Westminster Theological Journal 51 (1989) 293-318.

        Copyright © 1989 by Westminster Theological Seminary, cited with permission.   

 

 

   A HISTORY OF RECENT INTERPRETATION

 OF THE PARABLE OF THE UNJUST STEWARD

                            (LUKE 16:1—13)

 

 

                                          DENNIS J. IRELAND

 

 

THERE is little question that the parable of the unjust steward in

Luke 16:1-13 is one of the most difficult of all Jesus' parables

to interpret.1 In this pericope a steward seems to be commended for

dishonest behavior and made an example for Jesus' disciples. As one

of the most influential interpreters of the parable has said, "Much as

commentators disagree as to the meaning of the parable of the Stew-

ard, all are agreed as to the embarrassment it has caused."2 It has

been called the crux interpretum among the parables,3 the "problem

child of parable exegesis [Schwerzenskind der Parabelexegese],"4 "the

prince among the difficult parables,"5 and "a notorious puzzle."6 Not

surprisingly, "the literature dealing with the parable of the unjust

 

1 In speaking of the parable by this title and as these verses I do not intend either

to prejudge the steward's actions in the parable or to beg the much-debated question

of the exact limits of the parable and its application(s). I have retained this title for

the parable—the unjust steward—both because of its familiarity through long use and

its basis in the text itself (v 8a: kai> e]p^<nesen o[ ku<rioj to>n oi]kono<mon th?j a]diki<aj).

I have connected the parable with Luke 16:1-13 because these verses are usually

discussed together, even if they are judged to have been pieced together from separate

sayings of Jesus.

2 J. D. M. Derrett, Law in the New Testament (London: Darton, Longman & Todd,

1970) 48.

3 A. Julicher, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu (Tubingen: Mohr, 1910) 2.495.

4 A. Rucker, "Uber das Gleichnis vom ungerechten Verwalter, Lc 16:1-13," BibS(F)

17 (1912) 1.

5 R. Stoll, "The Unjust Steward—A Problem in Interpretation," Ecclesiastical Review

105 (1941) 17.

6 R. G. Lunt, "Towards an Interpretation of the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke

xvi.1-18)," ExpTim 66 (1954-55) 335.

 

                                                 293
294          WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

steward is staggering."7 In attempting to survey that literature one is

quickly convinced that M. Kramer's description "the jungle of expla-

nations" is apt indeed.8 To continue his metaphor for a moment, one

can very easily become entangled and lost in the literature on this

parable.

            It is against this backdrop that I offer the following history of recent

interpretation of the parable of the unjust steward. Much has been

written on the parable since A. Rucker's history of interpretation in

1912,9 and it may be of assistance to late twentieth-century interpreters

to have this more recent work reviewed and catalogued in the context

of earlier work. The parameters I have chosen for the study (param-

eters largely dictated by practical reasons of sheer volume and ac-

cessibility of material) are the nineteenth and twentieth centuries

(hence "recent"). Rather than organize this literature chronologically

(which, though convenient, would be more confusing than helpful)

or according to categories such as Rucker used10 (which, among other

things, would raise the difficulty of defining allegory), I have chosen

to proceed in a way that seems simpler and more natural. Since the

crux of the parable is the praise of the steward (16:8a) for his actions

toward his master's debtors (16:5-7), I have organized my study on

the basis of how those actions have been interpreted. Two basic

interpretations of the steward's actions have been offered, each of

which can be further subdivided according to various emphases. The

following outline will orient the reader as to these interpretations and

the organization of this article. The proportions of the outline (e.g.,

 

7 L. J. Topel, "On the Injustice of the Unjust Steward: Luke 16:1-13," CBQ 37 (1975)

216. The volume of literature on the parable is illustrated in W. S. Kissinger's helpful

book on the parables, The Parables of Jesus: A History of Interpretation and Bibliography

(ATLA Bibliography Series 4; Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press and The American The-

ological Library Association, 1979) 398-408. Kissinger lists no less than 107 periodical

articles alone on this parable in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

8 M. Kramer, Das Ratsel der Parabel vom ungerechten Verwalter, Lk 16:1-13 (Zurich: PAS-

Verlag, 1972) 27.

9 Rucker's work ("Gleichnis") is a survey of the literature on the parable during the

period between his own time and M. J. C. Schreiter's history of interpretation from a

century earlier (Historico-critica explicationum Parabolae de improbo oeconomo descriptio, qua

varias variorus interpretum super Lucae 16,1-13 expositiones digestas, examinatas, suamque ex

Apocryphis Veteris Testamenti potissimum haustam exhibuit, [Lipsiae, 1803]).

10 Rucker's three categories are "Allegorical Interpretations Mostly of a Contem-

porary Kind," "Partial Elimination of Allegory Bound with Moralistic Interpretation,"

and "Newer Refusals of Allegory and Their Critique" ("Gleichnis," 6-26, 27-52, and

53-64, respectively).


            THE PARABLE OF THE UNJUST STEWARD              295

 

Part I is longer than Part II) should not be construed as a judgment

about the relative validity of a given interpretation.

 

I. Steward's Actions Fraudulent and Dishonest

            1. Traditional (or Monetary) Interpretation

            2. Non-Monetary Interpretations

                        (1) Eschatological

                        (2) Non-Eschatological

            3. Negative-Example Interpretation

                        (1) Based on Present Text

                                    (a) Non-Ironical

                                    (b) Ironical

                        (2) Based on Theories of Textual Confusion

II. Steward's Actions Just and Honest

            1. Charity or Similar Quality Stressed

            2. Socioeconomic Background Stressed

 

                  I. Steward's Actions Fraudulent or Dishonest

 

1. Traditional (or Monetary) Interpretation

 

            Until at least the middle of the twentieth century, the most common

(hence "traditional") interpretation of the parable of the unjust stew-

ard has been that which judges the steward's actions toward the debt-

ors fraudulent and dishonest, but nevertheless draws from those

actions a positive lesson about prudence or wisdom in the use of

material possessions.11 The emphasis on the use of possessions (hence

 

11 Of the 140 or so interpreters of the parable whom I surveyed, at least 50 understand

it in this way. Included among them are the following, listed alphabetically: W. F. Arndt

(The Gospel according to St. Luke [St. Louis: Concordia, 1956]), P. Bigo ("La richesse,

comme intendence, dans 1'Evangile. A propos de Luc 16:1–9," NRT 87 [1965] 265–

71), B. S. Easton (The Gospel according to St. Luke [Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1926]), L.

W. Friedel ("The Parable of the Unjust Steward, Luke 16:1–13," CBQ 3 [1941] 337–

48), N. Geldenhuys (Commentary on the Gospel of Luke [NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,

1951]), F. Godet (A Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke [5th ed.; 2 vols.; Edinburgh: T

& T. Clark, 1976]), W. Grundmann (Das Evangelium nach Lukas [THKNT 3; 2d rev. ed.;

Berlin: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1969]), B. A. Hooley and A. J. Mason ("Some

Thoughts on the Parable of the Unjust Steward [Luke 16:1–9]," AusBR 6 [1958] 47–

59), M. Kramer (Ratsel), M.J. Lagrange (Evangile selon Saint Luc [7th ed.; Paris: Gabalda,

1948]), T. W. Manson (The Sayings of Jesus [London: SCM, 1949]), P.-H. Menoud

("Riches injustes et biens veritables," RTP n.s. 31 [1943] 5–17), J. Pirot (Paraboles et

allegories evangeliques [Paris: Lethielleux, 1949]), A. Plummer (The Gospel according to S.


296          WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

"monetary")12 distinguishes this interpretation from others to be con-

sidered in Part I. So numerous are the interpreters who fall under

this category and so nuanced are many of their interpretations that

one must be content in an article such as this one with sketching the

general and more widely held lines of argument.

            In order to avoid the difficulty of the praise in Luke 16:8a, those

who interpret the parable along the lines just outlined draw a dis-

tinction between different aspects of the steward's actions toward the

debtors. The actions themselves are fraudulent, but the underlying

wisdom, prudence, or foresight exhibited in them is praiseworthy. A

number of interpreters have emphasized this distinction. R. C. Trench,

for example, contends that in telling the parable and praising the

steward Jesus "disengages" the steward's "dishonesty from his fore-

sight."13 Jesus' purpose in doing so, according to Trench, is to provoke

his people "to a like prudence; . . . a holy prudence, and a prudence

employed about things of far higher and more lasting importance."14

T. W. Manson also champions this distinction. In his opinion, since

ethical judgment on the steward's actions is passed in the epithet by

which the steward is described in v 8 ("the dishonest/unjust steward

[to>n oi]kono<mon th?j a]diki<aj]"), praise in that verse does not nec-

essarily constitute moral approval of the steward's plan or actions by

either his master or Jesus. It is the astuteness of the plan, not the

plan itself, that is praised. There is all the difference in the world,

insists Manson, between "I applaud the dishonest steward because

he acted cleverly" (which is the case in our parable) and "I applaud

the clever steward because he acted dishonestly." "Whether it is the

 

Luke [ICC; 5th ed.; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1922]), L. Ragg (St. Luke [Westminster

Commentaries; London: Methuen, 1922]), K. H. Rengstorf (Das Evangelium nach Lukas

[NTD 3; 6th ed.; Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1952]), A. Schlatter (Das Evan-

gelium des Lukas [2d ed.; Stuttgart: Calwer, 1960]), D. P. Seccombe (Possessions and the

Poor in Luke-Acts [SUNT, ser. B, vol. 6; Linz, Austria: A. Fuchs, 1983]), C. H. Talbert

(Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Third Gospel [New York: Cross-

road, 1982]), J. Wellhausen (Das Evangelium Lucae [Berlin: Reimer, 1904]), F. E. Williams

("Is Almsgiving the Point of the ‘Unjust Steward’?" JBL 83 [1964] 293-97), and T.

Zahn (Das Evangelium des Lucas [Leipzig: A. Deichert, 1913]).

12 This term is used for convenience' sake only and should not be construed as

limiting the application of the parable to money per se. Material possessions in a broad

sense are included.

13 R. C. Trench, Notes on the Parables of our Lord (14th ed., rev.; London: Macmillan,

1882) 442.

14 Ibid.


           THE PARABLE OF THE UNJUST STEWARD               297

 

employer or Jesus that speaks [in v 8], we must take the purport of

the speech to be: ‘This is a fraud; but it is a most ingenious fraud.

The steward is a rascal; but he is a wonderfully clever rascal.’"15 As

v 9 indicates, disciples can learn a lesson even from such a person.

Manson explains Jesus' counsel to his followers in that verse ("use

worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves" [NIV] as follows.

    If a bad man will take infinite trouble to get friends for his own selfish

    interests, the good man will surely take some trouble to make friends in a

    better way and for better ends. The point of this saying [v 9] is rather that

    by disposing of worldly wealth in the proper way, one will have treasure

    in heaven.16

 

Several interpreters, Manson among them, stress the pointedness of

this message for the Pharisees and/or the publicans, both groups of

whom Luke depicts as present when Jesus spoke the parable (cf. 15:1–

2; 16:14).17

            Like other synoptic parables, the parable of the unjust steward

teaches by analogy. "It is a story from ordinary life in the world,"

writes J. M. Creed, "which is shewn to have a counterpart in the

spiritual world."18  What makes this parable unusual (and troublesome)

is that it teaches spiritual truth by analogy to conduct that, for many

interpreters, is dishonest. F. Godet explains, with regard to this fea-

ture, that Jesus did not scruple to use the example of the wicked for

the purpose of stimulating his disciples. "And in fact," Godet con-

tinues, "in the midst of conduct morally blamable, the wicked often

display remarkable qualities of activity, prudence, and perseverance,

which may serve to humble and encourage believers. The parable of

the unjust steward is the masterpiece of this sort of teaching.”19  In

 

15 Manson, Sayings, 292.

16 Ibid., 292–93.

17 Manson (ibid., 291), Easton (Luke, 241), Godet (Luke 2.160), and Plummer (Luke,

380), for example, all call attention to the anti-Pharisaic character of the teaching in

=both Luke 15 and 16. M. Dods (The Parables of our Lord [Philadelphia: Westminster,

1`'04] 362–63), S. Goebel ("Die Gleichnisgruppe Luk. 15 u. 16, methodisch ausgelegt,"

1 K 48 [1875] 675–76; pp. 656–76 of this article = his book, The Parables of Jesus: A

Methodical Exposition [Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1883] 215–31), and E. R. Stier (The

Words of the Lord Jesus [8 vols.; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1880] 4.106), are among

those who argue our parable has special significance for converted or nearly converted

publicans, instructing them about their new duties as disciples.

18 Creed, Luke, 201.

19 Godet, Luke 2.160–61.


298          WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

the same vein, J. M. Creed groups our parable with those of the so-

called importunate friend (Luke 11:5–8) and the unjust judge (18:1-

8),20 and argues that "the characters [of our parable] no more serve

to immediate edification than the reluctant friend (xi.8) or the unjust

judge (xviii.2)." "The emphasis [in our parable] falls upon the stew-

ard's ‘prudence,’ and an analogous ‘prudence’ in another sphere is

enjoined upon the disciples."21

            Inherent in the analogy, of course, are differences and contrasts

between the steward and Jesus' disciples. As R. Stoll puts it, "The

only similarity between them is in the matter of prudence and fore-

sight, and even this is of a different nature and in a different order."22

Jesus' disciples can, however, learn from the steward, despite the

differences. As the dishonest steward responded decisively to the crisis

of his dismissal, so disciples are to respond decisively in the face of

their own analogous crisis. For some interpreters that crisis is the

brevity and uncertainty of life23 or the ever-present prospect of death;24

for others it is the eschatological crisis occasioned by the coming of

the kingdom of God in the person and ministry of Jesus.25 In either

case, when taken with the subsequent sayings (vv 9-13, especially v

9), the parable is understood as a commendation of prudence of a

specific kind, that is, prudence in the use of wealth.26 For the Christian

such prudence is to take the form of charity, in general, or almsgiving,

in particular;27 fellow Christians may be especially in view as the

 

20 Creed, Luke, lxix.

21 Ibid., 201.

22 Stoll, "Steward," 26.

23 C. F. Nosgen (Die Evangelien nach Matthaus, Markus und Lukas [Nordlingen: Beck,

1886] 368) is more explicit than most on this point when he speaks of life being as

uncertain as the steward's position. E. Riggenbach ("Zur Exegese und Textkritik zweier

Gleichnisse Jesu," in Aus Schrift und Geschichte [Stuttgart: Calwer, 1922] 24) speaks of

the disciples being in a situation similar to that of the steward of the parable. Earthly

goods are at their disposal for only a short time—i.e., during their earthly lives—after

which an accounting must be given.

24 E.g., B. K. Jensen ("Uber das Gleichnis vom ungerechten Haushalter," TSK 2

[1829] 705) and S. Goebel ("Gleichnisgruppe," 665, 669-670).

25 E.g., R. H. Hiers ("Friends By Unrighteous Mammon: The Eschatological Prole-

tariat [Luke 16:9]," JAAR 38 [1970] 32, 36), T. Hoyt, Jr. ("The Poor in Luke-Acts"

[Ph.D. dissertation, Duke University, 1974] 161), Kramer (Ratsel, 67-68, 238), and

Seccombe (Possessions, 172).

26 Creed, Luke, 201.

27 E.g., Arndt (Luke, 357), Bigo ("Richesse," 268), A. B. Bruce (The Parabolic Teaching

of Christ [London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1882] 359), Godet (Luke 2.163-66), Hiers


              THE PARABLE OF THE UNJUST STEWARD                299

 

intended recipients.28 A number of interpreters take pains to avoid

any hint of salvation by works in these verses, particularly in v 9 ("I

tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that

when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings" [NIV]),

stressing that the teaching here is that good works done by Christians

will be rewarded. At best, the role of the beneficiaries of charity is

limited to that of welcoming their benefactors into heaven and/or of

bearing witness to the genuineness of their benefactors' faith.29

 

2. Non-Monetary Interpretations

 

            While, as we have seen, many interpreters relate the message of

our parable to the use of material possessions, a number of others

disregard or deny this "monetary" note altogether. Sometimes an

eschatological emphasis is present in such interpretations, sometimes

it is not.

            (1) Eschatological non-monetary interpretation. The common denomi-

nator among quite a few interpreters is their stress on the eschato-

logical background and teaching of our parable without relating it to

the use of possessions per se. Instead of an exhortation for disciples

to use their possessions with eternity in view, the parable is viewed

in more general terms as a call for resolute action in the face of the

eschatological crisis caused by the coming (present, imminent, and/

 

"Friends," 33-36), Hoyt ("Poor," 160-61), L. T. Johnson (The Literary Function of

Possessions in Luke-Acts [Missoula, MT: Scholars, 1977] 157), D. F. Koster ("Analekten

zur Auslegung der Parabel vom ungerechten Haushalter, Luk. 16:1 ff.," TSK 38 [1865]

731), Kramer (in the second tradition-historical stage anyway; Ratsel, 134, 234), La-

grange (Luc, 434), F. J. Moore ("The Parable of the Unjust Steward," ATR 47 [1965]

103-5), P. Samain ("Le bon usage des richesses, en Luc XVI, 1–12," Revue Diocesaine

de Tournai 2/4 [1947] 334), Stoll ("Steward," 26), B. Weiss (Die Evangelien des Markus

and Lukas [MeyerK; 8th ed.; Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1892] 534), and

Williams ("Almsgiving," 293–97).

28 This point is suggested by, e.g., Godet (Luke 2.165–66), J. C. K. von Hofmann

(Die Heilige Schrift, vol. 8/1: Das Evangelium des Lukas [Nordlingen: Beck, 1878] 398,

400), Kramer (Ratsel, 234), and Zahn (Lucas, 576).

29 E.g., Arndt (Luke, 357), R. R. Caemmerer ("Investment for Eternity: A Study of

Luke 16:1–13," CTM 34 [1963] 71), Geldenhuys (Luke, 416), and Zahn (Lucas, 577).

lso cf. O. Hof, "Luthers Auslegung von Lukas 16:9," EvT 8 (1948–49) 151–66. Some

interpreters effectively deny any role for the beneficiaries in the reception by taking

he "friends" and/or the third person plural verb de<contai (lit., "they may receive")

v 9 as an indirect reference to God (e.g., Creed [Luke, 205], Grundmann [Lukas,

21], Manson [Sayings, 293], and Menoud ["Riches," 13]).


300         WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

or future) of the kingdom of God. While, as we will see, not a few of

these interpreters concede that as the text now stands (vv 1–13) the

parable is about the right use of money or possessions, this note is

effectively neutralized or expunged by separating vv 1–7/8 from vv

8/9–13. The latter verses are judged to be the interpretive additions

of tradition, Luke, and/or the early church. As such they were not

part of the original telling of the parable, and cannot, therefore, be

stressed in its interpretation.

            The eschatological non-monetary interpretation has some very

prominent advocates. Among them are A. Loisy, C. H. Dodd, J. Jer-

emias (with some qualification), and K. E. Bailey. A. Loisy argues that

the general meaning of the parable (which he restricts to vv 1-7) is

the use of the present to prepare for the future, to assure oneself a

part and place in the kingdom. The more specific application to the

charitable use of terrestrial goods in the following verses (vv 8-13)

is the work of the evangelist and perhaps subsequent redactors as

well.30 C. H. Dodd sounds the eschatological note in our parable even

more forcefully in his important book, The Parables of the Kingdom.

Dodd believes vv 1-7 constitute the parable and vv 8-13 "a whole

series of ‘morals’" appended by the evangelist. He says, in words

frequently quoted and endorsed by others, "We can almost see here

[in vv 8b, 9, and 11, which he has just quoted] notes for three separate

sermons on the parable as text."31 Dodd goes on to suggest that v

8a ("And o[ ku<rioj [= Jesus, not the master of the parable, according

to Dodd] praised the steward") was added by the reporter of the

parable, and was probably the application of the parable in the earliest

form of tradition. When taken with this application, the point of the

parable is to urge Jesus' hearers "to think strenuously and act boldly"

to meet their own momentous crisis much as the unscrupulous steward

did to meet his.32 For Jesus' hearers that crisis is precipitated by the

inbreaking of the long-expected kingdom of God in the ministry of

Jesus himself. "The eschaton has moved from the future to the present,"

Dodd writes, "from the sphere of expectation into that of realized

experience."33 "The ‘eschatological' Kingdom of God is proclaimed

 

30 A. Loisy, Les Evangiles sinoptiques (2 vols.; Ceffonds: Pres Montier-en-der, 1908)

2.161. Loisy's approach is endorsed by M. Hermaniuk, La parabole evangelique (Paris:

Desclee de Brouwer, 1947) 248-49.

31 C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (rev. ed.; New York: Scribner's, 1961) 17.

32 Ibid.

33 Ibid., 34.

 


           THE PARABLE OF THE UNJUST STEWARD             301

 

as a present fact, which men must recognize, whether by their actions

they accept or reject it."34

            The eschatological context and content of this parable, without

reference to the use of possessions, is also stressed by J. Jeremias,

albeit with less exclusive emphasis on realized eschatology than Dodd.

Jeremias's interpretation does, however, need to be qualified. While

Jeremias seems willing, on the one hand, to concede that in its present

Lucan context the parable is about the proper use of possessions,35

he insists, on the other hand, that the situation is far more complicated

than it appears. In his opinion, as the primitive church sought to apply

the parable to the Christian community it added vv 8b-13 and thereby

shifted the original emphasis of the parable from the eschatological

to the hortatory. What was originally addressed to the " ‘unconverted’,

the hesitant, the waverers, the crowd" as a summons to resolute action

in the eschatological crisis of the coming of the kingdom was thus

transformed into "a direction [to Christians] for the right use of

wealth, and a warning against unfaithfulness."36 Unlike many others

who also detect a shift in vv 8b-13, Jeremias does not, however, believe

this shift necessarily introduced a foreign element into our parable.

The exhortation was implicit in the original form, he reasons, and

the eschatological note has not been excised completely since the

eschatological situation of the primitive church itself lent weight to

its exhortations.37

 

34 Ibid., 29. Dodd's realized eschatology (see esp. pp. 33-34) also figures prominently

in A. M. Hunter's work on the parables. See esp. A. M. Hunter, "The New Look at

the Parables," in From Faith to Faith (ed. D. Y. Hadidian; Pittsburgh: Pickwick, 1979)

191-99, esp. 193, and his series of articles on "Interpreting the Parables" in Int 14

(1960) 70-84, 167-85, 315-32, 440-54. If some writers, such as Dodd and Hunter,

have emphasized (almost exclusively) the realized, present aspect of eschatology in

their interpretations of our parable, others seem to focus on the future aspect instead.

W. Michaelis, for example, explains the teaching of our parable (vv 1-8a, for him) in

these words: "The disciples ought to understand clearly their position in view of the

Last Day, and then with the same wisdom, the same consistency and resoluteness [as

the steward], ought to look after the securing of their future" (Die Gleichnisse Jesu

[Hamburg: Furche, 1956] 228, emphasis added). He also suggests that vv 9-13 may

have been added by Luke from various words of Jesus in order to give Christians of

his day instruction about how to use possessions and riches (pp. 228-29).

35 J. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus (2d rev. ed.; New York: Scribner's, 1972) 46-47.

36 Ibid., 47.

37 Ibid., 48. Other interpreters who, with varying degrees of confidence in the present

text, espouse the same position that a shift from the eschatological to the hortatory

has occurred in Luke 16:1-13, include the following: D. Velte ("Das eschatologische


302       WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

            K. E. Bailey also explains the parable in eschatological non-mon-

etary terms. Unlike the others thus far considered, he does so, how-

ever, on literary-cultural grounds. Bailey argues, on literary grounds,

that a clear separation can and should be made between vv 1–8 and

vv 9–13, the former verses (the parable) being an eschatological warn-

ing to sinners and the latter a poem on the theme of God and mam-

mon. Both sets of verses, he contends, should be read and interpreted

independently of the other.38 The thrust of Bailey's cultural argument

is that as the dishonest steward, in having the debtors reduce their

debts, risked "everything on the quality of mercy he has already

experienced from his master,"39 so disciples need the same kind of

wisdom in relying on God's mercy.40 The message for disciples is that

"if this dishonest steward solved his problems by relying on the mercy

of his master to solve his crisis, how much more will God help you

in your crisis when you trust his mercy."41 For disciples, the crisis is

eschatological in nature.42

 

Heute im Gleichnis vom ungerechten Haushalter," Monatschrift fur Pastoraltheologie 27

[1931] 213–14), H. Zimmermann ("Das Gleichnis vom ungerechten Verwalter: Lk 16:1–

9," BibLeb 2 [1961] 254–61), H.J. Degenhardt (Lukas—Evangelist der Armen [Stuttgart:

Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1965] 118–25), J. Dupont (Les Beatitudes [3.vols.; Paris: Gabalda,

1969–73] 3.118–22), W. E. Pilgrim (Good Jews to the Poor: Wealth and Poverty in Luke-

Acts [Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1981] 125–29), and R. H. Stein (An Introduction to the

Parables of Jesus [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1981] 106–11).

38 K. E. Bailey, Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes. A Literary-Cultural Approach

to the Parables in Luke (combined ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983) 86, 110–11, 118.

