Can we read of the Unjust Steward in Luke 16 with irony?

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.

Come and join us for the Third Festival of Theology on Tuesday 8th October!

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.

Andrew Talbert completed his PhD in New Testament interpretation at the University of Nottingham and taught for several years in Indonesia before returning to his native United States.

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37 thoughts on “Can we read of the Unjust Steward in Luke 16 with irony?”

  1. Excellent, excellent.

    Too often when reading the Bible we tend to read it so literalistically, even parables. I can just imagine listening to Jesus speaking this parable today, with the irony/sarcasm in his voice and the rolling of His eyes! I think we miss so much by just reading.

    Even though Ive read many times about specs and planks in one’s eyes, I never found it funny. Until I saw it played out in The Miracle Worker film. Laughed out loud.

    Just one question – ‘It fits with Jesus’ concern in Luke’s Gospel that believers separate themselves from dependence on mammon’:

    How does one differentiate between this and simply being wise with one’s money, eg planning for retirement, having savings, life insurance etc? Or are these things also showing our dependence on ‘mammon’?


  2. Thank you for a powerful, and brief, lesson on this parable! I especially appreciate the contextual links, something that I had not seen (or, rather, been too lazy to dig out) before.

  3. Thank you for broadening the reading and context of this passage with the chapters before and after.. too many times the New testament is read in increments by those “little subject dividers” put in by the editors and publishers,making it seem as if Jesus was constantly jumping from one thing to another. Jesus topic was, throughout all his teaching, the kingdom of God. His point was one of contrasting and comparing that of the unrighteous world with the eternal. Exposing the Pharasees’ own duality and hypocrisy was the result of such..I’m sure He had more than one chuckle over their embarrassed anger!

  4. Thank you for the comments about the irony present in Jesus telling parable. It does help to illuminate what was going on between him and his listeners.
    I have also found Kenneth Bailey’s exegesis of this parable in its middle eastern setting fascinating and helpful. It’s well worth reading and can be found in Chapter 5 of his book ‘poet and Peasant.’

  5. Luke at this stage in his sequential Deuteronomy correspondences needs some themes from Deut 23.1-20, of which he chooses:
    -(primarily:) unjust slave who gets well treated rather than being punished (23.15-16)
    -‘dig’ (23.13)
    -not extracting the exact accrued debt but reducing it (23.19-20).
    The parable is a composite of these elements. Prof. Horbury among others suggested that the moral reflects the teaching that shrewdness is good (Mt 10.16).

    The sequence hereabouts is (for Luke 15-16):
    Deut. 21-2 Bringing home stray sheep (engizdo)…2 sons (firstborn close to father; rebellious disobedient son)…woman and silver coins.
    Deut. 23.13-20 Unjust steward – as detailed above
    Deut. 23.18 Mammon and bdelugma (Luke 16.13ff.)
    Deut. 23.20 Enter or possess violently (Luke 16.16 alters Matt here, which as always runs the risk of surface incoherence)#Deut 23.21ff. Law: perform everything (Luke 16.17)
    Deut. 24.1-4 Divorce law (Luke 16.18)
    Deut. 24.10ff. How to treat a poor man (Luke 16.19ff.)
    etc etc.

    Of all the several passages where Luke appears to progress by means of non sequiturs, 16.13-19 is the chief. But not when we remember the Deuteronomy template sequence.

    • “Prof. Horbury among others suggested that the moral reflects the teaching that shrewdness is good.”

      Well, wisdom is good, but agent’s sharp invoice factoring was far from “harmless as doves.”

      I see no evidence supporting the assumption that the rich man in this parable is a figure of Christ and his agent a figure of discipleship.

      Instead, the rich man and his agent are both ‘men of the world’, the former grudgingly admiring the lengths of self-serving expediency to which the latter has gone; sharp practices that are so far beyond the moral compass of the ‘sons of light’ as to make them appear woefully naive (in this world) by comparison.

      And Jesus’ rhetorical conclusion exposes the eternal myopia of those who, like the scornful Pharisees, capitalise on dishonest gain to forge self-preserving temporal worldly alliances.

      • Yes, never any question of there being a figure of Christ in this parable.

        I think Prof’s point was only a compositional one, probably dull-seeming to most, though interesting to me. The point being: Luke could well have ended up with a parable like this from the materials already available to him – but given his controversial ending and moral, he would have appreciated Mt 10.16’s semi-precedent, which semi let him off the hook.

