Parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1–12)

This is excerpted from The Testimony of Luke, by S. Kent Brown. It includes the New Rendition, Analysis, and Notes on each verse.

New Rendition

1 And he began to speak also to his disciples, “There was a certain rich man who had a steward, and he was accused before him as squandering his property. 2 And after he had called him, he said to him, ‘What is this I hear concerning you? Give an accounting of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.’ 3 And the steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my lord is taking away the stewardship from me? I am not strong enough to dig; I am ashamed to beg. 4 I know what I should do so that, when I am removed from my stewardship, they will receive me into their houses.’

5 “And summoning each one of his lord’s debtors, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my lord?’ 6 And he said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and write fifty.’ 7 Then he said to another, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’ And he said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and write eighty.’ 8 And the lord commended the unjust steward because he acted shrewdly—because the sons of this age are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light.

9 “And I say to you, make for yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness so that, when it fails, they may receive you into the everlasting dwellings. 10 He who is trustworthy in little is also trustworthy in much, and he who is unjust in little is also unjust in much. 11 So if you have not been trustworthy in unrighteous mammon, who will entrust to you the real riches? 12 And if you have not been trustworthy in what is another’s, who will give to you what is yours?”


Even with all its intricate details, the Savior’s parable of the unjust steward fits snugly together, illustrating his skill in its retelling. Luke’s deft placement of Jesus’ story about the steward continues and enhances the theme of the prior chapter—proper attitudes toward wealth.[1] In Jesus’ hands, the one who possesses the property, the lord, quickly recedes into the background whereas the steward, who manages the property, emerges into the full light of day, where his actions come under tight scrutiny. These actions, thorough and self-preserving in character, become the focal point for Jesus’ wide-ranging set of comments that follow, both positive and negative.

A number of important threads weave their way through this parable and Jesus’ following comments, some bright and thick, others dim and thin. The most radiant thread running through the story itself has to do with the commendation of the steward: his lord calls him clever, pointedly acknowledging his wisdom when dealing with his fast-deteriorating situation. For, after bungling his master’s estate, the steward acts decisively and with dispatch, earning his lord’s grudging praise for creating a future for himself that will keep him upright in a material sense,[2] thus allowing him to continue to enjoy the kind of lifestyle to which he has become accustomed. The rub, of course, comes because Jesus’ words, uttered through the lord, seem to condone the steward’s actions—all of them. But we must hold in mind that the lord does not call the steward good, but wise or clever. The distinction is significant because it allows a hearer to grasp that the steward’s efforts— focused and intensely self-preserving—to recover from his dismissal are worth emulating by Jesus’ disciples when it comes to eternal matters. For, as Jesus’ comments illustrate, faithfulness in dealing with that which belongs to another adds threads to an eternal tapestry, and it is this principle that finally and ultimately judges the steward (see the Note on 16:12).

A second noticeable thread weaves a pattern through the checkered issue of wealth. Jesus’ words are strongly positive. Though elsewhere he downplays wealth and property and elevates the poor (see 6:20–21, 24–25; 9:25), here he softens his comments on wealth and instead focuses on the notion that methods of acquiring it bring out the worst in people, leading him to highlight “the mammon of unrighteousness” and “unrighteous mammon” (16:9, 11). And besides people’s unscrupulous acquisition of this world’s goods, Jesus’ words raise questions about how people use them (see 16:11). Elsewhere, he darkens the rich because they spend their goods on themselves, leading him to say that such persons “have received [their] consolation” and have “wasted [their] substance” (6:24; 15:13). But here Jesus brightens the prospect that “he that is faithful” will have committed to his “trust the true riches” (16:10–11). In concert with this idea, in an expansion of 18:27, the Joseph Smith Translation quotes Jesus as saying, “It is impossible for them who trust in riches, to enter into the kingdom of God; but he who forsaketh the things which are of this world, it is possible with God, that he should enter in” (JST 18:27; see the Note on 18:27; the Analysis on 18:26–30).

