Andrew Talbert writes: Perhaps the oddest of parables of Jesus (at least in its interpretation), is that of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1–13). Commentators and pastors alike squirm through this parable with virtually the same conclusion: Jesus teaches that there are select occasions in which one can be dishonest with money. Not only does this interpretation chafe readers of the gospels, but it also seems completely out of step with the financial concerns that dominate the Gospel of Luke. Nevertheless, we see throughout modern commentators variations on this theme. Joel Green views this passage as continuing the theme of hospitality from chapter fifteen by focusing on almsgiving and friendship. Situating this in the language of patron-client relationships, Jesus offers this parable as challenge to his disciples to use mammon to make friends without expectations of reciprocity, so that there might be true social solidarity between the rich and the poor, thereby breaking down the patron-client relationship and meeting one another as “friends” (Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke, 486–89).
Though not couched in the same language of patronage, Bovon concludes similarly to Green “the Lukan Christ invites his readers to make friends for themselves with their material wealth and promises them in return spiritual benefits in the world to come” (Francois Bovon, Luke 2: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 9:51-19:27, 450). Yet he goes further than Green in pointing out the perennial difficulties raised by this passage and that “Christian tradition has preserved this parable in spite of the fact that it was a source of embarrassment,” (Bovon, 453) because of Jesus’ seeming departure from his other teachings about wealth.
Continuing in this trajectory, John Carroll foregrounds the enigmatic and elusive nature of the parable and repeatedly admits “readers can only build coherence by filling gaps in the assumed cultural script” (John Carroll, Luke: A Commentary, 325). He rightly notes that 16:8–13 are needed to guide the reader’s response to the parable, and then suggests a trajectory forward with the passage: Christians must somehow translate the story of the unjust steward into “the values of God’s reign” (Carroll, 327), and that this entails making friends with people who can help secure one’s future “through use of material resources… in ways that are entangled with the ‘unrighteousness’… of money and property” (Carroll, 327).
A final example from modern commentators suggests that internal clues in the text suggest the manager is falsely accused, and therefore the condemnatory remarks apply primarily to the master, not the manager. Therefore, the reader can readily identify with Jesus’ statements about making friends with mammon, because the manager has not done anything wrong from the beginning (Mikeal Parsons, Luke, 244–48).
Each of these interpretations fails, however, to deal adequately with several glaring difficulties: using mammon to make friends, though that makes one an opponent of God (16:13); the identification of the steward as “unjust” or “unrighteous” and a “son of darkness” (16:8); that the master commends the steward for essentially robbing him further (16:8); the connections over “squandering” money to be drawn between the prodigal son, Lazarus and the rich man, and this passage; the analogy that believers are to draw between the unjust steward and themselves based on Jesus’ teaching elsewhere regarding wealth; and the fact that the “friends” do not have “eternal homes” (16:9) into which they can welcome others.
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The exception to this trend, however, may be found tucked away in a volume celebrating Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield, Stanley Porter (“The Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1–13): Irony is the Key,” in The Bible in Three Dimensions, 127–53) offers a striking perspective on this parable that overturns these readings while simultaneously resolving all of the tensions without remainder. As his title suggests, Porter takes irony to be critical to the interpretation of this passage, and his definition clarifies why this tool is apt: “Irony… may be defined as an interpretive situation in which an explainable discrepancy is perceived by the reader between what is said and/or done by the characters in a dramatic story, and what is the established state of affairs in the contextual world” (Porter, 127). Though the focus here is on the unjust steward, situating it first in its narrative context helps make sense of what is happening in this parable.
Just prior to this is perhaps the most well-known of Jesus’ parables: the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32). This story deserves as thorough a restoration to its first-century context as possible. The outcome of the prodigal son’s life, lived on his own terms, is terrible enough for most of us to imagine, but it would have been mortifying at another level for Jesus’ Jewish listeners. The younger son asks for his inheritance (to which he is not entitled) before his father has died (read “Dad, I wish you were dead”) and he squanders his money on reckless living, so that he ends up in perhaps the most insulting place for a Jew: starving in a pigsty. Even if this did not technically make him ritually impure, the smell would keep people from wanting to be around him. This situation is a great irony: the demand for great wealth and dependence on it has brought this man as low as he can possibly descend. So, the son returns with nothing and his livelihood is sustained purely by the grace of his father, not money.
What parable follows the dishonest steward? The story of Lazarus and the Rich Man (16:19–31), which we might summarize as: the rich man uses his money entirely on himself while Lazarus suffers, but in the age to come the rich man suffers torment while the fortunes of Lazarus are reversed. Two parables that entail self-interested use of wealth surround the parable of our current interest.
Looking back at the unjust steward parable, our interest is really on the steward’s conclusion to use “unrighteous wealth” (mammon) so that people will take him in when it fails. Within the church this is sanitized, perhaps, to suggest using money to take care of believers so that they will extend you friendship in your time of need. It becomes an ethic of finances for believers.
