The Christian and Wealth: Insights from the Parable of the Unjust Steward

The parable of the unjust steward in Luke 16:1–13 provides Christians with important insights about our wealth and the Kingdom of God. Let’s examine the passage and highlight three applications for us today.

The parable seems to have two distinct sections: 1) the parable proper in 16:1–8a and 2) the parable’s multiple implications in 16:8b–13. Structurally, the parable can be organized in the following manner:

I. The parable proper (16:1–8a) 

  1. Introduction: audience and setting (16:1)
  2. The steward is fired (16:2)
  3. The steward’s response (16:3–7)
  4. The master’s response (16:8a)

II. The parable’s implications (16:8b–13)

  1. Jesus’ main point: be shrewd (16:8b)
  2. Be generous with wealth (16:9)
  3. Be faithful with wealth (16:10–12)
  4. Serve God, not wealth (16:13)

Though there is debate surrounding whether vv. 9–13 are part of the original parable, Jesus’ teaching regarding wealth certainly provides a Lukan link between the two sections. Additionally, the master’s response and Jesus’ observation in v. 8 link the parable and the following implications, and together with v. 9, provide the controlling idea of the passage: believers are to be shrewd in their use of wealth for the Kingdom of God. This message is corroborated not only by the surrounding pericope but also by the Lukan emphasis on wealth and poverty. 

In v. 1, Jesus’ audience has changed from the Pharisees (15:2) to His disciples, and he begins teaching them with a parable. However, the Pharisees are within earshot (16:14). We are introduced to the main characters, a rich man and his incompetent manager who had squandered his master’s possessions. In v. 2, the master demands an accounting and simultaneously fires the manager. In v. 3, the manager recognizes his dilemma and the bleak prospects for earning a living. Verses 4–7 document the manager’s plan to ensure future good will with others by reducing the present debt of the master’s debtors. Indeed, “he recognizes that his long-term interests lie outside his current home and job.”[1]

The parable seems to extend into v. 8a. To conclude otherwise creates for the interpreter the dilemma of having no real ending for the parable. Additionally, it seems most natural to take the ho kyrios (“master”) of v. 8a as the same master of vv. 3 and 5 and not as a reference to Jesus. Verse 8b introduces Jesus’ commentary, as it would be unnatural to read this material as the master’s commentary on the parable.

In v. 8a, the master surprisingly praises the “unrighteous manager.” To answer the puzzling question of how a master can commend an unrighteous steward, some have taken the master’s praise to be irony or sarcasm. But Bock notes this option is excluded by the use of epaineo (“to praise”), “which is uniformly positive in the N.T.”[2] Additionally, there is nothing in the literary context to suggest sarcasm and therefore, we must conclude this interpretive option to be ad hoc and unwelcome.

Careful observation helps the reader to see the manager’s dishonesty is not commended, rather his shrewdness or prudence is: “And his master praised the unrighteous manager because he had acted shrewdly.” Indeed, such a commendation was not foreign to the first century mind as “ancient stories often portray powerful persons as appreciating and rewarding cunning, even if it had been used against them.”[3] More importantly, Jesus’ commentary in 8b elevates this virtue of prudence as He contrasts the prudence of the “sons of this age” with that of the “sons of light.” In doing so, Jesus highlights the parable’s main lesson. Jesus employs an a fortiori argument in v. 8b: If worldly people are prudent in wealth, how much more should believers be prudent in God’s wealth. The good intentions of the “sons of light” are not enough. Additionally, prudence is required in relation to wealth and Kingdom purposes. 

Recent challenges to the traditional interpretation attempt to isolate the material in vv. 1–8 from vv. 9–13 in order argue that the main point of the parable concerns justice or the master’s honor.[4] However, this can only be done at the expense of the immediate literary context, as well as the theological context, namely Lukan emphasis on wealth and poverty. Rather than being detached from vv. 1–8, these verses provide appropriate application of the main point of the parable. Moreover, the Lukan multiple conclusions of vv. 9–13 are linked by their common usage of mamonas (“wealth”) in vv. 9, 11, and 13 and therefore, should be taken as additional applications. 

The first and very specific application comes in v. 9 and suggests that generosity is in order for the shrewd disciple, for generosity of wealth can make friends. Given the theological context of Luke, Jesus’ exhortation would not be for the purpose of a selfish accumulation of friends but for the spiritual purposes of the Kingdom, like sharing with the poor (e.g. 3:7–14; 11:39–41; 12:33; 14:1–4). 

A second application is found in vv. 10–12, as Jesus exhorts his disciples to be faithful in wealth. “Life is a unity,”[5] so that faithfulness in the little things translates into faithfulness in the big things. Faithfulness with worldly wealth provides a proper test for one’s capacity to handle Kingdom wealth. 

The third application of v. 13 seems to undergird all prior applications. Wealth is not the telos or ultimate end for the disciple. Service to God is. Such allegiance cannot be divided between two masters for “no servant can serve two masters.” Undivided loyalty is not optional but must be given to God alone. Therefore, as disciples who act shrewdly with wealth, we must do so in service to the Kingdom of God. 

_____________________

[1] Darrell L. Bock, Luke 9:51–24:53 – Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996), 1329.

[2] Ibid., 1332.

[3] Keener, 234.

[4] Dave L. Mathewson, “The Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1–13: A Reexamination of the Traditional View in Light of Recent Challenges” in JETS 38/1 (March 1995), 30-32. 

[5] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to St. Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 249.

Brett Kunkle

2017_nov3_spotlight.png

2017_nov1b_spotlight.png

2017_nov1_spotlight.png