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No. 17: The Unjust Steward Revisited

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 17
September, 1990
Copyright 1990, Biblical Horizons

Last year I had occasion to work through the book of Luke as I did some work for one of my editorial clients, and this year my pastor has been preaching through Luke. Thus, I have twice been reminded of the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-13), a parable that I have worried over from time to time since I was first asked to teach on it as a young teenager.

The traditional interpretation says that the steward was praised for his shrewdness, not for his dishonesty, and that Jesus was advising that we employ a kind of practicality with the things of this world. I am not at all convinced, however, that this interpretation does justice to the context of the parable in Luke. I am uneasy when all we see in Jesus’ teachings is "good advice" on the level of the Sayings of Confucius or Aesop’s Fables. Yes, the steward is praised for his shrewdness, but is that all there is to it?

I should like to suggest an interpretation that takes into account the redemptive-historical context of this parable, as well as its immediate literary and situational context. I suggest that the Master is God, the steward represents the religious leaders of Israel, and the debtors are the poor, on whom these leaders have tied great and unnecessary burdens. Accordingly, the point of the parable is that the Pharisees and other leaders need to show mercy to the poor and downtrodden, because a great revolution in the world is about to take place, a revolution that will remove them from leadership and transfer leadership to a new organ of the covenant: the Church.

At first glance, such an interpretation makes sense in terms of the overall redemptive-historical context of the gospels. Jesus frequently warns the Pharisees along such lines. But what about the actual context of the parable? Were the Jewish leaders present when Jesus told this? Was He speaking, at least partially, to them?

Luke 15:1 says that publicans and sinners were coming near Jesus and listening to Him. The next verse says that the Pharisees and scribes grumbled against Jesus for consorting with such people. This situation sets the stage for all that takes place until Luke 17:11.

First Jesus tells them (both leaders and "sinners") the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Lk. 15:3-7). He follows it with the Parable of the Lost Coin (Lk. 15:8-10). These two parables are virtually identical, except that the sheep is a living thing and symbolized those in Israel who lacked power (The symbol of the powerful in the Levitical law was the ox.), while the coin is an inanimate thing — and a piece of money.

I suggest that the next two parables expand in the fashion of dramas these two parables: the Lost Sheep into the Lost Son; the Lost Coin into the Unjust Steward.

The Parable of the Lost Son (Lk. 15:11-32) is still addressed to the mixed crowd. In this parable the father rejoices, just as the shepherd rejoiced to find his sheep. The father calls for a banquet to celebrate the finding of his son, just as the shepherd invited his neighbors to celebrate the finding of his sheep. In the Parable of the Lost Son, however, we find a new element: an older brother, who is churlish and refuses to celebrate the return of the younger brother. Now, nobody has ever doubted the "allegorical" character of this parable. The older brother, in context, signifies the leaders of Israel, the Pharisees and scribes who were listening to the parable, while the younger brother signifies the publicans and "sinners," who were returning to the Father through Jesus, but who were not being welcomed by the religious leaders of Israel. Thus, the Parable of the Lost Son extends the meaning of the Parable of the Lost Sheep by bringing in the negative reaction of the Pharisees.

I suggest that the next parable, that of the Unjust Steward, follows in this same vein. We notice in Luke 16:1 that at this point in the conversation Jesus turns to His disciples and it is to them expressly that He tells this story. When the story is complete, however, we find that the Pharisees and scribes are still present and have been listening intently. They scoff at the parable. Jesus turns to them and condemns their attitude. He goes on to tell the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, which in context must allude to the Pharisees once again. The event comes to an end in Luke 17:1-10, with Jesus warning His disciples about stumbling blocks who harm the weak and poor — once again a clear allusion to the religious leaders of Israel.

We have established that the Pharisees and scribes are very much in view throughout this section of Luke, and thus may very likely be in view in the Parable of the Unjust Steward. Let us now apply this interpretive hypothesis to an exegesis of the parable itself.

Luke 16:1. A certain rich man (God) had a steward (the religious leaders of Israel), and the steward was reported as squandering the rich man’s possessions. This means that the scribes and Pharisees (and Sadducees and priests, etc.) had abused their offices, misusing the gifts God had given them for their own pleasure instead of ministering these gifts to the people. Notice that the immediate reaction of the Pharisees in verse 14 is to scoff, because they "were lovers of money."