39 Ibid., 98. Mercy is present at the outset in the fact that the steward "is fired but

not jailed" (ibid.).

40 Ibid., 107.

41 Ibid., 105.

42 Ibid., 107. In similar fashion, M. Barth ("The Dishonest Steward and His Lord:

Reflections on Luke 16:1–13," in From Faith to Faith [ed. D. Y. Hadidian; Pittsburgh:

Pickwick, 1979] 65–73) believes that the real hero of the parable is not the steward

but the master who was generous to his cheating steward. The wise person, he con-

cludes, is one who puts everything on the good Lord and the riches of his grace and

is thus justified by faith (p. 72). Mention can also be made at this point of the inter-

pretations of J. D. Crossan and, with less certainty, D. O. Via, Jr. Both interpret our

parable in literary terms, and, with some qualification, both detect in it an eschatological

message. Neither writer stresses the monetary note. Crossan (In Parables: The Challenge

of the Historical Jesus [New York: Harper and Row, 1973]) describes the parable (vv 1–

7) as "a carefully formed mini-drama" with three scenes (p. 110), the point of which

is that "one must be ready and willing to respond in life and action to the eschatological

advent of God" (pp. 119–20). He qualifies his interpretation by saying that the escha-

tological advent is that for which readiness is impossible because it shatters our wisdom

(p. 120). Via's interpretation (The Parables: Their Literary and Existential Dimension [Phil-


             THE PARABLE OF THE UNJUST STEWARD               303

 

            (2) Non-eschatological non-monetary interpretation. A number of inter-

preters draw lessons from our parable which are unrelated to either

the themes of possessions or eschatological crisis. According to A.

Julicher, for example, the parable (which he limits to vv 1-7) is not

about the right use of riches (that comes in at v 9, which he regards

as secondary). Instead the point of the parable is the resolute utili-

zation of the present as prerequisite for a pleasant future.43 In a

somewhat more specific vein, A. Rucker concludes his history of inter-

pretation of the parable by arguing that Jesus is here recommending

to his followers wisdom and decisiveness in caring for the future. In

striving after heavenly goods they are to behave in a manner analogous

to that of the dishonest steward.44

            W. O. E. Oesterley goes in a somewhat different direction when he

argues that the keynote of Luke 16:1–13 is consistency.45 The steward

was wicked from beginning to end, but at least he was consistent with

his principles. "Consistency is a virtue; being exercised in a wrong

direction does not make it, per se, less a virtue."46 Christians, however,

are often inconsistent with their principles, and can, therefore, learn

a lesson from the dishonest steward at this point.47

 

adelphia: Fortress, 1967]) is more difficult to classify because of his particular literary

and existential approach, and I include him here with some reservations. He classifies

our parable as "a picaresque comedy" (p. 159), and explains that this form suggests

man can overcome the danger of a threatening future by responding appropriately to

the crisis. He admits that the crisis note in the parable points, albeit "subsidiarily," to

the same theme in Jesus' non-parabolic eschatological preaching, but then quickly

downplays the connection by stressing the aesthetic autonomy of parables in general

(pp. 161–62).

43 Julicher, Gleichnisreden, 2.511.

44 Rucker, "Gleichnis," 63. J. Schmid (Das Evangelium nach Lukas [RNT 3; 4th ed.;

Regensburg: F. Pustet, 1960] 256–59) offers a similar interpretation, arguing that the

point of the parable in vv 1–8 is wise provision for the future. Classifying Schmid's

interpretation is complicated, however, by the fact that he believes vv 9–13 are an

appendix about the right use of mammon added by Luke. The original meaning of

the parable has thus been shifted and specifically applied to the use of money. Schmid

does not stress the eschatological note in our parable, hence his inclusion here.

45 W. O. E. Oesterley, "The Parable of the ‘Unjust’ Steward," Expositor, ser. 6, 7

(1903) 283.

46 W. O. E. Oesterley, The Gospel Parables in the Light of the Jewish Background (New

York: MacMillan, 1936) 199.

47 Ibid. In his book on the parables Oesterley introduces the monetary note into his

interpretation of our parable. As in his earlier article, he still sees the primary purpose

of vv 1–13 as the inculcation of the need for consistency of life, but he adds that the

parable may contain subsidiary teaching about the danger of the love of money (p.


304          WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

3. Negative-Example Interpretation

 

            Despite the differences in the interpretations considered thus far,

there is at least one common denominator among them: they all draw

positive lessons from negative evaluations of the steward's actions. This

approach is not, however, the only possible one, even on the as-

sumption that the steward's actions toward the debtors are fraudulent

and dishonest. A number of interpreters argue that the actions of the

steward are a warning, a negative example, which graphically illus-

trates what Jesus' disciples are not to do or be. The vast majority of

interpreters who so explain the parable do so on the basis of the

present text. A few other interpreters postulate textual confusion as

the key to the explanation of the parable.

            (1) Interpretations based on the present text. Some of those who explain

the parable on the basis of the present text detect a note of irony in

the parable, some do not.

            (a) Non-ironical interpretation. The negative-example interpretation

of our parable, without irony, is forcefully articulated by J. F. Bahn-

maier. While himself rejecting the ironical interpretation of Luke

16:8b (more on that interpretation in the next subsection), Bahnmaier

admits that the exponents of that view and he share the presupposition

that the faithless steward is in no connection presented as an example

for Christians, not even with regard to his care for the future. Quite

to the contrary, he contends, the steward is only a "detestable example

[verabscheuungswurdiges Beispiel]" in whom there is nothing worthy

of imitation.48 Jesus' purpose in telling the parable is to exhort his

followers, in contrast to the steward, to seek again to make friends

 

202). I have included Oesterley at this point rather than under the traditional inter-

pretation above because the overall emphasis of both his article and book is on the

general quality of consistency while the monetary note is secondary, at best. Among

others who might be cited as representatives of a non-eschatological and non-monetary

interpretation of our parable are H. Firth ("The Unjust Steward," ExpTim 15 [1903-

4] 426-27), G. Murray ("The Unjust Steward," ExpTim 15 [1903-4] 307-10), G. A.

Buttrick (The Parables of Jesus [New York: Harper, 1928] 118-24), and R. G. Lunt

("Interpretation," 335-37, and "Expounding the Parables: III. The Parable of the

Unjust Steward [Luke 16:1-15]," ExpTim 77 [1965-66] 132-36).

48 J. F. Bahnmaier, "Der ungerechte Haushalter Luc. 16:111. von Jesus keineswegs

als Beispiel irgend einer Art von Klugheit aufgestellt," Studien derevangelischen Geistlichheit

Wirtembergs 1 (1827) 34. It is perhaps worthy of note at this point that J. Jeremias also

believes "the steward is not an example, but a dreadful warning—the parable being

understood by contraries" (Parables, 47). This interpretation is only true, however, if

the parable is interpreted with vv 10-12, verses which Jeremias regards as secondary.


            THE PARABLE OF THE UNJUST STEWARD              305

 

with heaven through the faithful use of goods once gained in unjust

ways.49

            W. Milligan's argument runs in a similar vein. Instead of looking

back to chap. 15, however, as Bahnmaier does, Milligan's concern is

with the relationship between the parables of Luke 16 and 17. He

concludes that the parables of both chapters treat the same subject

from different sides, that is, "the odiousness of unfaithfulness and

the value of faithfulness in the stewardship with which we have been

put in trust by God."50 The keynote of Luke 16:1-13 is unfaithfulness

against which Christians are being warned in the conduct of the stew-

ard. The opposite virtue, faithfulness, is inculcated in vv 10-12.51

            The work of H. Preisker may be cited as a third illustration of the

interpretation in question. Like many others whom I have already

mentioned, Preisker distinguishes sharply between the parable (in his

mind, vv 1-7) and secondary additions and interpretations (vv 8-13).

According to him, the parable describes man fallen under the power

of mammon.52 The steward is not converted, but remains completely

in the embrace of mammon. The parable is, therefore, a sharp warning

against the huge danger of riches.53

            (b) Ironical interpretation. In the course of the recent history of inter-

pretation several interpreters of our parable have argued that irony

is the key to its understanding. These interpreters agree that the

steward's actions are a negative example for Christians, but, unlike

those just cited above, they contend that Jesus conveys his warning

message by means of irony, especially in vv 8-9. The interpretations

of P. G. Bretscher and D. R. Fletcher illustrate this approach.