  6. I hardly dare offer my comment here, but I’ll do it anyway and thereby hope to learn something.

    As an organist I get to choose the hymns for our services. As was to be expected I struggled over this week’s gospel reading before coming across this post. I may have got it all wrong, but here’s how my thoughts went originally when I was left to my own (non scholastic) devices.

    In his autobiography Duncan Bannatyne told a story of his first enterprise: owning some mobile ice cream vans. He found out that one of his salesmen was short-changing him on his sales, and so he sacked him. But he later regretted doing so because that salesman turned out to have been his best seller of ice cream. Although he was dishonest, his much greater turnover had actually netted Duncan greater profit than any of the others!

    My interpretation of the parable under scrutiny here was relatively uncomplicated (but also easy to demolish?). And it turned very simply on Jesus’ application of earthly logic to a warning about the choice between serving God or money. Just as Duncan realised his morally good decision turned out to have been materially foolish, so the master in the parable (being a man of the world) applauded his manager’s morally flawed but logically sound reasoning even though it had been at his (the master’s) expense.

    And so (in the second half of verse 8) Jesus contrasts the lack of good sense of religious people towards their spiritual best interests with the way those of no faith can sometimes show a great deal more sense in the limited outlook of their worldly circumstances.

    The following verse 9 seems puzzling indeed. So because it doesn’t make immediate sense, it might be permissible to cheat a bit and look to Jesus’ conclusion in verse 13 for a steer on the interpretation of verses 9-12. And it’s clear he’s pointing out that we have to choose whether to apply the wisdom of this world to crude monetary gain or to the accruing of eternal (spiritual) riches. There’s no doubt the ‘chosen people’ tend to be good with money. That’s not a racist jibe, it really is a noticeable trait. Of course warnings about the love of money apply to us all. But Jesus clearly loved his people, the Jews, and if they needed a specific warning about how money could drive a wedge between them and God, he was going to give them that warning. So he makes clear that you can’t increase your most important investment (the spiritual one) by earthly means; you have to choose to serve God alone as your master.

    So, going back to verse 9, ‘make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth…eternal dwellings’ perhaps means ‘make friends for yourselves among God’s people (the sons of light) using sound logic just as you would use for ensuring your monetary survival. If you carefully reason what are your best interests when it comes to your earthly monetary circumstances, how much more important is it to do the same in the best interests of your eternal circumstances. Unrighteous (worldly) friends (and the consequent monetary security your friendship with them might offer) will always fail (come to an end), whereas your spiritual investment (choosing to serve God as your master among God’s people) is an investment with eternal prospects.

    Is this adding words or editing them in regard to verse 9 in a way that the original manuscripts cannot possibly allow? If so, we should of course go with the manuscripts.

  7. I am not convinced by Porter’s interpretation, though it is provocative.
    There are other potential key markers, which point to a rather different reading of this awkward parable. One of the difficulties in interpretation is deciding what are the key markers that shape the story.
    Is it significant that the owner is a “rich man” – the “rich man” in the next parable is not a good figure, nor was the rich man who wanted bigger barns in ch 12. Note too the man who is rich in ch 18 who cannot give up his wealth, and Zacchaeus who does repay his ill-gotten wealth. Should we not start with the assumption that the rich man in this parable is not the “hero”.
    Is it significant that the steward is falsely accused of squandering? diaballo is normally used of false or aggressive accusations? Maybe the steward knows there is no point in fighting what will be a done deal.
    Might this story have its roots in a real event that was known in some way to the original hearers.
    Is the size of the debts significant? Are these really subsistence farmers or do the debts indicate rather more wealthy people? Does this affect how we read the story?
    Given the very obvious problem as to who is speaking at the beginning of v8 – the master of the parable or the Lord – should we assume we can use the following verses to interpret the parable as it was first told, or should we note that Luke is compiling some teaching around money, which may not (or even was not) originally part of the explanation.
    Is the phrase “steward of unrighteousness” which is paralleled in v9 by the phrase “mammon of unrighteousness” best translated “unjust steward”, or might it refer to his stewarding of unrighteous wealth?
    If there is irony / humour then it may be that the audience laugh at the rich man who is tricked out of wealth he hoped to get, and cheer the steward and are happy for those whose debts are reduced.

    There is then a reading of this parable where the steward, now falsely accused, undoes the exorbitant interest charged by the rich man, and disentangles himself from the unjust use of money. Like the younger son, he is faced with a crisis and responds. Jesus commends such behaviour.
    While this does not answer everything, it is much more in keeping with the other parables about rich men. In comparison, the beggar Lazarus, also finds eternal rest despite having no earthly friends; the steward through good use of Mammon in which he has finally acted well, also – we learn- may enter the eternal home.

    Does the parable have one key message and the story leads up to that one key message, or what do we think Jesus was wanting to get across in telling this story? Should we spiritualise the message, or is it important to stay with the reality of money and right behaviour, or are the two entwined and if so how?

    • BECAUSE, I think the fellow who wrote this article is still not even sure of it’s interpretation.

      I’ll hold back.

      There is certainly something deeper here…the “everlasting habitations” does NOT (necessarily) mean heaven?


  8. From Law in the New Testament, by J Duncan Derrett (1922 – 2012), Professor of Oriental Laws in the University of London provides an important background to the role of agents, like the unjust steward, in the NT:
    “The agent may, within the scope of his mandate or commission, fix upon his principal liabilities, just as he may earn for him profits, which were not precisely authorised by the master. So long as his ostensible agency lasts, he can bind his master in relation to third parties and if the two quarrel over loss or profit, the law sets out rules for their division. In most cases, an agent with general or universal, authority could saddle his principal with liabilities and escape personal loss.”

    “The essential quality of an agent is trustworthiness and wide discretion was inherent in the appointment.”

    “No one confused the agent with the paid factor or broker, and no agent was compensated – he was merely compensated for his expenses.”

    “As a result, the position was a fiduciary one and not contractual in the strict sense. Incompetence, misuse of discretion, negligence and even downright swindling could not raise against the agent an action for debt, **nor could the criminal law be brought into play against him.**”

    So, while the steward displayed shrewdness in factoring his master’s accounts receivable, his actions were certainly not criminal.

    How might this insight affect our understanding of the parable?

  9. I would like to offer something of an expansion here of a few points I made in the blog. First, it is important to bear in mind Jesus’ early comment “Wisdom is justified by her children” (7:35), which sets the theme of making the wise choice, especially as those results relate to the kingdom. Those who reject wisdom reject Jesus and his kingdom. The prodigal son, makes a wise decision and is reinstated to community. In fact the comparison between the prodigal son and the unjust steward is apt because of the number of clear overlaps: economic resources are exhausted and so is the welcome of both individual; both are reduced to a lower status; at their lowest moments, both have a clear-minded soliloquy; and the feast and garment of the son have connections with the coming age.

    Furthermore, the consistent connection between wealth and eternal, kingdom consequences in Luke reappear in this section of parables with great intensity. Both parables surrounding the unjust steward make stark claims. “The parable of the prodigal son (Lk. 15.11-32) clearly rejects values associated with monetary standards and attempts to please those outside the community, and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (16.9-31) makes an even stronger statement regarding the reversal of fortunes for those putting their trust in this world’s riches to ensure eternal reward” (Porter, 130).

    The connection between the prodigal son and our parable is further secured by the transitional phrase ἔλεγεν δὲ καὶ, in which he turns to address the disciples. So, though the audience still includes Pharisees and tax collectors, the irony of the parable is intended for the disciples.

    Let’s rehearse the irony of 16:1–9 briefly: the steward considers honest solutions, but immediately rejects them; he is dishonest in his solution to his dilemma (the rush with debtors likely indicates his solution is unjust/dishonest; the narrator refers to him as “the unjust steward” after this solution— so the designation refers at least to this act); the steward is caught twice; the master praises the unjust steward.

    Taking a few of these points together and casting it in the eschatological tone of the verses that follow, the steward can choose the honest work, or he can ingratiate himself to the sons of this age. “He chooses the latter. It is this behaviour that the master ironically comments upon, in pointing out that the steward has not made a wise choice, but a wrong choice” (146). If we take the statements of verse 8 at the surface level, they are at odds with the parable itself.
    Regarding the idea that the master commends the cleverness, not the dishonesty:

    “First, applause of the steward for acting cleverly seems to entail applause of the means evidencing his clever action. The two cannot be separated. Second, the steward is put forward on the basis of his action as an example to the sons of light, and recommendations for their action must include more than simply wise action, but a similar kind of ingratiating action. Third, there is… an ‘inner unreality of the action as ascribed to the steward.’ The steward cannot have reasonably expected to expedite his ill-conceived plans of wasting the master’s wealth and saving himself; as a matter of fact, he is caught both times. This cannot be a worthy example for the sons of light and can hardly have been commended by Jesus, even in the light of eschatological exigencies” (131-32).

