The Parable of the Unjust Steward - Part 1
Malcolm Horlock, Cardiff, Wales
(UNLESS OTHERWISE STATED, ALL QUOTATIONS OF SCRIPTURE ARE FROM THE NEW KING JAMES VERSION)
The Parable of the Unjust Steward.1 Luke 16. 1-13.2 Part 1.
INTRODUCTION AND CONTEXT
In Luke chapter 16, the Lord raises the subject of a person’s attitude to money and wealth.
The chapter is made up largely of two stories: that of ‘The Unjust Steward’, vv. 1-13; and that of ‘The Rich Man and Lazarus’, vv. 19-31. Clearly, the Lord regards the way we handle our money as a serious matter. He does not claim that money is evil or sinful in itself, but, in both stories, stresses that possessions and money do carry with them great responsibility, and that the use to which we put them has direct implications for us in the world to come.
On the one hand, the use of money opens up the possibility of eternal reward and blessedness, vv. 1-13, whereas, on the other hand, it exposes a person to great danger and peril, vv. 19-31. On the one hand, money can be a blessing; on the other, it can be a curse.
Both stories start with the same expression, ‘There was a certain rich man who’, vv. 1, 19. But there the similarity ends, for in nature, audience and substance, the stories are very different.
First, the stories differ in their nature. The first (which is the subject of our present study) bears every mark of being a parable.3 But the second most certainly does not. For, not only does one of the characters in the second story have a name (‘Lazarus’), a feature not found in any biblical parable, but this story doesn’t bear the hallmark of a parable, that of being an earthly picture of heavenly and eternal realities – as is true, for example, of the stories of the shepherd,4 the prodigal5 and the steward,6 each of which is recorded in the immediate context before. Our Lord’s account of ‘The Rich Man and Lazarus’ is anything but an earthly picture, with no less than ten of its thirteen verses transporting us into the realm of the after-life.
Second, the stories differ in terms of their audience. The first was spoken primarily for the benefit of the disciples, v. 1, whereas the second was spoken directly for the benefit of the Pharisees, who had simply overheard the first story, vv. 14-15.
And, thirdly, the stories differ in terms of their substance. The first is concerned with ‘a rich man’ and a steward, with the spotlight falling on the deeds of the steward. The second is concerned with ‘a rich man’ and a poor man, with the spotlight falling on the destiny of the rich man. The first story reveals the long-term benefit and gain which people can secure for themselves if they use their wealth properly. The second story reveals the disastrous consequences and loss which people can suffer if they use their wealth selfishly.7 The first story ends blissfully in ‘everlasting habitations’ (‘eternal tabernacles’), v. 9. The second, notwithstanding the rich man’s flamboyant lifestyle on earth, ends horrendously in torments and flame where the rich man endures the dire penalty of serving mammon, vv. 24-25.8
We will consider first the parable itself, which, as I understand the passage, occupies from verse 1 to the middle of verse 8, and then the application which our Lord made of the parable, which occupies from the latter half of verse 8 to verse 13.
The Parable, vv. 1-8a.
1. The Steward’s Accusation and the Master’s Response
Verse 1. The words ‘He also said to His disciples’ suggest strongly that the parable was spoken on the same occasion as the parable(s) of chapter 15; that is, that our Lord’s audience may well have included many of the tax-collectors who had earlier drawn near to hear Him.9 No doubt the lesson which Jesus taught concerning the wise and proper use of earthly wealth, while not relevant only to them, nevertheless was particularly appropriate and relevant to such men, who were exposed more than most to the temptations of dishonesty, covetousness and the hoarding of possessions. We note from later in the same Gospel that it was a newly-converted chief taxcollector, Zacchaeus, who is on record of having said, ‘I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold’.9
But it is clear from verse 14 that, whereas the first story was not directly addressed to them, the Pharisees were present throughout our Lord’s telling of the story. And, if the parables11 of chapter 15 condemned their pride and self-righteousness,12 this parable most certainly condemned their covetousness and self-indulgence. Hence, their scornful reaction in verse 14.
In all likelihood, the ‘certain rich man’ was an absentee landlord, ‘such as were common in Galilee at the time’.13 The ‘steward’ was the person who handled the rich man’s affairs, managing both his business and household for him – much as Joseph had been appointed overseer over the house and goods of Potiphar in ancient Egypt.14 But the steward in our Lord’s parable had none of the sterling qualities of Joseph. For, far from his master’s estate prospering under his hand,15 he squandered his master’s possessions.
