Unjust Steward: The Problems
The “Parable of the Unjust Steward” in Luke 16:1-8 is confusing. It seems to teach lessons contrary to everything that lots of Christians believe in. The short version is that a steward for a wealthy guy gets a heads-up that he’ll be fired. The steward responds by reducing the debts that the steward’s master held over others so that they would return favors to the steward after he fully lost his job. Although many believe this move would be legal, it’s certainly something that only dirt-bags would do. But, counter-intuitively, the steward’s master praises the steward “because he had done wisely.” (Luke 16:8)
To sort through this mess, I decided to look into the possibility that the “Parable of the Unjust Steward” found in Luke 16:1-8 should be connected to the sequence of parables in Luke 15. The idea first came to me as I tried to find out where Christ physically gave the Parable of the Unjust Steward and saw that there was no significant transition between this parable and the three before it. The chapter break between 15 and 16 tends to isolate the Parable of the Unjust Steward from the sayings before it, but may not be the ideal location for such a break.
After describing details of the sequence of the 3 “Lost” parables in Luke 15, I will expound on different clues that can help determine if the Parable of the Unjust Steward should be part of the sequence. I will look into details of the small transition between the chapters to see if Luke indicates a new enough situation to merit isolation from the other parables. I will also investigate commentary regarding the original documentation and context of the parables to see if scholars have identified any possible edits or situations that could alter the meaning. I will finally look at possible parallels (both synonymous and antithetic) to see if the Unjust Steward can fit nicely topically and instructionally with the other three.
I will conclude that although the Parable of the Unjust Steward has some unique attributes, it is best understood as part of the collection of parables preceding it.
Sequence of Parables in Luke 15
The New Testament Student Manual identifies that the “the common theme in all three parables [in Luke 15] is that something was lost.” In the first parable, a sheep was lost, in the second, a coin, and in the third, a son. Although they share the common thread of being lost, they all have certain differences that teach unique lessons.
David O. McKay noted that these three things were lost for different reasons. With the sheep, he taught that the sheep “was not rebellious. If you follow the comparison, the lamb was seeking its livelihood in a perfectly legitimate manner, but either stupidly, perhaps unconsciously, it followed the enticement of the field, the prospect of better grass until it got out beyond the fold and was lost.” President McKay made the point that some people get lost from the protection of the gospel through unhappy accident. The world contains many green pastures to distract us from the shepherd, and we’re all prone to wander at some point.
With the coin, President McKay taught that “the thing lost was not itself responsible. The one who had been trusted with that coin had, through carelessness or neglect, mislaid it or dropped it.” This parable highlights the role of the steward over the lost soul rather than the lost soul itself. This parable, like the last one, reveals how souls can be lost without malice or anger on the part of the lost. Sometimes mistakes happen, but these can be remedied.
For the third parable David O. McKay stated that this parable involved “a case of volition, here is choice, deliberate choice. Here is, in a way, rebellion against authority.” In other words, this parable is unlike the prior two in that it involves a very intentional loss. In this case the lost item got lost by choice rather than accident. This situation was still reconcilable in the end, though with a more detailed narrative of pain and the chaos the actions created for the culprit and others.
This brings us to the Parable of the Unjust Steward. If this parable fits with the prior three, the Unjust Steward must either identify the loss (and likely also the return) of something, or identify some different connecting theme. Before looking textually for clues of linking themes, however, it is necessary to establish that the context in which the parables are given logically permit a linkage. The first thing to examine will be the transition used in Luke to bring the reader from the first three parables to the Unjust Steward.
The transition between the “lost” parables and the Unjust Steward consists of a single phrase in Luke 16:1: “And he said also unto his disciples.” For a linkage between these parable groups to be viable, this transition would need to avoid indicating a new setting, a new audience, or a new question. If the setting, audience, and question are the same, then it is likely that Jesus did not intend for a change of topics or a loss of continuity with this fourth parable.
When it comes to the setting, nothing in the transition suggests any differences from the prior parables. As such, it may be useful to expound on the substance of the original setting.
The narrative seems to continue from Jesus going to eat at the house of one of the chief Pharisees on the Sabbath day mentioned in Luke 14:1. Luke provides no other locational explanations, but does provide some audience-based transitions, such as in Luke 14:25 (“And there went great multitudes with him: and he turned, and said unto them,”) and Luke 15:1-2 (“Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.”)
The ambiguity in the transitions may indicate that Christ gave all the teachings from Luke 14:1 through Luke 17:11 (where Luke mentions Christ heading to Jerusalem) all in one sitting. It is also possible that some of the sayings were broken up across time, and that Luke decided not to interject much contextual commentary. Regardless, Luke presents them as a nearly seamless narrative, meaning that, at the very least, Luke’s testimony may be best explained through the continuity of the narrative and teachings in these sections.
Acknowledging that considering the setting to be the same can only be a well-founded assumption rather than proven fact, the next thing to look into is the question.
The question or situation that introduces a parable greatly helps with interpretation and understanding. Joseph Smith said that “I have a key by which I understand the scripture. I inquire, what was the question which drew out the answers?” (Joseph Smith)
In the case of the parables in Luke 15, there was no “question,” but a situation of Pharisees murmuring over Christ’s association with publicans and sinners. For the Parable of the Unjust Steward, no new question or situation is presented, leaving the reader to assume that either no question catalyzed this fourth parable, a new question was asked that Luke didn’t record, or that the fourth parable addresses the same question as the other three.
Since Christ did typically give parables in response to questions or situations, and since most parables have the initiating situations written in scripture, the most probable assumption is that the Unjust Steward is a continuation of the same situation as the other three. Luke’s use of the word “also” in Luke 16:1 may further indicate that this parable was additional exposition on the same principle.
Acknowledging that the problem of identifying the catalyst for the parable may not be provable, it seems best to assume that if the setting didn’t change, and Luke provided no new question, that the Unjust Steward is given in response to the same situation as before.
At an audience level, Luke does indicate a minor change by identifying the “disciples.” Joel Green notes that “The practical consequence of this shift is that we understand that Jesus has completed his formal response to the Pharisees and legal experts. This does not mean, however, that Jesus has departed from the general theme of ch. 15. To the contrary, the parabolic instruction he now provides is closely tied to the preceding material.” (Green 589)
It is also noteworthy that although Luke indicates that Christ switched from speaking directly to the Pharisees to speaking directly to “his disciples” (which, admittedly, may have included some Pharisees) that the Pharisees never stopped listening. In Luke 16:14 Luke reveals that the Pharisees “heard all these things” and responded unfavorably. So, although Christ seems to have intended an alternative audience for this fourth parable, the original audience appears to have still been present and—undoubtedly known to Christ—listening.
This examination of the transition does leave us with a question: if the situation and question are the same, and the audience has not changed to a significant degree, why does Luke provide us with any transition at all? Without claiming to know the mind of Luke, I provide some hypotheses.
Listen, but not hear
Although this parable related to the same topic as the others, the Pharisees may have been even more unprepared for this parable than for the others, causing Christ to direct it toward those who would understand it better. This idea may be supported by the fact that the Pharisees mocked Christ after hearing the Parable of the Unjust Steward, only understanding the sayings to be of mortal lucre rather than a revelation of eternal principles. Whatever errors and blindness that Pharisees subjected themselves to, they seem to have at least found nothing to say concerning the first three parables, but could not handle the fourth one in silence. As such, Christ may have directed the parable away from them, knowing that the Pharisees would listen, but not hear.
The transition may also simply be a matter of literary convenience. Since it’s not impossible for the Pharisees to be included in the phrase “disciples,” Luke may have simply felt that 4 parables was too long a block of text to go without any narration. This may have caused him to add a short reminder of who Christ spoke with at the time.
Original Documentation and Context
An investigation into the original documentation and context means looking for any possible edits to the original writings of Luke that may have perpetuated errors or alternate meanings, as well as looking for cultural context that may alter the ideas in the story. If the original document as it came from Luke’s (or his scribe’s) pen suggest a reordering of any verses (such as with Jephthah), a more complete transition, or anything that may significantly alter the meanings of any of the parables, then new theories and interpretations will need to coincide with the reality of the papers.
A short look at several commentaries and commentary compilations revealed no proposed changes to the text as found in the King James Version of the Bible. It appears that everything in Luke 15 and 16 is in all the major manuscripts without noteworthy omissions or additions.
Whereas many commentators pride themselves on identifying the Greek or Hebrew words and providing better translations or explanations as to their meaning, nothing meaningful of the sort made its way into the text of the commentaries through these parables. As such, it’s reasonable to conclude that we can use the English version of the KJV to continue our analysis.
Little new information came out of cultural exposition as well. Some commentators have noted the religious prohibitions against usury as a possible factor in the story, as well as the highly desirable position of being a steward, but any meaningful impact to our analysis will be addressed in the following section on parallels.
From my limited skills and dependence on others in the realm of contextual analysis, it appears that nothing hampers the assertion that the Parable of the Unjust Steward should be part of the prior three parables.
Thus far, my analysis has attempted to structurally clear the way for the possibility that the Parable of the Unjust Steward may be properly linked to the prior three parables. This section will demonstrate that all the parables have linking parallels between them that both provide internal evidence that they should be linked together, as well as provide us with a greater understanding of the teachings in all four parables.
First, there are synonymous parallels across the four parables. The Parable of the Lost Sheep acts as a decent comparison to the Parable of the Prodigal (Lost) Son. In both cases an entity of value was lost based on its own actions (whether intentional or not). The Parable of the Lost Coin also acts as a good introduction to the Parable of the Unjust Steward. In both parables, a steward lost fiduciary items (whether intentional or not). The fact that these parables align well with synonymous parallelism may provide evidence that they are to be understood together as parts of a whole.
There are also many antithetical parallels across the parables. David O. McKay already noted the antithetical parable between the sheep and the Prodigal Son. Whereas the sheep wandered unintentionally, the Prodigal Son wandered deliberately. Both wandered, but with opposite intents.
This comparison may leave the Parable of the Lost Coin as an odd parable out, if not for the antithetical parallel it holds with the Parable of the Unjust Steward. Whereas both involve a steward losing valuables, one steward loses the valuables unintentionally, while the unjust steward casts the goods away deliberately. With this comparison, a meta-parallel becomes evident: both pairs involve the accidental, then intentional loss of the item at stake.
Another antithetical parallel exists, but across different pairs. The sheep and the coin parables demonstrate a non-human item being lost, but one getting lost by itself and the other being lost by its steward. With the Prodigal Son and the unjust steward, one human lost himself but repented, while in the other the steward seems to have intentionally mishandled goods, then sank further into iniquity when pressure came to account for his actions. Howard Marshall noted this comparison in his own commentary, saying that “the parable thus gives the contrast to the prodigal son who, after wasting his wealth, repented.” (Marshall, 616)
The focus of the parables also provides some parallels. The Parable of the Sheep and Coin both focus more on the entity retrieving that which was lost (in spite of their given titles focusing on the lost thing itself). The Parable of the Sheep could have easily been called the Parable of the Shepherd, and the Parable of the Coin could have been named the Parable of the Woman with Silver.
The second two parables do focus on the entity who was spiritually lost. The aptly named Parable of the Prodigal Son follows the story of the one who wandered off, and the Parable of the Unjust Steward focuses on the one called “Unjust.” These last two parables concern themselves with the one who was lost, rather than the one intent on finding them.
A final parallel can be seen across the owners. In the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the owner sets out to find his lamb, while in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the father waits and watches intently. In the Parable of the Lost Coin, the woman diligently searches for and retrieves the coin, while in the Parable of the Unjust Steward the Steward goes so far as to lose even more material than he had originally without being stopped by the master. Another meta-parallel emerges, where the first parables involve a diligent and active seeker that contrasts against the passive (but in some cases still hopeful) patience of the master who respects the agency of humankind.
The lack of structural barricades against connecting the four parables, as well as the extensive parallels between the four, strongly suggest that they can—and perhaps should—be taken as part of a cohesive narrative. Looking into this possibility has taught me additional things about the Savior.
Christ, the ultimate teacher
The first thing that stands out is how incredible a teacher Christ is. In response to Pharisaical murmuring, Christ provided four parables that interlocked with each other parable in multiple, synergistic ways. Although each parable teaches important truths in isolation, Christ shared them in a way that allows us to gain greater understanding and context by examining them together.
In His spoken word, He assured that nibbling on His teachings would not provide us with a full understanding, but that only by feasting on the depth of His words would fill us with light and truth.
Many ways to fall
I also learned how diversely we can fall away from our Father. We may wander accidently, or be dropped by someone assigned to watch over us. We may leave rebelliously, or by greedily seeking our own advantage. It seems that when we fall away from sinless accident, that Christ, the Good Shepherd and True Steward will come and retrieve us and delight in the retrieval. However, when we leave on our own volition, we must return on those same terms, though we can look forward to similar celebrations from our Father as He had from the return of one who transgressed less.
The root of evil
I also noticed that the only case where the lost soul (if we choose to identify the Unjust Steward as a lost soul) did not return was in the case of loving money. Christ taught so frequently and intensely against the love of money that even in a sequence of parables where the lost becomes found does a rich man not make it to heaven.
Finally, I strengthened my testimony of God’s mercy. The celebrations at the return were the same for all. God is willing to accept even the Prodigal Son, and certainly won’t abandon anyone else besides. I know that I can be forgiven of my misdeeds, and become clean and accepted into the Lord’s many mansions. His Atonement was not in vain, but reaches to purify and enable us all.
Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1997. Print.
Harrington, Daniel J. Sacra Pagina Series. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1991. Print.
Joseph Smith’s Journal, kept by Willard Richards, Jan. 29, 1843, cit. History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, 1964, vol. 5, p. 261.
Marshall, I. Howard. The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Exeter: Paternoster, 1978. Print.
Keep seeking truth.
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