an interpretation of the shrewd manager in luke 16

The Parable of the Shrewd Manager (Luke 16:1-13) is, in the words of Leon Morris, “… one of the most difficult of all the parables to interpret.”*

Most people with whom I have discussed this parable have little to no idea as to what it might mean. Indeed the idea that a dishonest person is commended is troubling at the very least.

The most common solution I have heard is that Jesus is saying we should be wise with our resources and opportunities just like the shrewd manager, to the point of using them dishonestly if necessary in order to get a good outcome.

Is this a fair interpretation?

I don’t think so.

One thing we can say is that Luke 16 as a whole is almost entirely concerned with money, and this should frame our discussion.

The story tells of a manager/steward who is accused of wasting the possessions of his master, a rich man. This should ring alarm bells for us immediately since Luke has already had harsh things to say about the rich leading up to chapter 16, including:

  • … he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. (1:53)
  • … woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. (6:24)
  • … the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich towards God. (12:21)

Clearly being rich is not a good thing according to Luke, and this is probably because in first century Palestine to be rich invariably meant exploiting others through mechanisms such as land foreclosure or charging interest, actions not looked well upon in the Old Testament.

We should assume then that the rich man is not the protagonist of the story.

The rich man’s manager is forced into action in order to avoid social humiliation and economic ruin – he decides to reduce the debts of those who owe his master. This act of forgiveness of debts is most definitely a morally good act just as in the Old Testament, though the motive of the manager is questionable.

When the rich man realises what has happened he commends the shrewd manager. Note that the rich man is given a choice in this dilemma; either reverse the forgiveness of debts in order to take back the wealth lost resulting in loss of social honour, or allow the debt reductions to remain thus resulting in a loss of wealth but a gain in honour. In an honour-shame society like that of Palestine in Jesus’ day honour was worth much more than money, and so honour is preferred by the rich man.

That the rich man commends the manager is striking; should we accept this commendation? Most have assumed that because Jesus has this happen in his parable he must be inferring that the shrewd manager is commendable, and so the logic follows that his shrewdness is something to aspire to.

It is in fact Jesus, however, who calls the manager/steward “dishonest” in 16:8. This cannot be passed over easily. Brian McLaren has attempted to argue that:

From Jesus’ perspective … the steward is wise rather than unjust – wise enough to defect (as the rich young ruler should have done) from the service of the wealthier elite to give a break to the poor who are being crushed … (Everything Must Change, 97)

While I find this view compelling, it simply does not make sense of the text for me – quite simply the manager is called dishonest (adikia – literally ‘unjust’) by Jesus.

What is the point of the story, then?

The point of the story is not to emulate any character. The rich man is evil. The manager is equally evil, despite his reduction of debts, which is only enacted to save his own skin (an act that earns the admiration of the evil master!)

Jesus comments following the story support this interpretation – “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” (16:8). In other words the people of this world are shrewd in dealing with each other, more than those who are in the kingdom (the sons of light). And rightly so, people take advantage of the systems of this world to benefit themselves, and this is quite frankly dishonest and unbecoming of people in the kingdom.

What should we make of Jesus’ advice to “… make friends for yourselves by means of mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”? Is Jesus not telling us to follow the example of the dishonest manager?

Not quite. Making “friends” referred to patron-client relationships in the Greco-Roman world in which economic and social benefits were traded. This was seen simply as a social reality which could not be avoided (in the same way that purchasing goods with money cannot be avoided in our time).

Seen in the context of Luke’s earlier writing however we must argue that the connection between Jesus’ teaching here and the manager in the parable is completely destroyed since the manager made “friends” in order to be repaid in social dividends whereas throughout Luke’s Gospel Jesus teaches that making “friends” was to be done without hope of reciprocation:

  • Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. (6:30)
  • But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great. (6:35)
  • … and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. (11:4)

Jesus, if he is consistent, is instructing us to do precisely the opposite of the dishonest manager – rather than making deals with the poor for personal gain Jesus calls us to genuinely make friends with those who cannot repay us thus creating social unity between rich and poor.

It is these acts of compassion that have a bearing on our ultimate judgement – “make friends for yourselves by means of mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” The following story about the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31) depicts something akin to not being welcomed into eternal dwellings precisely because no friendship with the poor was created. Negative judgement in this story is not reckoned because of lack of belief, but because of lack of compassion for the poor.