But it doesn’t really make sense of the passage, because then Jesus would be affirming a person being dishonest to take care of his/herself. Secondly, it doesn’t make sense of why the Pharisees would ridicule him for this teaching afterward. Thirdly, taking the passage as traditionally interpreted doesn’t make sense of the logic of the passage. Here’s why:
What type of manager is this? The crux of the parable describes him as dishonest or “unrighteous” (τὸν οἰκονόμον τῆς ἀδικίας; 16:8). Notice that his solution to being caught in being dishonest is not to repent or change, it is to further his dishonesty, because he believes that using his master’s money in the way that he does will result in friends to take him into their homes (16:3–7). Recall the prodigal son. What happened when his wealth ran out? He was forced to take up humiliating work that the manager wants to avoid (16:3). Furthermore, any “welcome” that the prodigal son may have had among friends only extended only as long as there was money. Furthermore, in the steward’s dishonest life, he has not managed to set aside any money for himself, so it is implied that he has been wasteful with the money he had. We can actually see such a connection made on this point by Luke’s use of the same term (διασκορπίζω) in the prodigal son parable and this parable (15:13 and 16:1), which means “wasteful.”
Consider how quickly the situation devolves after the steward is found out: in his internal monologue, he immediately rejects the honest options of earning a living (digging or begging; 16:3). So he stands condemned. Next, the manager involves others in his dishonesty by having them cut their own substantial debts to his master (16:5–7). Why would further dishonesty solve the problem caused by dishonesty? Then consider the master’s response to discovering his steward robbing him of what he is owed. Is the reader really to believe that “the master commended the unjust steward” (16:8)? The master would not only be commending a villain, he would be commending a failure. What else besides irony could be intended here?
Additionally, Jesus’ conclusions following the parable using the eschatological expressions “sons of this world” (i.e. the unjust steward) and “sons of light” (16:8) are used to “contrast inhabitants of this worldly age and those who are either spiritually or in reality inhabitants of the kingdom [of God]” (Porter, 147), with the former believing they are “wise,” but they could not be further from the truth, or the reality of the kingdom “as the parable of the prodigal son shows with reference to this world and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus confirms for the age to come” (Porter, 148). In both of these parables the issue is (in part) over the use of money.
The irony reaches its peak, however, when Jesus comments on the parable “I tell you, make friends for yourselves with unrighteous mammon, so that when it gives out they may welcome you into their eternal homes” (16:9). The irony here comes across in several points: first, “Jesus is commanding his followers for using worldly wealth in its most negative sense to secure reward, a clear impossibility for this world, as the prodigal learned, and for the world beyond, as the rich man regretted” (Porter, 148–49). So, the verse must be taken ironically. Second, “dishonest wealth cannot be expected to produce earthly friendship, as the prodigal realizes, but more than that, this means of ingratiation cannot be used to buy eternal friends, as the rich man so painfully learns” (Porter, 149). Third, the friends, especially “sons of darkness” do not possess “eternal homes” (16:8). Fourth, Jesus later heightens the irony of v. 8 by noting that one cannot serve mammon and God (16:13; in fact, serving mammon makes one an enemy of God), just like the steward tries to serve two masters. Lastly, consider the Pharisees’ (“who loved money” 16:14) response to Jesus’ conclusion: they scoff at him, because they recognize his ironic condemnation of their acquisition of mammon.
Looking again at the broader context, the reader needs to situate this parable in the Gospel of Luke (who always links up economics, the end times, and God’s kingdom), the initial warning Jesus levels at tax collectors at the beginning of this teaching unit (15:1), Jesus’ concluding warning about the Pharisees (16:14–18), and between the eschatological warnings of the use of mammon in the prodigal son and Lazarus and the rich man. The only interpretation that accounts for all the data and allows for internal consistency without recourse to the awkward “Well in certain circumstances, Jesus says it is acceptable to be dishonest with wealth— as long as it is for your personal benefit and lets you make friends” reading is one with the eye for irony.
Besides a fresh reading, what might Christian readers draw from this interpretation of the unjust steward? At least two things come to mind immediately. First, as serious readers of scripture, we can read so “seriously” that we often miss out on humor, irony, sarcasm, and other literary devices we regard as “not serious.” By way of example, I would look to G. K. Chesterton, who rejected the accusation that he was not serious because he attempted to be funny so frequently. Chesterton reminds us, “Funny is the opposite of not funny, and of nothing else.” Readers of Jonah often miss the fact the Nineveh, where Jonah refuses to go, means something like “house of fish,” and Jonah is forced to go into a “house of fish”; Paul’s discussion of love in 1 Cor 13 is a condemnation of the Corinthian church, and follows something of a sarcastic rebuke of the “spiritual” in that community; despite all the lights being lit and the upper room being so bright, Eutyches still fell asleep (and out the window!) during Paul’s preaching. The point of this is simply that we need to be aware and make use of all of the interpretive tools at our disposal to be good readers of scripture.
Finally, and perhaps uncomfortably, this parable, which may have been the only remaining haven for justifying certain relationships with wealth among Christians, is no haven at all. It fits with Jesus’ concern in Luke’s Gospel that believers separate themselves from dependence on mammon, and what is at stake is whether or not one belongs to God’s kingdom. The use of wealth has eternal consequences, because it reflects where our allegiances lie. In the prodigal son, the wayward child at least has the opportunity to return to the father, so that he realizes his entire existence depends on the father’s grace.
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