 

49 Ibid., 46.

50 W. Milligan, "A Group of Parables," Expositor, ser. 4, 6 (1892) 126.

51 Ibid., 114. A. Feuillet ("Les riches intendants du Christ," RSR 34 [1947] 30–54,

esp. 49-51, 53) can also be cited at this point as a representative of the view that the

steward's conduct is a negative example. He argues that the main point of the parable

is the teaching on stewardship in vv 9–13 which is set in contrast to the unfaithfulness

of the steward of the parable.

52 H. Preisker, "Lukas 16:1–7," TLZ 74 (1949) 88.

53 Ibid., 90. Mention can also be made at this point of the interpretations of A. T.

Cadoux (The Parables of Jesus: Their Art and Use [London: Clarke, 1930] 131–37) and A.

R. Eagar ("The Parable of the Unjust Steward," Expositor, ser. 5, 2 [1895] 457–70).

Both explain the parable as providing a negative example and both stress its contem-

porary-historical significance as a condemnation of Israel's religious leaders. Like the

steward of the parable who misused his trust, Eagar explains (ibid., 465), these leaders

by their traditions played fast and loose with God's law to preserve their temporal

prosperity.


306          WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

            The most thoroughgoing interpretation of the parable in terms of

irony is perhaps that of P. G. Bretscher. Whereas most others who

detect irony in the parable focus on v 9, Bretscher extends the note

of irony into v 8 as well. He puts his finger on the interpretive crux

of our parable when he observes that, on the analogy of faith, vv 8-

9 (where the steward is commended and the disciples are exhorted

to "use worldly wealth to gain friends" for themselves) are the op-

posite of what one would have expected Jesus to say. The way out of

this difficulty, he suggests, is to "read into the voice of Jesus as He

utters the words of verses 8 and 9 the overtones of deepest irony."

Thus understood, Jesus does in fact say the very opposite of what he

actually means.54 The meaning of the parable on this reading is best

conveyed by Bretscher's paraphrases of vv 8-9. He expresses the

sense of v 8a in these words.

    "You are surely clever!" he [Jesus] might say. "You have displayed real

    ingenuity, yes, the very highest wisdom this world knows—the wisdom of

    disguising your sin, pretending righteousness, shrugging off the anger of

    God, quieting a guilty conscience by gaining the approval of men, showing

    off a few good works to cover a heart full of evil.”

 

Verse 8b supplies Jesus' own commentary on such wisdom, again in

irony. Bretscher continues the paraphrase. "Yes, this is a wisdom and

cleverness the sons of light would not dream of.  It is a damning

cleverness, in fact, deceiving no one more than those who engage in

it. The sons of light are not so clever." Verse 9 provides the climax.

"Go ahead, then! Use all God's gifts to you for your own unholy and

ungodly purposes! Use them to make friends of the sinners of this

world! . . . . Let them be your judges, let them open the gates of

everlasting habitations to you!" The implied conclusion, Bretscher

argues, still paraphrasing Jesus, is, "You fool! They cannot do it! It

is before God that you stand or fall, the God you ignored and despised.

He will condemn you to the torments of hell."55 The lesson of the

parable, according to him, is "The Folly of Sinners Who, by Wisdom,

Avoid Repentance.”56

 

54 P. G. Bretscher, "The Parable of the Unjust Steward—A New Approach to Luke

16:1-9," CTM 22 (1951) 757.

55 Ibid., 759 (all the paraphrases are taken from this page).

56 Ibid. Bretscher admits that on a casual reading the parable does not sound like

irony. Since, however, irony is conveyed by modulation of the voice and is, therefore,

lost in written transmission, only the context can point to irony in its written form (p.

762). Bretscher argues that the context does so in the case of this parable (p. 760).


         THE PARABLE OF THE UNJUST STEWARD                  307

 

            Perhaps the most well-known and often-cited interpretation of our

parable in terms of irony is that of D. R. Fletcher. Fletcher is unper-

suaded by various attempts to vindicate the steward's actions,57 and

is also convinced that a "straight" reading of v 9 (which, according

to him, would teach self-interest) does not fit the general tenor of

Jesus' teaching about a radical distinction between his disciples and

the world.58 He contends instead that “irony is the key which .. .

unlocks the riddle of the Unjust Steward.”59 The clue to the presence

of irony is found, Fletcher believes, in the contrast in v 9 between

mammon which fails (tou? mamwna? th?j a]diki<aj) and the kingdom of

God (ta>j ai]wni<ouj skhna<j). He summarizes the force of the contrast

as follows.

    The irony of Jesus' play on the story of the parable [in v 9] is simply the

    utter irrelevance of the two concepts, mammon and its absorbing concerns

    over against the dwellings of God. "Make friends for yourselves," he seems

    to taunt; "imitate the example of the steward; use the unrighteous mammon;

    surround yourselves with the type of insincere, self-interested friendship it

    can buy; how far will this carry you when the end comes and you are finally

    dismissed?"60

 

Fletcher concludes that "the single theme" of the whole passage (vv

1–13) is "a demand for faithfulness and obedience, particularly in the

face of the corrosive influence of o[ mamwna?j th?j a]diki<aj ['unrigh-

teous mammon']."61

 

57 D. R. Fletcher, "The Riddle of the Unjust Steward: Is Irony the Key?" JBL 82

(1963) 23. Such attempts make up the second major heading of this article.

58 Ibid., 24-25.

59 Ibid., 27.

6o Ibid., 29.

61 Ibid., 29-30. Among other interpreters who have detected varying degrees of irony

in our parable are the following, listed in chronological order: J. C. Reimpell ("Das

Gleichnis vom ungerechten Haushalter, Luk 16," Zeitschrift fur kirchliche Wissenschaft und

kirchliche Leben 1 [1880] 509-15), G. Jager ("Noch einmal: Der ungerechte Haushalter,"

ibid. 2 [1881] 111–12), W. B. Ripon ("The Parable of the Unjust Steward," Expositor,

ser. 4, 7 [1893] 21–29), Eagar ("Parable," esp. pp. 465–66), J. F. McFayden ("The

Parable of the Unjust Steward," ExpTim 37 [1925–26] 535–39), F. Lenwood ("An

Alternative Interpretation of the Parable of the Unjust Steward," The Congregational

Quarterly 6 [1928] 366–73), A. King ("The Parable of the Unjust Steward," ExpTim 50

[1938–39] 474–76), R. Pautrel (" ‘Aeterna tabernacula’ [Luc, XVI, 9]," RSR 30 [1940]

307–27), H. Clavier ("L'ironie dans 1'enseignement de Jesus," NovT 1 [1956] 3-20,

esp. 4, 16), G. Paul ("The Unjust Steward and the Interpretation of Luke 16:9," Theology

61 [1958] 189–93), and G. Sellin ("Studien zu den grossen Gleichniserzahlungen des

Lukas-Sonderguts. Die anthropos-tis-Erzahlungen des LukasSonderguts—besonders am


308          WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

            (2) Interpretations based on theories of textual confusion. All the inter-

preters in the above subsection read the parable of the unjust steward

as a negative example, and do so on the basis of the text of Luke 16

as it now stands. A few others arrive at the same basic conclusion,

but do so by a very different route. Sensing the difficulty of the parable

and finding other approaches unacceptable for one reason or another,

these interpreters have theorized that the real meaning of the parable

has been obscured in the process of the text's translation and/or

transmission.

            H. F. B. Compston, R. B. Y. Scott, and J. C. Wansey, for example,

build their interpretations of the parable on the preposition e]k in

Luke 16:9 ("Make friends for yourselves e]k tou? mamwna? th?j

a]diki<aj"). Both Compston and Scott suggest (apparently indepen-

dently of each other) that behind this preposition stands the Aramaic

min, one of the meanings of which, they contend, is "away from," i.e.,

"without."62 Wansey comes to much the same conclusion, but does

so by reference to Greek rather than Aramaic. His suggestion is that

e]k be emended to e]kto<j [BAGD, "outside"] on the conjecture that

a scribe perhaps omitted the last three letters.63 In this case, the sense

of v 9 is the same as that put forward by Compston and Scott—"Make

friends without mammon." The point of the parable is that the dis-

ciples' means and methods must be entirely different than those of

the unjust steward.

            Another interpreter who explains our parable on the basis of textual

confusion is G. Schwarz. His focus is on v 8 where, he postulates, a

twofold translation error has occurred in the words e]p^<nesen

("praised") and froni<mwj ("wisely," "shrewdly"). He argues that "a

striking peculiarity" of the Aramaic equivalents for these words (brk

and ‘rym, respectively) is that both can be used in good and bad senses,

and then suggests that a translator has used the good senses in Greek

when Jesus really intended the bad in Aramaic. In short, what was

spoken by Jesus in Aramaic as condemnation of the steward has been

 

Beispiel von Lk 10,25-37 and 16,14-31 untersucht," [Ph.D. dissertation, Munster,

1974], esp. 293-98). Ripon, Eagar, Lenwood, and Pautrel stress that Jesus' irony is

directed especially against the Pharisees and religious leaders.

