Luke 16: The Unjust Steward

  • Read Luke 16:1-15 here.
  • If you missed Sunday’s sermon (February 28) you can listen to it here.

This is a difficult parable to understand.  A manager (or steward) is either incompetent or dishonest and has created a shortfall in the funds under his management.  Before being fired he runs around reducing the debts of people who owe his master money.  It’s his hope that by doing this one of these people will be grateful enough to find him another job, or at least keep him off the street.

The problem with this parable is that while the manager may be looking out for his own skin, he seems to be giving away  (stealing?) his master’s money.  Yet in v8 he’s commended, “the master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”  This hardly seems like behaviour Christians should imitate.

In his huge, two volume, commentary on Luke, Bock suggests 3 possible ways to view the canceling of debts:

  1. The steward acted dishonestly; (but why would Jesus then praise him?)
  2. In Jewish law, Jews were prohibited to charge interest on loans to other Jews.  Apparently, it was the ancient custom to get around this by demanding repayment of the loan in commodities that were the equivalent of interest.  If this is the case, then it may be that the steward simply canceled the interest portion of the debt.  This would create happy debtors, and leave the master without recourse, since charging interest was illegal anyway.
  3. In a twist on the second option, the interest may have been the steward’s commission, so canceling it prior to losing his job created a clever pretense of personal sacrifice.

Further demonstrating its complexity, Bock also survey six proposed meanings of the parable, which I won’t list here.  I understand the parable to encourage Christians to use our money wisely for God’s purposes.  Unlike the steward who pretended to be generous by giving away someone else’s money to protect his earthly future, Christians should be generous with our wealth and in so doing imitate a generous God and protect our eternal future.

This connection between generosity and eternal life may seem a little strained, but it seems to be the thrust of v10-12.  Our attitude toward, and stewardship of, money demonstrates our priorities and influences the degree to which God will bless us and give us responsibilities.  We’re then reminded in v13 of the temptations that accompany wealth.

None of these teachings say that Christians cannot be wealthy, but that we are to use our wealth wisely, for God’s kingdom, remembering that we are only stewards (managers) of the possessions God’s blessed us with.  I believe we can use Jesus’ teachings in this passage to define greed as wealth without generosity.  When we’re more interested in accumulating wealth for our purposes, than using it to bless others and glorify God, we’ve crossed the line.

  • Do any of these interpretations of the manager’s behaviour make sense to you?  How do you understand the message of this parable?  Given the difficulties this parable contains, I expect there’s quite a few different view out there, so please leave your comments.
  • In my experience, people get uncomfortable when churches start talking about personal finances.  Given how much Jesus discusses the topic, why do you think we’re so reluctant to discuss it?
  • “Greed” is a difficult thing to define.  There’s no magic number that delineates wealth and greed.  What do you think of my definition above?

BONUS: In a 2008 survey by the Pew Research Center, 53% or Americans described themselves as “middle-class”.  That sounds like a very “middle” number and not very surprising.  What’s interesting is that 40% of respondents making less than $20,000 defined themselves as middle-class, while at the same time 33% of those with an income over $150,000 also thought of themselves as middle-class.  That’s a variance of over $120,000.

  • Why do you think people, whether rich or poor, want to think of themselves as middle-class?
  • Does this have any implications for Christians?
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5 comments

  1. Tim Archer

    I wrote a blog post on some of my views here:
    http://www.timothyarcher.com/kitchen/?p=257

    Basically, I believe that God can use bad people to teach good lessons. Jesus’ return can be compared to a thief in the night. The story of the unjust judge can be used to contrast how God deals with people who cry out to him. (Luke 18)

    Jesus never tells people to be like the steward. He makes several points based on this parable, none of which are “go and do likewise.”

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

    • ozziepete

      Tim, thanks for taking the time to drop by and comment. I enjoyed the post you linked to and thought you did a good job of making applications.

      While you’re correct that Jesus never tells people to be like the steward, he never tells them that the steward is a negative example. It seems that the steward is a positive example of something, it’s just no real clear what!

      It seems to me that vs8-9 are Jesus’ interpretation of the parable and vs10-15 are separate teachings on the related topic of Godly attitudes toward money. Both 9 & 10 are difficult to explain and don’t seem to have parallel thoughts elsewhere.

      One interesting approach employed by NT Wright, and Peterson in The Message, is rather than translating the end of v9 as “eternal dwellings” to translate it as “homes that will last”, or “life authentically”. Peterson’s paraphrase of the the two verses sounds good overall, but the “life authentically” seems a bit of a stretch. But the point is they both feel that translating it as something other than “eternal dwellings” alleviates some of the tension that comes with connecting money and eternal life.

  2. eirenetheou

    The corrupt manager, having been discovered in his mismanagement, survives by collecting the debts owed to his master while discounting his own commission on those collections. The debtors are more than happy to pay less, while the master is satisfied with the amount he had expected to receive. Had the manager attempted to collect his commission along with what was owed to the master, his master would have taken it from him to compensate for his previous graft and/or incompetence. Either way, the manager is demoted from his position in the household hierarchy and without money, but now he has made some “friends” who may be willing to do business with him again. The manager may be “too weak to dig and ashamed to beg,” but he is not so shortsighted that all he can see is the immediate gain or loss. Enslaved, in an enslaving culture — the “master” is not an “employer” — the manager has also saved himself from a whipping, if not a beheading.

    The obvious lesson is exactly what the word attributed to Jesus says it is: “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous Mammon. . . .” The good will of clients or customers or investors means more than whatever monetary gain one might immediately extract from them. It is a lesson that many twenty-first-century managers and “executives” would do well to learn. This is a text to read, mark, and inwardly digest.

    God’s Peace to you.

    d

    • ozziepete

      d,
      Glad to discuss a not quite so controversial topic with you!! 🙂

      I agree that the commission background is a possible explanation of some of the difficulties, but that’s the difficulty with all the explanations, they’re just possibilities. We can have understandings that we prefer, but I have a hard time accepting any of them as definitive.

      Thanks for sharing that explanation though, as I didn’t go into a lot of detail on it.

      • eirenetheou

        Wouldn’t it be interesting if members of the Churches of Christ were as concerned about their business and social relations with others and the ethics of their business practice as they are about women praying out loud in the church house?

        We have learned many things about households and the conduct of business in the ancient world, and we have much more to learn. That the manager is discounting his commission is the first “explanation” of his behavior that i have found entirely plausible and likely. It meshes neatly with the lesson that Jesus draws from the story: “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous Mammon.” We need to ponder what that instruction means, and act onit as we are able.

        This text is a litmus for interpreters, just as Exodus 4:24-26 is for that book. When considering the purchase of a commentary, it is useful to turn to texts that confuse or mystify us, and see what the commentator does with them. On Luke 16, it is useful to consult Joseph Fitzmyer’s remarkable entry in the Anchor series, surely one of the best works on Luke as a whole, and one that i keep close to hand whenever i am called to teach from Luke.

        God’s Peace to you.

        d

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