The parable of the unjust steward in Luke 16

The Sunday lectionary gospel reading for Trinity 14 in Year C is Luke 16.1–13, the so-called Parable of the Unjust Steward (or ‘Dishonest Manager’). For various reasons, it is one of the most intriguing and challenging parables of Jesus to interpret, though popular readings commonly pass over the problems with it. Here, I will explore the text of the parable, highlight the issues, and also point to a quite alternative reading of it—you, dear reader, must decide whether you find it convincing!

As usual, we need to resist the temptation that the lectionary (in collusion with chapter divisions) sets before us—to chop the text up and read each of these passages in Luke in isolation from one another. Many ETs begin this with a simple ‘Jesus said to his disciples…’, failing to translate the double conjunction in Greek δὲ καὶ which makes a strong connection with what has preceded: ‘Jesus also said to his disciples…’ It reminds us that the preceding triplet of parables of the lost, the shorter two followed by the lengthy parable of the prodigal father, were in the first instance directed to and spoken against the grumbling Pharisees, an answer to the objection that Jesus is spending too much time with undesirables.

(We should note here that the movement described in Luke 15.1–2 is centripetal; the undesirables are attracted to Jesus, and he receives them. Luke has earlier clarified, in slight contrast to Mark and Matthew, the purpose of this reception: that they should repent and change; sinners are ‘sick’ and need a spiritual doctor, who will heal them if they will repent, Luke 5.31–32.)

Thus the parables of the lost demonstrate that God continues to seek out the undesirables and welcomes them back, in contradiction of the Pharisees’ static preservation of the holiness of the people of God. Yet now, Jesus turns to the disciples to offer another insight—though it is one that, as is characteristic of Luke’s account of Jesus, is overheard by the Pharisees even though it is only obliquely relevant to them.

And we need to note the clear connections between the parables as well as the wider teaching of Jesus in Luke. In the beatitudes in Luke 6, the blessing of the poor is paralleled with woe to the rich (Luke 6.24). The rich fool builds bigger barns only to die that night (Luke 12.16–20); the rich man in the next parables ignores the needs of beggar Lazarus; rich Zacchaeus responds to Jesus with repentance and generosity (Luke 19.2); and the rich contrast with the widow and her mite (Luke 21.1)—all unique to Luke. And the steward here has squandered (διασκορπίζω) his master’s wealth just as the younger son squandered his inheritance.

The parable itself is a masterpiece of compressed storytelling, focussing on the key ideas, and drawing us into the story by suspense and surprise.

The social situation would have been familiar to Jesus’ listeners; any wealthy person would likely employ an oikonomos (from which we derived our term ‘economy’), someone to manage his household, in particular his business and financial interests. Intriguingly, we are not told that the steward has squandered his master’s possessions, only that he was accused of doing so. The master gives him no chance to defend himself; he summarily dismisses him with a ‘You’re fired!’ One of the many ironies of the story, and a root of our difficulties with it, is that the steward then fulfils in his actions just what he was accused of—so perhaps we have the evidence for the accusation after all!

The steward engages in a soliloquy, and, as we have previously noted, such inner conversations, by an individual or amongst a group, are consistently portrayed negatively by Luke. Perhaps the other most telling example is in Luke 18.11, where the Pharisee ‘stands and prays to himself’. As with other soliloquies, here the man is concerned solely with his own selfish interests and instinct for self-preservation. He rejects the possibility of honest manual labour (perhaps he has spent too long in a sedentary occupation?) and, having had some social standing through his association with wealth, is not prepared for the only other real option—to depend on the charity of others.

He therefore makes a decision—but, again, we are not told what it is. We therefore have to listen as the story unfolds in order to understand his action and therefore his thinking. At first it might sound as though ‘receive me into their houses’ suggests the hope that people might give him accommodation. But we need to remember that he has been an oikonomos, and he is hoping that he will be received into their oikoi—in other words, he is looking for a similar role in managing the affairs of those who have been business partners with his master. The quantities involved (‘nine hundred gallons of olive oil’, ‘thirty tons of wheat’ TNIV) make it clear these are no mere domestic clients, but serious and substantial business partners.

We also ought to note how this fits well in the culture, where rather than having fixed prices as we are used to, the culture is one where bartering and trade-offs were accepted as part of doing business. In context, debts would be recorded by means of a promissory note written by the debtor, not a bill from the creditor, so the steward is doing the natural thing by asking his master’s clients to re-write the debt.

Would those who debts were reduced think this was a good thing? Would they not realised that the steward was now squandering the master’s resources, so he would be a liability as an employee? There is no hint of this; unlike us as readers, the actors here do not know the full story, and there is no hint they are aware of the steward’s dishonesty. Since the steward would have the full authority of the master in his actions, they would see this as a welcome act of generosity.

