Criswell Theological Review 6.2 (1993) 255-68

               Copyright © 1993 by The Criswell CollegeCited with permission.    




                     THE PARABLE OF THE

                  PRUDENT STEWARD AND

                      ITS LUCAN CONTEXT




                                         DAVID A. DE SILVA

                                            Emory University

                                                Atlanta, GA



The Parable of the Prudent Steward (Luke 16:1-8), or the "Unjust

Steward" as it is commonly known, presents several problems to the

reader which scholars have multiplied into incalculable difficulties.

One remarks that "more than any other parable it can be expected to

keep its mystery for future generations of exegetes, for it bristles with

difficulties."1 The difficulty has caused exegetes as early as Cyril of

Alexandria to argue the inappropriateness of finding some meaning in

every detail as this would obscure the point of the parable,2 and still

causes some exegetes to turn to the very allegorizations which Cyril

hoped to avoid. Perhaps one of the most helpful of recent methodolo-

gies for studying a parable such as the "Unjust Steward" is one which

remembers the nature of a parable as an aural/oral experience which

aims at evoking a response or realization in the hearer or reader.

            It is the aim of this study, after establishing the boundaries of the

parable itself, to analyze first what the parable by itself achieves in

its hearers/readers, namely the setting up (for imitation) of a picture

of one who prudently responds to the present, though unexpected, es-

chatological moment of decision. Then, more briefly, we will examine

how the tradition preserves for the hearer/reader a concrete plan for

meeting the demands of the eschatological moment and thus for gain-

ing the commendation and welcome of the Master. The hermeneuti-

cal move, as it were, centers on the expedient use of material wealth,


            1 J. Topel, “On the Injustice of the Unjust Steward,” CBQ 37 (1975) 216.

            2 Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Luke (USA: Studion, 1983) 439.




and moves from the steward's context of remitting debts to the con-

text of using wealth to benefit the disenfranchised members of the

community and society.


                                    Boundaries of the Parable


            Scholars continue to advance arguments concerning where ex-

actly the parable ends. The beginning of the parable at anthropos tis

("a certain person"), a very common incipit (14:16, 15:11, 16:19, 19:12), is

not debated. The ending is variously placed at 16:7; 8a, 8b, and even 9.

Crossan advocates the early ending based on his study of the parable

against the background of a certain trickster-dupe genre of story.3 The

trickster has played his trick on the master by the end of 16:7 and

presents a picture (for the moral) of "laziness organizing itself under

crisis."4 Scott rightly counters that Crossan has neglected the fact that

the primary plot, which initiates an accounting story as a frame for

the trickster plot, is left open-ended until v 8a.5 The hearers, he ar-

gues following reader-response concerns, are led from the beginning

to anticipate the master's response to all that the steward has done.

This makes perfect sense as it is the rich man who initiates the action

and creates the crisis in the first place. Crossan's scheme is missing its

last scene, the return to the steward/master relationship for closure.

            Those who object to ending the parable at 8a, whether they

choose like Crossan to look for the end in v 7 or like earlier or more

conservative writers to look in v 8b, object on the basis of finding it

inconceivable that the master of the parable, having suffered such a

loss at his hands, would commend the steward.6 The popular alterna-

tive is to suggest that ho kyrios ("the master") refers to Jesus, who

breaks into the story itself and commends the steward.7 The support-

ers of this alternative look to 18:6 as a parallel case where Jesus

breaks in, but here it is followed by a direct quotation referring back

to the judge. As Blomberg among others points out, however, there is

no such sense of a break in 16:8a,8 but only in v 9 does a clear break

occur. Those who support this position often further defend the im-

possibility that any immoral act be commended in Scripture by point-

ing out that Jesus went on to say 8b as the final word of the parable

to prevent possible misunderstanding.”9


            3 J. D. Crossan, In Parables (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1973) 109-10.

            4 Ibid.

            5 B. B. Scott, Hear Then the Parable (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989) 260.

            6 Crossan, In Parables, 109.

            7 J. Jeremias, Rediscovering the Parables (New York: Scribner, 1966) 34.

            8 C. Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables (Downers Grove: IVP, 1990) 246.

            9 A Plummer, Saint Luke (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1901) 384-85.


David A. de Silva: THE PARABLE OF THE STEWARD   257


            It seems likely, however, that those who end the parable in 8a

have the strongest arguments on their side. It is appropriate for the

end of a parable concerned with depicting the kingdom to have a sort

of "Twilight Zone" ending. One recalls the action of the landlord in

the "Laborers in the Vineyard" story, or the father in the "Prodigal

Son," the host of the "Great Supper," the Samaritan who provides the

example of a neighbor, and so forth. It is the stumbling block of such

characters or actions in a parable which is needed to make the hearer

look beyond the story for its meaning. The unembarrassed affront to

the norms which everything is expected to follow allows for the hear-

ers' discovery of a new set of norms which violate the old ones but

lead to the Kingdom. From the point of view of literary closure, then,

one expects the second scene of interaction between master and stew-

ard and the commendation of the steward by the duped master to

strike us as strange, but appropriate for a parable's ending.


                                    The Summons to Reckoning:

            Questioning Traditional Assumptions about the Characters


            Having set the boundaries of the parable at anthropos tis and

phronimos epoiesen ("he had done prudently"), we proceed to a closer

exposition of the parable itself. The first character introduced is "a

certain rich man who had a steward." He is the center of attention in

vv 1-2. It has been suggested that plousios ("rich") is redundant here

(having a steward is enough to define the man as well-to-do) and pos-

sibly is Luke's own addition to the parable to fit it closer into the

theme of rich and poor in his gospel. If this is true, then it holds

equally true for the parable of "The Rich Man and Lazarus" of 16:19

and the "Rich Fool" of 12:16. It is true that Luke develops the theme

of rich and poor and the proper relationship one should have with re-

spect to riches, but this concern must no doubt be located originally in

Jesus' teaching (which Luke transmits).

            Scott points out that, for the Palestinian hearer, identifying a char-

acter as plousios, “rich,” might lead to a negative valuation.10 The rich

were stereotypically despots, treating their poorer dependents with an

arbitrariness consummate with their power. A lexical study of Luke's

gospel affirms this hypothesis. Plousios occurs in 6:24; 12:16; 14:12;

16:19, 21, 22; 18:23, 25; 19:2; and 21:1. All those depicted as rich in the

text are in one form or another excluded from the redeemed commu-

nity or disapproved, with the single exception of Zaccheus, whose sal-

vation comes when he ceases to be notably plousios, giving away (or

giving back) more than half his possessions. This should serve as a


            10 B. B. Scott, “A Master's Praise,” Bib 64:2 (1983) 179.




strong warning to those who would move too quickly to identifying the

rich man with God or Jesus, suggesting already that the place to look

for meaning or impact is not in a simple substitution of the "familiar

allegorical referents for master, servant, and debtors."11

            The steward comes on the scene already in a position of disad-

vantage. He is "denounced hostilely," dieblethe, to the rich man by

some unnamed accusers. The verb is a hapax here in the gospels, but

is linguistically related to diabolos, the "accuser," or more often "false

accuser," as in 2 Tim 3:3,3:11, or Titus 2:3. With the noun having such

overtones, one might well ask whether or not the verb diaballein has

more to do with slander than faithful testimony. Fitzmyer, along with

others, reasons from the absence of an attempt to defend himself

on the part of the steward that the accusations were correct.12 Scott

notes, however, that the effect of the swift move from accusation to

dismissal is the impression that the steward was not given nor would

be given a chance to answer his accusers.13 Pressing a point based on

the absence of evidence is often not a sound methodology and would

lead to some embarrassment if applied in the same manner to Jesus'

trial, where he, too, does not defend himself.

            Also against the quick assumption that the accusations are reli-

able is the use of oikonomos ("steward") generally in the NT.  The say-

ing concerning the "prudent and faithful steward" in Luke 12:42

points the follower of Jesus to see in the steward a positive example

of how awareness of the kingdom is to affect his or her own life. The

ecclesiastical appropriation of the figure of steward in 1 Cor 4: 1-2,

Titus 1:7 and 1 Pet 4:10 suggests further that the image of steward

("of the grace of God," etc.) was used generally as a positive example

in exhortation or for describing faithful functionaries of the gospel. It

is undoubtedly the strength of the exegetical decision which reads

oikonomos tes adikias as "dishonest steward" which influences those

readers who so quickly believe the slanderous accusations about the

action of the steward. Van Daalen and Blomberg, for example, take

this for granted with no explanation.14

            Finally, the nature of the "crime" itself contains nothing criminal.

The steward is accused of diaskorpizen ta hyparchonta autou, of

"wasting his substance," understanding the loss to be the master's di-

rectly, not the steward's. This is the same verb as appears in the story


            11 Blomberg, Interpreting the Panzbles, 245.

            12 J. A Fitzmyer, Gospel According to Luke, X-.XXIV (New York: Anchor, 1964)


            13 Scott, “A Master's Praise,” 182.

            14 D. van Daalen, The Kingdom of Heaven is Like This (London: Epworth, 1976)

52; Blomberg, 244.


David A de Silva: THE PARABLE OF THE STEWARD    259


of the prodigal son, who wastes ten ousian autou, "his substance"

again. He is unprofitable, even negligent, but not dishonest. If any-

thing, it shows the steward's innate inability to serve the interests of

the rich man, which as we have seen are not necessarily untainted in-

terests. Indeed, the questions of how he might have used ta hypar-

chonta ("the property") better or why the way he did at last use ta

hyparchonta in vv 5-7 received commendation (this might have been

supposed to be the object of commendation, and not the dynamic pru-

dence itself) might have led to the moral reflections on this parable

generated in v 9 especially.

            The command of the rich man completes the opening picture

and defines the nature of the story which we are hearing. Apodos ton

logon, "give the account," coupled with the earlier phonesas, "sum-

moning," creates the atmosphere of an accounting or judgment story.

The same word is used in the parable of the talents (19:15) when the

servants are to give an account for how they managed the funds in

the nobleman's absence. The phrase apodidomi ton logon is used par-

ticularly with respect to an ultimate judgment in Rom 14:12, Matt

12:36, 18:23 (The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant), Heb 13:17, and

1 Pet 4:5. The use of apodos in Luke 12:59 and Acts 19:40 also refers

to matters of legality.


                        Economic Accounting and Eschatological Judgment


            Verses 1 and 2 draw up the picture, then, of an accounting, and

the use of such language in the NT tends toward eschatological judg-

ment. The audience may well have been conditioned by life experi-

ence to expect antagonism from the rich and therefore would have

reserved their allegiance for the character in the one-down position,

which would have been closer to their situation anyway. The particu-

lar appellation of this servant as oikonomos may have given added

impetus to identifying with him and looking for some sort of positive

moral example in his actions or posture. What the hearer is concerned

with is not the truth of the accusations which were brought against

the steward by unnamed and unimportant characters, but what the

steward is going to do about the situation in which he finds himself.

How will he respond to the crisis of the hour?

            There is an ambiguity surrounding the rich man's pronounce-

ment which also makes the steward's response the focus of the para-

ble. The alleged facts are laid out and the steward dismissed, yet he is

allotted an indefinite amount of time to prepare the account of his

stewardship, presumably for his successor and not as a defense which

might reinstate him. He thus is dismissed yet retains legal power to




act legitimately (in some sense) for a brief period.15 The story main-

tains tension by creating this "already/not yet" scheme in terms of the

accounting, or the judgment. It draws out a scenario to which the

steward must respond in some way. This internal, paradoxical tension

points to what Jeremias argues is the thrust of the parable in Jesus'

own context. In light of the dawning Kingdom of God, the people of

A.D. 31 face a krisis of ultimate proportions. They stand as those al-

ready judged by the kanon of the kingdom, yet have some indefinite

(but fearfully short) space of time in which to respond to the crisis in

such a way as to make provision for the future. Jeremias sees the

"bold, resolute, and prudent" action of the steward in light of the eco-

nomic crisis as an exemplary response which might be emulated by

the unconverted or the hesitant in light of the eschatological crisis

which they face.16 It is therefore a call to decisive action and realign-

ment couched in parabolic terms.

            Verse 3 draws the hearer closer to the character of the steward

by opening up his mind to the hearer in a soliloquy. The phrase en

heauto(i) ("in/to himself") combined with some verb of saying, think-

ing, or realizing, appears at significant junctures in three other Lucan

parables: The Rich Fool (12:17), The Prodigal Son (15:17), and The

Judge (18:4). (The Parable of the Unforgiven Pharisee [18:11] uses the

phrase with a verb of praying, and so steps somewhat aside from the re-

flective emphasis in the other four parables.) By itself, the soliloquy

serves to make the audience further identify itself with the steward.

Taken together with the other parables, this inward reflection suggests

the greater significance of the moment of crisis and decision.

            All four characters which are given these internal soliloquies are

faced with a crisis, a situation which calls for immediate attention.

The stakes vary from peace of mind to survival itself, but the essen-

tial dynamic is the same. Three realize the nature of their predica-

ment and act positively and successfully. The Rich Fool, as the title

usually given him suggests, reveals that he does not realize the signifi-

cance of the moment and the sort of attention and redirection it de-

mands, and dies disapproved by God. The repertoire suggests that it is

demanded that the people of this world recognize the crisis of the

hour and respond effectually. The seriousness of the moment and the

response is heightened by cases of failure to do so. The move toward

internal monologue brings the hearer closer to one who is facing cri-

sis and formulating a response, such that the hearer may begin to

sense the demand that he or she engage in the same internal mono-

logue and decision-making process.


            15 G. B. Caird, Saint Luke (England: Penguin, 1963) 187.

            16 Jeremias, Rediscovering the Parables, 144.


David A. de Silva: THE PARABLE OF THE STEWARD   261


                                    The Steward's Plan:

                        Seizing the Eschatological Moment


            Presented with the scenario, the steward takes stock of his own

resources. He is limited by his strength with respect to what sort of

work he might seek out and by his pride with respect to living on the

charity of others. Scott believes this would cause the hearers to "reflect

upon the estimation of the steward" in a negative way,17 but this

might depend on the particular circumstances of each hearer. Tax-

collectors and whores could certainly sympathize, let alone honest

merchants and managers. The steward recognizes his limitations,

whatever their source. He does not have time to build up his stamina

for digging nor seek counseling with regard to his attitude problem, if

there is one, but instead settles decisively on some plan which does lie

in his power to execute. He sees one way out, which represents a radi-

cal departure from the behavior and principles which a steward is

expected to exhibit, and sets to work on it at once. Two points here de-

serve attention.

            The steward rejects a plan of action wherein he relies on himself.

This option is negated by his estimation of his strength. He also rejects

a plan by which he throws himself on the system of almsgiving, rely-

ing thus on others' munificence without any contribution of his own.

The plan that he will execute focuses on the relationship of himself to

others. He pawns material capital for relational debt. The moral pos-

sibly drawn by later tradition in v 9, but possibly highlighted by Jesus,

is thus not without its roots in an aspect of the parable itself. The

admonitory application flows naturally from the eschatological coordi-

nates, following Jeremias.

            Second, the terms metastatho ("[when] I am expelled") and dex-

ontai ("they will receive [me]"), while referring explicitly to the stew-

ardship and to the debtors' homes, cannot be without some broader

connotations given the expectations which arise alongside a story of

accounting or judgment. The fact of impending exclusion is very real

for the steward, and the image of being "turned out" is closely related

to the images of being cast out in other parables, such as the Great

Banquet or the Sheep and the Goats. There is here also the correlative

to the pair, "being welcomed" or "received" into the community of the

blessed. One recalls the wise investors of the talents who are bid to

"enter into the joy" of their master. These two concepts, the threat of

being turned out and the desperate hope of being welcomed, become

the two coordinates of the steward's thought. His fixation upon these

points enables him to fashion and execute an appropriate plan. Both


            17 Scott, Hear Then the Parable, 263.




in Jesus' original context and the context of the early church, these

two coordinates were commended to the hearers or congregation as

the ultimate principles which should guide action. Realizing the re-

ality and measure of the judgment, and discovering the way toward

inclusion and being welcomed, must form the "first principles'" of the

believers' world.

            Donahue and others look to the work of Derrett and Fitzmyer for

an explanation of the plan as described in vv 5-7.18 Traditionally this

plan has been understood, or misunderstood, as the steward's swin-

dling the rich man out of his principal which had been lent out, but

these scholars argue convincingly that more than likely it was primar-

ily the interest on the principal which the steward remitted. Docu-

ments from India, later rabbinic texts, and an incident recorded in

Josephus bear witness to the practice of writing a bill of indebtedness

for the sum of principal plus interest, noting no such breakdown per

se on the bill.19 Scholars have reconstructed at length the rabbinic ar-

guments in support of this practice as a way of doing business profit-

ably while not violating the letter of the law.

            Caird takes this one step further in noting that, if this interpreta-

tion is correct, the act of the steward was in fact truly pious, even

though executed for his own advantage.20 A knowledge of this level of

meaning in the early church would explain how this parable could

then be linked with sayings concerning the true fulfillment of the law

in 16:14-18 and the place of the law and the prophets in 16:27-34.

While many might view this explanation on the basis of the practice

of usury in Palestine against the background of Jewish Law as con-

trived at best, this would more likely be owing to our distance from

such practices and concerns. The avenues it opens up for exploring the

unity of Luke's redaction of this section justify entertaining it as a vi-

able option at least. Here Blomberg's argument, namely that these his-

torical reconstructions "are not spelled out" and "may or may not have

been self-evident to Jesus' original audience," is of questionable help

to the interpreter.21 Spelling out the economic background would, of

course, be out of place in a parable-sort of the filler that kills good sto-

ries in a bad storyteller's mouth. The fact that it is not "spelled out;'

coupled with the evidence found for the practice in Jewish circles,

strengthens the supposition that it would have been self-evident to

Jesus and his hearers. Further, Jesus would have no need to challenge

his disciples to lend without expecting anything in return, let alone


            18 J. R Donahue, The Gospel in Parable (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988) 165.

            19 Fitzmyer, Gospel, 1098.

            20 Caird, Saint Luke, 187.

            21 Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables, 244-45.

David A. de Silva: THE PARABLE OF THE STEWARD  263


interest, if it were not a hallmark of economy to lend with interest

(cf. Luke 6:34, 35). Nevertheless, investigation into the social, econo-

mic, and political backgrounds of the time is an indispensable step

toward closing the distance between us and the original audiences.

Rather than "reading into" the text, such investigation helps to open

up the first-century world and prevent our reading into the text our

twentieth-century suppositions.