Ultimately the issue comes down to our love of mammon, or money and possessions. Jesus is quite clear that we need to choose between God, who calls us to serve the poor, and money, which will cause us to be shrewd in seeking personal benefit like the dishonest manager.

The fact that the Pharisees are said to have sneered at this teaching (16:14) seems to indicate that they, who resembled the dishonest manager in their doing of good deeds for personal benefit, understood that Jesus was likening them to a character who was not to be viewed as admirable.

The fact that so many have tried to make the dishonest manager an example of wisdom to be followed may well demonstrate our penchant for interpreting the Bible in ways that support our radically wealthy Western lifestyles.

Though the systems of this world can be used for personal gain in wealth or power (particularly for the majority of my readers who are educated and middle+ class) those who seek to follow Jesus must renounce such collusion.

I wonder what this means for our desire for cheap material goods (where were they produced, and by whom?), our abuse of the environment or our investments in the share market…

In conclusion, don’t copy the manager.


* Leon Morris, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Luke, (London: IVP, 1974), 245.

Posted on November 30, 2011, in Biblical Studies, Economics, New Testament and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Hi Matt. Hate to burst your bubble here…you got it wrong also. Luke 16 has to be taken as a whole within the framework of Luke 15:1- 17:10. It begins with the religious leaders grumbling about who it is Jesus is eating with – making a distinction between them and them.

    So Jesus starts telling a few parables. A lady who loses a coin. A shepherd who loses a sheep. A father who loses a son.. all which build up a case against the Pharisaic attitude. They start to grumble again..and he tells them the story of the shrewd manager…who I think was a direct representation of the religious leaders who were corrupt and taking more then they should have been.

    Jesus was telling them their time was up. He was rebuking the religious leaders for their lack of mercy and that it wasn’t too late for them to get in on the act. He then goes onto say that they have divorced themselves from God and married idolatrous money, (Luke does not say anything about marriage and divorce in this passage) Jesus then continues in the same theme… finally telling the story of the rich man and Abraham. (Again this story has nothing to do with heaven and hell) it has to do with the fact that the religious leaders were clearly divorced and separated from the things of God.

    The whole thrust of the message is tied in with Jesus mission and what I consider to be the main Scripture that hold the OT together- Micah 6:8.

  2. P.S. I apologise if I came across as being a bit arrogant with my “bursting bubble” comment. I was trying to be a bit flippant and cheeky.

  3. Hi Craig,

    Thanks for your comment. I actually don’t think our views are in any way mutually exclusive, I’m not sure why you think this is the case.

    Of course Jesus is directing it as an attack on the Pharisees (which I mentioned). Of course it reveals that they are like the shrewd manager and not the sons of light. Of course the following story about the rich man and Lazarus is not about heaven and hell, but about the centrality of love, mercy and action (over-against Pharisaic purity).

    I think your points here are quite naturally a match with my interpretation above.

    I would warn against seeing this parable as simply a continuation of those in Luke 15 however since Jesus shifts his audience in Luke 16:1 – Luke 15 is directed at the Pharisees and scribes whereas Luke 16:1-13 is directed at his disciples (with the Pharisees overhearing). Jesus is teaching his disciples to not be like the dishonest manager, who I mentioned was a characterisation of the Pharisees (near the end of the article).

    Themes continue across of course, but narratively I think we should perceive a slight shift in the purpose of the rhetoric.

    I basically agree with you is my overall point.



  4. Thanks Matt, Haven’t heard that before, only McLaren’s view (from another source). Very interesting and it seems highly plausible.
    The McLaren view (I’m sure he didn’t invest it) has the manager as a hero for subverting the system. As you point out, that doesn’t work if the master commends him.

  5. Hi Matt,

    Great post. I have been doing some work on this parable lately too and have reached some pretty similar conclusions. I agree with you that the “unjust steward” never left the system of injustice, and is not held out as a moral exemplar. I also agree that the plousios “rich man” is in no way to be taken as an analogue of God in the story. I do also agree in part with Craig’s point that the pharisees are a key narrative audience, along with the toll collectors, “sinners” and disciples.

    The point that I would add is to look closely at the nature of the contracts themselves – the sheer volume and the fact that they are expressed in commodity amounts tends to suggest these are forward commercial distribution contracts, not local consumption / supply arrangements. Therefore the debtors are also part of the system of injustice. The amount written off (100% for perishable oil, 25% for grain) represents a hidden interest added to the principal to offset the rich man’s risk in the forward contract. As such it was forbidden by Torah (e.g. Ex 22:25), but in C1 Palestine the rabbinic schools had begun to collude with the powers in “looking the other way” regarding the usurious transactions which were grossly inflating the commodity process of cash crops and drivign the process of disenfrachisement, landlessness, and poverty.

    So as you have said, its all about the money – and how that reflects the relations of power and domination in society.

    In this context the unjust steward’s actions are principally directed at showing the master what a “good” steward he has been in the past, entering into all these illegal contracts on his behalf, and I think the honour / shame angle is important here too as a previous poster has said.

    I won’t go on and on – but it is one of those parables that I think is endlessly interesting and deeply chalenging to me.

    Great to see some of the other things on your blog here – like what you are doing.

    • I should add, that the key insight above is indebted (although not usuriously) to William Herzog’s analysis in Parables as Subversive Speech; Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed. Although I do hope that in some ways my paper has pushed Herzog’s argument a little further …

  6. Rev Judith E Tobias, Pastor, First Hungarian Reformed of Homestead,, Pa

    One of the best essays on the Luke 16:1-10 passage the parable the Shrewd or Unjust manager is what Justin Upkong wrote, I.e. Catholic Scholar from Nigeria. When you take into consideration the culture, the rich get rich analogy against keeping the “poor” in their place, it will be much more understandable how you view the managers handling of his position. I advocate a multi-cultural approach to this interpretation allowing the biblical texts to become available to people of different cultures. The end result is discipleship, God’s mercy and forgiveness…the focus I understood the rich and their lack of concern for the poor in society; thevrightbse of wealth bring a condition for gaining salvation. We must remember poor people have no “rights” in an immoral, unjust society. That is not Gods plan and Luke brings that message out loud and clear…just go back to the lineage starting with Adam as opposed to Matthew’s use of Abraham. As theologians we must look deeper to tell the whole truth, nothing but the truth, so help us God.

    Judith E Tobias

  7. Excellent discussion. Sometimes we with the western mindset make parables way to complicated. Consider this:

  8. I’m not satisfied from any.
    All references are truncated or decimated, incomplete.
    There are a lot of details that are being left out and not given any consideration at all.

    Parables can be understood(mostly misunderstood) in a thousand different ways unless Jesus explains them himself.

  9. This parable has always confused me until I searched for others interpretations and this was the first “blog” I opened. Without the big words and economical sense ( which I have neither )
    Matthew 18:23-35 is similar to this passage in Luke 16, the forgiveness of a debt.
    I am in business for myself, and I sometimes Bid or Estimate what a job may cost. I usually estimate high to cover any unforseen expense to the owner. If the job ends up costing less I always adjust the estimate or bid.
    This Shrewd Manager in Luke 16 may have been charging more interest per say to further his own gain and not being honest with his master. When he was decreasing the debt owed to his master he was actually forgiving the increased amount or interest. Thereby, the master and manager were seen as favorable and forgiving toward a debt that could never be paid in full and releasing the family and future generations of the increased amount.
    Take out the negative description of the Master and Manager and look at them as the Father and Son, you can relate that we as sinners can never repay the debt of sin.
    Jesus reduced our debt to the Law of Ten Commandments to two simple commandments
    in Matthew 22:36-40
    36“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
    A third if you wish John 3:16

  10. All, you are missing something critical when you say “finally telling the story of the rich man and Abraham. (Again this story has nothing to do with heaven and hell).”

    I’m sorry to break this to you but the story of the rich man and Lazarus is not a parable but a true story. Yes there is a real heaven and a real hell and that story has EVERYTHING to do with both places. In fact you are in danger of hell-fire if you do not believe there is hell since the concept of hell is a theme throughout both the old and new testaments, and Jesus himself often mentioned hell as a real place. Do you dare call Him a liar?

    “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” – John 15:6 ESV

    Ted White

  11. A very good interpretation of a difficult parable. I read on another forum that on this occasion Jesus used sarcasm as a means to get His message across to the Pharisees and His disciples. Also that Children of the Light refers not to Christians but the Jews. Anyway, thanks for helping me clear up my confusion that Jesus was commending a selfish dishonest act in this parable – which would be totally out of character.

  1. Pingback: q&r: luke 19 and the parable of the minas « life.remixed

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