Again, at the end of the parable, all the unnecessary details are stripped away. We are not told how the master discovers what has happened, or his complete reaction. We should note, though, that the master does not commend the steward for his dishonesty, but for his ‘shrewdness’. Despite the entirely negative portrayal of the steward and his situation up till now, the climax of the parable ends with this highly positive term. φρόνιμος and its close relation φρόνησις are usually translated prudence, understanding, or wisdom; they refer to the practical wisdom of recognising a situation, and then taking the approach action—’the faculty of thoughtful planning’ (BDAG). Jesus uses precisely this term—in connection with being a good steward—in Luke 12.42, where he is teaching on the need to be alert and ready for his (future) unexpected return. It is the term he uses for the ‘wise’ maidens, who keep their lamps full of oil, waiting for the bridegroom to come (Matt 25.2).

It is therefore striking when, in the summary apothegm which sets out the lesson to be drawn from this parable, Jesus uses eschatological language contrasting the ‘sons [children] of this world’ with the ‘sons [children] of the light’. We would normally expect the former to be characterised negatively, and the latter positively, but here Jesus does the opposite: the practical wisdom that he urges on his followers is more often found in those who do not seek honesty and integrity than in those who have been redeemed!

And he goes further, even suggesting that the steward’s dishonest actions might be a model for ours! Jesus is quite clear: mammon, the Aramaic term for wealth which views it as a spiritual force, not a mere object, is indeed ‘unrighteous’—’filthy lucre’ we might call it. And yet, somehow or other, we can gain eternal friends from our use of it.

The final cluster of sayings, not strictly part of the parable, offer us something of a key to making sense of its puzzling lesson.

The first three together form a fourfold parallelism, with the first saying contributing two elements of contrast, and the others following:

Luke 16.10afaithful in very littlefaithful in much
Luke 16.10bdishonest in very little dishonest in much
Luke 16.11faithful with unrighteous mammon entrust you with true riches
Luke 16.12faithful in handling what is another’s give you that which is your own 

By means of this parallelism, Jesus is making some radical claims. Firstly, he is claiming that wealth, money, and possessions are as nothing compared with the riches of the kingdom of God; the term here signifies something of no significance at all. This is entirely in line with his other teaching all through the gospels, which uses just this kind of comparative language, for example in the parable of the treasure in the field in Matt 13, and the parable of the ‘talents’ where servants have been entrusted with their master’s wealth, as stewards, whilst the master is away. Secondly, he is asserting that, whatever wealth we have, it is not our own; we are merely stewards, entrusted with these things, that actually belong to God, and are in our management for a short period of time. ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’ (Ps 24.1).

In this sense, wealth is nothing important, and should simply be managed. But the final saying, added by Jesus, or included by Luke, with its parallel in Matthew’s collection of Jesus’ teaching in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ in Matt 6.24, offers a contrasting and complementary perspective: wealth is always at the same time a potential rival god, and we must ensure that it serves us, and not that we serve it. The only solution to this is to see it in its rightful place.

(We might note that Paul takes just the same paradoxical view of food offered to idols in 1 Corinthians: on the one hand, idols are nothing because Jesus is Lord, so it doesn’t matter; on the other hand, idols are rival gods so we play fast and loose at our spiritual peril.)

Three years ago, I published an alternative reading of this parable offered by my friend Andrew Talbert. He sums up the puzzles of the parable well:

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.

He then goes on to follow Stanley Porter’s argument that the parable should be read as irony. The lesson that the steward offers us is in fact not true, as the rich man in the next parable discovers painfully for himself.

Though I found this intriguing, I was not in the end persuaded, for three main reasons. First, there appears to be no indication in the text that this is what either Luke or Jesus think. Secondly, I do think that the following sayings offer a key to reading the parable, and these are not considered in Andrew’s reading. Mammon is indeed a rival god when we do not realise that it is entrusted to us for a time and truly belongs to God; but when we realise that, it can be put to good use.

Thirdly, I have to say that Jesus’ saying ‘For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light’ (TNIV) rings true to my experience! I have frequently observed that, out of a sincere desire to do the right thing, all too often Christians (including myself) have been naive and over-earnest, and could have learned a lesson from those in the non-Christian world who often have a much better grasp of the practical wisdom (φρόνιμος) that is needed to get things done. The Alpha Course has often been criticised for using ‘unrighteous’ marketing, branding and promotional methods—yet it has indeed been a method of bringing many into ‘eternal homes’.

I do think, however, that Andrew puts his finger on something vital in reading this parable—Jesus’ humour.

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.

The parable is actually very funny. The steward is accused of wasting the master’s resources; fine, he thinks, I really will waste them, but for my own gain! He is supposed to be a wise steward, to the benefit of his master—but once his master has sacked him, he will be wise for himself! I wonder if, at the end, the master actually laughed, realising with humour that the steward had outmanoeuvred him.

