The parable of the unjust steward in Luke 16


My most recent review of the parables in Luke has given me a new perspective on the parable of the unjust steward.

On my way to work a few days ago I was listening to the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament (King James Version). It’s nice to have the audio so accessible in the car. Sometimes I’m distracted by traffic, but generally I’m able to focus and really ponder the meanings of words.

Listening to spans of chapters can provide a broad picture of how things like parables are related to each other. It can give context that might otherwise be missed in a Sunday school lesson where only a few verses may be read at a time.

For this reason, before I talk about Luke 16 and the parable of the unjust steward, I want to review the preceding chapter, Luke 15, to get an idea of why the parable might have been given. Luke 15 starts out with the Pharisees and scribes murmuring, “This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.” Jesus was the man they were accusing, and He responded with a series of nearly-identical parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. The common thread through each is the loss of something valuable, and great joy at its return.

The lost sheep, and the lost coin

In the parable of the lost sheep, the shepherd leaves the ninety and nine to find the one that is lost. The parable of the lost coin is very similar: a woman with 9 coins searches her house to find the tenth coin that is missing. The shepherd and the woman both rejoiced at the recovery of their treasures. After each parable the Lord gives the meaning.

The interpretations of the lost sheep and the lost coin might seem problematic unless you consider those men to whom Jesus was directing the parables: “I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.” Why would there be more joy over one than over the ninety and nine? Because the “ninety and nine”—the scribes and the Pharisees—considered themselves righteous and without need of repentance. They were willfully lost. They were rejecting the Shepherd. While the publicans and sinners were opening their eyes and ears to the Savior’s message, the scribes and Pharisees, who might have been the most influential in spreading the good news of the Messiah, were instead plotting ways to kill Him.

The prodigal son

The parable of the prodigal son adds an element to the Savior’s response: an elder son who did not stray. The father is overjoyed with the return of his wayward son, but the “righteous” son is not. Instead of being happy that his wayward brother has returned, he is angry to see a celebration for his return. He doesn’t value what his father values.

These parables are fitting responses to the murmuring Pharisees. The publicans and sinners have been dining with the Master, and who is angry about it? The “righteous” sons are angry. Jesus is seeking out the lost treasures while the scribes and Pharisees have nothing but contempt for those who have been found. The scribes and Pharisees have had stewardship over the Lord’s treasures but have not cared for them.

The parable of the unjust steward

The parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16) has been a puzzle to me. Some say this parable is about learning to wisely manage temporal things, and that the proper management of temporal things is related to wisely managing spiritual things. While I don’t disagree that learning to manage temporal things can have spiritual benefits, it seems improbable that the Lord would suddenly switch to teaching of the management of earthly treasures here, when his focus has been the recovery of spiritual treasures like lost sheep and prodigal sons. It seems more probable that the Lord would be teaching a lesson about how “righteous” sons (Pharisees) should be treating prodigals (publicans and sinners).

I’m not saying that I understand the parable fully, but thinking about it in context with the preceding chapter, Luke 15, it started making a lot more sense.

This parable is spoken to the disciples rather than the scribes and Pharisees, but the Pharisees were there and listening. I can’t help thinking the message is closely related to the parables in the previous chapter.

Here are my thoughts as I went through the verses:

Bible verse My thoughts
1  And he said also unto his disciples, There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods. If we follow the pattern from the parables of Luke 15, Jesus would be the rich man, and the Pharisees and scribes would collectively be the steward. In the previous parables, the valuable things were the children of God, and the most joy came from repentant sinners. If this parable is still part of the response to the accusing Pharisees and scribes, then it would help to know how the Pharisees had wasted or lost the Lord’s goods. Instead of guarding and gathering them, they had allowed them to stray. Those who returned to the call of the Master were treated with contempt. Who were the accusers?
2  And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward. The rich man is going to remove the steward, but he is giving him an opportunity to give an account of what happened. Jesus is the Messiah. He is calling His stewards to account. What have they been doing in his absence? Their position as spiritual leaders is coming to an end. A steward over worldly things would be fearing the loss of his job.
3  Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. The steward has depended on his master for his good living. Without his exalted position the steward is going to be in very humble circumstances. Without help from his master, where will he find a living?

The Law of Moses will soon be fulfilled. The Apostles will take over the stewardship once the Master is gone. What should the scribes and Pharisees be doing to improve their circumstances?

4  I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. The unjust steward decides to create a soft place for himself to land. He must move quickly, but he can improve his own situation by helping others. He can ingratiate himself to them by making their burdens light.

