Why Does Jesus Praise the Unjust Steward?

By Clement Harrold

The Parable of the Unjust Steward, also known as the Parable of the Dishonest Manager, appears only in Luke 16:1-13, and is arguably the most controversial of all of Jesus’s parables. The story revolves around a rich man who calls his steward to account for poor management of his estate.

Faced with losing his position, yet unwilling to make a living as a laborer or through begging, the steward decides instead to summon his master’s debtors one by one. After asking each of them what they owe, he then acquits a large portion of their debts so as to ingratiate himself towards them ahead of his impending dismissal.

Then comes the confusing part. The steward now has a track record of undermining his master’s financial interests. But when the master discovers everything that has taken place, rather than become angry at the steward, he praises him instead:

The master commended the dishonest steward for his prudence; for the sons of this world are wiser in their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations. (Lk 16:8-9)

What’s going on here? The conclusion of the parable is startling, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise. As He so often does, Jesus is using a story to grab our attention and shake us out of our complacency. With that in mind, several things can be said about the proper interpretation of the passage.

To begin with, we should notice that the master praises the unjust steward not for his dishonesty but for his prudence. Indeed, Jesus goes out of His way to clarify that those who are dishonest in small things will be dishonest in great things (v. 10), and He directly cautions against those who serve mammon over God (v. 13). Clearly, then, the steward in question is not being held up as a paragon of virtue; he may in fact be in grave spiritual danger.

Nevertheless, while the moral conduct of the steward leaves something to be desired, the urgency with which he faces his predicament is admirable. In this sense, Jesus is employing what we might call an a fortiori argument: if even this unjust steward is willing to go to extreme lengths to save his livelihood, how much more so should Christians be willing to go to extreme lengths to save their souls.

Jesus is expressing His frustration at the fact that the sons of this world often seem to show more resolve and acumen in tending to their worldly problems than Christians do in tending to their spiritual problems. And so, despite his many flaws, the unjust steward reacts to his plight in a manner which Christians should learn from. For one thing, the steward knows he is in a crisis, and he never tries to pretend otherwise; Jesus is reminding His listeners that they too must recognize the spiritual crisis of sin which they find themselves in. Additionally, the steward is honest about his weakness: “I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg” (v. 3). Once again, he acknowledges the reality in front of him, just as Christians need to admit their own frailties and their total dependence on divine grace.

Finally, the unjust steward acts, and he does so decisively. Realizing his “judgment day” is drawing near, he wastes no time in using his master’s beneficence to get himself out of the hole in which he finds themself. Here, too, he shines forth as an unlikely but legitimate role model for Christians to follow. Just as the dishonest steward recognizes his dire straits and moves with great urgency to set things right, likewise Christians are called to acknowledge their sinful state and reject all spiritual complacency.

There’s one more key to unlocking this parable, and it comes in verse 9: “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations.” In this verse, the worldly prudence of the steward becomes a model for Christian almsgiving. Readily appreciating the fleeting nature of human wealth, Jesus exhorts His followers to use their money for an eternal investment instead.

Like the unjust steward, we ought to acknowledge the spiritual crisis in which we find ourselves, and we must recognize that our salvation is not assured. Viewed from this perspective, making donations to the poor becomes not just one nice deed among many, but an essential part of our sanctification. We need to give alms so that on judgment day the poor whom we helped in this life—the very poor in whom Christ Himself resides (see Mt 25:30-40)—will advocate for our entrance into the life to come.

The central lesson of the Parable of the Unjust Steward, it seems, is that we need to take our eternal salvation seriously—and almsgiving is an integral part of that process.

Clement Harrold is a graduate student in theology at the University of Notre Dame. His writings have appeared in First ThingsChurch Life JournalCrisis Magazine, and the Washington Examiner. He earned his bachelor's degree from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2021.

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