The parable of the unrighteous steward is possibly the most puzzling of all the Lord’s parables. The story concerns a steward who wasted his master’s goods. Being called to account, he decided to engage in some creative accountancy. Calling in the debtors, he asked them to amend their bills, so that instead of saying that they owed one hundred measures of oil, the bill now read fifty or eighty. When shown the records, the master was relieved that the situation was not as bad as had been reported. But the steward also calculated, by writing off a large percentage of the debts, that he would be welcomed into the debtors’ homes if his master eventually put him out of a job.
Before we come to what the parable is teaching, we need to clear up three puzzling elements in the story itself. First, some commentators argue that the steward, instead of fraudulently falsifying the bills, merely decided to forego his own commission, taking a hefty pay cut. However, this attempt to paint the steward in a more commendable light is unconvincing, for the steward is described as ‘unjust’, i.e., crooked, in verse 8. Additionally, a 50% commission seems improbably generous for any steward.
Second, the KJV in verse 8 says that the lord commended this steward. However, the word ‘lord’ here is the same as in verses 3 and 5 and refers to the steward’s master in all three verses. It is not our Lord Jesus who is commending the dishonesty of the steward.
This raises a third question: why would his master commend him if he has just cheated him out of substantial sums of money? The answer of some commentators is that the master was impressed by the man’s shrewdness. But this does not ring true to life - no one commends a conman when they themselves have been swindled and must bear the loss. Instead, it is more likely that the master is still ‘in the dark’ at this point and impressed that his losses are not as severe as first thought.
Wordsworth writes, ‘In some expositions of this Parable, it is taken for granted that the landlord discovered the artifice of the steward described vv. 5-7. But the supposition seems to impair, if not destroy the beauty of the parable; How could the steward be said to have acted prudently, shrewdly, … if his device was detected and exposed? Is it probable that his Master would have allowed him to profit by the fraud, or that the debtors, who would be forced to pay the sums due, and perhaps be punished in person, would receive him into their houses? Is it likely, that in such a case our Lord would have propounded the steward as an example of worldly wisdom? No, it is nowhere said, or hinted in the parable, that the landlord discovered the mode by which the steward had ingratiated himself into the affections of his tenants’.1
Some spiritualize the parable, taking the unjust steward to represent Satan, or Israel dispensationally, or Judas Iscariot or Pontius Pilate or the Pharisees or the tax collectors historically. Most modern expositors swing to the opposite extreme and despiritualize the parable, teaching that the story merely urges the prudent use of earthly wealth. Christians are to spend their money on gospel resources for the salvation of the lost rather than living in pampered opulence and palatial luxury. The souls thus won for the Lord by our generous giving will one day welcome us into heaven. Virtually all modern commentators adopt this view, and its lesson is in perfect keeping with the personal example and teaching of Christ elsewhere.
The Lord’s words in verse 13 support this interpretation by warning against materialism (‘No servant can serve two masters … You cannot serve God and mammon’ NKJV). In verse 14, the Pharisees, who loved money, respond with contemptuous ridicule. The Lord also warns in verses 10 to 13 that we should not follow the corrupt and fraudulent example of the steward in our use of earthly money, doing business in ways that are not entirely above board.
Yet the wise use of earthly wealth is not the full meaning of the parable, nor its true import. Verses 10 and 11 hint at a deeper meaning, with the Lord describing money as that which is ‘very little’, ESV, by comparison with that which is of ‘much’ value, contrasting ‘unrighteous wealth’ ESV with ‘true riches’. The Lord is seeking ‘faithfulness’, v. 10, in relation to true riches.
The true meaning of the parable is clearly seen in verses 15 to 18, which constitute Christ’s own commentary upon it. Verse 17 says that, ‘it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one tittle of the law to fail’ NKJV. In other words, God’s laws and His truth are of everlasting value and veracity, and we should not discount or dilute them, lowering God’s standards to fit in with the world. In verse 18, the Lord gives the example of the way the Pharisees condoned divorce and remarriage, which the Lord condemned as adultery, v. 18.
Plumptre argues that the unjust steward pictures ‘when men lower the standard of duty to gain support or popularity … when a Church or its teachers adapted themselves to men’s passions or interests at the expense of the Truth’.2 William Bunting writes, ‘Those who seek to make man’s indebtedness to God less than it really is, as the steward does in vs 5-7, are always likely to become popular. And this cutting down of God’s claims is exactly what the scribes and Pharisees had been doing with the law (see Matt. 15. 3-6)’.3
The main difficulty for most interpretations is verse 9, ‘make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail,4 they may receive you into an everlasting home’ NKJV. The ‘prudent use of money’ interpretation takes this to refer to heaven, (baselessly) translating ‘unrighteous mammon’ as ‘worldly wealth’ NIV, NLT, NET, to diminish the element of fraud and obtain a pleasing moral. However, there are good reasons to think that neither the steward nor tenants end up in heaven as their ‘everlasting home’. They collaborate together in defrauding the master, show no repentance, nor are they forgiven - their debts remain outstanding. In verse 8, the steward is counted among the ‘sons of this world (age)’ NKJV, as opposed to the ‘sons of light’ - i.e., the saints. He is shrewd ‘in their generation’, not for eternity, and his career eventually ‘fails’, v. 9.
There is no happy ending here. Rather, as the story of Lazarus and the rich man which follows teaches, there is another eternal destination awaiting people like this wicked steward. In verse 9, Christ is using irony (as elsewhere, e.g., Luke 12. 14; 22. 36); He neither encourages unrighteous dealings nor wishes hell upon anyone - but warns the wicked of the end of those who are unfaithful to God.
If we may compare this parable with that of the prodigal son just before it, neither the prodigal, i.e., wasteful steward nor the master’s debtors are finally welcomed to live in the master’s house (as the prodigal son is); instead, the wicked steward is cast out of the master’s house, and that eternally.
The Lord is warning against a dangerous tendency that has frequently shown itself down through the centuries, particularly in the pulpit: preachers, stewards of God’s truth, 1 Cor. 4. 1, must not dilute God’s moral standards or the teachings of God’s word to make friends with the world. They must not change God’s word so that it says something more palatable.
Over a century ago, liberal theology made great inroads. Ministers preached that the miracles of the Bible were mythical, not true, and that the Bible was not God’s inspired word - it contained human errors. They even denied a literal resurrection -the very foundation of the Christian faith. Hoping to gain more adherents from an unbelieving world by telling people exactly what they wanted to hear, they only hastened the failure, v. 9, of their liberal denominations. Still today, it is possible for us to stop preaching about sin, judgement and the reality of hell (which the Lord tells us plainly in Luke chapter 16 verses 19 to 31), and instead preach a prosperity gospel or something to entertain people or boost their self-esteem.
The lesson for us is found in Jeremiah chapter 26 verse 2, ‘Thus says the Lord: “Stand in the court of the Lord’s house, and speak to all the cities of Judah, which come to worship in the Lord’s house, all the words that I command you to speak to them. Do not diminish a word”’, NKJV.
Christopher Wordsworth, The New Testament in the Original Greek, Rivingtons, 1881, Vol. I, pg. 228.
E. H. Plumptre, St. Luke, ed. C. J. Ellicott, Cassell and Co., pg. 262.
Or, as some manuscripts read: ‘it fails’ - either way, the steward’s scheme collapses (and he with it).