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The Parable of the Unrighteous Steward (Luke 16.1–9): A Prudent Use of Mammon

  • Delbert Burkett (a1)


The parable of the unrighteous steward encouraged rich individuals outside the Christian community to use their wealth to make friends of Jesus’ poor disciples, specifically by reducing their debts, so that in the eschatological kingdom Jesus’ disciples would receive these benefactors into their eternal dwellings. It had its setting in the efforts of early Palestinian Christians to enlist the financial support of the wealthy. Since many of these did not wish to sell all their possessions and donate the proceeds to the Christian community, this parable suggested an alternative way that the rich could use their wealth to assist the community.



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1 For surveys of interpretation and/or bibliography, see Krämer, M., Das Rätsel der Parabel vom ungerechten Verwalter, Lk 16,1–13: Auslegungsgeschichte—Umfang—Sinn (Biblioteca di Scienze Religiose 5; Zürich: PAS, 1972); Kissinger, W. S., The Parables of Jesus: A History of Interpretation and Bibliography (ATLA Bibliography Series 4; Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow and ATLA, 1979) 398408; Fitzmyer, J. A., The Gospel according to Luke (x–xxiv) (AB 28A; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985) 1102–4; Ireland, D. J., Stewardship and the Kingdom of God: An Historical, Exegetical, and Contextual Study of the Parable of the Unjust Steward in Luke 16:1–13 (NovTSup 70; Leiden: Brill, 1992); Hultgren, A. J., The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) 146–57, esp. 154–7; Snodgrass, K., Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008) 406–10; Dennert, B. C., ‘Appendix: A Survey of the Interpretive History of the Parable of the Dishonest Steward (Luke 16:1–9)’, From Judaism to Christianity: Tradition and Transition (Leiden: Brill, 2010) 145–52; Bovon, F., Luke 2: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 9:51–19:27 (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013) 439–42.

2 E.g. Bultmann, R., The History of the Synoptic Tradition (New York: Harper & Row, rev. edn 1968) 175–6; Crossan, J. D., In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus (New York: Harper & Row, 1973) 108–11, esp. 109.

3 E.g. Via, D. O. Jr, The Parables: Their Literary and Existential Dimension (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1967) 156; Topel, L. J., ‘On the Injustice of the Unjust Steward: Luke 16:1–13’, CBQ 37 (1975) 216–27; Stein, R. H., An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1981) 106–7; Fitzmyer, Luke, 1094–111, esp. 1105; Kloppenborg, J. S., ‘The Dishonoured Master (Luke 16, 1–8a)’, Bib 70 (1989) 474–95, esp. 475–6; Loader, W. R. G., ‘Jesus and the Rogue in Luke 16,1–8a: The Parable of the Unjust Steward’, RB 96 (1989) 518–32; Parrott, D. M., ‘The Dishonest Steward (Luke 16.1–8a) and Luke's Special Parable Collection’, NTS 37 (1991) 499515; de Silva, D. A., ‘The Parable of the Prudent Steward and its Lucan Context’, CTR 6 (1993) 255–68, esp. 257; Herzog, W. R. II, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1994) 235; Landry, D. and May, B., ‘Honor Restored: New Light on the Parable of the Prudent Steward (Luke 16:1–8a)’, JBL 119 (2000) 287309, at 288–9; Reinmuth, E., ‘Der beschuldigte Verwalter (vom ungetreuen Haushalter) – Lk 16,1–8’, Kompendium der Gleichnisse Jesu (ed. Zimmermann, R.; Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2007) 634–46; Bovon, Luke 2, 444.

4 E.g. Manson, T. W., The Sayings of Jesus (London: SCM, 1937; reprinted, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979) 290–3, esp. 292–3; Jeremias, J., The Parables of Jesus (New York: Scribner's, 1972 2) 45–8, 181–2; du Plessis, I. J., ‘Philanthropy or Sarcasm? Another Look at the Parable of the Dishonest Manager (Luke 16:1–13)’, Neot 24 (1990) 120, esp. 2, 12; Lee, M., ‘The Wasteful Steward’, NBf 78 (1997) 520–8, esp. 520–1; Hultgren, Parables, 146–57, esp. 147–8.

5 E.g. Fletcher, D., ‘The Riddle of the Unjust Steward: Is Irony the Key?’, JBL 82 (1963) 1530, esp. 19–20; Williams, F. E., ‘Is Almsgiving the Point of the “Unjust Steward”?’, JBL 83 (1964) 293–7, esp. 295, 296; Hiers, R. H., ‘Friends by Unrighteous Mammon: The Eschatological Proletariat (Luke 16:9)’, JAAR 38 (1970) 30–6, esp. 31–3; Krämer, Rätsel, 238–9; Marshall, I. H., The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978) 614–22; Chilton, B. D., A Galilean Rabbi and his Bible: Jesus’ Use of the Interpreted Scripture of his Time (GNS 8; Wilmington, DE: Glazier, 1984) 116–23; Porter, S. E., ‘The Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1–13): Irony Is the Key’, The Bible in Three Dimensions: Essays in Celebration of Forty Years of Biblical Studies in the University of Sheffield (ed. Clines, D. J. A. et al. ; JSOTSup 87; Sheffield: JSOT, 1990) 127–53; Flusser, D., ‘The Parable of the Unjust Steward: Jesus’ Criticism of the Essenes’, Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls: The Controversy Resolved (ed. Charlesworth, J. H.; ABRL; New York: Doubleday, 1992) 176–97, esp. 178, 192 n. 2; Ireland, Stewardship, 91–105; Wright, S. I., ‘Parables on Poverty and Riches (Luke 12:13–21; 16:1–13; 16:19–31)’, The Challenge of Jesus’ Parables (ed. Longenecker, R. N.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) 217–39, esp. 224–30; Snodgrass, Stories, 401–18, esp. 411–12.

6 Fitzmyer, Luke, 1105; Bovon, Luke 2, 445. Contra Topel, ‘On the Injustice’, 220; Kloppenborg, ‘Dishonoured Master’, 475.

7 Contra Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition, 77, 81, 176.

8 Manson, Sayings, 291; Via, Parables, 157; Herzog, Parables, 241; Hultgren, Parables, 149; Metzger, J. A., Consumption and Wealth in Luke's Travel Narrative (BibInt; Leiden: Brill, 2007) 115; Snodgrass, Stories, 406. M. A. Beavis thinks that the steward was a slave (Ancient Slavery as an Interpretive Context for the New Testament Servant Parables with Special Reference to the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1–8)’, JBL 111 (1992) 3754, esp. 45, 49).

9 Thus nothing suggests that the master's debtors made the accusation (contra Herzog, Parables, 251–5).

10 Beavis, ‘Ancient Slavery’, 48–9; Wright, ‘Parables’, 224.

11 Marshall, Luke, 617; Fitzmyer, Luke, 1097.

12 The view that the steward's goal was to retain his stewardship (Herzog, Parables, 256) is contradicted by the steward's own soliloquy.

13 Fletcher, ‘Riddle’, 23; Kloppenborg, ‘Dishonoured Master’, 482; Metzger, Consumption and Wealth, 118–19.

14 Wright, ‘Parables’, 226.

15 Contra de Silva, ‘Parable of the Prudent Steward’, 264; Herzog, Parables, 255–7; Beavis, ‘Ancient Slavery’, 51–2.

16 Ireland, Stewardship, 68–72.

17 Fitzmyer, Luke, 1097; Metzger, Consumption and Wealth, 123.

18 Stein, Introduction to the Parables, 109; Ireland, Stewardship, 74.

19 Kosmala, H., ‘The Parable of the Unjust Steward in the Light of Qumran’, ASTI 3 (1964) 114–21.

20 Jeremias, Parables, 45–7. Ireland lists others with this view (Stewardship, 60 n. 53).

21 Schellenberg, R. S., ‘Which Master? Whose Steward? Metalepsis and Lordship in the Parable of the Prudent Steward (Lk. 16.1–13)’, JSNT 30 (2008) 263–88; Udoh, F. E., ‘The Tale of an Unrighteous Slave (Luke 16:1–8 [13])’, JBL 128 (2009) 311–35, esp. 325–7.

22 E.g. Fitzmyer, Luke, 1098; Metzger, Consumption and Wealth, 119–22.

23 E.g. Derrett, J. D. M., ‘Fresh Light on St. Luke xvi:1: Parable of the Unjust Steward’, NTS 7 (1961) 198219; reprinted, The Parable of the Unjust Steward’, Law in the New Testament (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1970) 4877; idem, “Take Thy Bond … and Write Fifty” (Luke xvi.6): The Nature of the Bond’, JTS NS 23 (1972) 438–40; Marshall, Luke, 617; de Silva, ‘Parable of the Prudent Steward’, 262–3; Herzog, Parables, 255; Wright, ‘Parables’, 225.

24 Kloppenborg, ‘Dishonoured Master’, 479–86; Landry and May, ‘Honor Restored’, 289–90.

25 E.g. Via, Parables, 158, 159–61; Stein, Introduction to the Parables, 109–10; Beavis, ‘Ancient Slavery’, 50–1; Ireland, Stewardship, 73–83; Hultgren, Parables, 151.

26 Kloppenborg, ‘Dishonoured Master’.

27 Landry and May, ‘Honor Restored’.

28 Parrott, ‘Dishonest Steward’, 512–5.

29 Goodrich, J. K., ‘Voluntary Debt Remission and the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1–13)’, JBL 131 (2012) 547–66.

30 E.g. Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition, 175–6; Lee, ‘Wasteful Steward’, 522; Hultgren, Parables, 148, 152.

31 ‘In v. 8b this surprising commendation by Jesus is explained: rightly understood, it is limited to the prudence of the children of this world in their dealings with one another, and does not refer to their relations with God’ (Jeremias, Parables, 46).

32 Colella, P., ‘Zu Lk 16 7’, ZNW 64 (1973) 124–6 (emphasis original).

33 Beavis, ‘Ancient Slavery’, 52. Snodgrass lists earlier scholars with this view (Stories, 409 n. 93; emphasis original).

34 Flusser, ‘Parable’, 183–4 (emphasis original).

35 E.g. Fletcher, ‘Riddle’; du Plessis, ‘Philanthropy or Sarcasm’; Porter, ‘Parable’.

36 Fletcher, ‘Riddle’, 29; cf. du Plessis, ‘Philanthropy or Sarcasm’, 13.

37 Snodgrass, Stories, 409. Williams raises another objection to the ironic interpretation: ‘the steward is not somehow shown to be ridiculous, as the rich fool is’ (‘Is Almsgiving the Point’, 297).

38 E.g. Manson, Sayings, 293; Jeremias, Parables, 46 n. 85; Marshall, Luke, 621–2; Snodgrass, Stories, 415.

39 Williams, ‘Is Almsgiving the Point’, 295–6.

40 E.g. Hiers, ‘Friends’, 31–3; Topel, ‘On the Injustice’, 220–1, 226–7; Fitzmyer, Luke, 1106–7; Ireland, Stewardship, 96–105; Gagnon, R. A. J., ‘A Second Look at Two Lukan Parables: Reflections on the Unjust Steward and the Good Samaritan’, HBT 20 (1998) 19, esp. 2–5; Metzger, Consumption and Wealth, 125–8; Giambrone, A., ‘“Friends in Heavenly Habitations” (Luke 16:9): Charity, Repentance, and Luke's Resurrection Reversal’, RB 120 (2013) 529–52, esp. 540–3.

41 Bovon, Luke 2, 450.

42 Pilgrim, W. E., Good News to the Poor: Wealth and Poverty in Luke-Acts (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1981) 77.

43 Jeremias, Parables, 47; Stein, Introduction to the Parables, 110; Fitzmyer, Luke, 1095–6.

44 On the expression ‘mammon of unrighteousness’, see Kosmala, ‘Parable of the Unjust Steward’; Ireland, Stewardship, 97–9.

45 This point is made with respect to the Gospel of Luke by J. Dupont, Les beatitudes (3 vols.; Paris: Gabalda, 1973) iii.206.

46 The one exception is Joseph of Arimathaea, whom Matthew identifies as a rich man (Matt 27.57). Whether the women in Luke 8.1 are wealthy or not, they contribute their belongings to Jesus and the twelve.

47 In one interpretation of the parable, forgiving debts represents forgiving sins (Topel, ‘On the Injustice’; Loader, ‘Jesus and the Rogue’; Lee, ‘Wasteful Steward’, Reinmuth, ‘Der beschuldigte Verwalter’; Thurén, L., Parables Unplugged: Reading the Lukan Parables in their Rhetorical Context (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014) 123–47). However, in the story the steward does not forgive the debts but merely reduces them.

48 Theissen, G., ‘The Wandering Radicals: Light Shed by the Sociology of Literature on the Early Transmission of Jesus Sayings’, Social Reality and the Early Christians: Theology, Ethics, and the World of the New Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992) 3359; idem, ‘“We Have Left Everything …” (Mark 10:28): Discipleship and Social Uprooting in the Jewish-Palestinian Society of the First Century’, Social Reality, 60–93; idem, Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978).

49 Theissen's thesis receives a less positive evaluation from Horsley, R. A., Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993) 228–31. See also Schottroff, L. and Stegemann, W., Jesus and the Hope of the Poor (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1986) 48–9.

50 D. L. Mealand has identified three periods in Palestine from 30 to 70 ce that might serve as historical settings for gospel traditions relating to possessions, wealth and poverty: the initial founding of the Christian community in Jerusalem, the famine of ca. 48 ce, and the crisis in the sixties leading up to the Jewish revolt of 66 ce (Poverty and Expectation in the Gospels (London: SPCK, 1980) 3841).

51 Johnson, L. T., The Literary Function of Possessions in Luke-Acts (SBLDS 39; Missoula, MT: Scholars, 1977) 25; Mealand, D. L., ‘Community of Goods and Utopian Allusions in Acts ii–iv’, JTS n.s. 28 (1977) 96–9; Klauck, H.-J., ‘Gütergemeinschaft in der klassischen Antike, in Qumran und im Neuen Testament’, RevQ 11 (1982) 4779, esp. 72–4; Seccombe, D. P., Possessions and the Poor in Luke-Acts (SNTU B/6; Linz: Fuchs, 1982) 200–7.

52 Johnson, Literary Function, 5–8; Haenchen, E., The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971) 233–5; Conzelmann, H., A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987) 24.

53 Acts 12.12 refers to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, as a meeting place for disciples.

54 Philo, Hypothetica 11.4–5, 10–13; Good Person 12.85–7; Josephus, J.W. 2.119–61; Ant. 18.20, 22. Cf. Klauck, ‘Gütergemeinschaft’, 52–7.

55 B. J. Capper gives a survey of the debate and defends the view that full members of the community practised full community of goods (Community of Goods in the Rule of the Community (1QS) and Comparative Analysis of the Advanced Probationer's Renunciation of Administration of his Property in Other Fully Property-Sharing Groups’, QC 20 (2012) 89150).

56 Johnson, S. E., ‘The Dead Sea Manual of Discipline and the Jerusalem Church of Acts’, The Scrolls and the New Testament (ed. Stendahl, K.; New York: Harper, 1957; reprinted, New York: Crossroad, 1992) 129–42, esp. 131–3; Hengel, M., Property and Riches in the Early Church: Aspects of a Social History of Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974) 31–4; Mealand, ‘Community of Goods and Utopian Allusions’, 99; Dupont, J., ‘Community of Goods in the Early Church’, The Salvation of the Gentiles: Essays on the Acts of the Apostles (New York: Paulist, 1979) 85102, esp. 88, 89, 94; Klauck, ‘Gütergemeinschaft’, 68–79; Barrett, C. K., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (2 vols.; ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1994) i.167–70, 251–5; Capper, B. J., ‘The Palestinian Cultural Context of Earliest Christian Community of Goods’, The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting, vol. iv: The Book of Acts in its Palestinian Setting (ed. Bauckham, R.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Carlisle: Paternoster, 1995) 323–56; idem, Community of Goods in the Early Jerusalem Church’, ANRW ii.26.2 (1995) 1730–4; Fitzmyer, J. A., The Acts of the Apostles: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 31; New York: Doubleday, 1998) 270.

57 Some critics attribute this saying to Lukan redaction, but it is more likely that it came from Luke's special material (D. Burkett, Rethinking the Gospel Sources, vol. ii: The Unity and Plurality of Q (ECL 1; Leiden: Brill/Atlanta: SBL, 2009) 190–2).

58 Matt 6.2, 3, 4; Luke 11.41; Acts 3.2, 3, 10; 9.36; 10.2, 4, 31; 24.17

59 Though we can only speculate, it is possible that community members did not expect to need their fields or houses much longer since they believed that Jesus would return soon to take them into the kingdom of God.

60 Acts 11.27–8; Josephus, Ant. 20.51–3; 20.100–1; cf. 3.320. See Gapp, K. S., ‘The Universal Famine Under Claudius’, HTR 28 (1935) 258–65; Winter, B. W., ‘Acts and Food Shortages’, The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting, vol. ii: The Book of Acts in its Graeco-Roman Setting (ed. Gill, D. W. J. and Gempf, C.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994) 5978.

61 Rom 15.25–9; 1 Cor 16.1–4; 2 Cor 8–9; cf. Acts 24.17.

62 When Paul and others in the New Testament refer to the Jerusalem community as ‘poor’, they use the term in its literal economic sense (Keck, L. E., ‘The Poor among the Saints in the New Testament’, ZNW 56 (1965) 100–29).

63 On land ownership in Palestine, see M. Hengel, ‘Das Gleichnis von den Weingärtnern Mc 12 1–12 im Lichte der Zenopapyri und der rabbinischen Gleichnisse’, ZNW 59 (1968) 1–39, esp. 20–1; S. Freyne, Galilee from Alexander the Great to Hadrian 323 bce to 135 ce: A Study of Second Temple Judaism (Wilmington, DE: Glazier/Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1980) 156–70.

64 The Zenon papyri from the third century bce describe tenant farmers who thought that the rent collector exacted too much of their produce (Hengel, ‘Das Gleichnis’, 12–16; Freyne, Galilee, 157).

65 A. Jülicher, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu (2 vols.; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1899–19102) i.52–148.

66 E.g. Brown, R. E., ‘Parable and Allegory Reconsidered’, NovT 5 (1962) 3645; Boucher, M. I., The Mysterious Parable: A Literary Study (CBQMS 6; Washington: The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1977); Klauck, H.-J., Allegorie und Allegorese in synoptischen Gleichnistexten (Münster: Aschendorff, 1978); Gowler, D. B., What Are They Saying about the Parables? (New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 2000) 85101; Snodgrass, Stories, 15–17; Wong, S. K., Allegorical Spectrum of the Parables of Jesus (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017). For a defence and restatement of Jülicher's view, see Thurén, Parables Unplugged, 14–22.

67 Notable instances include the interpretation of the parable of the sower (Mark 4.13–20) and the parable of the wicked tenants (Mark 12.1–12).

68 ‘Underlying [the parable's] symbolism is the idea, familiar to Jewish piety, that a man in practicing almsgiving distributes, not his own property, but property which is already God's’ (Williams, ‘Is Almsgiving the Point’, 294, citing Pirqe Aboth 3.7). Cf. also Did. 1.5.

69 Cf. Chilton, Galilean Rabbi, 120–1.

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