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Sunday, 22 September 2019

The Parable of the Dishonest Manager: Does Jesus Endorse Fraud?

The Parable of the Dishonest Manager (Luke 16:1-8), part of the Gospel reading for today in the Roman Catholic lectionary, is probably the most difficult of Jesus' parables in the Gospels to interpret, particularly from a moral-theological point of view. It is probably fair to say that the story has been causing interpreters to scratch their heads throughout the nearly 2000 years since it was told. Here is the parable:
1 Then he also said to his disciples, “A rich man had a steward who was reported to him for squandering his property. 2 He summoned him and said, ‘What is this I hear about you? Prepare a full account of your stewardship, because you can no longer be my steward.’ 3 The steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do, now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me? I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I know what I shall do so that, when I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 He called in his master’s debtors one by one. To the first he said, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He replied, ‘One hundred measures of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note. Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.’ 7 Then to another he said, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘One hundred kors of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note; write one for eighty.’ 8 And the master [Lord?] commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently. For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9 I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. (Luke 16:1-9 NABRE)
In verses 1-7 we read of an incompetent manager who, informed of his impending dismissal, alters financial documents to reduce the debts of his master's debtors, thus winning their gratitude. This sounds like fraud, plain and simple. The puzzler, therefore, comes in verse 8, where we read that the master commended the dishonest (literally, 'unrighteous') manager for his prudence or shrewdness. Is the Gospel endorsing fraud, at least under desperate circumstances?

Marius Reiser, in his book Jesus and Judgment, offers a good discussion of different scholarly views on the meaning of the parable (including his own view), which has served as the basis for this brief summary.1 Broadly speaking there are two schools of thought on the parable. One school regards the unrighteous manager's actions as morally upright, because he sought to rectify an injustice in the original debt amounts. The other school regards the unrighteous manager's actions as morally wrong, and thus not a model for financial stewardship, but praiseworthy only for shrewdness and resourcefulness in a dire situation.

Within the first view there are at least two variations. One variation holds that debts in commodities (rather than money) were used to circumvent legal restrictions on the charging of interest (usury), and therefore the original debt amounts (100 measures of olive oil; 100 kors of wheat) were unjust. The manager acts to rectify some of his master's unjust usury, which mitigates his own guilt and wins the favour of the debtors. The master, who can hardly protest without losing face, commends the manager (perhaps ruefully, since the manager has cost him a bundle!) The second variation holds that managers behaved similar to tax collectors in that they unjustly inflated the amounts due to their masters and pocketed the excess. Knowing that he won't be around to collect his take on outstanding debts, the manager reduces them to the amount actually due to his master. He thus repents of his past corruption and also wins the favour of the debtors. In this scenario, the manager's action has not cost the master anything, so the manager can commend his shrewdness wholeheartedly. The biggest exegetical difficulty with the first view is that it hinges on unstated details about the nature of the debt reductions (i.e., the debts were reduced by an amount representing usury or corruption). It helps to resolve the parable's moral conundrum, but not entirely: is fraud an acceptable way to right financial injustices?

Under the first view, the manager is 'unrighteous' only in the previous wastefulness that (v. 1) that led to his dismissal, and not in the behaviour described in vv. 3-7. The second view, however, has the manager behaving unrighteously throughout. His action in reducing the debts due to his master is fraud, plain and simple, motivated by his own self-interest. Under this view, it is more difficult to understand why the manager wins his master's praise: not only are his actions unrighteous, but they have cost the master a bundle. A rueful commendation for shrewdness, along the lines of, 'Yeah, he got me there!' is possible, but there is another intriguing possibility. Reiser argues that the parable ends in v. 7 and that in v. 8a Luke is already describing Jesus' reaction. So it is not 'And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently', but 'And the Lord commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently' (the Greek word for 'master' and 'Lord' in Luke is the same, kyrios.) In support of this view, it is characteristic of Luke's style (unlike the other Evangelists) to refer to Jesus in the narrative simply as 'the Lord' (ho kyrios).2 Indeed, in Luke 18:1-6 we find another parable that ends abruptly and is followed immediately by a reaction from 'the Lord'.

I find the second view to be more exegetically plausible, since it does not require us to assume unstated but crucial details about the nature of the debts in the story. If so, then the manager's financial activities are not depicted as morally upright, and are not presented as a model of stewardship. Certainly there is no endorsement of fraudulent activity under special circumstances. What is commendable about the manager's 'prudence' or 'shrewdness' is precisely and only that he acted decisively to secure his future in the face of an impending day of reckoning. In Luke 16:2 the manager is called to 'give an account,' language that is used for the final judgment in other parables of Jesus (Matt. 18:23; 25:19; cf. 12:36). The manager's situation as a guilty individual whose day of reckoning is imminent thus symbolises the unrighteous in Israel,3 for whom the Day of Judgment is drawing nigh. They ought likewise to take decisive action to secure their future—particularly in the way they use their material wealth (v. 9). The 'friends' they are to make with this wealth are either the poor (who might intercede on their behalf), or possibly God and his angels (whose prerogative it would be to welcome people into the 'eternal dwellings'; cf. Luke 16:22). The message is not to defraud earthly masters (the master in the parable represents God) but to use earthly wealth in a way that will produce an eternal profit, after the earthly wealth has failed. The parable is thus of a piece with the other great parable of Luke 16, that of the rich man and Lazarus.

It is probably precisely because of the dodgy nature of the manager's actions in the parable that Luke has supplemented the parable with sayings about the importance of trustworthy stewardship and of not making financial gain one's master (verses 10-13). Luke wants to reinforce these principles to make sure his readers do not draw faulty moral inferences from this difficult parable.


  • 1 Marius Reiser, Jesus and Judgment: The Eschatological Proclamation in Its Jewish Context (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 291-301.
  • 2 See, e.g., Luke 7:13, 19; 10:1, 39, 41; 11:39, 42; 13:15; 17:5, 6; 18:6; 19:8; 22:61; 24:34. For an excellent treatment of the Christological implications of Luke's use of ho kyrios, see C. Kavin Rowe, Early Narrative Christology: The Lord in the Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009).
  • 3 E.g., the Pharisees (Luke 16:14)