The Parable of “The Shrewd Manager” (NIV) or “The Unjust Steward” (NKJ) from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 16, verses 1 to 8, appears to be one of the most ill-understood of the Lord’s teachings in the Gospels.
Indeed, you can see from the given titles of the passage, that the NIV and NKJ authors have widely differing views on the character of the manager/steward; ‘shrewd’ just does not necessarily imply ‘unjust.’
Few seem to understand or attempt to explain this parable, let alone the wider teachings revealed here; so while the Lord’s teachings from v9-13 are widely quoted, people are seemingly unable to apply them to this parable.
Let’s look at v1-8:
“And He also said to His disciples, There was a certain rich man who had a steward. And he was accused to him, that he had wasted his goods.
And he called him and said to him, What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you may no longer be steward.
And the steward said within himself, what shall I do? For my lord is taking the stewardship away from me. I cannot dig; I am ashamed to beg.
I know what I will do, so that when I am put out of the stewardship they may receive me into their houses.
So he called every one of his lord’s debtors and said; to the first, how much do you owe my lord?
And he said, A hundred baths of oil. And he said to him, Take your bill and sit down quickly and write fifty.
And he said to another, And how much do you owe? And he said, A hundred cors of wheat. And he said to him, Take your bill and write eighty.
And the unjust steward’s lord commended him because he had done wisely. For the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.”
The story is quite simple. A steward (manager) is approached by his lord (a landlord) and accused of dishonesty.
To save his job, the steward unilaterally cuts the amounts of the overdue bills due to his lord and is highly commended as a result.
The nub of the problem is this, why does the landlord commend the steward under these circumstances?
The first question we need to look at, is whether the steward is guilty of the landlord’s accusation.
While the steward does not specifically admit his guilt, we can infer from his lack of rebuttal, that he is guilty, (at least guilty of something, and his experience convinces him that the end of his employment is close).
Further, he immediately initiates a plan to look after himself after he is dismissed. There are no pleas for clemency. He accepts the inevitable.
The next question is: Of what has the steward been accused?
Again, it is not specifically clear in the parable, other than in v1 that he had “wasted” his landlord’s goods.
However, if the steward had indeed wasted his landlord’s good’s; it is hard to imagine why the landlord would commend him for selling them at 50% of their apparent worth.
Similarly, if the goods had been stolen, there would have been no bill for them for the steward to then amend.
We need to look further into what happened between v7 and v8, where the steward was commended and joy prevailed for both lord and steward thereafter.
Let us read further into the chapter where Jesus then adds and says:
And I say to you, Make friends by the mammon of unrighteousness for yourselves, so that when you fail, they may receive you into everlasting dwellings.
He who is faithful in the least is also faithful in much. And he who is unjust in the least is also unjust in much.
Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust the true riches to you?
And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who shall give you that which is your own?
No servant can serve two masters. For either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.
Here Jesus seems to be talking about faithfulness, money and needing to separate money from God.
It does not initially appear to add much to the understanding of the preceding parable, though the individual verses contain great truths and teaching in themselves.
If we also look further on in the chapter, in v14-18, Jesus starts to talk again, this time addressing the Pharisees about the law and the prophets.
Again, this does not appear to add to our understanding of this parable as He seems to have moved on to another theme.
Let us look now at what precedes this parable.
Immediately preceding The Parable of the Shrewd Manager, is “The Parable of the Lost Son” (NIV & NKJ) which starts at 15:11.
This is the parable commonly known as the “Prodigal Son,” of which much literature has been written and upon which countless sermons have been delivered.
Here we find the first words of v11 are “And He said……..” with Jesus continuing on from preceding text.
Let us therefore, look further back.
In v8 we find “The Parable of the Lost Coin”. Again, both NIV and NKJ agree in the title of the parable and continuing back to v4 we find “The Parable of the Lost Sheep” with again NIV and NKJ in agreement on the theme title.
A pattern seems to be emerging: lost son; lost coin; lost sheep.
Reading back to v1-3 we find an introduction to this series of linked parables reading:
“And all the tax-collectors and sinners drew near to Him in order to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receives sinners and eats with them. And He spoke this parable to them, saying…”
Interestingly He spoke “this parable”, not “these parables.”
When we look at the bible text, there is indeed no break at verse 8 where “The Parable of the Lost Sheep” changes to “The Parable of the Lost Coin.”
There is certainly indented continuation from Luke 15:1 to 16:14 where in closure we read: “And being money-lovers, all the Pharisees also heard all these things. And they derided Him.”
Using a bible with the Lord’s words in red, makes this much more obvious. There are pages of the Lord’s red words, bookended by black verses. We will come back to these later.
Let us now go back to Like 15:1 and assume that the 4 parables, rather than being four single stories, are rather four parts of the same theme, or super parable. Can we perhaps read them as follows?
a) The Parable of the Lost Sheep: A shepherd has 100 sheep. 1 sheep gets lost so he leaves the 99 to look for the lost 1.
When he finds the lost 1, his condition is “joy”.
b) The Parable of the Lost Coin: A widow has 10 coins. 1 gets lost so she hunts and searches until it is found.
When she finds it, her condition is “joy”.
c) The Parable of the Lost Son: A father has 2 sons. 1 gets lost and leaves. He waits and waits till the lost son returns.
When the lost son returns their condition is “joy”.
d) The Parable of the Lost Steward: A landlord has 1 steward who gets lost. The steward sorts himself out and is commended by his employer.
Their condition is then “joy”.
Let us reformat this into a table and see what it reveals:
This neatly and clearly illustrates and confirms that these are all part of a set. Jesus was, after all, the Master Teacher. We now need to reveal the underlying and wider teachings here.
As we saw earlier, Luke 16:9-13 has mentions of money (mammon) and riches, and the Parable of the Steward similarly has money at its core.
However, a quick review of the other three parables reveals that they do not. While the widow is looking for a lost coin, the coin is symbolic and does not represent mammon, riches or evil.
Let is now look at the “bookends” mentioned earlier.
The opening bookend of Luke 15:1 & 2 reads: “And all the tax-collectors and sinners drew near to Him in order to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
The closing bookend of Luke 16:14 reads “And being money-lovers, all the Pharisees also heard all these things. And they derided Him.”
So here we have the enclosing brackets or bookends for this 4-part parable both mentioning money – mammon.
Jesus was talking both about and to the tax-collectors and Pharisees. This was a very focused and structured Master Teaching, which in all of its parts, also gives wider teachings for all of us.
Any reader or student of the Bible will quickly recognise that the tax-collectors were a universally hated part of society, while Jesus himself heaped scorn on the Pharisees. What do the two groups of people have in common?
The tax collectors were notorious for gouging the people and taking more from them than was warranted by their remit.
They were employed by the authorities in power to collect taxes, but when doing so, they “lined their own pockets”, to use a colloquial phrase.
There was no such thing as a financially poor tax-collector. In looking at the Pharisees, we need only look at one aspect of Jesus’ disdain for them as fits this parable.
The Pharisees were in charge of the temple. To offer a sacrifice in the temple one had to purchase an animal or bird using Temple Coins and these coins had to be purchased.
The coins, usable only in the temple, were sold at profit for the temple, while the tellers selling the coins also lined their pockets.
Both sections of society were fleecing the general population in the same way and both were in the audience, or were hearers of this teaching.
The interpretation of the parable of the Lost Steward now begins to become clear.
The steward was doing the same as the tax-collectors and the Pharisees, lining his pockets at the expense of his landlord.
The steward was selling his landlord’s goods – which was his job and which he was entrusted to do – but was adding a fairly large mark-up for his own pocket.
Thus, when confronted by his lord, he chose to ask the buyers to cut the bills to the exclude his commission!
How much “commission” was he taking for himself?
Well, as we read in v6 & v7 he was taking a 100% mark-up on oil and a 25% mark-up on wheat!!
No wonder that one of the lord’s clients complained that some “funny business” was afoot.
One can suppose that the landlord told his friends and clients that after that year’s harvest he was selling his oil and wheat for certain rates and they decided to buy from him.
Imagine their surprise then, to receive a bills at 125% or 200% of the price the landlord had quoted!
The question we now need to ask ourselves it this: does this understanding of the parable make sense in regard to the teachings and comments of Jesus in Luke 16:9 onwards.
I believe it does. It also aligns with our Master’s teachings in Luke 16:19 onwards as well.
Also backward, from Luke 14:25 on too. It is part of an larger ongoing theme.
The steward must have been faithful initially, or he would not have been trusted with the authority to sell the goods on behalf of his employer, but he broke that trust and used his position for selfish gain.
Both the tax-collectors and the Pharisees undoubtedly understood that they were the focus of this teaching, for they were committing the same wrongs as the steward.
How does this teaching apply to us in our daily lives?
Though we may not be taking an unapproved commission when selling our bosses property, for us to benefit personally from our employment (paid or not) in addition to the agreed remuneration and benefits, is wrong.
Sitting surfing the internet during office hours for personal interest is wrong.
Taking personal photocopies, office supplies etc. etc. all fall into the same category.
Unless our employers know of these “fringe” benefits, they are wrong.
We are to be judged on how well we are stewards of the property, time and resources given to us while on earth.
But this is not just in our employment. It relates to all aspects of life, where we hide the benefits we gain as we piggy-back on the name, status, position or mistakes of others.
Let us now look back at the title of this parable.
The Parable of “The Shrewd Manager” (NIV) or “The Unjust Steward” (NKJ). Which is correct?
It seems both.
The manager was “shrewd” in his dealings and in coming to a resolution to his dilemma of pending unemployment.
But he was also “unjust” in the first place, as far as Jesus is concerned, for seeking to serve both his lord and mammon (greed).
I believe the correct title of this parable could be rendered as: The Parable of The Lost Manager (Steward).
I thank the Holy Spirit for revealing to me the full understanding of this teaching when I explained a simpler and incomplete teaching to a small group three nights ago.
All praise be to the Lord!
Jesus was and is the Master Teacher.