62 H. F. B. Compston, "Friendship without Mammon," Exp Tim 31 (1919-20) 282,

and R. B. Y. Scott, "The Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke xvi. 1ff)," ExpTim 49

(1937-38) 234-35.

63 J. C. Wansey, "The Parable of the Unjust Steward: An Interpretation," Exp Tim 47

(1935-36) 39-40.


             THE PARABLE OF THE UNJUST STEWARD            309

 

mistranslated into Greek as praise. The correct translation of what

Jesus originally said, according to Schwarz, is as follows: "And the

master [Herr] cursed the deceitful [betrugerischen] steward, because

he had acted deceitfully [hinterlistig]." Schwarz adds that the master's

judgment on the actions in question would have hit home with those

among Jesus' hearers who exercised the function of "stewards," i.e.,

the spiritual leaders of that time.64

 

                    II. Steward's Actions Just and Honest

 

            Despite the diversity among the interpreters considered thus far,

they at least agree that the steward's actions toward the debtors are

fraudulent and dishonest. The actions themselves are not exemplary,

and the lesson of the parable is to be found either in a quality exhibited

in the actions or in a total contrast to them. In Part II we meet

interpreters who view the steward's actions in a very different light.

These writers contend that the steward's actions themselves are just

and honest, and are, therefore, inherently commendable. As such

those actions serve as a direct, positive example for Jesus' disciples

and/or others, and no major distinction or contrast needs to be drawn

between the actions and the point of the parable. To express it in

other terms, these interpreters draw generally positive lessons from

what is judged to be positive conduct by the steward.

            The basic approach of most of those who so interpret the parable

is to justify the changes which the steward authorizes the debtors to

make in their IOUs. The steward is thus vindicated of wrongdoing in

those actions and the difficulty of the praise in v 8 is alleviated. The

commendation, whether by Jesus or the master, then becomes ap-

propriate, even deserved. This justification of the steward's actions

has been attempted in a variety of ways. I have grouped the attempts

according to their stress on charity or a similar ethical quality in the

steward's actions or their stress on the socioeconomic background of

the parable. Neither category, however, should be viewed as rigid or

mutually exclusive; they may overlap at times and in certain inter-

preters.

 

64 G. Schwarz, “‘. . . lobte den betrugerischen Verwalter'? (Lukas 16:8a)," BZ N.F.

18 (1974) 94-95.


310          WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

1. Charity or Similar Quality Stressed

 

            The earliest attempt to explain the parable by justifying the debt

reductions is apparently that of D. Schulz.65 Schulz argues that the

changes were made in the presence of the master and could not,

therefore, have been deceptive. Though a "son of this age" (v 8b),

the steward is praised for showing charity to the debtors. Jesus' de-

mand to his disciples is that they use their temporal goods in anal-

ogous ways so as to give proof of their love for others and thus gain

the friendship of God.66 A similar but slightly different lane of argu-

ment is taken by P. Brauns. He also believes the steward's actions

took place in the presence of the master and could not have been

deceptive, but then goes on to suggest that the steward, like Zacchaeus

(Luke 19), repaid his master the amounts that were reduced with his

own money. The steward thus made restitution to his master and was

charitable to the debtors at the same time.67 Therein lay his wisdom,

"a wisdom of repentance [eine Klugheit der meta<noia]."68

 

65 D. Schulz, Uber die Parabel vom Verwalter, Lk 16:1ff. Ein Versuch (Breslau: J. Max,

1821). The description of Schulz's interpretation as the earliest of its kind is taken

from Rucker, "Gleichnis," 33.

66 Ibid., 103-6. Others who, with various interpretive nuances, also describe the

steward's actions as charitable are F. Schleiermacher (Ueber die Schrften des Lukas [Teil

1; Berlin: Reimer, 1817] 202–4), F. F. Zyro ("Neuer Versuch uber das Gleichnis vom

klugen Verwalter, Luk 16," TSK 5 [1831] 788–92, 804), G. Wiesen (Die Stellung Jesu

zum irdischen Gut mit besonderer Rucksicht auf das Gleichnis vom ungerechten Haushalter [Gu-

tersloh: Bertelsmann, 1895] 72–73, 75), and J. Coutts ("Studies in Texts: The Unjust

Steward, Lk 16:1–8a," Theology 52 [1949] 54–60). With the exception of the latter,

each of these interpreters emphasizes the special pointedness of the parable for the

tax collectors and/or the Pharisees. H. Olshausen (Biblical Commentary on the New Tes-

tament [6 vols.; New York: Sheldon, 1862] 2.63–70) does not speak of charity per se,

but does explain the steward's actions positively in terms of v 13 as serving the true

Lord and despising the false (cf. v 13: "hate"/"love" [mish<sei/a]gaph<sei]).

67 P. Brauns, "Nun noch ein Auslegungsversuch von Lk 16:1–14," TSK 15 [1842]

1014–15. The same explanation of the steward's actions as restitution is given by J.

Grant ("The Unjust Steward," ExpTim 16 [1904–5] 240) and W. Arnott ("The Unjust

Steward in a New Light," ExpTim 24 [1913] 510).

68 Brauns, "Auslegungsversuch," 1017. Zyro ("Versuch," 802–4) and Coutts ("Stew-

ard," 57–58) also characterize the steward's actions as acts of repentance. Brauns's

argument that the steward's actions were carried out in the presence of the master

and therefore were not deceptive is endorsed by Holbe ("Versuch einer Erklarung der

Parabel vom ungerechten Haushalter, Lk 16:1ff.," TSK 32 [1858] 527–42), who adds

the suggestion, later offered and developed independently by others„ that the steward

reduced the debts by his own share and then handed over the documents. For this

generosity he was praised. Holbe regards the parable as a justification of the publicans


             THE PARABLE OF THE UNJUST STEWARD             311

 

            Another way in which the steward's actions have been vindicated

and the difficulty of the praise alleviated is by explaining those actions

in terms of forgiveness.69 On this reading, the point of the parable is

that as the steward forgave his master's debtors, so disciples are to

forgive others. Such acts are marks of the sincerity of one's own

commitment to God.

            E. Kamlah vindicates the steward's actions in yet a different manner.

He contends that "steward [oi]kono<moj]" had a well-known meta-

phorical meaning which would have indicated at once to Jesus' hearers

that the parable was about the Pharisaic teachers of the law. Kamlah

sees the steward's conduct toward the debtors, then, as an example

of and the standard for the appropriate conduct of these leaders. Like

the steward, the Pharisees should, among other things, lighten the

burdens on their subordinates and also humble themselves.70

 

2. Socioeconomic Background Stressed

            Perhaps the most common way to justify the steward's actions to-

ward the debtors is by appealing to the socioeconomic background

of the parable. Among the first to have done so is J. J. van Oosterzee.71

His suggestion is that prior to the time of the steward's dismissal he

had been extracting more from the debtors than he actually turned

 

many of whom, though unjustly slurred by the Pharisees, proved to be just and generous

as the steward had been in similar circumstances (pp. 534–41).

69 Among those who describe the steward's actions in this way are Jensen ("Haus-

halter," 707–9), F. G. Dutton ("The Unjust Steward," ExpTim 16 [1904–5] 44), Coutts

("Steward," 57–58), F. Maass ("Das Gleichnis vom ungerechten Haushalter, Lukas

16:1–8," Theologia Viatorum 8 [1962] 179), and Topel ("Steward," 224–25). The latter

two interpreters are difficult to classify because, on the one hand, they insist on the

"injustice" of the steward's actions while, on the other hand, they define that "injustice"

as having almost an ironical sense. Their basic argument is that the parable is a call

for forgiveness which, like the steward's actions, appears "unjust" according to human

standards, but according to God's standards is just.

70 E. Kamlah, "Die Parabel vom ungerechten Verwalter (Luk. 16:1ff.) im Rahmen

der Knechtsgleichnisse," in Abraham unsex Later (eds. O. Betz, M. Hengel, and P. Schmidt;

Leiden: Brill, 1963) 282–84, 287–88, 292-94. It is interesting to note in passing that

whereas Kamlah regards the steward's actions as a positive example of what the Phar-

isees should have done (i.e., reduce the ceremonial laws), others (e.g., Eagar ["Parable,"

465–66] and Lenwood ["Parable," 368]) see them as an indictment of what they were

doing (i.e., evading the spirit of the law by their traditions).

