everything comes in parables, so that while seeing they may see, and not perceive, and while hearing, they may hear, and not understand, otherwise they might return, and it would be forgiven them.”
So, with this in mind I thought I would try my best to offer an interpretation. It is by no means definitive, but I shall endeavour to include several theological thoughts on the matter.
The parable is firmly planted in the Lukan context which includes both the gospel of Luke itself and the book of Acts; the central theme of which is God’s end-time (eschatological) salvation predicted by the prophets and arriving through the coming of Jesus the Messiah, the saviour of the world, and how that salvation shall spread to the rest of the world. In particular, this parable, along with others that can be read in parallel, are found in the part of the gospel known as the gospel of the outcast (9:51-19:27). This section resides in the travel narrative, as Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem.
Both the gospel according to Matthew and the gospel according to Luke are associated with the hypothetical Q source; this is an undiscovered source of ‘Jesus sayings’ that scholars have long theorised the existence of. Luke is regarded as utilising the sayings in a more sequential manner. Scholars who recognise ‘Marcan Priority’ postulate that the first of the synoptic gospels was Mark, and that this influenced the later gospels.
The book of Isaiah is widely used in much of the NT and Luke is no exception, as already mentioned Jesus quotes from Isaiah when answering about his use of parables; the birth narrative and Zechariah’s prophecy in Lk 1:78-79 alludes to the Isaiah prophecy of the coming saviour; and of course, Jesus himself reading from the scroll of Isaiah in Luke 4.
When we consider the theme of the persecuted prophet, along with the theme of Jesus’ clash with the authorities in Jerusalem we should also consider the book of Jeremiah as a source:
“When using OT (LXX) texts and traditions, the Gospel of Luke is prone to use indirect allusion and echo over direct quotation. When passages in the Gospel of Luke reflect the themes of the persecuted prophet or judgment on Jerusalem, the text very often contains specific catch words that are closely associated with the terminology of LXX Jeremiah”
The travel narrative and the gospel of the outcast highlight Jesus’ training of the disciples, specifically the high cost of discipleship. Themes of righteous living are developed as are the dangers of wealth.
Part of the issue faced by scholars is the agreement on the actual verses of the text. For some, it is made up of a single pericope of the verses 16:1-13, for others there is a divide with the original pericope running 16:1-8(a), followed by a series on non-sequitur sayings from the Q source. It is far easier to translate as a moral teaching by taking on the verses in the latter form, indeed a little shrewdness makes the issue all but disappear (making Jesus’ words in vv 8 even more ironic!); it has been suggested that some redaction was undertaken by the early church for the very reason that this is a difficult parable to digest, however, this redaction does not exclude the authenticity of the lesson as logia. It is important to note the preceding lessons: the Parable of the Prodigal son and the things lost lessons; also note the following parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus. This context gives further insight into its use, as does the recognition of to whom the parables is addressed.
(1) [a] Now He was also saying to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager,
Jesus is addressing the disciples, given the Lukan context, and that of its position in the travel narrative, perhaps what is about to unfold is a lesson for the disciples in the cost of discipleship? For the bleak reality of the calling, painted by Christ, read LK 14:25-35.
The Greek word used in οικονόμος (oikonomos) meaning a manager or trustee, in particular the manager of a household; Luke uses the same designation in LK 12:42. What is striking about this is the contrast in both examples regarding the translation φρόνιμος οικονόμος (fronimos oikonomos); in Lk 12:42 it is viewed with a positive connotation being translated as the wise manager, whereas we find the same phrase in this parable translated as the somewhat more dubious shrewd manager. The meaning of φρόνιμος (fronimos) is thoughtful or discreet implying a cautious character.
It raises the question on the moral standing of the manager, which the reader may assume is rather questionable: Jesus attaches no judgement to either the rich man or the manager, merely that a report has been made to the rich man, in which there is no confirmed veracity. Generally, in Jesus’ parables rich men are often the morally questionable.
[b] and this manager was reported to him as squandering his possessions.