In time the steward’s reputation got around, and an ‘accusation’ was lodged against him. The word translated ‘accusation’ indicates that the complaint represented a verbal assault, probably brought with hostile intent.16 The word ‘wasting’ signifies that the steward was charged with ‘scattering abroad’ his master’s goods,17 and the tense used by Jesus indicates that this practice was still going on at the time the steward was accused.18
Verse 2. When we read that the rich man ‘called’ the steward, the word rendered ‘called’ is a different word from that used in verse 5, where the steward ‘called’ each of his lord’s debtors. The word here suggests that the master summoned the steward ‘with a clear or loud voice’;19 in effect, that he ‘shouted’ for him. And it is not difficult to detect the rich man’s tone of surprise and shock;20 ‘What is this I hear about you?’ – ‘about you, the one I trusted so much and with so much’.
In the circumstances, the master felt it necessary that the steward provide him with an accurate account of the current state of his (the master’s) possessions, partly no doubt for the benefit of the steward’s successor. The steward was therefore instructed to close the books forthwith, which action would be, his shocked employer made clear, the last task he would ever perform for him, ‘You can be no longer steward’. To put it bluntly, the steward was being fired.
2. The Steward’s Dilemma and Decision
Verse 3. As did other characters in our Lord’s stories on occasions, the steward spoke ‘within himself’.21
‘What shall I do?’ was his question. This was a crucial question in several of our Lord’s parables recorded by Luke. Both the rich farmer of chapter 12 and the vineyard owner of chapter 20 asked exactly the same.22 The farmer immediately resolved to pull down his barns and build larger.23 The vineyard owner immediately resolved to send his beloved son to seek fruit from the vine-dressers.24 But, evidently appalled at the unexpected and unwelcome turn of events, at first the steward was at a loss how to deal with the situation in which he suddenly found himself.
Clearly, he knew himself to be at fault, for he made no attempt to challenge (still less to deny) the charge which had been brought against him. Nor did he complain, even to himself, of any injustice in his master’s decision. Indeed, as I see it, his recognition that he was to be ‘put out of the stewardship’, v. 4, amounted to an admission of his guilt. He was in no doubt that, even though the process of dismissal was not complete until he had drawn up and handed over the final accounts, the writing was on the wall! The steward knew only too well that the finalized accounts would serve to confirm his removal from office. There was no question; he would shortly be joining the ranks of the unemployed.
The fact that he even mentioned the possibility of begging suggests strongly that the steward had not been stashing away any ill-gotten gains. Either, then, the ‘wasting’ of his master’s goods was due to simple carelessness and incompetence, or, perhaps more likely, the steward had already spent the proceeds of his misappropriations in ‘prodigal living’ – in reckless and dissolute pleasures.
The same word translated ‘wasting’ in verse 1 is used to describe the actions of the so-called ‘Prodigal Son’ in the previous parable.25 But, when, in that parable, it was said of the younger son that he had ‘wasted his possessions’, the reference was to his own property. Now, in our parable, when it is said that the steward had been ‘wasting his goods’, the reference is to his master’s possessions.
There was no question about it; both the steward’s present situation and future prospects were grim in the extreme. There was less likelihood of the man obtaining a comparable job and position elsewhere than there was of him being struck by lightning! For, given the circumstances of his dismissal, who could he expect ever to trust or employ him?
‘My master is taking the stewardship away from me’, were his words. And in many ways there lies the key to the whole parable. For the steward’s lord was in the process of doing it. There was therefore a short interval before the steward would actually be out on his neck, but it was very short! Immediate action was called for. But what action?
Quickly the steward reviewed his limited options.
To ‘dig’? No! ‘I cannot’, he told himself. ‘I don’t have the strength’, literally. For the steward was what we might call a white collar worker. Perhaps throughout his business life he had prided himself on ‘calling a spade a spade’, but he certainly didn’t regard himself as built to use one! Physical labour and this soft-living steward simply did not agree.26
To ‘beg’ then? To depend on the charity of others? Never! ‘I am ashamed’, he confessed. His pride and selfrespect would never let him do that.27 He was in good health and saw no good reason to resort to begging. It was not for him to stoop to be a Lazarus!28
In summary, to dig was too strenuous, and to beg was too demeaning. Nor, it seems, did the desperate steward find the prospect of starving to death particularly attractive.
