The Parable of the Unjust Steward or Shrewd Manager is a parable told by Jesus in the New Testament Gospel of Luke. In the parable, a steward who is about to be fired curries favor with his master's debtors by forgiving some of their debts.


Jesus told his disciples: "There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, 'What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.' The manager said to himself, 'What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I'm not strong enough to dig, and I'm ashamed to beg— I know what I'll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.'

"So he called in each one of his master's debtors. He asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?'

"'Eight hundred gallons of olive oil,' he replied. The manager told him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.'

"Then he asked the second, 'And how much do you owe?' 'A thousand bushels of wheat,' he replied. He told him, 'Take your bill and make it eight hundred.'

"The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else's property, who will give you property of your own?

Luke 16:1-12, New International Version


This parable is difficult for some people to interpret, since on the face of it Jesus appears to be commending dishonest behavior. [1]

For others using a broader context, it is less difficult. For example, Luke 15: 1-3 adds to the narrative, showing that Scribes and Pharisees are part of the target audience to whom the parable was addressed: not just the disciples. This is denoted in Luke 16:1 by "also" which is from a Greek word pronounced "kai": and when written prior to "disciples", shows they were addressed "also" in addition to someone else. If the "also" was placed (in the Greek) after "disciples" is would refer to something said in addition to something else. Readers who don't include Luke 15: 1-3 can find the parable difficult if not impossible to understand.

At one level the meaning is straightforward enough, and is provided by Jesus himself - "use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves", with the additional application of using advantages in this world to gain for yourself favour in the next.

This additional application was espoused by most early church writers, as evidenced by the following quote from Asterius of Amasea:

"When, therefore, any one anticipating his end and his removal to the next world, lightens the burden of his sins by good deeds, either by canceling the obligations of debtors, or by supplying the poor with abundance, by giving what belongs to the Lord, he gains many friends, who will attest his goodness before the Judge, and secure him by their testimony a place of happiness."[1]

The seeming commendation of dishonesty is usually explained in one of two ways. It is either pointed out that Jesus 'commends the dishonest manager for his shrewdness, not the shrewd manager for his dishonesty' - i.e. the manager's principle is the right one, even if he goes about it in the wrong way. An alternative is to interpret the story as not involving deceit by introducing elements not present in the text. For example, it has been asserted that records of a loan were sometimes inflated in order to get round the judaic prohibition against usury; thus a loan of four hundred gallons of oil might be written up as eight hundred, so that the loan would appear to be without interest. The manager thus might be reducing the loans to their original amount - entirely honestly but no more pleasingly to his master.

The editors of the New Jerusalem Bible state "It was the custom for a steward, or responsible servant, to take commission on all sales of his master's goods this was his only means of making a salary. In the present case the original loan was presumably fifty measures (400 gallons in the translation above) of olive oil and eighty measures (800 bushels in the translation above) of wheat. In reducing the debtors' bills, he is not depriving his master of anything, but only sacrificing his own immediate interests by forgoing his legitimate commission. It is for this that he is praised as 'astute.'"

An 'anti-Qumran' interpretation of this parable: The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls provided a wealth of information about the sectarian Jews who had established themselves on the north west shore of the Dead Sea by some time around the middle of the second century B.C. In the Community Rule, the phrase ' sons of light' is used to designate the sect members (1QS 3.13 3.24 3.25). If Jesus means to criticize 'the sons of light' here, the parable may be seen as being in line with many others of his sayings warning against spiritual vanity, the tendency of religious people to believe themselves better than 'irreligious' people; - for example in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican in Luke 18. Since all humanity is fallen, (Luke 18:18 - 18:19 ..' and Jesus said unto him, 'Why do you call me good?..No-one is good..'), and this a dishonest world, it is futile to seek to separate yourself off from it as the Pharisees and Qumran sect do - Jesus advises ' make friends for yourselves in this dishonest world'. It is wiser to be humble and try and help your fellow creatures out when the opportunity comes.


Some or all of this article is forked from Wikipedia. The original article was at Parable of the Unjust Steward. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

  1. Daryl Koehn, “Integrity as a Business Asset”, Journal of Business Ethics, (2005) 58: 125–136

Luke Chapter 16

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