It is the use of the word squandering (διασκορπίζω- diaskorpizo) which draws the parallels with the parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15:11); this too features the use of the word, used to describe the actions of the son squandering his inheritance as he goes out to live an independent life. That parable accompanies others that feature a theme of things lost (the coin and the sheep); the message there is how much God seeks to have us in his care, how he will not rest until we are returned to Him. Could this be the set-up of the moral message for the manager? If he is to cease his squandering all will be well. Yet, the prodigal son repents for his errant behaviour, there is no sign of the steward repenting for his lack of care with the master’s possessions (which as we established, he may not even be guilty of!)
(2) And he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an accounting of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’
The rich man now seems to be the unjust one, the case against the manager remains unsubstantiated yet he has already snapped to the decision of firing him! Are we now expected to root for the manager? Kloppenborg suggests that given the middle eastern setting and its honour/shame culture, that in fact, the parable has very little to do with the steward’s character and much about the master’s honour.In the parable, others have noticed the squandering of the possessions, leaving the master looking like he is incapable of running his own household by appointing inept staff. This cultural backdrop provides some reason for the hasty actions of the rich man but does not forward a moral message. When the rich man praises the manager for his actions is he challenging the appropriateness of insisting on one’s honour? Nothing about the parable suggests this.
(3) And the manager said to himself, ‘What am I to do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig; I am ashamed to beg.
The manager begins to form a plan. The device that Jesus uses, the internal monologue, allows for us to know the thoughts of his protagonist unlike the other characters in the tale; there are a few more hints at the honour/shame culture as the manager faces the reality of what his life will be from now on. Furthermore, we see a return to the eschatological context of the Lukan paradigm-the manager is preparing for an age to come, Jesus’ disciples must also consider their actions now as a time of upheaval is soon on the way. This is expanded on in the next verse:
(4) I know what I will do, so that when I am removed from the management people will welcome me into their homes.’
(5) And he summoned each one of his master’s debtors, and he began saying to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
The manager may be proving himself incompetent after all; where are the detailed records that his stewardship would demand him to keep? He must ask the debtors how much they owe. We see now that perhaps the master is justified, and the concerns are valid, what a rollercoaster Jesus has taken us on in 5 simple verses: a common feature of his shocking teachings.
(6) And he said, ‘A hundred jugs of oil.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’
(7) Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ And he said, ‘A hundred kors of wheat.’ He *said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’
It is in these two verses that some scholars have found the moral hope! Ignoring that the rich man’s actions may be justified and reframing the manager as the hero of the tale. Yet, a Robin Hood type of tale does not remove the moral issue of our ‘hero’ being a crafty, small-time crook! Some interpretations rely on the proviso that in the grand scheme of things the unjust steward isn’t completely unjust. It is suggested that by slashing his own commission the manager brings about a neat little ending in which no-one, other than he himself loses out. This softens the moral dilemma but does not completely remove the interpretive problem of Jesus holding up a dishonest man as a good example to his disciples. W. Loader weighs in on this point with an interesting take; the whole parable is an allegory in Christology.He suggests that the manager is a representation for Jesus himself, who is justified in releasing the debts to sinners. It does ring true with elements of the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:12 (forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors). Loader also notes that this parable appears near parables of Lk 15:1 in which Jesus responds to accusations from the Pharisee that he is unjustified in his forgiveness of sinners. Loader seems to ignore the eschatological context of being wise with wealth in this world, which surely the parable is pointing to?
(8a) καὶ ἐπῄνεσεν ὁ κύριος τὸν οἰκονόμον τῆς ἀδικίας ὅτι φρονίμως ἐποίησεν,
I have left this verse in the Greek to highlight one of the major points of hermeneutical stubbed toes! The use of ό κύριος (ho Kurios) meaning the lord or the master. Scholarship fell out on which ‘master’ was being referred to: was it the rich man of the parable or the Master, Lord Jesus, passing a judgement from outside the text? This is why some believe the parable ends here in v8(a). NIV translates as follows:
‘The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.’
The end. Nice and neat, Jesus gives his approval to a dishonest man(?!) for doing a thoughtful (φρονιμος-in the Lk12 context) deed at the expense of a rich man. The dishonesty of the manager remains, even if we are shrewd with the translation: άδικίας (adikias-unrighteous) remains in the text even if we do end it here.
