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
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,
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.
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
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
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
3. Negative-Example Interpretation
(1) Based on Present Text
(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  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  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  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  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  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,
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
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–
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  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
 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  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 
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 
103-5), P. Samain ("Le bon usage des richesses, en Luc XVI, 1–12," Revue Diocesaine
de Tournai 2/4  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  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.
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
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
 213–14), H. Zimmermann ("Das Gleichnis vom ungerechten Verwalter: Lk 16:1–
9," BibLeb 2  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
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
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
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  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  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
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,
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
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
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-
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  509-15), G. Jager ("Noch einmal: Der ungerechte Haushalter,"
ibid. 2  111–12), W. B. Ripon ("The Parable of the Unjust Steward," Expositor,
ser. 4, 7  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  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 
307–27), H. Clavier ("L'ironie dans 1'enseignement de Jesus," NovT 1  3-20,
esp. 4, 16), G. Paul ("The Unjust Steward and the Interpretation of Luke 16:9," Theology
61  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
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
63 J. C. Wansey, "The Parable of the Unjust Steward: An Interpretation," Exp Tim 47
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-
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  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  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 
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  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  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  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  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  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
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
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  121-31, and
"Die Parabel vom ungerechten Verwalter [Lk 16:1-8]," Orientierung 27  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  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  23-42, esp. 34-
36, and The Gospel according to Luke [X-XXIV] [AB 28a; Garden City, NY: Doubleday,
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 
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
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  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  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.
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