And, Jesus tells us, if the people of this world are able to use all their resources and cunning for such a small and temporary goal as their own selfish interest in this passing world, how much more should we be ready to use all our resources and cunning, all our insight and practical wisdom, for the purposes of the eternal goals of the kingdom of God? There is honour among thieves, and wisdom among unrighteous stewards. If even this unrighteous steward can be wise and cunning, how much more should we be?

The picture at the top is ‘The parable of the unjust steward’ (1540) by Marinus van Reymerswaele, kept in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

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46 thoughts on “The parable of the unjust steward in Luke 16”

  1. Within Luke’s central section 9.51-18.14//Deut 1-26 (sequential parallels as his template, wherein he also sticks in the most suitable contexts his sayings material inherited from Matthew):

    -Immediately Previous- ‘Lost section’ Lk 15 picking up on Dt 21.15-22.29 themes of:
    Bringing home stray sheep (Dt 22.1-2)
    Woman and silver coins (Dt 22.28-9)
    Rebellious disobedient son (Dt 21.18ff)
    Firstborn close to the father (Dt 21.15-17)

    Here we have a whole section in both Deut and Luke about an unjust slave etc.
    (Deut 23.13ff.//Luke 16.1-13[-15]):

    ‘Dig’ (Deut 23.13 // Luke 16.3)
    Not oppressing unjust slave (Deut 23.15-16 // Luke 16.8)
    Not exacting the precise debt (Deut 23.19-20 // Luke 16.5ff.)
    Mammon and bdelugma (Deut 23.18 // Luke 16.13ff.).

    The story in can seem unexpected and/or a hotchpotch. But Luke is sourcing of the main themes of the OT context, and his task is to make a narrative that combines these. Which will indeed sometimes produce an unexpected story and/or a hotchpotch.

    -Immediately Subsequent-
    Deut has Entering to take possession – hence Luke changes Matt to ‘everyone enters it violently’, thus producing another hard saying purely because of his source policy.
    Then both Deut and Luke have a miscellany terminating in a divorce teaching.

  2. Close agreement with my preached message here

    However, what I stress is that, in the context of first-century absentee landlords, the manager’s reductions described in vs. 5 and 6 are lowering the discretionary ‘mark-up’ that would cover his role as agent.

    Making friends through the unrighteous mammon is “reconciliation through restitution”.

    In the context of the kingdom of God, the goal of reconciliation through restitution isn’t to ensure reciprocation (“people will welcome me into their houses”), but, instead, is the right response that brings assurance of forgiveness and eternal life (“you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings”).

    • Hi,

      The cultural context is found in evidence of this parable being about a sharecropping arrangement.

      The clearest example of this is the parable of the bad tenants in the synoptic gospels (Matt. 21:33–46; Mark 12:1 – 12; Luke 20:9–19). In return for using the land, they are meant to provide the absent landowner (via the manager) with a share of the produce at harvest time.

      There is a risk that completely spiritualising this parable can diminish Jesus’ later stark contrast of short-lived ill-gotten gains with the eternal wealth of everlasting life in Christ.

      Concerning the former (and in the light of God’s inexorable reckoning) Jesus calls us to ‘wise up’ and emulate the shrewd manager in seeking reconciliation (“make friends”) through restitution (of “the unrighteous mammon”).

      Nevertheless, in contrast with that manager, our goal should not be to secure a reciprocal quid pro quo, but, in repentance, to please God who grants assurance of our everlasting well-being.

  3. In my opinion the most challenging verse to understand, and therefore the key, is Luke 16:9. One day the ‘mammon of unrighteousness’ will cease to be a resource, and then the hope must be that ‘they’ will receive you into the eternal dwellings, lit. ‘tents’ or ‘tabernacles’.

    So who are ‘they’? Answer: the friends whom ‘you’ have made by means of your wealth. And who are ‘you’? Answer: those who would not otherwise be received into the eternal dwellings. ‘You’ therefore cannot be the disciples, who will be received there because Jesus has chosen and loved them from the beginning and in John 14 promises to prepare a place for them himself; nor us later readers, in the extended sense of his disciples now. It makes no sense to suppose that Jesus is saying, “Listen, you disciples of mine: use your unrighteous money, of which you have plenty, and make friends with it, and maybe they will then let you into heaven.”

    But there were other persons listening apart from the disciples, namely the Pharisees (Luke 16:14), and they were indeed lovers of money. Jesus is addressing them, and saying, “You Pharisees should use your money to make friends with my disciples, and maybe you will get into heaven that way, when they intercede on your behalf.” While not identical, the thought is similar to Mark 9:41 and Matt 25:40. Whoever meets the needs of the sons of light, even though he is not himself a disciple, will be honoured and rewarded.

    • Hi Steve,

      I agree that “ It makes no sense to suppose that Jesus is saying, “Listen, you disciples of mine: use your unrighteous money, of which you have plenty, and make friends with it, and maybe they will then let you into heaven.”

      Certainly, Jesus doesn’t echo the manager’s quid pro quo aspiration. To state: “you will be received into eternal dwellings” doesn’t not have anything to do with human reciprocation (or intercession).

      So, I’m not sure how your summary squares with that fact (i.e. “ You Pharisees should use your money to make friends with my disciples, and maybe you will get into heaven that way, when they intercede on your behalf.”)

      Luke 16:1 shows that Jesus was addressing his disciples (rather than his detractors) through the parable. It’s only in verse 14 that we read that Pharisees also present. They weren’t directly addressed by Jesus until they jeered at what they overheard.

      The theme of reconciliation (“make friends”) through restitution (of ill-gotten gain) is compatible with the narrative and the imperative to “bring forth fruits of repentance”.

      • Jesus was addressing his disciples when telling the story, but when he came to the punch line he turned to the Pharisees, who, as he knew, were overhearing. ‘They weren’t directly addressed by Jesus until they jeered at what they overheard’ merely begs the question, and there is no suggestion that his disciples in the future would be having to restitute ill-gotten gain, still less that the motive for doing so would be in order that the friends so acquired would allow them to enter the kingdom of heaven. I find suh an interpretation of the parable, common though it may be, quite astonishing.

        Regarding “you will be received into eternal dwellings”, the passive voice is an incorrect translation. The Greek says ‘so that they will receive you into the eternal tabernacles’ (tents or dwellings), ‘they’ referring to the friends made by unrighteous mammon, the sons of light. The Pharisees should use their money to ingratiate themselves with the disciples, the bearers of the light, in the same way as the unfaithful steward ingratiated himself with those who were owed money.

        The steward says to himself, “When I am removed from the management, they [the debtors with whom he intends to settle] may receive me into their houses.” This is the part of the story that Jesus refers to in the punch line, so that gives you the key to the story:
        unfaithful steward // Pharisees
        potential friends // disciples.

        The Pharisees were removed from the management of God’s house in AD 70 (Luke 19:42ff, 20:16).

        • “‘They weren’t directly addressed by Jesus until they jeered at what they overheard’ merely begs the question.”

          If anything, to write: “Jesus was addressing his disciples when telling the story, but when he came to the punch line he turned to the Pharisees” is an extraordinary example of question-begging. I mean, where’s the evidence of that in the actual text? Or are you simply assuming that Jesus must have directed his punchline towards the Pharisees because that would align with your conclusion?

          “There is no suggestion that his disciples in the future would be having to restitute ill-gotten gain.” In fact, James’ epistle to disciples contains warnings against both worldly presumption (James 4:13 – 17) and the accumulation of ill-gotten wealth (James 5:1 – 6)

          Surely, your interpretation is far more astonishing than mine, since, according to your lights, Jesus is exhorting the Pharisees to resort to thinly-veiled bribery of disciples in order to curry favour with them in eternity. The encouragement of such unprincipled behaviour has nothing to do with the gospel.

          • I mean, where’s the evidence of that in the actual text?
            I think, before asking that question you might have anticipated the question which inevitably follows: where’s the evidence for your assertion that they weren’t directly addressed by Jesus until they jeered at what they heard?

            If you are asking me an open question, the answer is partly in Luke 16:14 (they were listening and they were lovers of money) and partly in the fact that ‘you’ in Luke 16:9 cannot refer to the disciples, as I have already explained. Luke 16:14 directly follows Luke 16:10-13, which is about unrighteous mammon and specifically warns those who have not been faithful in the stewarding of that which is not theirs to expect an eternal reward (again, with pointed reference to the Pharisees rather than the disciples). Luke 16:10-13 directly follows 16:9. It should all be read together.

            To the best of my knowledge, the only disciple in Jesus’s audience who was ensnared by unrighteous mammon was Judas.

            Regarding your last para, I have already referred to Mark 9:41 and Matt 25:40. I wouldn’t wish to countenance your phrase ‘thinly-veiled bribery’, seeing that Jesus himself commends the behaviour.

          • In point of fact, the Church in medieval times and the Church of England thereafter has benefited immensely from the gifts of wealthy benefactors who (even if their motives were mixed) recognised that the Church and all that it stood for was a worthy cause. That still goes on today. The donors may not go to church more than once a year and may not believe in Jesus the Son of God at all, but vicars do not turn away their donations towards church repairs. I am sure that such acts will count for something when they come before Christ’s judgement seat.

          • “where’s the evidence for your assertion that they weren’t directly addressed by Jesus until they jeered at what they heard?”

            Ah, so, in a nutshell, you’re asking for me to provide a counter to your argument from silence.

            Well, since any argument from silence is a fallacy, I really don’t need to provide a counter to it, do I?

            Any admonition could have been directed towards the disciples. In fact, elsewhere, disciples are told to “beware of false prophets” (Matt. 7:15) and to “beware of greed” (Luke 12:15) after warning of coming persecution for His name (Luke 12:11,12)

            Therefore, it’s fallacious to suggest that Jesus would only warn disciples about unrighteous mammon, if and only if they had a known susceptibility to it (like Judas).

            Also, to write: “I wouldn’t wish to countenance your phrase ‘thinly-veiled bribery’, seeing that Jesus himself commends the behaviour” fallaciously assumes the truth your own interpretation, instead of presenting further evidence in support of it.

            A perfect example of ‘begging the question.

      • Ummm …. okey dokey ….. I’m thinking of the war that is taking place in the Ukraine right now, where the Ukrainian side have thanked the Russians for being the largest suppliers of weapons to the Ukrainian side (on account of the fact that the Russians skedaddled at full speed, leaving huge supplies of weapons and ammunition.

        Should the Ukrainians try to achieve reconciliation with the Russians through restitution of the weapons that the Russians left behind when they ran away?

        • Er…”leaving huge supplies of weapons and ammunition”.

          Well, your example would be analogous if the tenant farmers had abandoned their crops to the shrewd manager.

          What’s left of your attempted analogy is a bizarre incongruence with the actual parable.

    • Correction:
      Certainly, Jesus doesn’t echo the manager’s quid pro quo aspiration. To state: “you will be received into eternal dwellings” doesn’t have anything to do with human reciprocation (or intercession).

  4. I haven’t fully thought this through, but I have this idea that the key point is about forgiveness of debt. And where else do we read about forgiveness of debt? Answer: in the Lord’s Prayer. Whether such debts are literal or are a metaphor is less important than the idea that our sins and debts are forgiven by God, as and when we forgive others for the things they have done. Are those debts owed to us or to God? Are they owed to us so we can forgive them, or not?

    So, here, the steward forgives debts that may or may not be owed to him or perhaps to his master.

    Are we being encouraged, in Jesus’s typical hyperbole, to forgive debts, whether literal or metaphorical, and whether or not they are strictly owed to us, because that’s when God forgives us?

    Or something like that perhaps.

  5. I confess, after reading this, to be a bit lost. Before reading this piece, the meaning of the passage was crystal clear: the `rich man’ is not a Christian and follows the way of the world. He has a `manager’, who has been either naughty or incompetent or both, so he indicates to him that he is going to get the sack. The `manager’ therefore puts his remaining time in the service of the rich man to good use, exploiting his position so that others will appreciate his generosity towards them and make things easier for him when he is cast out.

    We are led to believe from this that `shrewd’ is not a positive term in any moral sense; the manager was not `doing the right thing’; he was exploiting his position. The `rich man’ is of this world and, in the same way as we might see in an episode of `Only Fools and Horses’, appreciates the skill that went into the crafty manoeuvers. There is absolutely nothing to indicate that, in light of observing this shrewdness and craftiness that the rich man is reconsidering the sacking of his manager.

    One of the main take-home messages that we (as Christians) are given to understand from this is that, since we don’t understand the ways of the world, we should expect that, from time to time, we get exploited by these crafty, shrewd people who, although they are not necessarily friends with each other, do express solidarity with each other when it comes to shrewdness and craftiness.

    The NIV translates Luke 16:9 as `worldly wealth’ (not `unrighteous wealth’) and indicates that if it comes our way, then we make good honest use of it for Godly ends. There is a good maxim which is appropriate here: money is like manure. If you spread it around, then it can do a lot of good, but if you pile it up, then it stinks.

    • Yes and no. It isn’t a great idea to determine a term from one single English translation. The phrase is mamon adikia, unrighteous mammon.

      But here is the paradox: the manager is clearly a charlatan, and yet Jesus is commending us to follow his example of shrewdness. By any stretch, that is a challenging command! I added at the end a possible parallel for us: honour amongst thieves. And we talk about this in the video too; it is possible to see in unrighteous situations a quality which we should emulate.

    • The NIV at this point is diluting the clear sense of the Greek. Young’s literal translation has:

      “Make to yourselves friends out of the mammon of unrighteousness” (ἐκ τοῦ μαμωνᾶ τῆς ἀδικίας).

      The last word has the sense of wrongdoing or injustice (from LSJ). It is a noun related directly to the adjective ἄδικος which is in v10 and translated by the NIV (and others) as ‘dishonest’.

      One cannot escape the negative sense of ‘mammon’ in v13 (and the parallel in Matt 6:24), where it is a rival to God himself.

      Luke 16:11 expresses this issue as a test. How we handle this dangerous stuff which is in some way unrighteous in its essence is a test for us.

  6. There is an obvious parallel between Luke 16:10 and the parable of the 10 minas in Luke 19:11-27. The nobleman on his return commends those who gained a return on the mina each received by saying “Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little…” (ἐν ἐλαχίστῳ πιστὸς ἐγένου). This is exactly the same language as the start of verse 10.

    The parable of the minas has an obvious eschatalogical setting. Luke 16:9-10 also has this flavour.

    Interestingly, the NIV again clouds the original, with in v9 “you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings,” which sounds like a divine passive. The ESV reflects the Greek: “they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” Who does the welcoming? Perhaps the friends you have made and brought into the Kingdom.