A further issue sees us return to the issue of ‘the master’ we glanced over previously! ἐπῄνεσεν (epainesen- praise/commend) in the conjugated form here is what’s known as a 3rd person singular aorist active indicative verb (don’t worry about it!), meaning the better translation, as captured by the ASV would be:
‘And his master complimented the unrighteous manager because he had acted shrewdly;’
This solves the issue of Jesus praising a dishonest man (phew!) but leaves us with the issue of why the master in the parable would still praise the manager? Goodrich sheds some light with his in-depth paper on cultural norms of landownership in the Greco-Roman period.I read it, so you don’t have to!! The thrust, well researched from the writings of Pliny and Cicero, indicate that the hassle of acquiring a new tenancy for agricultural land was not as easy as it first appears; therefore, the continuity of crop yield would likely be disrupted. The manager has acted in such a way that:
(a) He did not dishonour the rich man, by proving to be a useful employee and managing the estate appropriately.
(b) The option of debt remission to the tenants proved the rich man to be a righteous person.
(c) The tenants, having been treated so kindly, were unlikely to leave the land allowing for the all-important continuity of crop yield as well as the reduced hassle of agreeing new terms with new people.
(d)The managers sensible and decisive actions assures his worth and employment continues.
(e) All concerned parties end up in a seemingly better position.
This is a strong case, but the amount of background information required does not justify the teaching. Jesus’ teaching was always intended to be understood on different levels, but this seems incredibly convoluted, requiring a grasp of ancient legal rights for Roman farmers! The next part of the verse, ignored by some scholars for the sake of convenience, is really what helps us understand the key message.
(8b) for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light.
This is a parable of the Kingdom; Jesus’ continual message, the hope of a restored world were man and God rekindle their original relationship, found in the Garden of Eden, before the fall. Jesus talks of this as an age to come. We find the distinction of this age in verses from Matthew (12:32) and in Luke 20:34. The sons of light refers to what we will become in this new age, used in John 12:36 and extolled in Pauline theology in Ephesian 5:8 and 1 Thessalonians 5:5.
The interpretation of this verse brings forth another interesting angle: the potential use of irony by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. It has been suggested that in Lk 13:33 we find ironic words, used by Jesus, when he talks about how it ‘cannot be that a prophet would perish outside Jerusalem’. Jerkins implies that Christ ironically rolls his eyes in the direction of the Pharisee as he mentions the sons of light; they are standing nearby listening to his parable. He argues the point that the manager in the parable has a keen eschatological perception. Knowing the Lord will come he prepares accordingly; the so-called sons of light in this interpretation are the Pharisee, who are against the Jesus movement and who continue to show lack of wisdom regarding his ministry. Although very well put forward I refute this, on the grounds that the post-modern zeitgeist of irony use is very much reserved for the early 90’s and unlikely a staple of 1st century theology found in Luke.
Schumacher delves deeper into the ‘wisdom of the manager’ in his paper.The basis for his argumentation here is a textual analysis regarding the Greek usage once more. He notes the parallel are more striking when viewed against the parable of the rich fool. Certainly, there are literary parallels which are noteworthy, giving credence to this work.
1. The primary characters in each are introduced at the very opening of the parable (12:16; 16:1).
2. An immediate event sets the story in motion and creates a moral dilemma (12:16; 16:1).
3. The primary character responds to the moral dilemma in the form of a soliloquy or inner monologue to form a plan of action (12:17-19; 16:3-7)
4. In each, the narrative of the parable ends with a surprising proclamation issued from an unexpected source (12:20; 16:8a).
He posits the crux of the interpretation relies on the literary juxtaposition of the actions of the manager. In the parable of the rich fool (Lk 12:16-21), the protagonist stores up (συναγω- sunago) his wealth and is proclaimed a fool by God, missing the eschatological significance of his actions, whereas the unjust steward squanders (διασκορπίζω. Lit. scatters) and is proclaimed wise for recognising the eschatological context. Schumacher’s interpretation revisits the idea of the dangers of wealth and righteous living; however convincingly this reads, it still sidesteps the core dishonesty of the manager.