    Furthermore, the passage that immediately follows introduces the term mammon. Every instance of mammon in the NT as something into which people place their trust is negative. Additionally, the genitival construct of “mammon of unrighteousness” (τοῦ μαμωνᾶ τῆς ἀδικίας) parallels the description of the “unjust steward” (τὸν οἰκονόμον τῆς ἀδικίας). The irony is palpable here: “Jesus is commending 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” (149).

    Verses 10–13 only continues to develop the irony: a commonly held piece of wisdom scorns the actions of the steward (16:10). All three parables show problems of wisdom with wealth as it has to do with relationships and the kingdom.

    The conclusion (16:13) seals the irony: the steward tried to serve two masters, which results in his identification with the sons of darkness. Interestingly, the closing comment of Jesus may be read as a statement, which still secures the ironic meaning of the passage. Reexamining the punctuation, however, allows this to be read as a rhetorical questions “Are you not able to serve God and mammon?” The syntax allows for either a statement or a question. The Pharisees scoff because they are “attempting to embody the impossible dichotomy” (153)

    In conclusion, the ironic interpretation is internally consistent, contextually consistent with the other parables, and it makes his comments to the Pharisees in 16:14–18 consistent with the broader context of the Gospel.

      • Bailey’s work strikes me as one of the better alternatives out there, though not without some of the same issues from which other interpretations suffer. Again, the narrator, not the master, refers to the steward as unjust/unrighteous. This is paralleled by the “unrighteous mammon” reference in the verse that follows. These are not positive designations. Secondly, his reading does not align in the slightest with Jesus’ comments in 16:10–13, especially in the question put to the readers about serving two masters, a term that should cast the mind back to the parable that has just transpired. Thirdly, the steward does not throw himself on the mercy of his master; he seeks the mercy of the debtors. This point is borne out in the comparison of the prodigal son and the steward, which Bailey makes, but does not bring to its conclusion. He rightly notes that both have a moment of clarity about what they should do. HOWEVER, the prodigal son makes the wise choice and seeks mercy, but the steward rejects the honest work and seeks to ingratiate himself with the debtors.
        My agreement with Bailey extends so far as attention to context, but my approach is more text-centered than historical-context centered in this case, because: 1.) historical suggestions can be propounded ad infinitum (and have been), 2.) his contextual approach runs afoul of the content of 16:1–13, and 3.) the ironic reading accounts for all of the material without remainder.

  10. What if we read the steward, falsely accused, in crisis, changing master, and subsequently managing money ethically? The steward has then broken with one master to serve a different one? Is this not in parallel with the younger son who in a different crisis makes a choice to return? The steward then is welcome to eternal homes, as the younger son discovered he was. But linking the two chapters is more about how Luke develops his message, not a record of Jesus’ combined teaching.
    While Luke may want us to read chapters 15 and 16, together do we assume that Jesus spoke chapters 15 and 16 in a single teaching session? I suggest we have to hold Luke’s composition as slightly distant from any original setting. Reading the parable primarily in continuation from chapter 15 may not be the best way to get to what the parable was about.
    Why would Jesus tell an ironic parable sandwiched between parables that are not ironic? An alertness to irony and humour is essential, but it is not evident that Luke has chosen to interpose a deeply ironic parable at this point in his gospel. The regular negative role (in Luke) of a rich man is more likely to be an interpretative key, and if the rich man has made his wealth by exorbitant interest, then a steward who dares to remove it would appear to be someone who has seen the light?? Luke is interested in how we should use the money and wealth we have, so such a reading would be supported by that concern of Luke as well.

    • I think the greatest difficulties with reading the steward as falsely accused are as follows: the text nowhere indicates that the accusation is false; the steward does deny the accusation; and the steward is designated as unjust/unrighteous at the end of the parable by the narrator, not the master. This final point also speaks to a few of the other questions you have raised.
      I think the question “why would Jesus tell an ironic parable sandwiched between parables that are not ironic?” is an apt question, but it’s more rhetorical than it is substantial— it deflects rather than addressing the data. In part, I think the key is Jesus’ shift to speaking directly to his disciples, almost like an inside joke. The irony is substantiated by the other points I’ve try to lay out in the blog and my subsequent response.
      Even if we were to separate 15 and 16, this, again, does not threaten the interpretation of the parable as ironic. Connections with the parable before and after are important, but the internal data even more so. Nevertheless, 15 and 16 are connected by proximity, audience, and thematically, especially with the use of διασκορπίζω, which only occurs in these two chapters and Luke 1.

