Parable of the Unjust Steward

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What is the meaning of the parable of the unjust steward? When and why did Jesus give it? What is a steward in the Bible and what were their responsibilities?

The parable of the unjust steward is found only in Luke's gospel (Luke 16:1 - 9). It is also referenced, in various translations, as the story of the shrewd manager (NIV, New Living Translation), the dishonest manager (ESV, Holman Christian Standard Bible) or the unrighteous steward (NASB).

Background

The primary audience for the unjust steward parable is Jesus' disciples (Luke 16:1). He gave it in early 30 A.D. several weeks before his arrest and crucifixion in the first week of April.

This story was one of a series the Lord gave beginning with the cost of being a disciple (Luke 14:26 - 33). It was followed by the famous parables of salt (34 - 35), the lost sheep (15:1 - 7), lost coin (verses 8 - 10) and the prodigal son (11 - 32).


What are they?

Stewards, in the New Testament, were usually freemen (Matthew 20:8, Luke 8:3) given extensive authority over the affairs of those who hired them. Their responsibilities were to manage and enhance their bosses' wealth, and sometimes included overseeing not only his household but also training his children.

Stewards had the authority to pay employees (Matthew 20:8) as well as the responsibility of collecting and tracking debts owed (Luke 16:5 - 7). They supervised other workers and portioned out to each person in the household what they were due (Luke 12:42 - 46). They were accountable, at any time, to those who hired them. If they did not meet the expectations of their boss or were found stealing they could be immediately fired (Luke 16:2).

The parable

A wealthy man discovers the person charged with overseeing his property and other assets is incompetent and wasting his resources (Luke 16:1). Upon summoning his manager, he demands a status of his property and an accounting of his finances, after which the person will no longer be employed.

What is this I hear concerning you? Render an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward (Luke 16:2, HBFV).

The steward, while working on a final report to his boss, begins to worry how he will make a living. Feeling too proud to beg and rejecting manual labor, he hatches a plan to ingratiate himself with his boss' debtors in the hope they will return the favor by supporting him.

Unjust adjusting

The first person summoned by the manager owed 100 baths of oil (about 580 gallons or 2,195 liters) while another owed 100 measures (cors) of wheat (about 620 bushels or 21,100 liters, Luke 16:6 - 7). This debt was likely incurred due to a needed loan from the rich man (see Psalm 112:5). Loans of commodities like oil or wheat were often made by the prosperous as a favor toward those in need. Business related loans were rarely, if ever, made (Jewish Encyclopedia article on loans).

The incompetent steward, further decreasing the net worth of his boss, unjustly (Luke 16:8) lowers the initial agreements of what was owed. He decreases one debt by an astonishing 50% while another he decreases by 20%. He does this by having the borrower write a new agreement with the lower amounts (Luke 16:6 - 7). The parable closes with the boss complementing the manager for his shrewd tactics to insure his further survival (verse 8).

The lesson

The spiritual principle Jesus wants us to learn from this parable is rather hard to understand in most Bible translations. The Good News Bible, however, seems to best convey the point of the story.

And so I tell you: make friends for yourselves with worldly wealth, so that when it gives out, you will be welcomed in the eternal home . . . If, then, you have not been faithful in handling worldly wealth, how can you be trusted with true wealth? (Luke 16:9, 11).

Note that the Lord is not condoning dishonesty or the steward breaking God's law by defrauding his employer for his own benefit. Jesus sometimes used sinful behavior to illustrate important spiritual principles (e.g. the parable of the prodigal son).

The parable of the unjust steward teaches that we should shrewdly use material possessions for a spiritual benefit. This principle is reiterated by Peter, who calls on all Christians to wisely manage the resources and abilities they control in order to serve and bless countless others (1Peter 4:10). The wise use of earthly wealth (see our definition of Mammon article), as a good steward, also qualifies us to someday manage true riches from God!

The Parables of Jesus
Camel through Eye of Needle
The Good Samaritan
The Good Shepherd (Lost Sheep)
Lazarus and the Rich Man
The Light of the World
The Mustard Seed
Pearls before Swine
The Prodigal Son
The Salt of the Earth
Separating Sheep and Goats
The Sower and the Seed
The Talents
The Ten Virgins
The Unjust Steward
Why Did Jesus Use Parables?


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