    • Yes, when I drew up the table of parallel sayings of Jesus after the parable, I was struck by the term *very* little.

      The connections make this parable quite consistent with Jesus’ other economic parables, including that one.

      • There is one difference. In the parables where the nobleman entrusts the servants with money, those who are described as ‘good and faithful servants’ have invested the money for the nobleman and turn the profits they have made over to the nobleman.

        In the Luke passage, the manager is a charlatan (as you pointed out) who is clearly only thinking of himself. Everything about the passage indicates that he is only concerned with saving his own skin. The rich man is impressed with the ingenuity that the manager shows in looking after himself (people ‘of the world’ understand each other).

        So I suppose that this simple point is the key: if we find ourselves the innocent recipients of huge wodges of ill-gotten wonga which is at our disposal, our thoughts are supposed to be directed towards God and His kingdom when we give careful thought about what to do with it.

        • Jock, Per your last para, is that how churches justify receiving grants from the National Lottery? Using the gains from ‘evil’ gambling and using it for ‘good’?

          Personally Ive never found such an argument persuasive as I think it just encourages accusations of hypocrisy.


          • Peter – if your thoughts are directed towards God, then you do not touch National lottery with a barge pole.

            Getting National lottery money means that you actually have to apply for it.

            I’m more or less in agreement with you – it isn’t what I meant.

      • Peter, your challenge is impossible but also irresistible, so please forgive me if I butt in here and offer my 2 sentences:

        ‘In securing your eternal future don’t be too proud to learn from people who show resourcefulness in order to survive in this life. The same principle of using whatever you have at your disposal to best advantage applies in your dealings with the people who can help you, and whom you can help, in your shared road to heaven.’

        OK it’s crude and simplistic, so do please feel free to demolish it!

  7. The man essentially gave away money that did not belong to him in order to make friends who would welcome him into their homes when his position was finally terminated. Jesus tells us to use our resources (which do not belong to us but to God) to make friends who will welcome us into eternal dwellings. Our future with God has something to do with how we use what we have in the present is a simple fact that many fail to grasp or teach.

    The man apparently had the authority to do what he did (or, at the very least, the opportunity); that’s what makes his actions so shrewd or wise.

    The Pharisees, who loved money, did not like this teaching for obvious reasons.

    All humans will eventually be judged by their deeds (their actions or works)—what they do (Romans 2:6-11). That is why we ought to use our resources to do good, because it really does have something to do with being welcomed into eternal dwellings!

    • Like other conclusions about this parable, you corollary (“our future with God has something to do with how we use what we have in the present”) is true, but doesn’t cohere with Jesus’ previous parabolic responses to the Pharisees’ accusation in Luke 15:1.

      All of those parables explain either Jesus’ motivation for welcoming sinners, or the sinners’ self-interested motivation for seeking reconciliation with God, as His presence made the prospect of their just deserts loom large.

  8. It is not clear that the steward is dishonest. He is accused falsely of squandering. The verb is diaballo which is invariably used for false accusation and slander. I don’t know why the English translations obscure this.
    The rich man is almost certainly not a good or proper person. “There was a certain rich man” is how the rich fool parable is introduced and how the following parable with Lazarus is introduced. Logically, we should begin by seeing the rich man as a problem figure, all the more if he is making exorbitant profits and sacking his manager on hearsay! So we begin with a problematic rich man and a steward who, in crisis, plans to be made welcome into other homes.
    The parable is made more difficult because of the slide in verse 8. At the end of the verse it is clearly Jesus speaking, but the kurios (master / lord) who commends at the beginning of the verse is probably the rich man, but it might be Jesus. Phronimos is universally a positive attribute not a neutral one, more wise than shrewd. v8 is a hinge out of the parable itself, but it is unclear.
    There is alsoa big question whether we should interpret the parable through the following verses, or whether Luke has added them in, though they were not originally part of the teaching; vv10ff seem to be additional. Luke wants us to see a link, but that may be him bringing various pieces of teaching together.
    As has been pointed out this parable is deliberately addressed to the disciples but is overheard by the Pharisees, maybe Jesus deliberately told it to be overheard?
    Has the steward, albeit working within the system of Mammon, because of a crisis, discovered the danger and extricated himself, thus finding a new home of some kind. Has he marked down his own dishonest profit, or his master’s exorbitant profit? Either way he has found a new home.
    Does it make a difference that the debtors are speculators and rich businessmen, not peasant farmers – as Ian points out the amounts are very large.
    If this is the case Jesus might commend, but it is unlikely that the rich man would, unless he is deemed to come out of this as a generous and beneficent man (who still makes a decent profit).
    Sometimes I think we have to highlight the questions and how difficult they are to answer. If Luke has verbal links back to the previous parable (squander) and forward to the “pounds” (trustworthy in very small things) does this mean Luke is making connections or could it go back to Jesus himself – I suspect we need to work with the former primarily.
    Where else in Luke do we find the elision of parable and comment – would we include the religifying of the parables of the lost sheep and coin where repentance is brought to the fore in the summary even though the parables suggest no repentance has taken place – simply the lost thing has been found?