      • Thank you for your response. I think you meant that the steward does NOT deny the accusation rather than he does. I suggest that he – in the story – knows it to be pointless and better to use the time for an escape.
        I would dare to disagree with you: diaballo, I think, does have a false accusation meaning as its primary meaning. I would also point to the rich man being a consistent negative figure in the parables. A close reading of the text does point to a bad master and false accusation of the steward.
        We need to read text and know context to make a stab at understanding what might be going on in the writing down of the debts – though ultimately we are unlikely to be certain. It is possible the steward is righting some wrongs: it is possible he is engaged in further sharp practice.
        I accept that the steward is referred to as a steward of unrighteousness, but I am not sure if this necessarily means he is an unjust steward. He could be described as adikos if that were the case. It is an unusual construction. And we should note that the word for “wisely” / “shrewdly” is very definitely a positive word, not a neutral word. Is it really a satirical and ironic sentence? “The lord praised the steward of unrighteousness because he did wisely”. It reads that someone who has not handled money well now, wisely has decided to put things right. cf Zacchaeus.
        If the ironic is the key to this parable, then it has been missed by so many. Where else does Luke use such deep irony? If this is a one-off occurrence, we should be able to argue clearly for the pointers: How has Luke set it up? An ironic parable that is not clearly signposted is peculiar. The same “message” could be so much more strongly conveyed in a different way.
        Underlying our various interpretations will be whether we accept vv1-13 as a coherent unit or as separate elements brought together. Some may even argue that Luke has not quite got hold of what this was about – possibly indicated by the awkward grammar of v8 and the question of who the kurios is in the first part of the verse.
        I am not at all sure that my reading of the parable is right – but I am also not yet convinced by the other interpretations and value the critical comments. Hopefully we all are wanting to find sense in this passage and to be able to preach from it with honesty and to feed the congregation.

  11. A great enhancement to the original article from Andrew Talbot’s comment above.
    Not having the original language and reading (not studying) the text and surrounding chapters in an ESV Reader’s Bible (without verses), I don’t consider it necessary to engage irony.
    The rich man clearly wasn’t deceived, conned (wise as serpents!) but marvelled at the ingenuity of the the dishonesty (darkness) of the manager, who, as it happened, with such ease ans speed, brought others into his dishonest schemes (and how easily and quickly, without thinking almost by natural reflex, they went along with it) to ingratiate himself with them, to “save himself” to show he is one of them, on their side. But it didn’t save him from dismissal – into eternal home of darkness-( as followed-up in the next chapter) and illustrated graphically by the Rich man and Lazarus.
    Additionally, I don’t think that the method used by the manager, of seeking favour with the debtors, by fraudulently, seeking to write-off, or diminish, the debt (which failed) is unimportant, bearing in mind the social standing of pharisees, their teaching and the view that wealth was an indicator of God’s blessing-even amongst the disciples (no matter how it was come by?) The manager, the debtors, all remained liable for the full extent of their debt to the rich man.
    But we have Jesus,the true Rich Man, the Richest of Rich men, the Wisdom of God, who sees through the strategy and methodology of wiles of deceit and darkness, who in his beneficent grace gave up all the riches of heaven, to pay, wipe out our unpayable debts, sin, that can not be diminished or written off by any other means, no matter how seductively, easily promoted, no matter how attractive they seem, they fail.
    BTW, I don’t automatically dismiss irony and word play in scripture. I see some irony in Jesus saying to Nathaniel in John 1:47!

  12. Apologies to Andrew for sloppily, misspelling your name.
    David (Shepherd), I am not convinced that the parable falls readily into the category of the law of Principal and Agent, of express, ostensible or implied, usual /customary authority of agent, where, in effect, as a quasi legal fiction, the agent becomes the principal.
    Andrew emphasises the text, which, to me, does not support the application of the law of Agency, studied as part of a law degree (admittedly, not Agency law in NT times)

    • Thanks for the link David,
      Unfortunately what seem to me to be the key pages are not there in the preview.
      I do not think that the Rich man and Steward/are in the same relationship category as Principal and Agent: rather it is a one of master(employer) and employee/servant/slave, in the context of the the text, and in those circumstances the steward would not have implied/imputed/customary authority to waive in whole or part the master’s debtors, debts.