Luke 16:2. The master (God) calls the steward (Jewish leaders) to account, and informs them that they will no longer be his stewards. This is exactly what Jesus did throughout His ministry. He was constantly calling the leaders to account, which was why they hated Him so intensely. The message of the gospel was that a new Kingdom was coming, and that stewardship would be given to new leaders.

Luke 16:3-4. Now we see that this steward is wise. He determines to make friends with those he had formerly abused, so that when he is removed from office "they will receive me into their homes." The wise Pharisee will befriend the publicans and sinners, because they are the ones who will receive the new Kingdom. Their "homes" are the Church. If the Pharisees and scribes want to have a place on the other side of the coming judgment, they had better secure a place in the Church now, by repenting and showing kindness to those they formerly had exploited.

Luke 16:5-7. The wise steward reduces the debts owed by the poor to the master. (Notice that this action is not called unjust or dishonest in the parable.) In common life reducing the debts might be foolish, but even in common life a master might praise the shrewdness of the steward, as happens in the parable. In spiritual life, however, this is not foolish at all. The Pharisees were guilty of adding many burdens ("debts") to the law, and of increasing the bondage of the poor. Jesus had earlier condemned the Jewish leaders for just this: "Woe to you lawyers as well! For you weigh men down with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves will not even touch the burdens with one of your fingers" (Lk. 11:46). Notice how the steward in the parable says, "I am not strong enough to dig; I am ashamed to beg" (Lk. 16:3). The steward has been laying burdens on men that he himself does not wish to shoulder.

The "lawyers" are in the same class as the scribes and Pharisees, as a comparison of Luke 11:46-52 with Matthew 23 will show. The lawyers were unwilling even to touch the burdens, which shows that the "burdens" have to do with additions to the laws of uncleanness ("touch not, taste not, handle not") — which is exactly what the Oral Law additions were all about. Many kinds of violations of the laws of uncleanness were technically "debts" or "trespasses" [same word], and required a monetary payment to the Temple for restoration (Lev. 5:14 – 6:7) — money that went into the coffers of the religious leaders! Thus, adding to the laws of uncleanness was financially profitable to the religious leaders.

With this background in mind, we can understand even more clearly the nature of the "debts" mentioned in the parable. The bondage placed on the people by the scribes and Pharisees often involved real financial hardship. To a certain degree the poverty in Israel was due to the fact that these men robbed the poor by means of religious trickery, such as charging exorbitant prices for sacrificial animals at the Temple (Luke 19:46), persuading people to cut off their parents and leave them in poverty (Mark 7:9-13), and cajoling widows into giving them their money (Luke 20:47). Publicans (tax farmers) robbed the people by taking exorbitant taxes, but this was mere oppression. The religious leaders robbed the people by teaching lies as the Word of God, which was blasphemy. They were far worse than the publicans.

So then, the formerly unjust steward is undergoing a change of heart, or at least a change of mind. He trusts the word of the master and acts on it. Jesus is advising the Pharisees to do the same. He is advising them to believe Him when He tells them that their days are numbered. He is advising them to make peace with those they have been oppressing.

Luke 16:8. The master praised the steward for acting shrewdly. Just so, Jesus says, if you Pharisees stop oppressing the poor and make peace with them, God will praise you. Jesus goes on to say that the sons of this age are shrewder in dealing with each other than are the sons of light. This seems to be a further rebuke to the Pharisees, implying that a gentile in this situation would have the sense to take the precautions Jesus has been describing, while the Jewish leaders (the "sons of light") are too blind to do so.

Luke 16:9. Jesus tells them to make friends be means of the Mammon of unrighteousness, that when it fails "they" may receive you into eternal dwellings. Who is the "they?" In context, it is the debtors (v. 4). The poor are going to inherit this new Kingdom, and in a sense it will be up to them whether or not the Pharisees get in. Jesus says to the Pharisees that they had better remove the burdens they have put on the poor, and make peace with them, so that they may enter the coming Kingdom.

Luke 16:10-12. Here we have more "sayings." Those who are faithful in little will be given more. If you cannot handle Mammon, who will give you true riches? We can take these out of context and they are still true, but we need to see them in their redemptive-historical context in order to get the Gospel-content out of them. Confucius might have said these same things, after all. What is different about Jesus’ saying them? It is this: In context it is the religious leaders who have "much." They have not been faithful in the small thing (the Old Covenant) so they will not be given the large thing (the New Covenant). They had abused the financial aspect of their religious office by using religion to rip people off, and so they are going to lose their office.

