LUKE 16:1-13. THE PARABLE OF THE DISHONEST STEWARD
All of Jesus’ parables are challenging, but this is surely the most challenging. However, if we study it carefully, it will reward us with important spiritual insights.
This parable is bracketed by two other money parables, the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Elder Brother and the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. In each of these parables, money is a problem:
• The prodigal son gets into trouble after spending money foolishly (15:11-24), and the elder brother behaves badly toward his father because “you never gave me a goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this, your son, came, who has devoured your living with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him” (15:25-32).
• The manager gets into trouble for squandering the rich man’s property (16:1-13).
• The rich man will suffer eternal torment, because he enjoyed riches selfishly without helping Lazarus who was suffering at his doorstep (16:19-31).
There are other parallels among these three parables:
• Variants of the same verb, diaskorpizein, are used to speak of the squandering of the prodigal and the squandering of the manager in this week’s Gospel lesson.
• The prodigal’s father embraces his prodigal son and gives him a party, while the master commends his dishonest manager because he has acted shrewdly.
• Jesus begins both this parable and the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus with the words, “There was a certain rich man.”
• This parable shows that money can be used for gain, while the other two show that money can lead to ruin. The last two parables imply (but do not explicitly state) that compassion for the poor in this life leads to eternal rewards.
This is a parable (a short, fictitious narrative, designed to illuminate a spiritual truth, usually with some sort of unexpected twist) rather than an allegory (in which there are hidden or symbolic meanings attached to each person and/or happening) or an example story (in which we are told to “Go and do likewise”). We need to be especially careful not to treat it as an example story—to suggest that Christians today should follow the example of the dishonest manager.
LUKE 16:1-2. A CERTAIN RICH MAN HAD A MANAGER
1He also said to his disciples, “There was a certain rich man who had a manager. An accusation was made to him that this man was wasting (Greek: diaskorpizon) his possessions. 2He called him, and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give an accounting of your management, for you can no longer be manager.'”
“He also said to his disciples” (v. 1a). Jesus has been addressing the scribes and Pharisees (15:1-3), but now he addresses the disciples. In verse 14, we learn that the Pharisees, “who were lovers of money,” are listening too.
“There was a certain rich man who had a manager. An accusation was made to him that this man was wasting his possessions” (v. 1). We think of this manager as unjust or dishonest. This verse, however, describes him only as wasteful. His dishonesty takes place in verses 4-7, and he is labeled dishonest in verse 8.
“Give an accounting of your management” (v. 2b). The master accuses the manager, not of dishonesty, but of squandering money. We are not told whether the charges are true. The manager’s failure to speak in his own defense (v. 3) is damning, but he might have been surprised and unable to articulate his defense on the spot. Later, in verse 8, Jesus will label the manager as dishonest.
“for you can no longer be manager” (v. 2c). When the rich man demands an accounting, it sounds as if he is willing to listen to reason—to allow the manager to muster a defense. But then he summarily dismisses the manager.
LUKE 16:3-7. I KNOW WHAT I WILL DO
3“The manager said within himself, ‘What will I do, seeing that my lord (Greek: ho kurios mou—my Lord or my master) is taking away the management position from me? I don’t have strength to dig. I am ashamed to beg. 4I know what I will do, so that when I am removed from management, they may receive me into their houses.’ 5Calling each one of his lord’s debtors to him, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe to my lord?’ 6He said, ‘A hundred batos (Greek: batous—baths) of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ 7Then he said to another, ‘How much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred cors (Greek: korous—cors) of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.'”
“What will I do” (v. 3a). Initially, the manager was incompetent. Now, faced with a personal crisis, he suddenly becomes forward-looking and resourceful.
“my lord” (ho kurios mou) (v. 3b). The Greek, ho kurios mou, can be translated “my master” or “my Lord”. Kurios is often used in the Gospels to refer to the Lord Jesus, but here it refers to the rich man.
“I don’t have strength to dig. I am ashamed to beg” (v. 3c). The manager assumes that, having been dismissed for incompetence, he will find it impossible to find a comparable position.
“I know what I will do, so that when I am removed from management, they may receive me into their houses” (v. 4). This is an important verse, because it spells out the manager’s goal and gives us a clue to the meaning of the parable. The manager intends, in the brief time that remains before his dismissal becomes public knowledge, to ingratiate himself with the rich man’s clients so that they will welcome him into their homes once he is “out on his ear”. In this culture, reciprocity is obligatory. If the manager does a favor for the rich man’s clients, they will be obligated to reciprocate. While they will be unlikely to hire him, they are likely to show him hospitality—or to help him find a job.
“Calling each one of his lord’s debtors to him” (v. 5). Are these debtors people to whom the rich man loaned money—or are they tenant farmers who rent land for a fixed rental price—or are they sharecroppers who use the rich man’s land and pay with a percentage of the crop? Scholars are divided on this point, but the debtors are probably sharecroppers. However, the size of their harvest (vv. 6-7) shows that they are not typical poor sharecroppers, but are involved in agribusiness.
The manager summons the debtors one by one so they can’t compare notes. Each will think himself a singular beneficiary of this manager’s work. In verses 6-7, Jesus gives examples of two such beneficiaries, but presumably this manager could go to many debtors with this scheme.
“A hundred batos (baths) of oil” (v. 6). “A hundred cors of wheat” (v. 7). The amounts of oil and grain are quite large
• A batous (bath) is about nine gallons (34 liters), so the debtor owes 900 gallons (3,400 liters) of olive oil. If he is obligated to give the rich man half the harvest, the total harvest would be 1800 gallons (6400 liters)—the produce of a very large olive grove—many times the size of an ordinary family grove.
• A cor is approximately 10-15 bushels (350-500 liters), so the debtor owes 1000-1500 bushels (35,000-50,000 liters) of wheat—presumably representing a total harvest of twice that amount—about twenty times the amount that an ordinary family plot would yield. This is a large commercial enterprise.
“write fifty” (v. 6). “write eighty” (v. 7). These are hefty discounts—fifty percent in the first instance and twenty percent in the second—and they are hefty discounts on large quantities, so the total savings are huge—several times the annual income of an ordinary family.
Scholars offer three possible interpretations of the steward’s actions:
• The manager is cheating his master.
• He is simply deducting the interest payments that are prohibited by Deuteronomy 23:19-20. Lenders had concocted ways to side-step the prohibition against charging interest, so it would not be unusual for the owner or manager to charge interest.
• He is simply deducting his own commission.
Scholars are divided on this point. A number subscribe to the idea that the manager is simply deducting his own commission, because it seems improbable that the master would commend the manager for cheating him. However, the commission theory seems unlikely for three reasons:
• First, the discounts (50 and 20 percent) are so large. It seems doubtful that the rich man has been giving his manager a 20-50 percent commission.
• Second, the manager has discounted one debtor 450 gallons of olive oil and another debtor 200-300 bushels of wheat. If the manager could claim these commissions, they would provide him a nice living for several years. However, it is possible that the rich man, having fired the manager, will not allow him to claim these commissions.
• Third, there is a question whether the rich man could be charging an interest rate of 20-50 percent on borrowed money—especially given the Deuteronomic prohibition against usury (Deuteronomy 23:19-20).
Therefore it seems likely that the manager is cheating the rich man by reducing the amounts that his debtors are obligated to pay him. The word of the rich man’s generosity will soon spread, enhancing his reputation. He will then be faced with two options:
• Enjoying his newly enhanced reputation and accepting his losses or
• Retracting the discounts at the expense of his reputation and at the risk of permanently damaging the relationship with his debtors.
The manager has surely left the debtors with the impression that he is responsible for the reductions—thus leaving the rich man’s debtors in debt to himself as well. Under the reciprocity ethic, the debtors are obligated to reciprocate.
If the manager were to transfer these discounts to his own name, he would be jailed for theft. However, by making the debtors the beneficiaries, he has insulated himself from charges of theft while making new friends who are obligated to help him in the future.
LUKE 16:8. HIS LORD COMMENDED THE DISHONEST MANAGER
8“His lord (Greek: ho kurios—the Lord or master) commended the dishonest manager because he had done wisely, for the children of this world are, in their own generation, wiser than the children of the light.”
“His lord” (Greek: ho kurios—the Lord or the master) (v. 8a). Scholars debate whether the parable ended after verse 7. If so, this is the Lord Jesus speaking instead of the rich master. However, the parable is incomplete after verse 7, so most scholars agree that it is the rich man who commends the manager.
“commended the dishonest manager because he had done wisely” (v. 8b). The rich man commends the manager, not because of his dishonesty, but because of his shrewdness. Seeing the urgency of his crisis, the man has built bridges to the future. Properly motivated, he has proved himself shrewd and decisive—not incompetent after all. And, in the process, he has succeeded in boxing in the rich man, who cannot rescind the discounts without suffering loss of honor and creating bad will among his debtors.
Some people object to the idea that Jesus would use a dishonest manager as a positive role model. However, see Matthew 13:44; 25:1-13: Luke 25:9.
“children of this world”—”children of the light” (v. 8c). The children of this age are focused on the realm of this world. The children of light are focused on the kingdom of God. Jesus is calling his disciples to become as savvy to the ways of the kingdom as other people are savvy to the ways of the world. Then in verse 9, he will give his disciples a street-smart spiritual rule to follow—a way to prosper in the kingdom of God.
LUKE 16:9-13. YOU CAN’T SERVE GOD AND MAMMON
9“I tell you, make for yourselves friends by means of unrighteous mammon (Greek: mamona tes adikias—mammon of unrighteousness), so that when you fail, they may receive you into the eternal tents. 10He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much. He who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. 11If therefore you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? 12If you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? 13No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. You aren’t able to serve God and mammon.”
“I tell you” (v. 9a). This is our cue that Jesus is about to say something important. “Listen up!”
“make for yourselves friends by means of unrighteous mammon” (v. 9). The Greek is tou mamona tes adikias, literally “the mammon of unrighteousness or injustice.” A similar phrase, to adiko mamona is found in verse 12.
Mammon is riches, treasure, or material possessions. In the New Testament, it is often used to contrast love of possessions with love of God. This phrase, tou mamona tes adikias, is similar to our phrases, “filthy lucre” or “dirty money”. Whenever we hear the phrase “dishonest wealth” in this parable, we should think “filthy lucre” or “dirty money”.
This is the street-smart rule for doing well in the kingdom of God. Jesus tells us that it is possible to use “filthy lucre” to advance ourselves in the kingdom of God. It is possible to use “dirty money” in ways that are pleasing to God.
This parable follows directly after the Parable of the Prodigal Son (15:11-32), so we are reminded that the prodigal’s friends failed to welcome him into their homes once his money was gone (15:14-16). But Jesus points us to God’s kingdom where God’s loyalty to the faithful runs deep and where God rewards good deeds.
In this Gospel, Jesus has a great deal to say about the dangers associated with money, which competes with God for our affection. Wrong attitudes about money can bring about spiritual ruin. Nevertheless, it is possible to use money in Christ-like ways. This world prepares us for eternity and tests us to see if we are willing to live by kingdom values. God gives us resources that not only provide for our needs, but also allow us to demonstrate our faithfulness to kingdom values.
Jesus tells us to use our money and other resources in ways that will help us in eternity.
“make for yourselves friends” (v. 9). Make friends how? With whom? Jesus gives us a solid clue in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19-30), which follows the Parable of the Dishonest Manager. In that parable, the rich man is damned for enjoying wealth while ignoring Lazarus’ suffering. Buttrick interprets this to mean that Jesus is calling us to help the poor now so that they can help us in eternity (Buttrick, 284).
But how will the poor be able to help us in the next world? One part of the answer to that question has to do with the upside-down nature of the kingdom of God, where the first will be last and the last will be first (13:30). In the kingdom, the poor will be rich and can easily welcome us into their eternal homes. Presumably they will also serve as witnesses on behalf of those who helped them. But the more significant truth is that God is the ultimate source of blessings, and God will know whether we cared about the poor, the sick, and the vulnerable. God will know whether we used our resources to help. We can be sure that God will take into account whether we used our “dishonest wealth”—our “filthy lucre”—to help those in need.
Whatever our circumstances, we can help the needy. Even poor people can help others. Those who are needy themselves often see ways to help that are invisible to more prosperous people. The needy are often more generous than others, because they have experienced poverty and are motivated to help. Those of us who are more prosperous may see poverty only at a distance and be tempted to blame the poor—to assume that they have brought their suffering on themselves—to discount them as undeserving. Our riches, however, provide us with the opportunity to help, and Jesus makes it clear that he wants us to do that. We are tempted, though, to love money too much and to hold it too closely. We are also tempted to postpone almsgiving until late in life when our barns are full to overflowing.
“He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much” (v. 10). Jesus calls us to faithfulness in little things, because most of life is made up of small things. Few of us can save the world, but we can conduct honest business, tutor a child, visit a person in a nursing home or prison, or help a neighbor in distress.
“If therefore you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon” (v. 11). As noted above, “dishonest wealth” in this context equates to our phrases, “filthy lucre” or “dirty money”. Jesus calls us to faithful stewardship of money. Our financial resources are a testing ground. Those who live by kingdom values in this world gain access to true riches in the next, but those who fail to do so are denied access to those riches. There is a tension here between works and grace. We should not imagine that we are saved by works, but we must also hear this clear warning about the importance of faithful stewardship.
“which is another’s” (v. 12). The “dishonest wealth” of verse 11 belongs to God and is entrusted to our stewardship while we are alive. If we prove to be bad stewards of God’s riches in this life, how can we expect God to give us riches in the next life?
“No servant can serve two masters” (v. 13). “This is a simple statement of fact, as if Jesus had said, ‘You cannot walk east and west at the same time’ ” (Buttrick, 286). Money exerts a strong pull, much like a great magnet, always threatening to pull us away from God. We move too close to unrighteous mammon at our own great peril. Money is one of Satan’s most powerful tools for wrenching us away from God.
In Matthew’s Gospel we find almost exactly the same words that Jesus uses in v. 13, but Matthew places them in a different context—the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:24).
A FINAL NOTE:
Both of the two parables of chapter 16 (The Dishonest Manager and the Rich Man and Lazarus) have to do with readiness for the kingdom of God.
• In this parable, the dishonest manager is about to be dismissed from his job, but is wise enough to use his last-minute opportunity to prepare for the future. He does so by doing favors for his master’s debtors (at his master’s expense), knowing that those debtors will incur an obligation to welcome him into their homes after he has been dismissed from his employment. The lesson of the parable is not that we should be dishonest, but that we should use every means at our disposal to prepare for our eternal home (16:9).
• In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Lazarus was miserably poor during his lifetime, but “died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham” in paradise (16:22a). The rich man enjoyed every pleasure that money could buy during his lifetime, but after death found himself in torment in Hades. He begged God to send Lazarus with a drop of water to cool his parched tongue, but God denied his request.
One homiletical approach to this difficult parable, then, is to focus on the necessity of preparing for our eternal home. We can use even unrighteous mammon for this purpose. See the notes on verse 9 above for further amplification.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated. We are using the WEB because we believe it to be the best public domain version of the Bible available.
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Copyright 2004, 2010, 2012, Richard Niell Donovan