      The text itself gives no hint at the Master/ Rich Man giving express authority. Indeed the weight of evidence from the text itself is that the steward, having been caught out once, didn’t repent, but then doubles down on his dishonesty by seeking to cook the books for his own benefit. Indeed why would he seek to get the debtor to alter the amount, rather than forge their “hand” or “mark”, other than to make it look authentic rather than dishonestly obtaining a pecuniary advantage from the master.
      The debtors, knowing the lack of authority of the steward would also be dishonestly seeking to obtain a pecuniary advantage by deception at the expense of the Rich Man.
      Yes, we have the scriptures to study, but now would the original hearers, disciples, have heard during the telling of the parable (bearing in mind their presence during Jesus parable tellings and encounters with the Pharisees? it, what would they have likely made of the conduct of steward, in particular and the debtors in the superficial based on truthful and upright, OT religiosity of the times, particularly the decalogue? How do we hear it, read aloud, perhaps without chapters and verses?
      I don’t think it is necessary here to go beyond the text. Why is it there in the bible. As a parable, what is it’s singular, or main points.
      As an aside, my experience of legal practice in the UK Courts, as a Defence lawyer and as an agent for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) , employee defendants frequently seek to place responsibility for the their financial offending against the employer by arguing that there wasn’t a failsafe financial system to prevent offending, no matter how ingenious their method.
      As an Court Agent for the CPS, I had circumscribed authority to make agreements, decisions at trial, such as on pleas and negotiations. Defence and the Court knew that, the limits on my (any agent’s) authority.
      Once again, thanks for the link, David. If I were younger, I may have been interested in the full book, but it would probably have only been for my own edification, rather than to pass on any learning.

  13. Thanks, David. I’ll take a look. From what you wrote, there is no indication from the text itself, that the “manager” (ESV) was indeed an agent in the legal sense, nor had express or customary, implied authority to waive debts, and the debtors would know that, hence would be on notice that what they doing was wrong, as dishonest intent. Especially, if truth and honesty, was at the centre of Hebrew religiosity. The reality of the text indicates a straightforward, fraudulent dishonesty by all those seeking to fiddle the books. There is no evidence from the text that the manager, in the usual course of events had the authority to waive debts. He had been caught out twice, as Andrew says. The second was his solution to the first, to get deeper in. And the text is clear that in sum total the activity of the manager was not condoned, nor the rich man complicit. To say otherwise would seem to be reading into the text with a type of legal scholasticism – a reason Andrew gives for not following some one else cited by Ian, even if Andrew doesn’t use the same words. It is not necessary to go outside the text, I’d suggest, as Andrew seeks to emphasise.
    I’d suggest that there is a somewhat plain, straightforward meaning. But I’m probably being simplistically dim.
    Also in reality of UK case law employees frequently seek to put responsibility on employers for not having a failsafe system to prevent their own fraudulent activity, as do third party participants.
    I will read the link tomorrow on my computer- this is from phone. And I thank you for it. But, hey, I’m not a scholar, but do hope to seek to centre on the Gospel of Christ. I realise that I’m an outlier on Ian site, and at times don’t know why I visit, or why Ian permits.

  14. Reflecting on the original story again, some Christian commentators struggle with the master in the parable praising the steward’s shrewdness. Why would he honour dishonesty at his expense? they ask. I am reminded of the recent BBC 4 series ‘Follow the Money’ series 3 (Bedrag in Danish). Forgive a huge plot spoiler, but at the end of the series a bank employee who has used the bank to launder huge amounts of drug money is discovered by her employers but – with a twist just like the parable’s – given a big promotion within the bank! It absolutely underlines Jesus’ point that when you worship unrighteous Mammon the world is turned upside down, and the sons of light are to handle and invest their money very differently.

  15. Compare and contrast the steward in the parable, with the exemplar steward in the OT, who remained faithful, not to temptation of mammon, position, power, seduction, but faithful to serving God, while at the same time faithful to serving his master.
    Would it be likely that hearers of the parable would have this in mind?
    But again, who does this point forward to, in his temptation, offered the world, but remained faithful etc, etc.

