Monday, April 30, 2007

Luke 16.1-18: The Parable of the Unrighteous Steward

Given the numerous (and often bizarre) interpretations of Jesus’ parable of the unrighteous steward as found in Luke 16.1ff., I thought it important to study the text further in hopes to make better sense of it, for both personal and ecclesial purposes. My study has proven fruitful from a personal perspective; I do hope this interpretation proves as fruitful for the church.

I have elsewhere
[1] suggested that in Luke 16.19-31, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus is condemning the priesthood, and Caiaphas in particular. The following interpretation helps, I believe, synthesize the whole of Luke 16 (and beyond).

The Parable of the Unrighteous Steward (16.1-8)

This parable has proven to be one of the more difficult passages to interpret. What are we to make of the master’s praising of his “dishonest” steward? What does Jesus mean by “make for yourselves friends by means of unrighteous mammon” (v.9)? Is Jesus calling us to become “shrewd”, like the “dishonest” steward? Is there virtue in the steward’s actions?

I suggest that these are wrong questions. They emanate from the assumption that since 1) Jesus in other parables uses a master-figure to denote God, and 2) at the conclusion of this parable Jesus polarizes two masters, one being mammon and the other being God (v.13), Jesus therefore must mean for the master here to denote God. The stewards then logically become God’s workers, responsible for what he has given them. But perhaps another scenario better fits the data in the text. One follows.

The master is the high priest in Jerusalem.
[2] The steward is a lesser priest responsible for the treasury of the temple. The origin for this priestly position, whether permanent or temporary, can be dated at least as far back as Ezra’s day (Ezra 8.24-30, when the priests were commissioned to carry back to Jerusalem the riches and offerings granted by Artaxerxes during the exile).[3] Ezra’s narrative offers more background to Jesus’ parable. In the parable, the debts are specifically stated: “100 baths of oil” and “100 cors of wheat” (vv.6-7). These very measurements appear elsewhere together only in the book of Ezra (7.22)[4], included in the offerings to be taken back to the temple in Jerusalem by the assigned stewards (7.17-28).[5] These commodities, even in these increments, are temple-related wares.[6]

The steward is called “dishonest” because he has failed to collect the sacrifices as was customarily expected of him. Instead, this steward “squandered” his master’s goods.[7] Yet, somehow this activity merits him high praise from the master, the high priest (16.8).

The conclusion that the sons of this world are more shrewd with their own kind/generation than are the sons of light is a call to become shrewd. It is simply a statement of fact which demonstrates the difference between sons of this world and sons of light. Sons of light are not shrewd like those of this world. Sons of light are faithful, righteous, serving God and not mammon (16.10-13).

The Pharisees knew full well the implications of Jesus’ teachings, which is why they become upset (16.14). Their rage compliments the understanding that the master and the steward denote temple authorities, and the storied activities denote the regular dealings in the temple.

Ethical Exhortations from the Parable (16.9-13)

If this reading of Jesus’ parable might be accepted, then the difficult questions surrounding the traditional interpretations begin to dissipate. For example, most interpreters assert that Jesus is admonishing his followers to become like the dishonest steward in 16.9. On the contrary, if we understand the players to be not God and his servants, but rather the temple establishment, then Jesus’ admonition is for his followers to not be like the steward. The steward knows his source of income is doomed to fail (vv.3-4). As a result, he compromises the debts owed so that he might keep his job. He tries to gain the favor of his debtors by reducing their debt in the hope of gaining their friendship so that when his means of income fails, they might receive him into their homes. In reality, instead of trusting in his friends and remaining honest, he becomes “shrewd” and “dishonest” in order to keep his position, his means of wealth. In that, he was successful. But Jesus has something else in mind for his followers. They are to remain honest and faithful in even little things (vv.10-11) and make friends by means of unrighteous mammon so that when (hotan) that means of income fails, they might be received into “eternal homes”. They are to make friends beforehand so that they need not resort to shrewdness and thus become dishonest and unfaithful, slaves of mammon and not of God (v.13).

Four points from 16.10-13 demonstrate that Jesus is not commending but condemning shrewdness:

1. In the syllogistic saying of verse 10, Jesus is saying that even the slightest episode of dishonesty proves the magnitude of the individual’s/individuals’ actual dishonesty. In other words, the dishonest steward is not worthy of continuing his regular duties. His little episode of dishonesty demonstrates the magnitude of his dishonest heart (16.10, 15). The master ought to have followed through with his threat to terminate the steward’s account. But, the fact that the master does not follow through with his threat demonstrates his own dishonesty as well. If Jesus is commending the “dishonest” steward’s shrewdness, then his claim in verse 10 loses force – for how can the key “dishonest” individual of Jesus’ own story contradict his moral conclusion to not be dishonest even in the little things?!

2. In verse 11, Jesus is saying that one’s eventual handling of “true riches” is directly proportionate to his handling of “unrighteous mammon”. In other words, the dishonest steward forfeits his right to “true riches” because of his dealings with “unrighteous mammon”. Again, if Jesus is commending the steward for his dealings, then his moral conclusion loses all force.

3. In verse 12, Jesus is saying that reception of “that which is your own” is directly proportionate to one’s handling of “that which is another’s”. In other words, the steward is in jeopardy of losing anything “of his own” because he has mishandled (“squandered”, v.1) another’s goods. There is nothing commendable in the steward’s dealings as regards the eventual gain of something better.

4. In verse 13, Jesus is saying that homage to two masters, God and mammon, will not work. In other words, the steward, who should have remained faithful and honest in his dealings, pays more homage to mammon that to God, and is not really concerned with his integrity and trusting in his friends to help him when mammon fails him. Simply put, because of the steward’s shrewd dishonesty, mammon did not fail him. His friends did not need to bail him out because he learned how to manipulate the situation through dishonesty, for which he forfeits any future “true” gain.

Understood in this way, Jesus can hardly be understood as commending the steward for his shrewdness. Actually, Jesus in 16.10-13 is demonstrating that the temple establishment is corrupt for worshiping mammon rather than God, that it is slave to the master of mammon.

Reaction and Further Comment (16.14-18)

The Pharisees, being lovers of money and recognizing the implications of Jesus’ teaching against the temple establishment, become enraged and scoff at him. Jesus unequivocally retorts: “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts; for what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (16.15). It is interesting that very little objective criteria has been offered as grounds for judging the Pharisees abominable. Simply denouncing them because they love money can be somewhat arbitrary, even slanderous. But Jesus immediately introduces the objective standard by which the Pharisees judge even themselves: the Law.

John the Baptist came preaching about the kingdom. His was not a message about the Law specifically. He warned of coming judgment and prepared the way for the Messiah. Jesus points that out, saying that until John’s coming the Law had been thoroughly preached. Since John and up to Jesus’ ministry, the kingdom and coming judgment had been stressed. Then Jesus brings the relevant contrast: “But [de] it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void” (16.17). He contrasts the message of the kingdom with the message of the Law, saying that even though in recent memory the Law had taken a back seat to the kingdom, the Law is still firmly binding. These Pharisees cannot escape the Law’s requirements. The coming of the kingdom does not eradicate the Law’s presence. Heaven and earth will first pass away before the Law ceases to be effective.

Jesus then gives on example, of which the Pharisees must have been guilty: divorce. This saying has been puzzling for many interpreters, seemingly random in its placement here, as though Luke remembered it and needed to fit it in somewhere. But, the above interpretation helps keep the chapter a cohesive unit. Notice the logic of thought through Jesus’ teaching and Luke’s writing:

1. The temple leaders are guilty of dishonesty and unfaithfulness (16.1-8).
2. Jesus gives moral exhortation based on his parable (16.9-13).
3. The Pharisees recognize Jesus’ denouncement of their sacred throng and scoff at him (16.14).
4. Jesus reacts by revealing their abominable deeds – deeds which men exalt (16.15).
5. Jesus continues by reminding of the ever-present, ever-effective Law (16.16-17).
6. The two abominable deeds mentioned are unrighteousness (or shrewdness, or unfaithfulness – all of which describe the same individuals 16.1-13) and divorce (16.18).
[7. Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (16.19ff.).

And so Luke 16.1-18 reads as a cohesive unit.

A Final Note Regarding Divorce

Interestingly the narrative in Ezra described above concludes with an issue of mass divorce. In Ezra’s day, the priests and Levites had married foreign women (Ezra 9.1-10.44), against the command of God (Leviticus 18.24-30). As a result, Ezra commanded all of those guilty to divorce their wives for the sake of purity (10.4; et al). Perhaps the Pharisees of Luke 16 were guilty of divorcing their wives in haste, or something along those lines. Perhaps they considered Ezra’s story to be adequate grounds for divorcing their wives, under the guise of purifying themselves when in reality the motives were corrupt. We are not told why these Pharisees may have been guilty of divorce. Jesus simply reminds them that the Law is not a forgotten standard, and that the prohibition of divorce specifically still stands. I find it fascinating that both Luke and Ezra end these pericopes with the issue of divorce.


[1]; and now the post immediately following:
[2] I believe Luke writes assuming that Theophilus will know exactly what he means by his referents, not only here but throughout his Gospel, and therefore does not employ the indicators which seem necessary for us moderns. If Theophilus was well-versed in temple culture, then employing language of that culture would suffice in getting Luke’s point across. I believe the “master” of 12.41-48, a text remarkably similar to our text in chapter 16, also refers to the high priest.
[3] Josephus mentions priests of Israel more contemporary of Jesus’ day who fulfilled duties of treasurer as well. [I will include references soon.]
4 There are variations of these measurements in the OT. The closest example apart from Ezra is 2 Chronicles 2.10, mentioning 20,000 baths of oil and 20,000 cors of wheat, and in connection with Solomon’s temple, which indicates that these were temple-related wares. 1 Kings 5.11, a parallel to 2 Chronicles 2.10, mentions 20,000 cors of wheat and a puzzling 20,000 cors of oil, though the Hebrew reads “twenty” cors.
[5] Another possible significance of Ezra, I wonder if the master’s requirement of his steward’s records and payments (Luke 16.1-3) is a violation of Artaxerxes’ decree: “It shall not be lawful to impose tribute, custom, or toll upon any one of the priests, the Levites, the singers, the doorkeepers, the temple servants, or other servants of this house of God” (Ezra 7.24). Of course, this is not to say that Araxerxes’ decree should have been kept even in first century Jerusalem. But the parallel between Luke 16 and Ezra’s tale is perhaps stronger than I’ve previously considered. (See also “A Final Note Regrading Divorce” below.)
[6] This would have been easily recognizable to Jesus’ initial audience, especially the Pharisees, as well as to Luke’s recipient, Theophilus.
[7] Interestingly, the term used here for “squandered” (diaskorpizwn) is the same as that of the prodigal in 15.13 (dieskorpisen).
[8] Luke 16.8 could be understood thus: “The sons of this world are more accepting of shrewdness with their own generation than are the sons of light.” If this be accepted, the mere statement of it is highlighted and a seeming call to become shrewd loses its force.
[9] Again, see; and now the post immediately following:

Copyrighted 2007

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