With regard to the scribes and Pharisees, there is still some time to settle affairs before they are brought before the judge to give a full account of their dealings. I am reminded of this verse, in Luke 12:58:
58 When thou goest with thine adversary to the magistrate, as thou art in the way, give diligence that thou mayest be delivered from him; lest he hale thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and the officer cast thee into prison.

There is still time to “settle out of court” with those they have offended. The scribes and Pharisees should be learning to love their neighbors. They should be gathering souls while they still have a little time. They have been wasters of their Master’s goods, they have done damage, but they can resolve to do better and move forward.

5  So he called every one of his lord’s debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? The steward moves quickly to collect what is due to his master, he works fast to retrieve what he can.
6  And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. To this one he forgives 50% of the debt. It is a substantial loss, but the portion he receives of his master’s goods are now back where they belong.
7  Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore. To another he forgives 20%. More of his master’s goods are returned.
8  And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. Why would the lord commend this behavior? Why would he commend the loss of some of what was owed? Could it be that he didn’t expect to see his goods returned at all? Could it be that he is happy to see the steward working with enthusiasm, even if the motivation is self interest, because it means at least this portion of his goods are coming back? Could it be that the steward is learning that by helping others he helps himself?

My Reina Valera version (Spanish), makes an interesting addition “porque los hijos de este siglo son mas sagaces en el trato con sus semejantes que los hijos de luz”: “the children of this generation are wiser in the treatment of their fellow man than the children of light”. So, it isn’t the treatment of money, but the treatment of people that seems to be emphasized.

Wealth can motivate covetous people to do good things. We see a great number of people providing goods and services, not because they are necessarily concerned with the welfare of their fellow man, but because they are interested in the monetary gains.

Do those of us who covet spiritual rewards work as hard to provide spiritual goods and services to our fellow man in order to secure ourselves a place in the Lord’s kingdom?

This scripture comes to mind:

Revelation 3:15-20
15 I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.

16 So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.

17 Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked:

18 I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see.

19 As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.

20 Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.

9  And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations. Love thy neighbor as they self. Don’t create enemies needlessly. Show kindness. Treat God’s children with charity. It is not surprising that this parable reminds me of the words in Matthew 25, which deal with the parable of the talents and how our treatment of others is a reflection of how we treat our King.

Matthew 25:40
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

10  He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much. How do we handle responsibility when the stakes are small? Does it have any relation to how we handle bigger responsibilities? In Matthew 25 the Lord commends those who are faithful in small things. they are given responsibility over greater things.
11  If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? If you can’t show regard for the things the Lord loves, how can you expect to be rewarded with more of what the Lord loves?
12  And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own? If we can’t be faithful with those goods that matter to our Master, why would He give us a kingdom of our own?
13  ¶No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. The parable speaks of making friends with the mammon of unrighteousness. Making friends of publicans and sinners does not mean forsaking righteousness. It is a quest to find the lost and valuable things that are seeking to be found. If you want the Master’s eternal reward, you must serve Him in earnest. If you haven’t, then start. Make your soft place to land by gathering the Lord’s goods. Love your neighbor and spread the gospel message.
14  And the Pharisees also, who were covetous, heard all these things: and they derided him. Matthew 13:13-15
13 Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.

14 And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive:

15 For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.

15  And he said unto them, Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God. The scribes and Pharisees may be experts at twisting the law. They may be able to justify themselves by manipulating the proceedings of an earthly court. They may even be able to fool people into thinking they are righteous men. These skills will bring them no comfort when they stand before God to give an account of their stewardship. They were given charge over the Law of Moses. They were given charge over the people. Yet they they didn’t prepare the people for the Messiah. They squandered the Lord’s goods and focused on this world instead of the next.

The rich man and Lazarus

The story of the rich man and Lazarus follows the parable of the unjust steward and provides more clues to its meaning. The rich man enjoyed great wealth, but he gave no assistance to Lazarus who was a beggar at his gate.

As a “child of this world” the rich man was wise. As a “child of light” he wasn’t. He successfully followed the path of wealth and his investments paid off. But, as a steward of his Father’s goods, he was wasteful. He didn’t use his wealth to rescue lost souls. They were left to suffer and fend for themselves. The rich man, who didn’t see value in lost souls and gave nothing when he had plenty, was suddenly without his wealth and comforts. He was now the beggar, receiving as abundantly as he had given.

The Pharisee and the publican

Further into Luke there is an even clearer explanation of Christ’s message to the Pharisees:

Luke 18:9-14
9 And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:

10 Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.

11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.

12 I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.

13 And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.

14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

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