  16. The irony of the parable suggests an outrageous interpretation. I suggest the following.

    The rich man represents God, who “owns the cattle on a thousand hills” and every other bit of wealth. God’s wealth includes both material and spiritual resources. I am the dishonest manager when I greedily hoard God’s wealth to myself or when I don’t employ (steward) his wealth as an instrument of his grace. When I realize my failure to be a proper steward, I can respond by giving God’s wealth away and forgiving debts. God is pleased if I respect his wealth by using it to bless others. Wealth, which is unrighteous mammon when I selfishly deploy it, becomes a means of grace when I, with seeming profligacy, give it away freely, as an expression of God’s love. Serving God is using his wealth for mercy; serving mammon is meanly neglecting those whom God has provisioned me to bless.

  17. Parables may have multiple explanations. Many of them are there as instruments of exploration, reflecting and exploring things for ourselves (ideally of course in the accompaniment of God).

    They are determinably not ‘fixed’ with surface level answers, but invite reflection, imagination, self-exploration… platforms for us to think and work dynamically with God.

    They are trying to get behind our preconceptions, our fixed and certain frameworks… they are designed to make us wonder, and sort of go walkabout in the dreamtime of their universe.

    So I think we need to be cautious about saying: “THIS is the meaning of this parable.” We can share our own ideas, but there may be others that work as well.

    I see the parables as instruments to trigger thought, not textbook black and white stuff. I really like that Jesus reportedly chose to use language this way.

    Through ‘unknowing’ we may discover more of God, than if we just set out all our certainties, and that was that.

    Perhaps some of the parables are deliberately opaque. Because God knows far more than us, but does not always deliver everything on a plate for us. He seeks the opening of our hearts and minds.

    In the case of this parable there may be multiple interpretations or responses, but does that matter? Might not that just be the parable doing its stuff?

    We shouldn’t always search for certainties. I don’t think that’s the way God works with us. God works with trust and relationship. Opening to parables imaginatively is maybe God’s schoolroom. A schoolroom where the teacher doesn’t just lecture, but invites the pupils to explore ideas for themselves, in relationship with the teacher (by which I mean Jesus, God).

  18. I believe (think) the original poster of the article didn’t fully understand this passage.

    It shows in his writing.

    He just doesn’t completely understand it.

    No worries on my end.
    I don’t entirely get it, either…
    Go figure.

    He’s not alone!
    Others, throughout the centuries have no real answer, either.

    Welcome to my world…


  19. Dear Dr. Talbert and the reverend contributors to this excellent discussion,

    I greet you from the Armenian Apostolic Church. I have read, with great spiritual refreshment, the original article and then the many appended comments. Please accept my prayers that Almighty God will continue to bless all of you and your loved ones with the best of health and safety as you pursue your ministries and theological research. I am always very humbled to learn from people who are so kind in sharing the fruits of their academic labors. Blessings!

    In the Armenian Tradition, Luke 15 and Luke 16 are prescribed as the fixed readings for the Third and Fourth Sundays of the Great Lenten Fast. I have read the brilliant exegeses presented by the writer and the contributors, and recognizing my own deficiencies, wish to respectfully add from our ancient, apostolic Church’s perspective on the subject of the steward.

    Before proceeding, may I please suggest to you that you obtain a copy of an interesting book by Elton Trueblood, “The Humor of Christ” (my copy is from Harper & Row, 1975). This book includes many interesting points about both the humor and irony in the various teachings presented by Jesus Christ.

    In the late-fourth century, Saint Gregory of Nyssa presented a series of homilies on the “Our Father” (my copy is a translation by Dr. Hilda C. Graef, Newman Press, 1954). Very soon thereafter, the Armenian Church adopted not only the texts of the homilies but the Scriptural citations which Gregory used, and assigned these many Old and New Testament readings to the sequential Sundays of the Great Lenten Fast.

    On the fourth Sunday, we preach about the sentence “And release us from our debts, unto the same measure that we release those who are indebted to us” (this is the translation of the sentence from Matthew, in the classical Armenian Version). When Gregory of Nyssa preached on this sentence, he drew from Luke 16, and made reference to the release of indebtedness by the steward.

    In English, “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them who trespass against us”, does not emphasize the direct correlation which is found in other languages. The Greek “os kai” and the Latin “sicut” parallel the Armenian “vorbes” to indicate more precisely “unto the same measure as” or “in the same way that”. When forgiving or releasing debts (the word used by Matthew), there is a correlation in the action. It is based upon the correlation that we have another interpretation of the actions by the steward to release debts “unto the same measure as”. There is a further allusion against the hardening of hearts. While not in Luke, in Matthew 19, the writ of divorce – which is to say, the annulment of the marriage contract (a parallel to a debt contract) – is given because of the hardening of hearts. Is the reduction in the amount of indebtedness by the steward a parallel to the softening of the heart?