Verse 4. But, as the steward pondered his dilemma, he had a sudden flash of inspiration.29 ‘I’ve got it’, he exclaimed in effect – ‘I am resolved what to do’. The man didn’t need to be told that he couldn’t now change his past actions, but out of the blue, as it were, he realized that, if he played his game carefully, he could change his future prospects.
For the rogue had devised a clever scheme which he hoped would see him all right when he was finally shown the door. But there must be no delay; hence the ‘quickly’ (the ‘hurry up’) of verse 6. For the steward had only a terribly brief time left to him, just one very small window of opportunity. Until he turned in the accounting books he was still officially his master’s steward, and, as such, could still act in his official capacity as his lord’s legal representative, with full executive power over his affairs.
And so the actions of verses 5-7, although doubtless unscrupulous and underhand, were within his lawful rights. When he acted as he did, he wasn’t guilty of either forgery or fraud, and exposed neither himself nor his lord’s debtors to any criminal charges.
And so, with the question ‘What shall I do?’ in mind, we can say that, whereas the answer of the rich farmer in chapter 12 exposed his outright selfishness, and the answer of the vineyard owner in chapter 20 expressed his unfounded optimism, the answer of the steward exhibited his inventive shrewdness.
But, for now, the key expression for us to file away from verse 4 is that which comes at the end of the verse, ‘they may receive me into their houses’, for this is one of the points to which our Lord returns when He comes to apply the parable in verse 9.
3. The Steward’s Ingenious Scheme
Verses 5-7. As time was of the essence, the steward immediately set about implementing his scheme. First, ‘he called each one of his lord’s debtors to him’ (literally); he called them, that is, one by one. His artful aim was to employ his last hours in office, while his master’s goods were still within his power, for his own advantage. He determined to put ‘every one of his master’s debtors’ in his debt by reducing the amounts by which they were already in his master’s debt. In this way he could ‘feather his own nest’ for the future at his master’s expense in the present. Because, surely, knowing themselves to be under such obligation to him, these debtors would happily take him in when the time finally came that his master threw him out!
The Lord Jesus centred the attention of His hearers on two typical cases; the transactions described being clearly understood as representing many others of a similar nature.30
In all likelihood, these ‘debtors’ were either (i) tenant farmers who had, in writing, guaranteed the master an annual proportion of their produce (such as their oil or wheat) at harvest time, or (ii) merchants to whom the master had sold goods on credit in exchange for promissory notes in their own handwriting. In either case, the written guarantees or promissory notes would have been lodged with the steward as the master’s legal representative.
Whatever the exact situation, the steward now handed back to each debtor his own bill or bond, authorising each debtor to substantially reduce the sum specified. The steward may either have invited each to write a new bill, which he (the steward) would then substitute for the original (and higher) one, or, perhaps more likely, have invited each debtor simply to alter the amount shown on the existing bill.31
This steward may never have heard sayings such as ‘one good turn deserves another’ and ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’, but he knew well that he could rely on his favours being returned at the time when he most needed it, which he realized was not very far away! And he knew that the greater the sums he saved the debtors the greater the favours he could expect then.
And we should note that the amounts owed by these debtors were far from small. Indeed, the two debts cited by Jesus were identical (in words at least) to the quantities of oil and wheat which King Artaxerxes of Persia authorised Ezra to claim from the treasurers in Palestine to defray the expenses of the Second Temple in Jerusalem; namely, ‘one hundred cors (‘measures’) of wheat’ and ‘an hundred baths of oil’.32
The ‘hundred measures (‘baths’) of oil’, v. 6, was equal to the annual yield of a large olive grove of 150 trees, and the ‘hundred measures of wheat’, v. 7, was equal to the typical rent for 100 acres (ten times the size of an average family plot).33 That is, the debtors in the story were not representative of the common people; they were large-scale business clients faced with sizeable business debts.
Based on information provided by Flavius Josephus,34 it has been estimated that the 100 ‘baths’ of oil amounted to over 860 gallons,35 and was worth in the region of 1,000 denarii.36 The steward’s offer of a 50% reduction therefore saved the first debtor about 500 denarii – no small sum, being about 18 months salary for a common labourer.