    • Peter – well, if the steward (or manager) is a good man, then Luke makes a very good job of hiding it. Scripture leads us to the conclusion that the steward was only interested in himself, his own impending material downfall and how he could prevent this happening to him; he was looking for measures that would enable him to continue with a comfortable and cushy existence. There are none of the markers that you might expect if the gospel wanted us to understand that he was indeed a holy man. Perhaps he was not dishonest, but he was self-oriented; there is nothing to indicate that he was oriented towards God.

      The rich man was commending him for his shrewdness in the measures he took to look after himself; the rich man would have considered it to be utter folly for him to be rich towards God with the rich man’s money.

      • I don’t think I suggested the steward is a good man. I think I suggested he is not a particularly bad man and is falsely accused which leads to his crisis. He responds to that crisis.
        I think you are right the whole parable seems worldly and material. This steward is caught up in this material world and arguably remains so hence the interpretations that suggest Jesus is being ironic or sardonic – the whole thing should be handled with due caution!
        If the point is that the steward finds a new home, especially if he cancels debts that should not have been made, then he is more like Zacchaeus; in a different way he is also like the prodigal son, who also, in a crisis, made a decision to change and who found his way (back) home.
        I have not found any reading that is fully satisfactory, and I am not sure that Luke has really got hold of this parable properly. The settings for the parables in chs 15 and 16 are more generic than the settings for some of the other parables which are told in a specific situation or to a specific issue.

  9. There is indirect evidence of sharecropping and absent landlords in Galilee and adjacent lands –

    In the landlord’s absence, the manager’s role is to agree on a proportion of the future harvest that will serve as rent. At the very least, we can’t reject the notion of tenant farming without rejecting a key parable cited in the synoptic gospels (the wicked husbandmen)

    The parable of talents shows the level of discretion and enterprise that was expected of managers. They weren’t paid as wage-labourers were.

    Due to absent landlords, the manager undertook the role of an emissary, i.e. shaliah – “the shaliaḥ for a person is as this person himself.” Again, the parable of the tenant farmers reveals the emissary status of those sent by the owner.

    It’s unfortunate that this historical background is discounted by the OP and many subsequent comments in favour of the persistent (and somewhat exasperating) assumption that the manager would not have had the lawful discretion to amend the amounts of future produce of the harvest that he had previously agreed with the tenant farmers.

    Yet, that is exactly the kind of discretion that a manager would exercise in making agreements on behalf of a landlord who absence is revealed by his reliance on rumours of misdoing because he lacked first-hand evidence of his manager’s past actions.

    There’s little more to say when this overall context for the manager’s role in this kind of business arrangement is being ignored.

    • David – I think there is basic agreement that the manager had the lawful discretion to amend the amounts. The text of the passage would indicate that the manager is indeed keeping within the letter of the law.

      He is, however, described as the ‘dishonest manager’ in Luke 16:8 which indicates that although he may be well within the letter of the law, he is not within the spirit of the law. The word ‘dishonest’ means something here. I don’t know Greek, but I see the phrase ‘dishonest manager’ in both NIV and ESV at this point in the text.

      The text states clearly that the ‘dishonest manager’ is thinking about himself – and only himself, his own material comfort and his own material future – when he makes these reductions in the olive oil and the wheat. There is nothing in the text to suggest that he is motivated by ‘doing the right thing’; there is nothing in the text to suggest that he is making rightful restitution of a wrong or that the bills were unfairly extortionate in the first place.

      The background that you pointed to is interesting and I thank you for it. It sets the scene and gives context to the parable, but it doesn’t change my understanding of these aspects of the text.

      When we move onto Luke 16:9, I think it is basically telling us that all material wealth is tinged with unrighteousness (even though we might not have done unrighteous things to get it) and, when it comes our way, our minds have to be God-ward, His will, His kingdom, His righteousness, when we dispose of it.

      Of course, restitution of ill-gotten wealth is a very good place to start if we find ourselves recipients of wealth – especially in situations where colonialist rooking societies of their wealth has led to poverty – but I don’t see that that was what the ‘dishonest manager’ was doing here.

      • Thanks for your reply.

        This parable is a continuation of those in the previous chapter. Together, they comprise Jesus’ overall response to the Pharisees’ muttered accusation in Luke 15:1: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

        The manager is indeed described in Luke 16:8 as ‘dishonest’ (adikias). However, this description merely establishes that there was substance to the allegation in Luke 16:1 (as implied by the manager’s unwillingness to rely on the upcoming accounting audit for vindication).