71 J. J. van Oosterzee, The Gospel according to Luke, vol. 8 in J. P. Lange's Contmentary

on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and Homiletical (12 vols.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan,

1960). The first edition of Oosterzee's commentary came out in 1859.


312               WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

over to his master, perhaps using the difference to support a wanton

lifestyle. The debt reductions, then, were not a falsification of the

records, but rather a rectification of past wrongs. The new amounts

on the bills and the amounts actually collected and passed on to the

master finally agreed. The steward thus abandoned his earlier dis-

honesty.72 According to Oosterzee, the parable had special relevance

for both the tax collectors and Pharisees, reminding the former of

their duty as disciples now to make restitution wherever possible,

while, at the same time, warning the latter of their status as stewards

for whom a day of reckoning was coming.73

            The essence of Oosterzee's approach to the parable is found in the

well-known and often-cited article of M. D. Gibson.74 Writing just

after the turn of this century, Gibson tentatively offers a suggestion

which, she claims, had not occurred "to any of our learned commen-

tators."75 Arguing on the basis of "Eastern customs" at the beginning

of the twentieth century, she believes that the steward of the parable

had been overcharging the tenants and pocketing the difference. So

typical, she asserts, is this practice in Oriental societies even in the

twentieth century that many listeners, upon hearing the parable of

the unjust steward, would understand the situation intuitively and no

explanation would be needed. "They would know that the steward,

in telling the cultivators to write less in their bills than he had originally

 

72 Ibid. 8.245-46. Essentially the same argument is advocated by C. E. van Koetsveld

(Die Gleichnisse des Evangeliums [trans. O. Kohlschmidt; Leipzig: F. Jansa, 1904] 233-39;

the first Dutch edition came out in 1886) and M. Eves (Die Gleichnisse jesu [4th ed.; ed.

H. Marx; Berlin: Reuther & Reichard, 1908] 82-89; cf. his earlier monograph on the

parable, Das Gleichnis vom ungerechten Verwalter [Krefeld: G. Hohns, 1901]).

73 Oosterzee, Luke, 245. Oosterzee's approach is explicitly endorsed and developed

by F. Nagelsbach ("Noch einmal das Gleichnis vom ungerechten Haushalter," Zeitschrift

fur kirchliche llissenschaft and kirchliche Leben 2 [1881] 481-86), who describes the re-

ductions as the excess rent the steward had been charging the tenants of his master's

estate. In the same vein, also cf. A. Wright ("The Parable of the Unjust Steward," The

Interpreter 7 [1911] 279-87) and L. Fonck (Die Parabeln des Herrn im Evangelium [4th ed.;

Innsbruch: F. Rauch, 1927] 680, 684, 687).

74  M. D. Gibson, "On the Parable of the Unjust Steward," ExpTim 14 (1902-3) 334.

Gibson is usually credited with having been the first to suggest what might be called

the socioeconomic vindication of the steward. She does, in fact, claim originality for

her interpretation.

75 She either has in mind only British commentators or she is unaware of the earlier

interpretations of Oosterzee, Koetsveld, and Evers.


            THE PARABLE OF THE UNJUST STEWARD             313

 

demanded from them, was simply renouncing his own exorbitant

profits, without in any way defrauding his master."76

            Gibson's "almost casual suggestion"77 has been endorsed, devel-

oped, and modified by many interpreters in this century.78  P. Gachter

has played an important part in disseminating and elaborating Gib-

son's interpretation. Having concluded that other interpretations of

the parable are unable to explain satisfactorily how Jesus can have

made "villainy an example for his followers,"79 Gachter argues for

the essential correctness of Gibson's thesis. He does so, however, in

more socioeconomic detail. The rich man of the parable, Gachter

explains, was a large landowner who lived in a city, perhaps Damascus

or Beirut. As an absentee landlord he had to engage the services of

a steward to manage the estate for him. The steward was not paid by

the owner for his efforts, but instead held the estate under lease.

According to the terms of the lease, the steward had to give a definite

sum to his master yearly which he in turn collected from sub-lessees

or tenants of the estate. In keeping with the usual practice, however,

the steward required these people to pay him much more for their

manorial rights than he needed to meet the terms of his own lease

with the rich man. The excess was the steward's personal income.

When the IOUs were reduced, therefore, the steward actually gave

 

76 Gibson, "Steward," 334.

77 This evaluation is K. E. Bailey's (Poet, 88), who, incidentally, is very critical of

Gibson and others on the very same cultural grounds they use to argue their case (see

pp. 88-91).

78 Although not everyone who so interprets the parable is dependent on Gibson, and

despite differences in interpretive detail and nuance, the same basic interpretation that

the steward "subtracts his `cut' from the bills" (Bailey, Poet, 88) is found in the following

writers: W. D. Miller ("The Unjust Steward," ExpTim 15 [1903-4] 332-34), E. Hamp-

den-Cook ("The Unjust Steward," ExpTim 16 [1904-5] 44), P. Gachter ("The Parable

of the Dishonest Steward after Oriental Conceptions," CBQ 12 [1950] 121-31, and

"Die Parabel vom ungerechten Verwalter [Lk 16:1-8]," Orientierung 27 [1963] 149-

50), J. A. Findlay (Jesus and His Parables [London: Epworth, 1950] 82), C. B. Firth ("The

Parable of the Unrighteous Steward [Luke xvi.1-9]," ExpTim 63 [1951-52] 93-95), G.

Gander ("Le procede de 1'econome infidele, decrit Luc 16:5-7, est-il reprehensible ou

louable?" VCaro 7 [1953] 128-41), J. D. M. Derrett ("Fresh Light on St Luke XVI: I.

The Parable of the Unjust Steward," NTS 7 [1960-61] 198-219; = Law, 48-77), and

J. A. Fitzmyer ("The Story of the Dishonest Manager," TS 25 [1964] 23-42, esp. 34-

36, and The Gospel according to Luke [X-XXIV] [AB 28a; Garden City, NY: Doubleday,

985] 1097-98).

79 Gachter, "Conceptions," 121.


314          WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

up his own income, and was not cheating his master or the tenants."

Gachter concludes that in the application of the parable (vv 8b-9)

"Jesus brings home to his disciples how they should detach themselves

from riches, apply it to their brethren in need, and, thus secure for

themselves an eternal reward."81

            The major contribution to the socioeconomic vindication of the

steward's actions is made by J. D. M. Derrett. The importance and

seminal nature of Derrett's work lies in his attempt to explain our

parable in first-century Jewish terms. Unlike others before him who

were content to explain the parable by means of cultural parallels

that were either non-Jewish (e.g., Hampden-Cook and Gachter both

argue on the basis of Indian parallels), from the twentieth century,

or both (e.g., Gibson), Derrett takes pains to base his interpretation

on Jewish law and practice at the time the parable was first spoken

by Jesus. The keys to the parable, he believes, are to be found in the

Jewish laws of agency and usury.82 He suggests that the steward, acting

for his master as "an agent of the most comprehensive authority,"83

had been lending money at interest to fellow Jews and had concealed

it in the bills by means of Pharisaic casuistry.84 It may have been

precisely this interest (plus insurance) that was deducted from the

debtors' bills.85 If so, the steward thus "was acting righteously, and

making amends."86 "On dismissal his duty towards his master faded

before the practical necessity to recognize his duty towards God. He

decided to obey the creator instead of his creature."87 Derrett also

suggests that by remitting the usurious part of the debt the steward

was in effect giving up his own money. "Any release of rabbinical

usury would, therefore, be a payment out of the steward's own

pocket."88 Derrett goes on to argue that the steward's act as an agent

 

80 "Parabel," 150. Mention should be made here of J. Steele's almost passing remark

to the same effect ("The Unjust Steward," ExpTim 39 [1927–28] 236). He suggests

that the steward gave up his own legitimate profits which had been figured into the

amounts due on the bills.

81 Gachter, "Conceptions," 131. Gachter is followed in his interpretation by, among

others, J. Volckaert ("The Parable of the Clever Steward," Clergy Monthly 17 [1953]

332–41) and E. H. Kiehl ("The Parable of the Unjust Manager in the Light of Con-

temporary Economic Life" [Th.D. dissertation, Concordia Seminary, 1959]).