The second debtor owed one hundred measures (‘cors’, ‘homers’) of wheat, which would have been worth between 2,500 and 3,000 denarii.37 The steward’s offer of a 20% reduction therefore saved this man between 500-600 denarii. Accordingly, although the percentage reductions were very different in the two cases our Lord instanced, the value of the reductions was roughly the same.38
Presumably, the steward took into account each debtor’s circumstances, and therefore the man’s ability to repay, not only his master, but also himself in due course.
Some scholars have questioned whether the steward was acting in a fraudulent and dishonest manner when he lowered the costs to the various debtors. Three main alternative interpretations have been suggested. Namely, that:
(a) the steward removed the heavy deferred interest charges which (contrary to God’s law) he had formerly added to the original capital debts;39
(b) the steward chose to forfeit his own commission on the transactions;40 or
(c) the steward, who previously had deliberately overcharged the debtors – planning to pocket the difference between what he had charged and what he should have charged – renounced his exorbitant profits, without in any way defrauding his master.41
Interpretations (b) and (c) would mean, of course, that the money which the steward relinquished was his own and not that of his master – that he chose to make a short-term sacrifice in order to secure a greater gain for himself later.
Personally, I favour the traditional interpretation set out in the exposition above. For, as I see it, the Lord’s description of the steward as ‘unjust’ in verse 8 at the very least covers (if not principally refers to) the man’s actions in substituting the lesser amounts as owed to his master.
If this understating of the steward’s actions is correct, his scheme was devious, dishonest and ‘unfaithful’ to his master’s interests. But we have to give it to him – it was also ingenious. There is no doubt that this scoundrel had his head ‘well screwed on’, and that he had found a sure-fire way to make ‘friends’ for himself against the time when he would be out of a job!
As we shall note, God willing, in the article to appear in the next issue, both (i) the steward’s ‘shrewdness’ and (ii) his policy of making ‘friends’ for himself come in for honourable mention in verses 8 and 9 respectively, and that the need for our Lord’s disciples to show contrasting ‘faithfulness’ to their heavenly Master is brought out in verses 11 and 12.
For now, we simply note the steward’s objective, that, by the careful use of goods which were at his disposal for a very short period – goods which were not his own, but his master’s – he might secure abundant and lasting provision for himself in the future. As our Lord often said, ‘He that has ears to hear, let him hear’.42 To be concluded
1 This article, together with that to follow in the next issue, represents an updated and more thorough exposition of this parable than that published in Precious Seed, Volume 31, No. 4, July-August 1980 pp. 84-88.
2 ‘There is little question that the parable of the unjust steward in Luke 16. 1-13 is one of the most difficult of all Jesus’ parables to interpret’, D. J. IRELAND, Westminster Theological Journal, volume 51, page 293.
3 It is possible, however, that (as was very likely in the case of the Parable of the Pounds in chapter 19) some actual incident known to the hearers may have provided our Lord with the background for His parable.
4 Luke 15. 3-7.
5 Luke 15. 11-32.
6 Luke 16. 1-9.
7 Not that possessing wealth is, in itself, necessarily wrong. Abraham, who features largely in the second story, when on earth had himself been ‘was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold’, Gen. 13. 2; cf. Gen. 24. 35.
8 ‘The idea common to both is that of the relation between the use made of earthly goods and man’s future beyond the tomb. The steward represents the owner who is able to secure his future by a wise use of those transitory goods; the wicked rich man, the owner who compromises his future by neglecting this just employment of them’, F. GODET, Commentary on St. Luke’s Gospel, Vol. 2, pages 159-160.
9 Luke 15. 1.
10 Luke 19. 8.
11 On the basis of the words ‘He spoke this parable to them’, Luke 15. 3, some have regarded the three stories of Luke 15 as forming a single parable. But the similar construction in chapter 5 verses 36-39 suggests that each of the stories should be viewed as separate parables.
12 It was the complaint and criticism of the Pharisees (together with the scribes) which occasioned our Lord’s telling the stories in chapter 15. And there are no prizes for guessing which Jewish sect had sat for the portrait of the ‘older son’ that closed the story of ‘the Prodigal Son’, Luke 15. 25-32!
