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69. Parable of the Dishonest Steward (Luke 16:1-15)
by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Gospel Parallels §§174-175
Andrei Mironov (Russian artist), 'The Unjust Steward'
"1 Jesus told his disciples: 'There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2 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." 3 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 -- 4 I know what I'll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses."
5 So he called in each one of his master's debtors. He asked the first, "How much do you owe my master?" 6 "Eight hundred gallons of olive oil," he replied. The manager told him, "Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred." 7 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."
8 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. 9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
10 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. 11 So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else's property, who will give you property of your own?
13 No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.' 14 The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15 He said to them, 'You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight.'" (Luke 16:1-15, NIV)
The next few passages focus on how a disciple should view money and possessions. I've heard it said, and I believe it: Until a Christian's money has been committed to the Lord, the Christian's life isn't really committed at all. The wallet needs to be baptized as well as the body to make a real disciple.
The first section uses one single parable with two applications: (1) The dishonest steward is first given as an example of shrewdness, using money to secure one's future (16:1-9). (2) Second, Jesus picks up the idea of a steward to discuss honesty and dishonesty in our own money dealings, that we are stewards of God's money, and must be scrupulously honest with it (16:10-13).
The Parable of the Dishonest Steward is difficult to understand. You'll need to follow it very carefully if you are not to veer off from an accurate interpretation. The problem is that many interpreters just can't believe that Jesus might use dishonest deeds to teach a spiritual truth -- but that's exactly what Jesus does!
Wasting the Master's Possessions (Luke 16:1)
"Jesus told his disciples: 'There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions.'" (16:1)
Jesus' disciples hear a story coming on. Jesus is going to teach them something important. The main character in the story is a manager. The Greek word is oikonomos, "manager of a household or estate, (house) steward, manager."644 He has been accused of "wasting" the master's possessions. This word is Greek diaskorpizō, "scatter, disperse," of a flock or seeds. Here it means, figuratively, "waste, squander."645 The word is the same as the one used in the previous parable to describe how the Prodigal Son "squandered his wealth in wild living" (15:13).
The man was a trusted employee (apparently not a slave, since he would soon be unemployed), but he had betrayed the trust he was given. His job was to work for his master's best interests, but instead he was sloppy and his master's fortune was being scattered, squandered on frivolous pursuits. The man wasn't careful. We aren't told that he was embezzling money from his employer, but his subsequent actions indicate that he wasn't beyond that kind of behavior.
Turn in Your Accounting Books (Luke 16:2)
"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.'" (16:2)
It's just an accusation, but the master has reason to believe it. He calls the steward in for a meeting, and relieves him of his responsibilities. "Give an account of your management," means to give a final report of where things stand, and then turn over the accounting books to the master. The word "account" here is the common Greek word logos, "word." Here it means "computation, reckoning." This is a formal accounting, especially of one's actions, and frequently with figurative extension of commercial terminology, "account, accounts, reckoning."646
The steward is being fired. But until he turns in the accounting books, he is still officially the steward, and can still act in an official and legal capacity on behalf of his master. No wonder the modern practice is to have a sacked employee clear out his desk immediately, turn in his keys, and leave the building under the watchful eye of security.
Ingratiating Himself to the Debtors (Luke 16:3-4)
"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.'" (16:3-4)
The man is desperate -- and unscrupulous. The key phrase to remember is, "people will welcome me into their houses," since Jesus repeats this phrase later in the parable and it relates to the point he is making.
Ingratiating Himself to the Debtors (Luke 16:5-8)
"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.'" (16:5-8)
The master's debtors are obviously well-to-do farmers in their own right. Those who deal in 800 gallons of olive oil and 1,000 bushels of wheat own much more than a small family farm.
Apparently, the dishonest steward, in the waning hours of his employment, brings in his master's debtors one-by-one, and instructs them to change from the full amount owed to a lower amount to replace or alter the bills or IOUs that had previously written in their own hand. This has several implications:
- The steward has the legal power to act for his master, and thus what he has done -- though dishonest -- is yet legal.
- The steward is now seen as a friend and patron by the wealthy debtors. Not as a trusted friend, but a friend.
- It seems to me possible that the steward could blackmail the debtors concerning the changed bill. It isn't his own hand but theirs that has made the change. They have profited from the change, he hasn't profited directly in any way. There is nothing to prove any wrongdoing on his part; it's his word against theirs, and they had the most to gain from it. If the steward were to claim that this had been done without his authorization, at the least their reputations might be ruined and perhaps they might be prosecuted under law for fraud. The debtors, therefore, may be inviting the ex-steward into their homes out of goodwill -- and fear.
There are many interpretations of the steward's actions. One is that the steward only reduced the amount of the bill by the excessive and illegal interest (usury) -- making him in fact righteous compared to his blood-sucking master. But that doesn't fit the story as Jesus told it, nor would it be obvious to the hearers of the story. Moreover, Jesus refers to the steward as "dishonest," Greek adikia, "unrighteousness, wickedness, injustice."647 Jesus doesn't justify his action but calls it what it is -- wickedness.648
Commended for Acting Shrewdly (Luke 16:8)
"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." (16:8)
When the master got a hold of the books, he could see what his ex-steward had done. Suddenly his accounts receivable were 30% lower than the previous week. But he couldn't go after either his steward or his debtors. Instead, as one shrewd man to a shrewder one, he grudgingly commends him.
Jesus doesn't applaud dishonesty, but he notes that "the people of the light" aren't as smart as worldly people when it comes to securing their future. The words translated "shrewd" (NIV) or "wise" (KJV) in verse 8 are the Greek adverb and adjectives phronimōs, "prudently, shrewdly," from the root phronis, "prudence."649
Using Worldly Wealth to Gain Friends (Luke 16:9)
"I tell you, use worldly wealth (KJV "unrighteous mammon") to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings." (16:9)
This is a hard verse to understand: How can you create eternal friends with money?
Many Christians minimize the idea of rewards in heaven in return for faithful service here on earth. For many, it probably it smacks too much of "works righteousness" that Luther so strongly and rightly opposed during the Reformation. But the Jews believed -- and Jesus seems to endorse -- that giving alms to the poor is rewarded by God, and is a way of laying up treasure in heaven. (See Matthew 19:21; Mark 10:21; Luke 12:33; 18:22.) There's also the idea occasionally in the Old Testament that one should give to the poor, or the poor will curse you and God will give heed to the poor's protest. (See Psalm 140:12; Proverbs 19:17; 21:13; 22:22-23; 28:27.)
Thus, Jesus is saying that Christians ought to help the poor, realizing that God will bless them for it. Not only will the poor in heaven remember their kindness, but so will God. See, for example, the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19-31) that follows shortly after this one and explores a similar theme.
There is a wonderful verse in Proverbs:
"He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord,
and he will reward him for what he has done." (Proverbs 19:17)
(See also Proverbs 11:24-25; 28:27a). What is it like to have God as a "debtor"? It is an oxymoron. But it gives credence to the popular saying, "You can't out-give God."
We are not saved by giving to the poor (though a saved person will certainly do that), but we are rewarded on earth and in heaven for it. Jesus wonders in this parable, however, why most believers aren't shrewd enough to figure this out.
Honest with Little, Honest with Much (Luke 16:10)
Now Jesus shifts from telling a story to reflecting on being a manager of someone else's money
"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." (16:10)
First, Jesus makes the observation that those who are honest in the little details of inconsequential things can be trusted to be honest with large responsibilities and large amounts of money. It raises an important question for you and me: Can we be trusted with the trivial? Are we honest about chump change? Will we do the little jobs with as much integrity and care as the great opportunities?
I was raised on stories of Abraham Lincoln. Once when he was a shopkeeper he had totaled up a woman's bill to two dollars and six and a quarter cents. After she had paid and left, Abe wasn't sure he had figured it right, recalculated, and found that he had charged her an extra six and a quarter cents. He closed up shop and walked two to three miles to her home to pay her. On another occasion, he found he had inadvertently shorted a customer in measuring out half a pound of tea. He closed the shop and carried the few ounces of tea to her home. Strict honesty. He did not let it slide because it was a paltry amount. It was the principle of the thing and his own integrity at stake.650
Are you honest with the small responsibilities God gives you? With the small income or the small tithe you owe? If you are, God knows he can trust you with really large responsibilities and considerable wealth. Seeking to find who in your church you can trust an important ministry to? Watch carefully how he or she has fulfilled the tiny responsibility given them. If a person is sloppy with a small responsibility, he won't be any more careful with the big responsibility. It's a matter of character.
The True Riches (Luke 16:11-12)
"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?" (16:11-12)
Next, Jesus contrasts worldly wealth with the true riches. The phrase translated as "worldly wealth" in the NIV in verses 8 and 11 is rendered by the KJV as "unrighteous mammon." The adjective is Greek adikos, "unjust."651 The noun, Greek mamōnas, is a transliteration of an Aramaic word which means "wealth, property," and most likely derives from the root aman, "that in which one trusts." Though the word mamōnas carried the negative connotation of tainted wealth or dishonest gain, the rabbis did make a distinction between tainted mammon and property or wealth which is free from ethical objection.652
If you can't be trusted to handle materialistic wealth, how much less will God trust you with the true wealth?
Of course, there is a very real sense in which everything we own is God's -- not just 10%, but everything. The phrase "someone else's property" in 16:12 uses the Greek word allotrios, "pertaining to what belongs to another."653 (This is one of the few places in the Bible where we are taught that we are stewards of God's property, managers of God's resources -- our finances, our time, our talents and abilities, our position in society, all of it. Most of the time the idea of stewardship relates to the gospel itself.)
Sanctifying Mammon by Tithing
I said at the beginning of this lesson that a person isn't a committed Christian until his money is also committed to God. I firmly believe that. I have seen how beginning the practice of tithing can help a disciple sanctify all of his or her money. Tithing is often a symbol of acknowledging that all one has belongs to God. I know that some don't believe in tithing under the New Covenant, but in sacrificial, generous, and proportionate giving to God's work. If so, the same principle applies. When we make spiritual decisions about how we allocate our money, then our whole life is sanctified that much more.
I'm well aware, however, that a person can tithe and still be owned by money. That was true of the Pharisees who both tithed scrupulously but had no real compassion for the poor (11:42) and continued to love their money (16:14). Money almost takes on a power of its own to control us. Since money has such a potential to corrupt, disciples must not wiggle out of facing the next principle that Jesus teaches.
The Parable of the Two Masters (Luke 16:13)
"No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money." (16:13)
The word definitions in this passage are clear enough. Money is Greek mamōnas that we discussed above. The word "servant" here is oiketēs, literally, "member of the household," then specifically, "house slave, domestic," and "slave" generally.654 The word "master" is Greek kyrios, here "one who is in charge by virtue of possession, owner."655 Jesus states the contrast twice, in Hebrew parallelism -- hate/love, devoted/despise.
Perhaps you never thought of this as a parable, but it is -- a very brief parable. Jesus draws his hearers' minds to households where there were two masters. One was always the favorite, the other was always the boss-to-hate. You've probably worked in a small company with two owners, or an office with an office manager, and another person who really held the power. You've probably held two jobs at the same time, and tried to give an equal amount of energy and focus to each employer. It just doesn't work that way.
In Jesus' day, a slave might work for two or more persons in partnership (Acts 16:10, 19) or for two different masters.656 A slave might even have been freed by one master while still a slave to another.657
Having laid out the real life situation of two bosses, Jesus states flatly, "You can't serve both God and Money." His point is that a man cannot render the exclusive loyalty and service inherent in the concept of slave to more than one master. In this passage, mamōnas is personified as an alternate god, an alternate master, an alternate boss.
Oh, I don't serve Money, says the social climbing church board member or tight-fisted church treasurer. I don't serve Money, says the churchgoer who spends more on recreation and "toys" each month than he would ever consider giving to God's work.
The truth is that many, many would-be disciples are trying to serve God and Money both. And one or the other will come out on top. Look at how a person/church/company spends money, says one consultant, and I'll tell you what their values are. How we spend or allocate our money tells the story. If we are head-over-heels in debt, the chances are very good that Money was the default god -- maybe not by deliberate allegiance but by default.
What does it mean to be a disciple with your money? Have you and your spouse ever sat down and discussed "how God would have us spend our money"? We may have discussed how we should spend our money. But the disciple question is how God would have us spend our money. That places him in the position as the Lord of our life decisions, not we ourselves. Money decisions are either spiritual decisions or self-serving decisions. Making a contract has spiritual implications. Taking out a loan has spiritual implications. Buying on credit has spiritual implications. Writing a will has spiritual implications.
Don't kid yourself! How we relate the Lordship of Jesus to our use of money is one of the core issues Jesus seeks to teach us, his disciples. We can try to never squarely face the issue. But that, too, is a deliberate decision. To not make Jesus Lord of your money is to allow the money itself to take power over your decisions.
Turning Worldly Values Upside Down (Luke 16:14-15)
"The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, 'You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight.'" (16:14-15)
Luke describes the Pharisees with the Greek word philargyros, "fond of money, avaricious."658 They were sneering. The Greek verb is ekmyktērizō (from myktēr, "nostril") refers to using the nose as a means to ridicule, "ridicule, sneer at someone."659 Most of the time in narrating Jesus' life and ministry, Luke uses the Greek Aorist tense, which describes events that took place at a particular time in the past. But here he uses the imperfect tense, which has the idea of continued action in the past. "They kept on sneering at Jesus." Because they were money lovers, they couldn't afford to take Christian stewardship seriously, but kept on ridiculing Jesus' stand on money.
Jesus' reply to the Pharisees is what he would reply to some of us who make excuses for how we handle our money (God's money). To paraphrase Jesus, "You make excuses before people, but God knows your hearts." God knows us. He knows our inner motivations and drives. We're not fooling him -- and most of the time we're not fooling people, either.
Then Jesus says, "What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight." The wealth that impresses people doesn't impress God at all. He sees through our fawning over prize possessions and wealthy people whose wealth we hope might rub off on us. It turns God's stomach to see us this way.
The Apostle John, who had internalized Jesus' teaching, wrote these words to his own disciples near the end of his life:
"For everything in the world --
the cravings of sinful man,
the lust of his eyes
and the boasting of what he has and does --
comes not from the Father but from the world" (1 John 2:16).
We have to decide whose values we will adopt and live by. That's at the root of discipleship -- adopting the values of the one we are following and learning from. His values will either displace that which is evil and selfish within us, or we will resist them to the end.
This lesson is about:
- Financial wisdom, the ability to use money to accomplish godly acts and spiritual goals,
- Stewardship, being responsible for money and property that is not really our own,
- Trustworthiness and honesty concerning the money with which God has entrusted us,
- To live free from Money's control of our lives.
- To be fully owned by God, and nothing else.
Jesus is right: We just cannot serve both God and Mammon.
Father, a lot of life comes down to money. Whether it controls us or whether we make You our Master instead. Lord, we deliberately ask you to resume your rightful place over our money right now. Forgive us for the fear of want that drives us, for the self-centered love of luxury that corrupts us, and for the lust for power and acceptance that motivates our lifestyles. Teach us, we pray, how to live with you as fully Lord, fully God. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.
"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 16:10-12)
Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions
that follow -- your choice.
- Why was the steward in Jesus' parable (16:1-8) being fired? What in the passage displays his character?
- In what way did the steward use money to secure his future?
- What about the steward's actions does the master commend? What is the point that Jesus draws from this parable?
- Extra Credit: In what ways should we use money to secure our eternal future? (16:9) (This is a difficult verse for most of us. Study the exposition for clues to the answer.)
- In what kinds of experiences does Jesus test and seek to mould our trustworthiness with money? Is it possible for a money-obsessed person to become a committed disciple of Jesus? If not, how might this occur?
- Why are giving alms and tithing (or sacrificial, generous giving to God's work) so difficult for money-obsessed people? (Let's not debate tithing, but look to the heart issues instead that are the focus of Jesus' teaching here.)
- In what ways are we not property "owners" but property "stewards" of what God owns? What are the implications of this for our lives?
- Why is it so difficult to try to serve both God and Money?
- Extra Credit: Jesus states that high human values tend to be the things most detestable to God. How can we know that we have really conformed our lives to God's values rather than just kidding ourselves?
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.
 Oikonomos, BDAG 698.
 Diaskorpizō, BDAG 236.
 Logos, BDAG 600-601.
 Adikia, BDAG 20-21.
 Marshall (Luke, pp. 614-617) cites J.D.M. Derrett ("The Parable of the Unjust Steward," New Testament Studies 7, 1961, pp. 198-219), concluding that "Derrett's interpretation has the most to be said for it." So Morris, Luke, pp. 245-249. I think they're wrong for the reasons stated above. Green, Luke, pp. 591-592, fn. 272, also disputes Derrett's interpretation.
 Phronimōs, BDAG 1066. There are two closely-related Greeks words here, but the English transliteration is the same, since the adjective ending is with an omicron while the adverb ending is with an omega, both transliterated by "o".
 See B.A. Botkin, (editor), A Treasury of American Folklore (Crown Publishers, 1944).
 Adikos, BDAG 21.
 Mamōnas, BDAG 614-615. Hauck, mamōnas, TDNT 4:388-400.
 Allotrios, BDAG 47.
 Oiketēs, BDAG 694.
 Kyrios, BDAG 577-579.
 Pesachim 8:1
 Marshall, Luke, p. 624, cites Strack and Billerback I, 433f.
 Philargyros, BDAG 1056.
 Ekmyktērizō, BDAG 307.
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