The unjust steward parable, Part 1
Sep 25, 2014
It is important to read each parable in Luke 15 and 16 as an unfolding revelation in the context of the others. In the three parables already studied, the main focus was on prodigal Israel, the “son” that was lost in a far country. Only at the end of the account of the prodigal does Jesus begin to focus upon the older brother, who represents Judah.
The more immediate, local application of the parable is more akin to a portrait of the good figs and evil figs in Jeremiah 24:2. The good figs were those who had been far off from God but who were, even then, repenting and returning to Jesus and to the Father. The religious leaders, who were actually the “evil figs,” serve as the older brother with the bad attitude.
The fourth parable in the series is devoted entirely to the evil figs of Judah and the religious leaders in Jerusalem. It is about the unjust steward, that is, the steward of God’s vineyard that He had planted in the land of Canaan under Joshua. The Greek word that is translated “steward” is oikonomos. It is composed of oikos, “house,” and nomos, “law.”
A steward was the overseer who managed the household’s servants and finances in proxy for the owner of the estate. Examples of this would be Eliezer, Abraham’s steward (Genesis 15:2), and Joseph, who became Potiphar’s steward in Egypt (Genesis 39:5). A steward owned nothing but was responsible to know the mind of his master and do all that his master would do in each situation.
Perhaps the most striking parable of stewardship would come in the week before Jesus’ crucifixion, when He told the parable of the vineyard. In Matthew 21:33-45 the unjust steward was pictured as more than one person, called “husbandmen” (KJV) or “vine-growers” (NASB). They usurped authority over the vineyard (God’s Kingdom) in order to steal the produce for themselves. They even killed the prophets and finally the Son Himself in order to “seize his inheritance” (Matthew 21:38).
The end of that parable shows how those usurpers would lose their job. Jesus allowed the religious leaders to judge themselves in Matthew 21:41,
41 They said to Him, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and will rent out the vineyard to other vine-growers, who will pay him the proceeds at the proper seasons.”
Only in verse 45 did they finally realize that Jesus was speaking about them.
45 And when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard His parables, they understood that He was speaking about them.
This vineyard parable, then, serves as a double witness to the parable of the unjust steward, which Jesus had told earlier while on His way to Jerusalem.
The Steward’s Injustice
Jesus begins the parable in Luke 16:1, saying,
1 Now He was also saying to the disciples, “There was a certain rich man who had a steward, and this steward was reported to him as squandering his possessions.”
In verse 8, as we will see later, he is called “the unrighteous steward” (NASB), or the unjust steward (KJV). Verse 1 tells us HOW the steward was unrighteous. He was “squandering” the possessions of his master, the “rich man.” In this parable, the rich man is God Himself, who owns all the land (Leviticus 25:23) by right of creation.
This is not the same “rich man” in the final parable about the rich man and Lazarus. In fact, that rich man received his riches by usurping the possessions of the truly rich man, God Himself. But in the parable of the unjust steward, the focus is upon his reaction to the news that he was about to be fired.
It is noteworthy that in the end both Israel and Judah squandered God’s possessions, each in their own way. The prodigal son “squandered his estate with loose living” (Luke 15:13) in the far country. But the unjust steward, who was also the older brother in the previous parable, “squandered his possessions” in the vineyard itself—that is, in the land of Judah. The main difference is that the prodigal son repented, while the unjust steward did not. In the end, these parables were meant to show the religious leaders why Jesus accepted the publicans and sinners who had repented and returned to God.
The parable of the vineyard in Matthew 21 gives us the full background about the steward’s injustice over the centuries from Joshua to Yeshua (Jesus). It is about claiming the benefits of the Kingdom for themselves instead of distributing the fruit to those in need. It is about treating people right, rather than mistreating the other servants. It is about bringing forth the fruits of the Kingdom, that is, the fruit of the Spirit, in their relationships with others.
Recall that Israel and Judah had been given different portions of the vineyard. Judah had been given the scepter (Genesis 49:10), Levi the priesthood, and Joseph the birthright (1 Chronicles 5:2). Each son and tribe became a steward in his own right. The tribes of Joseph squandered the blessings of the birthright, but it is prophesied that they would return. Judah and Levi, that is, the “evil figs” who ruled Jerusalem and the temple, did not repent. The unjust steward was fired. The usurpers of the vineyard were replaced by those who would bring forth the fruit in due season (Matthew 21:43).
To understand the prophecies fully, one must obtain details from more than one parable, for each of Jesus’ parables focused upon different aspects of the same problem. Each parable also gives us additional details about the divine judgment that was yet to come.
The Day of Reckoning
Luke 16:2 says,
2 And he [the rich man, or God] called him and said to him, “What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.”
The rich man had already received proof of the steward’s injustice. Presumably, he had been stealing or misusing the rich man’s possessions. In this parable Jesus skips over any hearing or trial and goes directly to the judgment. The steward was fired. But first, the rich man had to assess the damage to know what assets remained in his estate. The steward was called upon to provide that information.
This steward, instead of repenting, began to formulate a survival plan. Luke 16:3 says,
3 And the steward said to himself, “What shall I do, since my master is taking the stewardship away from me? I am not strong enough to dig; I am ashamed to beg. 4 I know what I shall do, so that when I am removed from the stewardship, they will receive me into their homes.”