Verse 9 brings us closer to the point:
(9) And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it is all gone they will receive you into the eternal dwellings.
God’s people, the children of light, should use the same shrewd thinking as the manager; he is dishonest (but aren't we all to some degree in this age?) and he used dishonest wealth not to make more wealth but to make more friends in the coming kingdom.
All wealth will ultimately disappear, we have a limited opportunity to make for ourselves Kingdom friends, friends in spirituality. We face a crisis:
(10) The one who is faithful in a very little thing is also faithful in much; and the one who is unrighteous in a very little thing is also unrighteous in much.
Our present age, this age, uses people to make money; children of light, the people of the age to come, are asked to use money to make more people for the Kingdom.
This is the stark difference Jesus wishes his people to recognise. He hammers the point home in vv11 and 12; these are not non-sequitur phrases used from the Q source, they are prescient to his same point.
(11) Therefore if you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous, wealth, who will entrust the true wealth to you?
(12) And if you have not been faithful in the use of that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?
God so desires us to reclaim the kingdom which rightfully belongs to us. He instructs us in how that can be done in the final verse:
(13) No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
Finally, a conclusion: but did we solve the issue of the rich man’s praise? Long sums it up best:
'Placed in the context of Luke, what we have is a rich man who recognizes the wisdom, prudence, and shrewdness of the steward’s actions. This is an exceptional rich man, indeed. Who is like him? The Pharisees, who were “lovers of money” (16:14), were not that way: they ridiculed Jesus and his parable. The rich man, “who dressed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day,” was not that way: he ignored poor Lazarus and ended up in the place of torment (16:19-31).'
The parable is first about money, it reminds us that it is temporal and will vanish; Jesus would have us use it now to create something in eternity, to think on the coming age. It is also about the divine possibility of salvation for all: the rich man in the parable caught a glimpse of the coming age and praised the wisdom even though it emerged from an unlikely source. The dishonest manager realised the crisis of his existence and moved in a manner which improved both his life and the people around him. All things will pass away but the wisdom of God remains, free to us all, we can do as we wish with it; however, it is the rich man’s reaction that is held up as an example by Jesus.
 Mark. L. Strauss, Four Portraits One Jesus, (Zondervan: Grand Rapids 2007) p260  J.Daniel Hays, ‘The Persecuted Prophet and Judgement on Jerusalem: The use of LXX Jeremiah in the gospel of Luke’, Bulletin for Biblical Research 25.4 (2015) 453-473  There is further confusion in that scholars generally agree that vv10-13 were not part of the original parable but there is division in the thought that vv 8(b)-9 should be included in further exposition of 8-13  From Logion, meaning a phrase or saying attributed to Christ.  J. S. Kloppenborg, "The Dishonoured Master (Luke 16:1-88)," Bib 70 (1989) 474.  Thomas G Long, ‘Getting by with a Little Help from My Friends: Preaching the Parable of the Unjust Steward, Sewanee Theological Review 44:2 (Eger 2001)  Christology is the branch of theology dealing with the role, person, and nature of Christ.  W. Loader, "Jesus and the Rogue in Luke 16:l-8a: The Parable of the Unjust Steward," RB 96 (1989) 518-532.  Ibid  John. K Goodrich, Voluntary Debt Remission and the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-13), JBL 131, no. 3 (2012): 547-566  Marcus Jerkins, ‘Righteous Sinners and Free Slaves: Use of Irony in the Parable of the Unjust Steward and Slave Resistance in the Antebellum South’, Perspectives in Religious Studies, 48 no 4 Wint 2021, p 415-427  R. Daniel Schumacher, Saving Like a Fool and Spending Like it Isn't Yours: Reading the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-8a) in Light of the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-20), Review and Expositor, 109, Spring 2012  Ibid.  Thomas G Long, ‘Getting by with a Little Help from My Friends: Preaching the Parable of the Unjust Steward, Sewanee Theological Review 44:2 (Eger 2001)