13 I. HOWARD MARSHALL, The Gospel of Luke in The New International Greek Testament Commentary, page 617.
14 Gen. 39. 5.
15 See Gen. 39. 3, 5.
16 See W. E. VINE, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, article ‘Accusation, accuse’, B. Verbs, 1. diaball , and I. HOWARD MARSHALL, ibid. The verb (äéáâÜëëù) occurs nowhere else in the Greek New Testament. It is, however, found twice in the Greek Old Testament, Dan. 3. 8 and 6. 24, with the meaning ‘to accuse’, in both cases with obvious malice and hostile intent. But the subsequent actions of the steward and his master, together perhaps with our Lord’s description of the steward as ‘unjust’, indicate that, unlike the accusations in Daniel chapters 3 and 6, the accusations against the steward were well-founded.
17 This is the word used to describe how ‘the sheep of the flock’ would be ‘scattered’, Matt. 26. 31, quoted from Zech. 13. 7.
18 ‘It is no past scattering, but a present, which is laid to his charge’, R. C. TRENCH, Notes on the Parables, pages 430-431.
19 See W. E. VINE, ibid., articles (i) ‘Call’, A. Verbs, 8, and (ii) ‘Cry’, B. Verbs. 7 both articles dealing with the word used in Luke 16 verse 2; viz. ÖùíÝù.
20 ‘This is . . . the expostulation of indignant surprise’, R. C. TRENCH, ibid., page 432.
21 The Rich Fool, Luke 12. 17, and the Unjust Judge, Luke 18. 4; cf. ‘the Pharisee . . . spoke within himself’, Luke 7. 39 literal translation. Note also the Prodigal Son’s extended soliloquy, Luke 15. 17-19.
22 Luke 12. 17; 20. 13.
23 Luke 12. 18.
24 Luke 20. 13.
25 Luke 15. 13.
26 In the ancient world, digging was regarded as particularly strenuous, and the thought expressed by the steward had become proverbial. (See W. F. ARNDT and F. W. GINGRICH, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, article óêÜðôù.) For example, in his comedy ‘The Birds’, Aristophenes (a Greek playwright of the 5th century BCE) put into the mouth of Sycophant the words ‘What can I do? I never learned to dig’, when responding to the comment of Pisthetairos, ‘You’re a strong young lad’. (Lines 1430-1432.)
27 Ecclesiasticus (otherwise known as ‘The Wisdom of Sirach’), an apocryphal work of the second century BC counsels, ‘My son, lead not a beggar’s life; for better it is to die than to beg’, Ecclus. 40. 28.
28 Although a different word (ἐðáéôÝù) is used in verse 3 to that translated ‘beggar’ in verse 20 (ðôù÷üò).
29 ‘I know’ is in the aorist tense and the steward’s words can therefore be rendered, ‘I knew (‘I found out a moment ago’) what I can do’.
30 Compare the three servants upon whom Jesus focused in His so-called ‘Parable of the Pounds’, whose use of their ‘pounds’ (minas) was clearly meant to be representative of all ten servants to whom minas had been entrusted, Luke 19. 12-24.
31 See A. EDERSHEIM, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Book IV, chapter XVIII, pages 269-273.
32 Ezra 7. 22.
33 Craig S. KREENER, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, on Luke 16. 6-7.
34 ‘The bath is able to contain seventy-two sextarii’, FLAVIUS JOSEPHUS, Antiquities of the Jews, Book VIII, Chapter II, paragraph 9.
35 T. W. MANSON, The Sayings of Jesus, pages 291-292; I. HOWARD MARSHAL, ibid., page 618.
36 JOACHIM JEREMIAS, The Parables of Jesus, page 181.
37 I. HOWARD MARSHALL, ibid., page 619.
38 ‘The percentages of debt forgiven differ, but roughly the same amount of money is forgiven in each of the sample transactions (about 500 denarii)’, CRAIG S. KREENER, ibid.
39 The case for this interpretation is argued at length by J. D. M. DERRETT in Law in the New Testament, pages 48-77. Compare Exod. 22. 25; Lev. 25. 35-37; Deut. 15. 7-8; 23. 20-21; Ps. 15. 5.
40 Proposed by J. A. FINDLAY, Luke, in the Abingdon Bible Commentary, page 1049.
41 Proposed by M. D. GIBSON, On the Parable of the Unjust Steward, Expository Times, volume 14 (1902-3), page 334.
42 Matt. 11. 15; Mark 4. 23; Luke 8. 8; 14. 35.