The Parable of the Unjust Steward

Site page

The parable of the unjust steward was told by Jesus Christ immediately after the parable of the prodigal son, in which God's mercy toward a sinner, who had consciously given himself over to a sinful life, was spoken of. But, when he found himself on the edge of the abyss, this sinner remembered God and, in repentance, set off for his Father. With joy, God received and forgave the prodigal son; He receives and forgives every truly repentant man. Love for the son, even though a prodigal, compels the Father to rejoice that he who was lost is found, that he who was dead is alive.

Having told this parable, the Lord then addressed not His Apostles, but the disciples, and He utters the following parable of the unjust steward. Bishop Theophanes the Recluse explains that all who followed Jesus were called his disciples, including both publicans and sinners. It is clear from the content of this parable that Christ specifically addressed the publicans (the tax collectors) and other sinners. Concerning the publicans and sinners, Jesus more than once said that they, too, could become "sons of the Kingdom". And when he was reproached for eating and drinking with publicans He said: They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick…For I am not come to call the righteousness, but sinners to repentance (Matthew 9:12-13). It is understandable that sinners, when they heard these truly comforting words, readily began to follow the Saviour in order to learn how they might be saved.

The parable was also intended for the scribes and Pharisees. This is clear from how these lovers of everything earthly reacted to its purport: And the Pharisees also, who were covetous, heard all these things: and they derided him (Luke 16:14).

The Evangelist Luke has handed down to us the parable of the unjust steward:

There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods. And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward. Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what to do, 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 unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore. And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations (Luke 16:1-9).

Almost everything in the Gospel is understandable. But there are places in it which can cause perplexity and even confusion. One of such places so difficult to understand, and perhaps even the most difficult, is the parable of the unjust steward.

Everything in the parable is more or less clear. But its concluding part is not entirely understandable. And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. And I say unto you, adds Jesus Christ Himself, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations. One cannot help but stop in perplexity: How is this so? Did the lord commend the unjust steward because he deftly swindled him and gained friends for himself at his expense? Does the Lord Himself really propose to His followers that they gain friends for themselves by unjust wealth? Is this possible?

No, of course one should not understand the parable this way and Christ's commandment that is bound up with it. The lord in the parable is God; the steward is man. It is absolutely impossible to admit that the Lord commended a man for swindling and commanded His disciples to act this way. Another meaning must be sought.

One must take into account that in those ancient Gospel times there was a class of people in Jud=E6a which excelled in covetousness and usury. The representatives of this class simply collected enormous surcharges for themselves, and this was considered normal, even laudable. Those engaged in this acquired great riches for themselves. They were called "princes". The "Jerusalem princes", by their dishonest commerce provided themselves with palaces, gardens, estates and so forth. Alongside this wealth was great destitution. There were more poor than rich. The indigent derived their living from the rich; they rented land, gardens, and fields and paid the rent not with money, but with produce. The landlord-princes themselves did not manage their large estates and that is why they hired bailiffs or stewards, to whom they set the sum total of the rent; but they did not go into the details of how their affairs were conducted by them. The hired stewards made use of this and collected more from the renters than the landlord had set, pocketing everything left over.

And so, how should one rightly understand the concluding words of the parable - And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely [dealt shrewdly - NKJV]; for the children of this world are in their generation wiser [more shrewd - NKJV] than the children of light. And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations? Some commentators on the parable of the unrighteous steward have attempted to get out of the difficulty with the hypothesis that the steward did not simply reduce the quantity of the debts on the receipts of the debtors, which would have meant inflicting a great loss on the landlord, but covered this loss out of his own funds. This would have been altogether possible, and even quite appropriate, if there were not a small qualification in the parable itself. When the steward became convinced that his lord taketh away from [him] the stewardship, he said to himself, What shall I do? I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. If his situation proved to be so critical that he would either have to engage in unskilled labor or beg alms, it means that he did not have any funds of his own, and indeed had simply wasted the landlord's goods, perhaps on some kind of momentary pleasures, not setting aside anything for either the landlord or for himself. And consequently, he could hardly pay the landlord half of his debtors' debt.

What, then, was the steward's shrewdness? If he himself did not pay, if he did not inflict a loss on the landlord, but merited his praise, if he gained friends for himself among the landlord's debtors, then who at all recompensed the landlord that sum which he in such a way took off from the bills?

Mathematics has its immutable laws. The amount due to the landlord would have had to be paid by someone - otherwise the landlord would have suffered a loss and would not have commended the shrewdness of the steward, who got out of the situation at someone else's expense.

The steward took off from the bills of his landlord's debtors only the excess that he himself had previously added to them as compared with the actual debt, hoping at payment to receive the profit for himself. Apparently, he enjoyed the landlord's unlimited trust and conducted all the affairs himself, without any control on the part of the landlord. With impunity, the steward raised the prices on the produce sold, paying the landlord the price set by him, and he received for himself, secretly from the landlord, the arbitrary surcharge he himself had already specified in his contract with the buyers. This, his unjust wealth, that is, the wealth he unjustly acquired, would be his in the future - but in his dreams, he perceived it as his already now; and the fact that the steward was able to relinquish this unjust wealth in time for the sake of gaining friends for himself for a rainy day, actually characterizes him as a shrewd man. The debtors could not know that he had subtracted from their debts only that amount which he himself had previously added for his own benefit, and they thought that he, risking his position, had deceived his landlord out of friendship toward them. In earthly terms, the debtors could be grateful to the steward, and even the very fact of his subsequent dismissal (if it occurred) they could attribute to the uncovering by the landlord of precisely this, his action. The landlord, having somehow learned the full truth, in complete sincerity commended the steward for his shrewdness, for he himself had lost nothing because of this.

When formulated in such a way, the action of the steward really does merit praise, as technically sensible and, from the moral point of view, not reprehensible. Upon closer examination, one may even find in the steward's action the traces of a certain genuine moral worth. He is capable of renouncing certain desirable values for the sake of future and higher values. It is to this, namely, that Christ points when He summons us to follow the example of the unjust steward, that is, to be able to relinquish lower values for the sake of higher values in time and not try to serve two lords simultaneously. With regret, although also not without irony as regards the children of this world, Christ says that in their generation they are shrewder than the children of light, since they understand very well the material values of this world, being extremely able, in case of need, to renounce less valuable goods for the sake of more valuable. The children of light very often are not able to prefer spiritual values to earthly values in time and renounce the latter for the sake of the former. In this way, the children of light appear technically lower than the sons of this world, that is, less shrewd, less reliable for the Kingdom of God (Luke 9:62) than the sons of this world could be, if they would include in their range of vision also the higher, moral values. However, since the sons of this world do not have the sense to do this, their superiority over the sons of light remains all the same a relative superiority, a superiority in their generation…

It still remains not entirely clear why the Lord is speaking to the disciples not simply about riches, that is, about every material value in general, but precisely about unjust riches? One must take into account that in God's word it is always possible to find many various meanings. So it is in the parable of the unjust steward as well. One should not limit the sense of the word unjust to the meaning of unjustly acquired or stolen. In general, all our wealth is unjust, since it is fragile, unstable, illusory, temporal, and does not have any significance for eternity. It is also unjust since, by its essence, it is foreign to man, only temporarily entrusted to him by God, as to the steward in the parable, not in order that he make use of it only for his own benefit. Wealth is not only from God, but even more is common to all mankind as well, and an individual man does not have the right to appropriate it, because God granted this wealth to all mankind. If it should happen that someone has amassed wealth, or that certain sums should fall into his hands, he must use them just as the unjust steward in the parable: by relinquishing them for the benefit of his neighbors and distributing them, and by this means obtaining in these neighbors intercessors for himself, that is, higher, heavenly, genuine values. For by the prayers of these grateful neighbors he also will be received into everlasting habitations.

In his commentary on the parable of the unrighteous steward, Bishop Theophanes the Recluse writes: "Fix in your mind beforehand that in the parables it is not necessary to impart a meaning to every feature, but to hold to only the main thought of the parable, which is almost always indicated by the Lord Himself. For example, the Lord calls Himself "a thief" only in the sense that He will come unexpectedly and unnoticed. All the other features that distinguish a thief should not be taken into account. So also in this parable, the Lord had in mind to indicate only one feature, namely, how the unjust steward, having heard that dismissal awaits him, did not stand about gaping, but at once got down to business and provided for himself for the future. The application is such," continues Hierarch Theophanes: "We, knowing for sure that deprivation of the kingdom awaits us, pay no heed: We live as we live, as if no misfortune whatsoever awaits us. The Lord also expressed such a thought when he said: "The children of this world are wiser than the children of light".

Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow explains the meaning of the words, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness in the following manner: "…the Syrians had an idol, which they called Mammon and superstitiously venerated as the protector of wealth. From this, the same name, mammon, was transferred also to wealth itself. Of course, the Lord, not without reason, instead of the simple name of wealth, used the word mammon, in which the notion of wealth is united with the notion of idolatry; and one may suppose no other reason for this than that He wanted not simply to signify wealth, but wealth gathered with a passion, possessed with a passion, made into an idol of the heart. In this manner, the meaning of the whole expression, mammon of unrighteousness, is defined. This means wealth that is made unrighteous and depraved through passion for it; for, in the sacred tongue, unrighteousness can signify vice in general, just as righteousness can signify virtue in general. What, therefore, does the instruction, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness, mean? It means: Turn wealth, which through passion easily becomes for us the mammon of unrighteousness, the substance of vice, an idol, into a good acquisition by doing good to the poor, and obtain in them spiritual friends and intercessors for you. As for those rich who not only are not free of the unrighteousness of passion for wealth, but also are burdened by the unrighteousness of it's abuse - in vain do they seek for an easy means of covering their unrighteousness in the parable of the unrighteous steward. But if they want true guidance that applies properly to them, then they will find it in the story of Zaccheus".

Let us follow Metropolitan Philaret's advice. Let us recall Zaccheus. Christ desired to abide in the house of Zaccheus the Publican, the chief of the tax collectors, a kind of minister of finances. Almost everyone regarded him with contempt. Christ's entry into his house regenerated Zaccheus and resurrected in him the very best qualities of the soul. Zaccheus, in the hearing of everyone, solemnly promised Christ God: Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold (Luke 19:8). In other words, Zaccheus promised to give to the poor half of those goods that were acquired by him through honest means. Everything that was acquired in an unrighteous manner he will duly return, and he will even add from the wealth that remains to him in order to return fourfold to those offended by him.

Touched by God's grace, Zaccheus, as also the steward of the parable, showed shrewdness toward correcting his serious errors and sins. Here we Christians, too, must act resourcefully regarding works of mercy and life in general. If we have offended anyone - let us ask forgiveness. If we have dishonestly appropriated someone else's goods - let us return them. And only then will God accept our sacrifice to Him, according to the Lord's words: Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift (Matthew 5:23-24).

"Millions came and went". Earthly wealth is temporary property; it is here today, and done tomorrow. One must not rely on earthly wealth; it is better to share it with our poor brothers and sisters. By this we acquire friends before God. Helping them, we help God. He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much, says the Lord; and further: If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man's, who shall give you that which is your own? (Luke 16:10-12). These words of Christ indicate the general moral law, according to which faithfulness and unfaithfulness are based on a man's feeling of conscientiousness; whoever is directed by the feeling of conscientiousness will be faithful in everything. He, who is unfaithful in earthly goods, that is, who is not able to manage them for the salvation of his soul, cannot be entrusted (Matthew 7:6) with possession of the higher, spiritual wealth - the grace filled gifts of the Holy Spirit that lead to life eternal. And what is "that which is another man's"? That which is earthly; but our fatherland and wealth are in heaven.

©V. Potapov

Address of our Cathedral

  • 4001 17th St. N.W.,
  • Washington, D.C., 20011

Phone  (202) 726-3000




Go to top