Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” 3 Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” 6 He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” 7 Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” 8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
10 ‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’
The parable of the unjust steward is one of the more peculiar parables and many readers are puzzled about what to make of it. Drawing lessons in wisdom from such a disreputable character is a tricky business and one which must be undertaken with some care.
Establishing the specific context of the parable is an important first step, and proves illuminating. Jesus is speaking to his disciples (16:1), but in the hearing of a more general audience in which Pharisees and scribes are prominently represented (15:1-2; 16:14).
The parables that precede this one—the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son—are all given in response to the murmuring of the scribes and Pharisees over Jesus’ scandalous eating with sinners. The parables represent the prodigality of God’s love to those who have been alienated from him and his desire to see them restored.
In the final parable, the parable of the lost son, there is a forceful application of the message of the three parables to the scribes and Pharisees. They are compared to the resentful and unwelcoming older brother who, on account of his bitterness, tragically excludes himself from the festivities, his rejection of his lost brother appearing like an ugly stain against the foil of his father’s effusive welcome.
The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin all end with a general invitation to a joyous celebration, reflecting the joy in heaven and among the angels. The parable of the lost son concludes with another such celebration, in which God’s own delight is displayed. However, in a great reversal the older brother does not share the joy. Through their rejection of returning sinners, the Pharisees alienate themselves.
The parable of the unjust steward continues Jesus’ indictment of the scribes and Pharisees; the Pharisees, recognizing this, react against the teaching in versus 14. The steward in Jesus’ parable would have been charged with the task of managing his master’s estate during the period of his absence, sorting out rents and maintaining the upkeep of the property.
The reference to ‘squandering’ parallels the behavior of the lost son, who ‘squanders’ his father’s wealth in 15:13. Perhaps the Pharisees aren’t as different from the lost son as they would imagine themselves to be. There is also the possibility that the steward had been placing heavy burdens on his master’s debtors, raising the rents to increase his cut.
The steward faces the imminent crisis of his removal from his job when his master calls him to give account of his unfaithfulness and irresponsibility in his duties. Like the parable of the rich man and Lazarus that follows it, this parable presents a radical reversal of fortunes and the pressing importance of readying oneself for it.
The steward’s response to his crisis is ingenious. Although he is about to forfeit his position, this fact is not yet general knowledge. He goes around all of his master’s debtors and reduces their debts.
Such a reduction of debts would have made the steward a very popular man in the neighborhood and made his master appear generous and good. The master couldn’t easily remove him from his position or recover the remainder of the debts that his steward had written off without appearing cruel and arousing public disapproval. Besides, even were he removed from his position, the steward would now be welcomed by the former debtors.
In the parable of the unjust steward it is important to keep in mind that Jesus is praising his shrewdness, not his morality. The Pharisees and the scribes are the unjust stewards, the servants who have been charged with managing their master’s property and tenants. However, they have been squandering God’s blessings and laying heavy burdens upon his people.
The time of reckoning has finally come for them too. At this point they are faced with a choice: will they double down on their injustice, or will they use the brief remaining window of opportunity of their stewardship to take emergency action to prepare for the future?
The parable suggests that they should seek to get on the right side of their master’s servants and debtors before it is too late. The servants and debtors are the common people they had been mistreating. If they were to reduce their burdens and made friends with the poor, the poor might welcome them into the eternal habitations of the kingdom (the theme of making peace with the poor for the sake of a future part in the kingdom might also be alluded to in the rich man’s address to Lazarus).
Of course, unlike the shrewd steward, the Pharisees, scribes, and lawyers were oblivious to their predicament and remained unjust. The scribes and Pharisees had not been faithful with the old covenant ‘least’: God will not entrust them with new covenant riches.
Jesus is clearly accusing the Mammon-serving Pharisees of abusing their power for the sake of dishonest gain from the poor. There is a change in the world order afoot and people are pressing into the kingdom. The Pharisees must take immediate action or be left out.
Jesus’ teaching in verses 9-13 makes clear that the image of debts within the parable of the unjust steward is not quite the metaphorical refraction of some abstract spiritual concept that some of us might prefer it to be. The righteous handling of money remains the central theme in Jesus’ exposition.
The dishonest wealth—the ‘unrighteous Mammon’—of the Pharisees, the ill-gotten profits of their mishandling of God’s truth, typically at the expense of the poor, calls for judgment upon them. Facing an impending crisis of divine reckoning, they can either join the kingdom movement that brings good news to the poor, forgiving debts and bringing relief from poverty, or they can stubbornly resist justice for the service of money and find themselves finally excluded.
Jesus depicts wealth as if a false god, competing with God for our worship and service (verse 13). The power of money in our lives and societies is ample proof of the aptness of such a representation: our love of money and the urge to get more is so often the force that makes our world move. Money and the imperative of economic expansion so often hold our political imaginations in thrall.
Jesus also depicts money as a bearer of injustice. With more wealth can come a greater degree of unwelcome complicity in unjust structures and exploitative dynamics. We desire more money, yet we cannot escape being implicated in the systemic unrighteousness and injustices of our economy as we become more invested in it. It is impossible to remove the whiff of unrighteousness from our money: injustice clings to it, try as we might to escape it.
The moral characterization of money itself as dishonest and unjust is an unsettling one for many of us. Money is absolutely integral to our way of lives and the suggestion that there is a rottenness that persists at the root of our society is one at which we instinctively recoil.
We set up elaborate, yet ultimately futile, means of absolving our money and economic activity of injustice, without diminishing our consumption. We buy products that promise to give money to charity for every purchase. We celebrate and enjoy entertainers who devote their artistic creations and events to raising money for a worthy cause. We buy fair trade, green, and sustainable items. Yet the scent of injustice still lingers.
Jesus’ teaching here is more challenging. We must reckon more squarely with the liability and culpability that comes with money and with the reckoning that awaits its servants and all that are bound to it.
Rather than becoming the morally compromised servants of unjust wealth, we must put it to use in the service of God. We must be faithful stewards of unjust money and never its servants, lest we too become characterized by its injustice. This all begins with a new posture towards the poor.
As in the case of the unjust steward, a radical change in our handling of money is required, if we are to survive the great day of accounting that is to come. Like the steward, we must use the limited time and opportunity afforded to us to escape the clutches of our greed and expend our dirty money to pursue true and incorruptible riches. So freed from our unwitting bondage to earthly wealth and delivered from the reckoning that awaits its servants, we too may one day be welcomed to the glorious feast of the kingdom.
Alastair Roberts is the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture.