The Parable of the Shrewd Steward (16:1-13)

This story is probably the most difficult parable in Luke. Its point is clear enough—be generous and responsible with your resources—but how it makes the point is much discussed. The parable centers on a steward who is accused of wasting the master's goods. The description of the steward's activity is like that of the prodigal son in the previous parable (15:13). He has been scattering (diaskorpizo) his master's resources. Such mismanagement requires a response.

The characterization of the steward's activity is crucial, because some distinguish between what is said here about the steward's ineptitude from what is said about his dishonesty in verse 8 (Stein 1992:412). If such a distinction is made, then the steward's actions in verses 5-7 are seen as dishonest. On the other hand, others argue that the "wasting" itself in verse 1 involved outright dishonesty. As Nolland (1993:797) suggests, "It is tempting to think of the steward as siphoning off funds for his own consumption from transactions made in the name of the master." The need to choose between these two options is what makes the parable so difficult, since either can be easily defended as fitting the story's framework. Though for reasons I make clear below I prefer the latter option—that the steward's dishonesty led to his dismissal—it must be acknowledged that either understanding may be right.

In any case, the steward's reputation leads to his dismissal. The master calls for an accounting, but it is not to see if the charges are true. For with the accounting comes the steward's pink slip—he is fired. His accounting will be his last task for this master. Facing unemployment and having no marketable skills beyond being a steward, he is in a dilemma, since he does not wish to beg or resort to demeaning physical labor. He decides on a course of action that will bring him into his neighbors' good graces.

The steward introduces a high deflationary trend in his master's bills. The cultural background to the 50 percent reduction in the oil bill and the 20 percent reduction in the wheat bill has been much discussed. What exactly does the steward do? Three options are often suggested: (1) The steward wields his authority as steward and simply lowers the price. This act would undercut his boss by showing what a shark he is. (2) The steward removes the interest charge from the debt, following Mosaic law (Ex 22:25; Lev 25:35-37; Deut 15:7-8; 23:20-21). The differing rates of reduction seem to be against this view, however, unless different materials carried different interest rates. (3) The steward removes his own commission, so what he sacrifices is his own money, not that of his master (Derrett 1970:48-77). Differing rates are less of a problem here. The commission might well have varied depending on the item sold.

The first position, that the steward simply unilaterally lowers prices, is the traditional view. The argument is that the master later praises the steward for his shrewdness as well as recognizing his dishonesty. By exposing the master, he creates goodwill for himself. This view argues that the first sentence of verse 8 is about the actions of verses 5-7, not verse 1. The view tends to be argued with a challenge to the third view, the commission option.

There are several main arguments against the commission view (Stein 1992:412; Ireland 1992:79-83). I will note these objections and then reply, since I believe the commission view is slightly more likely than the other options.

1. Some complain that the commission view reads a subdivision of charges into the text. But Derrett's work on first-century commissions shows cultural background that may be assumed without being stated explicitly. Such a reading of cultural background is common (Keener 1993: introduction). Today I could tell a story of the purchase of a house without mentioning the relationships among my bank, the mortgage company and various insurance companies involved in the loan. Often such cultural details are assumed in Scripture as they are today and are not stated for an audience.

2. Some question how the manager is really helped by acknowledging the size of the steward's commission. It is argued that it would have been better to keep the favor of the debtors and master by not revealing the master's share of the profits. But the steward does not need to reveal that the reduction represents his commission. The debtors may not know that it is. He appears to portray his reductions as acts of kindness. For the debtors, the reductions must create a favorable impression of both him and the master, just as today businesses earn our loyalty by offering us "good deals." What is harder to believe is that the master would commend the steward if the steward has really cheated him.

3. Some argue that verse 5 indicates only that the master is receiving the money. This objection is really a variation on the other two and ignores the fact that the steward may not have publicized the source of the cut. In fact, this action would preserve the master's integrity (though it would pressure him to keep prices down in the future) as well as give the debtors good feelings about him. The shrewdness is in the "sweet" twist in the deal.

4. Some argue that verse 8 describes the steward as dishonest only after the actions of verses 5-7. This is more assumed than proved. It is not a harsh reading to take the description of dishonesty back to verse 1, as was noted above.

I favor the commission view because I find it hardly credible for the master to commend a steward who has just cheated him. If the reductions are dishonest price cuts, they constitute further injustice against the master beyond the steward's earlier squandering. If so, the master now has two charges against the steward: ineptitude followed by dishonesty. The traditional view hardly allows the steward to gain credibility and respect. Another problem is that Jesus himself praises the steward's actions in his subsequent remarks. Would he really commend such immoral behavior?

It is better to see that the previously dishonest steward learns something by his failure and comes up with a generous solution, one that can be commended. In my view, the master commends his formerly dishonest steward for a shrewd solution. The steward has sacrificed what he could have taken now and has given it to others so that he can receive gain later. The implicit moral about perspective in the use of resources is exactly the application Jesus makes in verse 9.

Jesus' applications extend in various directions. First he notes that people of the world are more shrewd than the people of the light (the disciples) are. People of this world think about how they use their resources. Even if they misuse them, they still give it thought. They think about the long-term benefits of what they acquire. Disciples should apply themselves to honor and serve God by their use of resources. They should think through their actions, both short and long term.

To this Jesus adds three further applications in verses 9-13. We should use resources generously "so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings." What "welcoming committee" is Jesus referring to? Some argue that "they" may be the poor who receive the benefits of disciples' stewardship, while others argue that they are either angels representing God or God himself (as a plural of majesty). Since the context has to do with present actions that are taken in light of the future, it is best to see a reference either to angels or to God here. Eternal dwellings has to do with entering into heaven (Michaelis 1971:378-79).

Money cannot come with us to heaven. Its value is limited when it comes to everlasting life. So recognize its limits and use it for others, not selfishly. To gain friends by means of mammon is to use money in such a way that others appreciate you for your exercise of stewardship, your kindness and generosity.

Jesus calls mammon "unrighteous." The NIV is too soft here, calling it simply worldly wealth (NRSV has "dishonest wealth," which is not quite right either). Mammon is called unrighteous not because it is inherently evil but because of the unrighteous attitudes the pursuit of money can produce. If money were inherently unrighteous, then all uses of it would be evil. But that is not Jesus' view (see 19:1-10). The attitude reflected here may be similar to that of 1 Timothy 6:10, where Paul says that the love of money is the root of all evil. Money is evil because of how it brings out distorted values in people. Pursuing money can make people selfish, leading them to take advantage of others, to treat other people as objects and to be unfaithful to God. It tends to reflect an excessive attachment to the world. So it is better not to be attached to the pursuit of wealth.

Possessions are a responsibility. Their use is a test of character, values and stewardship. The one who is faithful in little is also faithful in much. So also the other way around—to be dishonest in little things is to be dishonest in much. Faithfulness with the "little thing" of money indicates how faithful we are with the big things, the true riches of our relationships to God and to others. So if we have not been trustworthy in handling possessions that produce unrighteousness, who will trust us with true riches? The true riches in this passage seem to involve future kingdom service—that is, service for God and to others. True wealth is faithfulness in serving him.

The theme of responsibility continues as Jesus raises the question about being faithful with something that belongs to another so that later one can receive reward for oneself. If someone is unfaithful as a steward, why should that person be entrusted with ownership? Handling wealth is a preparatory lesson for other responsibilities before God.

So Jesus warns that we cannot have two masters. In the end, when push comes to shove, we will choose to serve God or mammon, to love one and hate the other. The implication is that we had best make the choice early. Choose God over mammon.

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