                                    The Surprising Commendation


            The parable comes at last to its surprising ending. "The master

praised the steward of injustice, for he had acted prudently." Fitzmyer

attempts to understand the master's commendation in terms of the ac-

tual plan of the steward. He suggests that the steward eliminated only

his own commission from the total debt, which might well elicit the

praise of the master.22 The steward was willing to forego some profit

in order to make better provision for the future, Donahue refers to

Fitzmyer as if the latter agreed that the steward canceled the whole

part of the interest and not simply the steward's own profit.23 Fitzmy-

er's concern, however, to make the master's commendation intelligible

to this world's logic is in direct violation of the intrinsic skandalon

("offense" or "stumbling block") of these parables which jars the

hearer out of everyday, intelligible existence to glimpse an alternative


            The master of the parable has sustained substantial loss, but the

new debt may well be in accordance with the requirements of God's

law, "one jot or tittle" of which cannot pass away. There is scandal, but

is there really injustice or dishonesty? We will return to this point in

a discussion of the genitival construction tes adikias ("of unrighteous-

ness"). The steward is praised for his shrewdness, which may also en-

tail being praised for his shrewd plan. The strangeness of seeing a

man who has just been duped praise the trickster is not too different

from the strangeness of the behavior of the landowner who pays all

his hirees the same wage or the extravagant father's unreserved wel-

come of the wastrel son. It seems to be part of the genre to point to or

convey meaning in this way. No attempt to rationalize the strange-

ness, whether through arguing that the master was making the best of

a bad situation by sharing in the pious act of the steward in this

way,24 or simply that one shrewd and cynical businessman applauded


            22 Fitzmyer, Gospel, 1098,

            23 Donahue, The Gospel in Parable, 165.

            24 Caird, Saint Luke, 187-88.



a consummate fellow con artist,25 fits the focus of the parable, which

was on the response of the steward to the crisis. The commendation of

the prudent self-application to the problem is more important than

speculations as to its motivation. The steward has simply moved from

impending exclusion and being turned out to a place of favor through

his diligent and single-minded attention to the demands of the hour.


                                    The Genitive "tes adikias":

                        Personal Characteristic or Eschatological Realm?


            We noted earlier that the motivating factor in many scholars' in-

quiries into v 8a, whether it was spoken by the master of the parable

or by Jesus, ho kyrios, was the apparent trouble of seeing a criminal

praised. Even Jeremias takes the steward's criminality for granted.26

There are many questions as to whether or not the steward has in fact

acted criminally at any point in his career, let alone in the parable.

While being unconcerned with this, he nevertheless disallowed him-

self and his master the interest on the debt and so worked a pious con-

version of the accounts. Still, the appellation oikonomos tes adikias is

taken as the justification for calling him unjust and so judging that at

some point his actions have been criminal.

            The question becomes a grammatical one. Is the genitive tes

adikias a subjective or objective genitive?27 It is generally translated

as a subjective genitive, "unjust steward." Fitzmyer provides a de-

fense of this traditional rendering by appealing to the Semitism be-

hind it, the Hebrew construct chain.28 This doesn't really solve the

problem. While it is true that this construction, as Fitzmyer states, of-

ten indicates a characteristic (in the absolute position) of a subject (in

construct), it far more often denotes possession or relationship. The

fact that the word in the genitive here, corresponding to the absolute

of such a chain, is an abstract quality does not necessitate the conclu-

sion which Fitzmyer supports. The expressions which follow in v 8b,

"sons of the light" and "sons of this age," both of which are closely re-

lated to Qum'ranic expressions and therefore have Semitic counter-

parts,29 ought to be enough to disprove the certainty of Fitzmyer's

conclusion. We have in fact "sons of the light" and not "radiant sons."


            25 E. M. Poteat, Parables of Crisis (New York: Harper and Bros., 1950) 155.

            26 Jeremias, Rediscovering the Parables, 144.

            27 Donahue, The Gospel in Parable, 165.

            28 Fitzmyer, Gospel, 1101.

            29 Ibid., 1108.


David A. de Silva: THE PARABLE OF THE STEWARD   265


            Other uses of the genitive res adikias or tes dikaiosynes ("of

righteousness") offer support for an alternative rendering. In Rom 6:13,

Paul speaks of yielding our members as hopla adikias ("instruments

of unrighteousness") no more, but rather as hopla dikaiosynes ("instru-

ments of righteousness"). There is no argument that the genitive ex-

presses alignment with one of two opposing qualities and not a simple

modifier. We have "instruments of righteousness," not "righteous instru-

ments," and so forth. Likewise in 2 Pet 2:13-15, the author speaks of a

misthon adikias, a reward which comes to those who have practiced

unrighteousness, not an unjust reward.