Luke 16:13. Jesus says you cannot love two masters: God and Mammon. True, but we dare not rip this out of context. The righteous religious leader in Israel and in the Church was and is obliged to deal with money — money from Trespass Offerings in the Old Covenant and money from tithes and offerings in the New Covenant. The problem Jesus was addressing in this parable is that the scribes and Pharisees had let love of money get the better of their offices as teachers of the people.

Luke 16:14. This is immediately clear when the Pharisees scoff at Jesus’ parable precisely because they are lovers of money.

Luke 16:15-18. Here Jesus continues the theme. Our interpretation of the Parable of the Unjust Steward enables us to see continuity between it and what Jesus says here. In verse 15 Jesus calls them down from their high office because it is wrongfully maintained. In verse 16 Jesus informs them that the new Kingdom is dawning and if they have any sense at all they will force their way into it (by heeding the lesson of the Parable of the Unjust Steward). In verse 17 Jesus tells them that God’s law (given through Moses) will stand, implying that their Oral Law additions will not stand. Finally in verse 18, Jesus completes the turning of the tables on them by condemning them for adultery. The Pharisees were into sexual sin in a big way, and while they multiplied the laws of uncleanness in order to collect trespass money, they loosened the laws of sexuality in order to practise serial polygamy. By the time Jesus is done with them, it is clear that it is the Pharisees and scribes who are at the bottom of the moral pile, not the publicans and sinners.

(The reference to adultery seems out of context, but the larger context is Malachi, where the post-exilic religious leaders are condemned for all the same sins Jesus later condemned in the scribes and Pharisees. See in particular Malachi 2:13-16. The importance of Malachi to the background of New Testament teaching is not sufficiently appreciated. Compare the five charges in Romans 2:21-23 with (in order): Malachi 2:7; 3:5+8; 2:14; 1:6-8; 2:9.)

Luke 16:19-31. Here is the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Lazarus was covered with sores and could come no closer than the gate. The Rich Man dressed in purple and fine linen every day — Jesus’ hearers would have seen an allusion to the High Priest here. The Rich Man represents the Jewish religious leaders: He is "rich" in privilege, and as we have seen, also rich in ill-gotten wealth. Lazarus represents the poor, here described as a leper. Like the publicans and "sinners," he associates with dogs (gentiles). Of course, the Rich Man is not exactly the High Priest, and the sores of Lazarus are not exactly leprosy, but I submit that no Jewish listener in Jesus’ audience could have failed to make these two connections. We can apply this to rich and poor in all areas of life, but the first application is to the life of the Church.

Luke 17:1-10. This closes the sequence. Jesus tells His disciples that it will be horrible for those who oppress the poor, in the religious sense, on the day of judgment. He tells them to rebuke each other if they see each other becoming like the Pharisees and scribes. He tells them never to forget that they are unworthy slaves of God, and warns them not to take up the airs of the Pharisees and scribes.

We noted above that the Parable of the Unjust Steward was addressed directly to the disciples, though within earshot of the Pharisees. It was Judas in particular who needed to hear this parable, but he failed to heed its warning. Beyond Judas, however, Jesus was addressing the New Covenant Church of all ages. He knew that the Pharisees would not hear and heed, and so He only let them listen in to the advice He would have given them. The advice is still for us: We had better not be guilty of legalistically adding to the word of God, and we had better not be guilty of using religion as a way to exploit the poor, or else the kingdom will be taken from us as it was taken from them.

I stated that I think that the Parable of the Unjust Steward carries forward the idea of the Parable of the Lost Coin. In general that is because both deal with money. Let me suggest some other possible correspondences, however. The ten silver coins possibly represent the woman’s dowry, the legacy of her husband (Luke 15:8). This is the same as the money entrusted to the steward by the master.

The woman loses one of the coins of her possession (or possibly legacy). Just so, the steward — the Jewish religious leader — has lost sight of his duty. The woman lights a lamp (the knowledge of God) and sweeps the house (as at the Feast of Unleavened Bread she removes all the old leaven, all the "dirt," from her home). By heeding the lamp (the Word) and cleaning up her life, she finds the lost coin. Just so, the Pharisee, if he heeds the lamp of Jesus’ words and cleans up his life, will find the lost coin of his stewardship and be received into the habitations of the coming Kingdom.