This steward had no intention of changing his ways or of doing honest work. Was there no other option but to “dig” or “beg”? Surely he could use his knowledge and talent to find some work other than manual labor. Yet he probably would be unable to find another cushy job as steward.
So what plan did he devise, while preparing for the Day of Reckoning? He robbed the rich man even more, so that he might gain the favor of his acquaintances. Luke 16:5, 6 continues,
5 And he summoned each one of his master’s debtors, and he began saying to the first, “How much do you owe my master?” 6 And he said, “A hundred measures of oil.” And he said to him, “Take your bill [debt note], and sit down quickly and write fifty.”
This does NOT mean that the steward was collecting a portion of the debts that were owed to his master. It means he was changing the terms of the debt note. In other words, he took the debt note and rewrote it, changing what was owed from a hundred measures of oil to just fifty.
In other words, he cut the debt in half, effectively stealing from his master and giving fifty measures to the debtor. This is an unjust way of declaring a Jubilee. Why did he do this? First, he was trying to curry favor with the debtor so that he might find housing later. Second, the debtor himself was not really receiving a benefit by cutting his debt in half, because the steward intended to put the debtor into debt to himself.
In other words, the steward took the debt of a hundred measures of oil and divided it between his master and himself. His ledgers would show a debt of just fifty measures of oil to his master, while the other fifty would be owed to the steward.
We have politicians who do this today. They give special benefits to certain banks and corporations while in office, so that when they leave office they are given cushy jobs with those same corporations. In other words, they steal taxpayer money in order to secure favor with the corporations when they leave office.
This is what the unjust steward did when he went into survival mode. Keep in mind that his motivation was that “they will receive me into their homes.” Luke 16:7 says,
7 Then he said to another, “And how much do you owe?” And he said, “A hundred measures of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill, and write eighty.”
Once again, the unjust steward reduced the debt from a hundred to just eighty measures of wheat. This second debtor then owed the steward twenty measures of wheat. He would be expected to pay that debt later when the steward needed housing.
Then comes the moral of the story, where Jesus appears to commend such theft in most translations. Yet it should be read as a statement of irony, rather than commendation. Furthermore, verse 9 should be read as a question, rather than as a statement of fact. (There was no punctuation in the Greek language at that time, so all punctuation is at the discretion of the translators.) Luke 16:8 says,
8 And his master praised the unrighteous steward because he had acted shrewdly [phronimos, “wisely”]; for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light.
Judah means “praise.” The irony in Jesus’ statement is that the religious leaders of Judah praised each other for being so shrewd with God’s possessions. They manipulated the law to allow themselves to be unjust without violating the letter of the law as they interpreted it. And then they thought themselves as being wiser than "the sons of light." Verse 8, then, represents the “moral” of the story from the point of view of the religious leaders of Judah. Jesus is saying that this is their unjust response to the unjust steward’s actions.
But Jesus questioned this in Luke 16:9 (Concordant Version),
9 And am I saying to you, “Make for yourselves friends with the mammon of injustice, that, whenever it may be defaulting, they should be receiving you into the eonian tabernacles?”
The CV is a very literal translation, so this does not read as smoothly as other translations. Nonetheless, it renders Jesus’ answer as a question, rather than as a statement of fact. It is His answer to the incorrect answer in verse 8. Should we make friends by the use of “the mammon of injustice,” by defaulting on a portion of the debt in order to be housed indefinitely?
There is a lot in that single statement. The rabbis of that time talked much about the “mammon of injustice,” “mammon of iniquity,” “mammon of falsehood,” and “false mammon.” Lightfoot comments on this, saying on page 159,
“I would not render it mammon of unrighteousness, but hurtful mammon… It is the lawyers’ term, the damage of mammon… that is, when any person doth any way hurt or damnify another’s estate… when riches turn to the hurt and mischief of the owner.”
In other words, the greed motive does damage that hurts the property owner. They often tied almsgiving to the idea of “righteousness,” and on the surface it appears that the unjust steward, in a sense, was giving alms to the debtors (by reducing their debt). However, the unjust steward was really giving away money that was not his to give. Further, he had done this with the understanding that he would get free rent after he was fired.
Jesus, who knew that the scribes and Pharisees were not repentant, said to them with irony, “Go ahead, keep on doing what you are doing. This may give you indefinite housing on earth, but do you really think you will be received into the greater house that comes through the feast of Tabernacles? ”
In the end, Jesus was contrasting earthly housing with the true “house.” The religious leaders had the motive of greed and injustice (adikia), which was their original problem as stewards of God’s estate. So when God decided to fire them, they continued in this same ill motive as a matter of survival, instead of repenting. If they had repented, God would have treated them the same as with the prodigal son.
The result is that they indebted other people to themselves rather than to God, and thereby they secured a way to make a living afterward. It suggests making a living by banking, where they would put others into their debt. But such injustice will not help them to receive the true house, the glorified body, through the feast of Tabernacles.
This is the first part of a mini-series titled "The unjust steward parable." To view all parts, click the link below.
This is part of the eighty-fifth part of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Luke." To view all parts, click the link below.
Dr. Stephen Jones