            One further problem is the proximity of mamona tes adikias

("mammon of unrighteousness") and adiko(i) mamona(i) ("with regard

to unrighteousness mammon") in vv 9 and 11. Would Luke, who has

otherwise been credited with much redactional acuity and activity, not

regularize the language a bit more? Scholars hold that these sayings

were brought together because of such catchword connections as this. If

this is true, would a redactor not cement the connection by smoothing

out such differences in syntactical constructions, unless he desired to

preserve some semantic nuance?

            These considerations may justify looking beyond simple Semit-

isms to explain the appellation oikonomos tes adikias, as well as ma-

mona tes adikias and krites tes adikias ("unjust judge," 18:6). All that

takes place in parables, with the single exception of Lazarus and the

Rich Man, is set in the everyday, ordinary world. The characters, the

props, the activities, and the dangers, are all common, everyday expe-

riences. Yet this same world is the world which is "passing away," or

"this age" which has its termination in the arrival of the Kingdom of

God. The theme was common to Pharisaism and separatist move-

ments such as settled in Qum'ran. It became a major vehicle for Paul's

making sense of Jesus Christ and salvation (our being transferred

from the realm of nomos, "law," to that of charis, "grace"). In light of

this, it is conceivable that "the genitive tes adikias is appended to

define the sphere in which the steward has been operating, within

whose limits he has concerned himself and responded. It makes the

next move necessary for the hearer--to determine what this com-

mended response would look like for him or her with respect to the

penetration of the realm of light into the realm of unrighteousness.

            The parable of the krites tes adikias provides a close parallel.

The judge cannot be reasonably called unjust because he is "no re-

specter of persons." That is required of judges. His boast concerning

his asebeia ("lack of piety"), however, indicates his distance from

the perfect Judge who is beyond the limited, terminal realm of the

earthly judge who does not know God. Here the point of the parable



is obviously to extend a quality demonstrated by a finite being in one

realm to the Infinite being in a higher realm. The Judge's response to

the persistent widow points positively to what one ought to expect

from the Heavenly Judge--to be answered benevolently. It is an argu-

ment a fortiori, but it goes further in its signification, moving from

the realm of adikia, this age, to that of dikaiosyne, God's Kingdom.

            If this understanding of the genitive is correct, then the conclu-

sion or moral drawn by an early commentator, or perhaps Jesus him-

self, in v 8b has its roots in the parable itself. That is, the parable

points to what 8b makes more explicit--the need for the children of

light to respond in a corresponding prudence with respect to the com-

ing age, with its yoked threat and hope. The use of genea here calls to

mind the division of ages, not simply generations, along the eschato-

logical lines. When Peter calls out in Acts 2:40, "Save yourselves from

this generation," Luke links, as he does throughout Luke-Acts, the gen-

eration alive in Palestine or the Mediterranean world with a quality

or cosmological entity, the genea which corresponds to "this present

evil age" (Gal 1:4).


                        Concretizing the Steward's Correct Response


            The parable is ultimately a call to act and align oneself phroni-

mos, "wisely," in light of the crisis in which the hearer finds himself

or herself. It portrays the movement of the prudent one from the

realm of exclusion to the realm of favor; which is highlighted by the

fact that one must move the parable from the realm of this world (dis-

favor) to the realm of the dawning Kingdom (charis, "favor"). When

we turn to examine the parable in its present Lucan context, how-

ever, we see that the tradition has preserved an interpretation of how

the hearers/readers may respond concretely to their situation of crisis

and decision. Here we are concerned only with the present form of

the Lucan context, not with questions of how it came to stand thus.

The literary context of 16:9-31 particularizes what sort of decision!

response/action was called for by the parable. The parable advises es-

chatological readiness, but within it provides the key to its concrete

application, namely the use of material goods. In the move "from the

eschatological to the admonitory," as Jeremias puts it, the tradition

elaborates on the proper use of possessions (9),30 the proper qualities

to exhibit with respect to possessions (10-12), and the proper rela-

tionship one is to have with possessions (13). The parable of the Rich

Man and Lazarus completes the concretization as the hearer/reader


            30 Jeremias, Rediscovering the Parables, 34-36.

David A. de Silva: THE PARABLE OF THE STEWARD    267


is shown most explicitly where to direct her or his efforts in prepar-

ing for the final accounting.

            St. Cyril exemplifies this move, although he comes late on the

scene. He sees in the parable the "way of salvation for the rich."31

Right stewardship, distributing to the poor--these things save a rich

man from the judgment which falls on "Dives" in 16:19-34. Several

scholars have attempted to analyze larger sections to formulate a

"larger picture" from Luke's redaction. J. Topel discusses the parable in

connection with the three which precede it, drawing on the image of

debts and debtors as figures for sin and transgressors.32 Remitting

debts; that is, forgiving, becomes the work of the prudent steward.

While his argument commends itself at many points, and while the

signification of debt as sin is well established in the NT, the argument

is a little forced and looks like an allegorical rendering of the Steward

parable guided by a desire to make it fit the parables of chap. 15.

            Donahue does better to focus on the theme of wealth in Luke 16

and then in Luke generally,33 but only in connection with the work of

Byrne does the richness of Luke's weaving come to the fore. Normally

one must be content to unravel a strand. Byrne begins with the verses

on the Law in 14-18, noting the stress on the replacement of the Law

on the one hand and the permanence of the Law on the other.34 The

external observance of the Law, accompanied by the neglect of the

heart of the Law, cannot coexist with the Kingdom. Here Caird's ob-

servations on the Steward's [unconscious] recovery of the Law from

the forensic acrobatics which nullified its intention to protect the poor

so that business could continue as usual are helpful.35 Byrne argues

that the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus lays its stress and pri-

mary admonition on vv 27-34, where the hearing of the Law and the

Prophets is all that is given to keep the five brothers from sharing the

wretched man's fate.36

            The text combines themes of the proper use of wealth, the deci-

sive devotion to a plan in time of crisis, and the abiding demand of

the Law which come together in laying aside one's devotion to wealth,

power, and position in order to serve the unempowered and the poor.

Here even the logion concerning divorce, a potentially disenfranchis-

ing crisis for a woman, finds a place.37 Those with a concern to be


            31 Cyril, Commentary, 440.

            32 Topel, “On the Injustice. . .”, 224-25.

            33 Donahue, The Gospel in Parable, 172-73.

            34 B. Byrne, “Forceful Stewardship and Neglectful Wealth,” Pacifica 1 (1988) 11.

            35 Caird, Saint Luke, 187.

            36 Byrne, “Forceful Stewardship. . .”, 9.

            37 Donahue, The Gospel in Parable, 174.




welcomed into the community of the blessed shall be welcomed by

the poor which they bless (a welcome the Rich Man missed through

not blessing Lazarus).

            The certainty of the judgment of the coming Kingdom plunges

one into this new intention for wealth and new investment in rela-

tionships, so that when we are "turned out of doors," or when we "fail/

die," they shall welcome us into eternal dwellings. The eschatological

direction of Jesus' original telling is preserved, to be sure, but it is also

enfleshed in particularity. The decision to act in light of an under-

standing of the import of the hour is also given a specific content in

new personal ambitions and social relations.




This material is cited with gracious permission from:

The Criswell College; 

4010 Gaston Ave. 

Dallas, TX   75246


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