82 Derrett, "Steward," 200.

83 Ibid., 204. See pp. 201–4 for his discussion of agency.

84 Ibid., 204–9, 214.

85 Ibid., 209, 214-15.

86 Ibid., 209.

87 Ibid., 215.

88 Ibid., 209.


            THE PARABLE OF THE UNJUST STEWARD            315

 

for his master would have been regarded by the debtors as an act of

the master himself.89 The master, in order to preserve this undeserved

reputation as a pious man, not only praised the steward, but adopted

and ratified his actions.90 The point of the parable for the disciples,

according to Derrett, is that charity to the poor is proper stewardship

of God's wealth.91

 

                                         Conclusion

 

            As the foregoing survey makes clear, the strong statements at the

outset about the difficulty of the parable of the unjust steward are

well-founded indeed. Many interpretations of the parable have been

offered (and not all have been listed); some are mutually exclusive,

some complementary. While it is not the purpose of this article to

critique each interpretation outlined above or to argue in detail for

a particular interpretation, let me conclude by indicating several lines

of evidence in Luke-Acts that I believe support the traditional (mon-

etary) interpretation of the parable with an eschatological emphasis.92

In so doing my hope is to provide stimulus to further discussion of

this enigmatic but important parable.

            As most interpreters will admit, the parable of the unjust steward,

at least on the redactional level, is about possessions. The following items

in Luke 16:1-13 and its immediate context are significant in this

regard. The word mamwna?j, "mammon" (= material possessions of

all kinds), occurs in vv 9, 11, 13; Luke comments that the Pharisees

 

89 Ibid., 210.

90 Ibid., 216—17.

91 Law, 74. Among those who have explicitly endorsed Derrett's approach are the

following: H. Zimmermann ("Verwalter," 257-58), Fitzmyer ("Manager," 34-36, and

Luke 2.1097-98), A. C. Thiselton ("The Parables as Language-Event: Some Comments

on Fuchs's Hermeneutics in the Light of Linguistic Philosophy," SJT 23 [1970] 459—

60), L. Morris (The Gospel according to St. Luke [Tyndale NT Commentaries; Grand Rapids:

Eerdmans, 1974] 245-46), E. E. Ellis (The Gospel of Luke [NCB; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans

and London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1974] 199), I. H. Marshall (The Gospel of

Luke [NIGTC; Exeter: Paternoster, 1978] 614-16), and S. J. Kistemaker (The Parables

of Jesus [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980] 228-31). M. D. Goulder ("The Chiastic Structure

of the Lucan Journey," in SE 2 [1964] 198) puts forward the same conclusion that the

steward remitted his own usurious profits, but does so without reference to Derrett.

92 For a detailed argument of this position, see my Ph.D. dissertation, "Stewardship

and the Kingdom of God: An Exegetical and Contextual Study of the Parable of the

Unjust Steward in Luke 16:1-13," Westminster Theological Seminary, 1989. The pres-

ent article is an abridgement of chapter one of my dissertation.


316          WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

were "lovers of money [fila<rguroi]" (v 14); and the parable of the

rich man and Lazarus in vv 19–31 seems calculated to illustrate the

dire consequences of serving mammon. The latter parable also implies

that the positive course of action exhorted in v 9 includes care for

the poor. It seems clear, therefore, that Luke understood 16:1–13 as

treating the use of possessions, and this fact must control our exegesis

of the present text. If a good case can be made for the unity of vv

1–9 (cf., e.g., the striking verbal parallels between vv 4 and 9), the

monetary interpretation of Luke 16:1–13 is further strengthened.

            This interpretation is corroborated and clarified by the well-known

emphasis on riches and poverty in Luke-Acts. Concerned to instruct

the rich as well as to comfort the poor, Luke warns the former about

the dangers riches pose for wholehearted discipleship (e.g., 6:24–26;

12:13–21; 16:19–31; 18:18–30) in order to exhort them to the proper

use of their possessions. Such use involves charity to the poor (18:22

and 19:8) and almsgiving in particular (11:41; 12:33; Acts 3:2, 3, 10;

9:36; 10:24, 31; 24:17). Given the prominence of the theme of riches

and poverty in Luke-Acts and Luke's avowed purpose to confirm

Theophilus's faith (Luke 1:1–4), there apparently was some question

or confusion in Theophilus's mind on the matter of stewardship. Luke

makes it clear, especially in the central section of his gospel (9:51-

19:44), that faithful stewardship is an integral part of true discipleship

(cf., e.g., 14:25-35, esp. v 33 where the point is made negatively).

Luke 16:1–13 makes just this point (positively) and is summed up

well by E. E. Ellis, who entitles the pericope "Faithfulness: The Badge

of Acceptable Discipleship."' The discipleship-stewardship called for

in this parable and the gospel as a whole is illustrated in the life of

the early church in Acts (e.g., 2:42–45 and 4:32-37).

            Several arguments can be advanced in favor of understanding the

steward's actions toward the debtors as dishonest and fraudulent.

First, the description of the steward as o[ oi]kono<moj th?j a]diki<aj in

v 8a ("the dishonest manager," NIV; "the unrighteous steward,"

NASB) likely characterizes him in terms of the actions narrated in vv

5–7 (where the IOUs are changed) rather than in terms of the charge

at the outset of the parable (that he was "wasting [w[j diaskorpi<zwn]”

his master's possessions, v 1). If so, the epithet in v 8a is Jesus' passing

indictment of the steward's actions and also provides a hint for dis-

tinguishing between the actions themselves and the commendable

 

93 Ellis, Luke, 198.


            THE PARABLE OF THE UNJUST STEWARD                 317

 

quality exhibited in them. Second, any element of surprise or atten-

tion-grabbing value the praise in v 8a may be intended to have in this

parable is lost if the steward's actions are honest. If his actions are

honest the praise (whether by the master or Jesus) comes as no sur-

prise at all. We would have been surprised, in fact, if he were not

commended! Third, it is highly unlikely that Luke's (predominantly)

Gentile readers would have had all the background knowledge nec-

essary to understand the steward's actions as honest. This difficulty

for the attempt to vindicate the steward is conceded even by some of

those who advocate doing so.94 Unless Luke himself has missed the

point, it is reasonable to assume the parable contains the necessary

information for the reader to understand it. Fourth, the attempt to

vindicate the steward is open to question on cultural grounds them-

selves. K. E. Bailey, for example, contends that any "extras" the

steward may have received would have been "under the table" and

"off the record" and would not have been included in the accounts.95

The debt reductions authorized in vv 5–7 were, therefore, dishonest

and would have meant economic loss for the master.

            The underlying eschatological context of the parable of the unjust

steward is confirmed in a number of ways. An eschatological note

permeates Luke 16:1–13 and the immediate literary context. It is

present, for example, in the image of eschatological judgment in the

accounting the steward is called to give (v 2), in the contrast between

the sons of this age and the sons of light (v 8b), and in the enigmatic

saying about the kingdom of God in v 16. The same note is also

present in other passages on the theme of possessions in the central

section of Luke's Gospel (e.g., 12:31, 33, 35-48, and 18:18-30). The

prominence of eschatology in such contexts implies an integral re-

lationship between eschatology and stewardship and is of a piece with

Luke's emphasis, shared by the other synoptic writers as well, that

the kingdom of God is the central topic of Jesus' preaching, including

his parables. Both the future and present aspects of the kingdom have

an important bearing on the faithful stewardship called for in Luke

16:1–13. The future aspect provides hope and incentive by holding

out both the prospect of reward for faithfulness (v 9—be received

into eternal dwellings; v 11—be given true riches; v 12—property of

one's own) and of judgment for unfaithfulness (vv 11–12; 19–31).

 

94 E.g., Derrett, "Steward," 200, and Marshall, Luke, 615.

95 Bailey, Poet, 89-90.

 


318        WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

The present aspect supplies the dynamic for obedience. By acts of

charity like those exhorted in this parable and illustrated in the life

of the early church in Acts Christians give evidence of their citizenship

and actualize the values and conditions of the kingdom in anticipation

of its final coming. Among those kingdom conditions is the end of

physical deprivation and suffering.

            In view of the foregoing considerations it is my contention that the

best interpretation of the parable of the unjust steward is the tradi-

tional one, difficulties notwithstanding. Luke 16:1-13 is, to use D. P.

Seccombe's words, "a fundamental evaluation of possessions in the

light of the Kingdom which will lead the wise disciple to use his

possessions in the service of the needy."96 Such a message is surely

as relevant in our own day as it was in Luke's.

 

 

96 Seccombe, Possessions, 172.

 

 

 

1181 Valley Road

Warminster, Pennsylvania 18974

 

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:   

            Westminster Theological Seminary

            2960 W. Church Rd.

            Glenside, PA   19038

www.wts.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu