The Parable of the Unjust Steward

The 14th Sunday of Trinity

Luke 16;1-13

Many seminarians will remember the parable of the Unjust Steward, so often described in commentaries as difficult to explain with its ironical tone. Even the steward’s descriptions vary from text to text. Sometimes called, unjust, dishonest or even a shrewd bailiff. It is certainly not like most of St. Luke’s other dramatic parables, such as the Good Samaritan or the Rich man and Lazarus that follows. Revisers of the 1928 American Book of Common Prayer even replaced this sneaky and unlikable steward reading for the 9th Sunday after Trinity with the more likeable Prodigal Son!

The best solution is to see this as part of a longer section on discipleship that in the ever changing daily life of the real world has to function at various levels, and especially in regard to wealth and possessions. Most of us know that fixed rules do not necessarily make it easier to think out our decisions or behave responsibly when dealing with the poor, supporting the sick or giving to charity and making investments. We are balancing our judgements against many twists and turns.

Last month we had a reading about a greedy farmer who went beyond being responsible for his resources becoming a hoarder consumed by wealth yet a pauper before God. Responsible wealth must be accompanied by godly wisdom. [Luke 12;13–21]. In the case of the steward it is the exact opposite. Although at first accused of being wasteful [verse 1] and seeing an opportunity to save his situation, in a shrewd move reduces or cancels debts owed to him. Disciples too must make practical judgements before they act.

Marinus van Reymerswaele (1540), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It seems that at the time of Jesus, that wealth was looked upon as having been acquired by corruption, an attitude that is alive and well today in a world where wealth is flouted in a background of hardship and shortages. The British press have recently exposed the colossal quantities of food wasted in the Houses of Parliament by the elite while food banks cannot meet the needs of the hungry. Thus Jesus had a ready audience too for the steward, a true son of this world, who pulled himself together by organising a win/win situation for his master for himself and for his debtors. Disciples as “the sons of light” must be “innocent as dove yet wise as serpents” yet they must be clear that in the end they cannot have two masters “You cannot serve God and mammon.” [verse 13] There is nothing wrong with being responsible about our resources, but these can quickly become harmful unless accompanied by godly wisdom.“

St John Chrysostom reflected on this passage saying “remember that you are a steward and have possessions for only a brief passing use, where your heart is there is your treasure also.”
The wisdom of the parable becomes much clearer when set against the behaviour of the rich man and Lazarus that will follow in next week’s reflection on Luke 16;19ff.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

Translate »