    The hymns composed for the Fourth Sunday and sung to this day in the Armenian Church associate the events in Genesis 1-3 with the parable in Luke 16. Here are some of the verses:

    “Thou who with might didst make the perceptive ones in the upper world, and didst establish therein the heads of the fiery ones as steward; we bless thy unreachable might.”
    [The allusions are to the angelic whose eyes are fiery as the stewards in heaven.]
    “Thou who with lordliness didst create the great house in the sensible second world; and placed the first human being as steward in the forest which is in Aden; we bless thy unreachable might.”
    [These allusions are to the paradise in Eden. Note, in Armenian, this is spelled either as Edem or as Aden.]
    “Thou who didst build the exalted Church in thy thoughtful mystery; and having ordered in Her as steward the kerygmatic proclamations of the Word of Truth; we bless thy unreachable might.”
    [Thus, the preaching of the Word of Truth is considered as the position of stewardship in the Holy Church.]
    “Thou who from thy lordship having ordered the steward in our nature, with wisdom he released our debts from debt-holders; release us also from our failures by thy mercy, O Christ.”
    [An allusion to the sentence “And release us from our debts unto the same measure that we release those who are indebted to us.]

    We can see that one of the approaches to the exegesis on the steward is based upon an interpretation of the position of the first human being(s) in the forest of Eden. The Lord God tasked Adam to be the steward of the created world.

    Some of the contributors have astutely described the actions of the steward as “doubling down” in the aftermath of being accused by the lord of the household. Is this a reflection on the incidents in Genesis 3 when the Lord God demands to know, “Who told thee that thou art naked? Didst thou eat of the fruit …?” In the first “doubling down”, Adam places the blame upon “that woman whom thou hast given to me”, and in the second instance, the woman places the blame upon the serpent “who beguiled me”. “Quick, sit and change the amount of the oil owed! Quick, sit and change the amount of the wheat owed!” Are these not parallel to the finger-pointing in the garden? While the male, the female, and the serpent were cursed, they were not immediately destroyed in punishment. And, the steward is not immediately dismissed in the aftermath.

    Rather, if some of the attributes of the serpent are later identified with “mammon”, then is the admonishment – not necessarily irony – by Jesus about making friends with mammon pointing to a lesson not to be deceived and beguiled? The Lord God curses, true, but His heart does not harden, and there is a form of forgiveness through banishment out of the garden rather than the hard-hearted destruction of the created, albeit now flawed, steward(s) whom He has placed to “have dominion over” Creation.

    And yes, we live in the beneficence of a constitutional republic whose democracy is based upon Anglo-Saxon common law. A contract is a contract, and ought to be upheld as such, as one of the contributors has so rightly noted. It is unclear whether the steward has been expressly authorized to negotiate contract terms on behalf of the household; certainly the delivery of oil and wheat to the kitchen might be more mundane to the household owner, and so these types of contracts may actually be within the budgetary purview of the steward – we simply do not know. It is true that the householder has accused the steward of impropriety with regard to the accounting, but again, has the steward been accused of embezzlement, or merely of carelessness in the book-keeping? Again, we do not know.

    This is a challenging parable for preaching, until it is placed within the larger, five episodes which comprise the combined chapters 15 and 16: the finding of the lost sheep; the finding of the lost coin; the return of the prodigal son; the parable of the steward; the parable of the rich man [known classically as “Dives”, pronounced “dee-vess”] and poor Lazarus. What do these five episodes have as a common thread?

    In the Armenian Tradition, Luke 15+16 is paralleled to John 9+10, which is actually the older reading for these Sundays in Lent. Look at the sentiments in John about the restoration of sight, the gate to the sheep’s pen, being the model shepherd, and bestowing life abundantly. Now, look at the episodes in Luke. We can see a parallel in the teaching/preaching “Ye have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye’ … but I say unto you …” How many occasions in these two chapters do we hear the echo from Hosea “I will have mercy” rather than the imposition of “an eye for an eye” in the hard-and-fast world of contract law?

    I do not claim to be an expert in any of these matters. Please accept my presentation of related texts from the Armenian Church as additional material to the exemplary research already presented. Thank you for allowing me to post these comments.

    With my prayers and wishes for a spiritually fulfilling Lenten Pilgrimage,

    (Rev. Dr.) George A. Leylegian
    Armenian Apostolic Church


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