        The manager unwillingness to dispute his guilt is analogous to those whom the Pharisees described as sinners. And, like those sinners who flocked to Jesus, after the manager’s guilt was exposed, his subsequent reconciliation through restitution, though selfishly focused on escaping his just deserts, represented commendable desperation, rather than dishonesty. The rich man is fully aware of the amendments to the accounts receivable.

        Of course, a similar statement can be made about the earlier parable of the prodigal son. Like those sinners who flocked to Jesus, after the younger son’s folly was exposed, his subsequent return and reconciliation, though selfishly focused on escaping his just deserts (Luke 15:17 – 19), represented commendable desperation, rather than dishonesty.

        My concern about the explanation in the penultimate paragraph of your comment is that it lacks this continuity with the previous parables by which Jesus responded to the charge: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

        The chapter structure cannot justify this discontinuous treatment of the parable.

  10. Fiddling the books, false accounting for own benefit, is dishonest, lying, never commended.
    Although the ingenuity may be wryly recognised there will be a day of Reckoning by the Eternal Auditor when there will be no defence nor mitigation, unless the unpayable debt is paid.
    Who is ” the absentee landlord”? Who really isn’t absent at all?
    Further, harvest is symbolic of the Kingdom of God, likewise sheep and shepherds. False
    under farmers/managers are akin to false shepherds – in it for themselves.
    Are we not to be wise,
    discerningg, not naive?

  11. One further note on the Greek. The better reading in v. 9, I think, is ‘they fail’ rather than ‘it fails’ – ‘fail’ (ἐκλείπω) in the sense of die (as per the LSJ).

    Thus: “I tell you [you Pharisees who are listening], make friends for yourselves by means of the unrighteous money you love so much [Luke 16:14], dishonest as you are [Luke 16:11], so that when the sons of light come to the end of their lives they may receive you into the eternal habitations of the new earth [when you rise at the general resurrection].”

    ‘Eternal tents/tabernacles’ is an odd phrase. On reflection, I think it probably refers to the new earth after the old has passed away (Rev 21:1).

    • Again, the assertion that Jesus’ admonition in Luke 16:14 was specifically aimed at the Pharisees is a speculative argument from silence.

      Ultimately, your explanation of “make friends” suggests that Jesus is encouraging a quid pro quo transaction between the Pharisees and His disciples.

      In contrast, the explanation that Jesus is encouraging authentic repentance as evidenced by restitution of ill-gotten gains (e.g., Zacchaeus) demonstrates readiness to recognise the importance of faithfulness in temporal worldly dealings (when compared to eternal life, they are “very little”)

      Luke 16:10 – 13 shows that those whose lack of penitent restitution exhibits scant regard for faithfulness in their temporal worldly dealings can hardly expect to be bestowed with the far more precious and eternal wealth that is everlasting life.

      • Hello David,
        It is suggested that this parable is not like Zacchaeus’s encounter with Jesus. His was a response, a changed life, of being convicted of his own sin, following his encounter, not a precondition. He was lost and found. He was a sinner of ill repute, yet son of Abraham. And Z would likely have been in a position both to trace and quantify, and pay “if he has cheated anyone out of anything”…(let alone the unquantified poor who would be recipients of half Z’s possession). The circumstances, set out in this parable, differ greatly.
        The rich young ruler differs again: there is no suggestion that he specifically sinned or was of poor repute, but had an idolatrous trust and identity in his wealth-mammon was in fact his god.
        I think you may be batting on a sticky wicket with this.
        Indeed, for salvation, how do we repay indebtedness to God? Impossible.

        • Hi Geoff,

          The parable of the shrewd manager should not be interpreted as a sketched description of Zacchaeus’ life. If we do, we are committing the fallacy of extended analogy.

          Instead, specific aspects of the parables that Jesus provided in response to the muttered criticism of the scribes and Pharisees (“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” – Luke 15:1) shed light on both God’s motivation for welcoming those held in public disrepute (like Zacchaeus) and, in turn, those sinners’ motivation for coming to Jesus. Similar to the shrewd manager, they sought to escape their just deserts by reconciling with those that they had wronged through restitution of ill-gotten gains.

          While such restitution can never reconcile sinful mankind to God (since only Christ’s sacrifice does that), it can still serve as evidence of authentic repentance, as John the Baptist demanded (Matt. 3:8)

  12. Thanks for this, Ian. I wonder if the idea of a steward looking for a new job fits in with verse 13? Note the unusual word for servant, οἰκέτης, which is redundant (absent from Mt 6:24), and which is similar to the word for steward, οἰκονόμος. Once the steward has been fired by his master, his allegiance shifts to his (potential) new master, and his attitude to the things entrusted to him changes, in the light of his (potential) future prospects. Similarly, when our allegiance shifts from serving Mammon to serving God, wisdom dictates that we should start to use the things entrusted to us in a radically different way.

  13. You hang put with the unrighteous, making money in a unrighteous way, you support unrighteous events and people, you will find yourself living with them eternally in Hell.


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