Jesus interlaces this proper, even celestial management of personal wealth with the principle of properly managing the wealth of others (see 16:12). Perhaps surprisingly, both activities carry eternal consequences. But not surprisingly, they do so in the world of donated funds, for commentators see Jesus’ words tying to the common practice of giving alms.[3] Beyond this, the principle interweaves more than the simple acts of giving and receiving alms; it meshes with the proper use of donated funds within the church that Jesus is establishing. Those who properly manage these sacred monies and properties will eventually receive “that which is [their] own” as a heavenly gift (16:12; see the Note thereon). In a word, our eventual acquisition of heavenly property or possessions depends at least in part on our management of what belongs to God, whether our own material resources, which really belong to him, or those of others that are donated for sacred purposes.

One question to settle is whether Jesus’ comments on the story really derive from him or whether they represent later additions to his words. Among scholars, a large number judge that the comments do not come from Jesus.[4] Much of this judgment rests on a perception that some of the language in the comments is not at home in Jesus’ world and therefore is not available to him. But studies have shown that expressions such as “the children of this world” and “the children of light” (16:8) are fully at home in ancient Palestine, as the Dead Sea Scrolls illustrate.[5]

Those who wish to separate the story of the first seven and one-half verses, or more, from the statements that follow, claiming that the comments are not originally from Jesus, effectively add a pattern to his teachings from those initial verses that is not found elsewhere in the Gospels—that he really does commend the unjust steward, without qualification. In response, first, this point of view assumes that Jesus does not comment on or explain his own teachings, preferring to let hearers wrestle with the meaning of his words rather than offering guidance. Such a viewpoint stands at odds with other passages that bring forward his interpretive remarks (see 8:11–15; 18:6–9, 14; 19:26; D&C 38:25–27; 45:34–39, 56–57; 86:1–7; 88:51–61; 101:63–68, 85–91). Second, shearing away the comment from the story about the steward, and representing the parable as typical of Jesus’ teachings, produce distortion and fulfill some scholars’ penchants for seeing Jesus through peculiarly individualistic, pre-existing lenses.[6] Such approaches produce interesting publications but do not add enlightenment to the Savior’s ministry.


16:1 he said: As often, the verb (Greek legō) is in the imperfect tense, conveying either the iterative sense that “he kept talking” or the inchoative sense “he began to speak.”[7]

his disciples: These followers constitute Jesus’ main audience, not a general crowd of people nor even “the publicans and sinners” (15:1), although Pharisees are listening from the edges (see 16:14). Hence, Jesus’ teachings embody significant elements that he wants his disciples to grasp for their own present and future stewardships (see also 17:1).

a certain rich man: This expression is mirrored in 16:19. In these stories, Jesus features people whose means allow them to live more comfortably than many in his audience. In each case, their wealth stands as a major element in the story. Such people are among those who already “have received [their] consolation” (6:24).

a steward: The earlier appearance of this term (Greek oikonomos) has to do with the future leaders of Jesus’ church (see the Note on 12:42). Although the noun can refer to a slave or servant born in a household who has risen in responsibility,[8] here the term bears the sense of a free-born treasurer who oversees the rich man’s estate.[9]

wasted: The verb is the same as that describing the prodigal son’s action (Greek diaskorpizō), thus forming an important tie back to Jesus’ words in chapter 15 (see 15:13). More than this, it connotes the act of scattering, whether it is God scattering the enemies of his people (see 1:51), or God strewing his people before gathering them (see Ezek. 5:2, 10; Zech. 13:7– 9; John 11:52), or a beast of prey scattering God’s flock (see John 10:12; also Acts 20:29), or a sower flinging his seed across a plowed field.[10] Thus implied is the steward’s puzzling loss of competence and self-confidence as he mismanages his master’s goods, a competence that he apparently regains as soon as his master takes action against him.[11]

16:2 give an account of thy stewardship: Here the master obliges the steward to defend himself by producing the accounts that will show him to be innocent or guilty.

thou mayest be no longer steward: Fitzmyer translates this expression as “you can no longer be manager here” and believes that the lord intends to dismiss the steward.[12] Other commentators agree that the sense of the verb conveys the final decision of the master to dismiss the steward, as indicated in 16:3.[13] Thus the KJV, whose translation appears to hold open the possibility of the steward retaining his job, is incorrect.

16:3 lord: The term (Greek kyrios), which also appears in 16:5, is the same that identifies Jesus in other contexts as Jehovah (see the Notes on 5:8; 7:31; 11:39). But on the lips of the steward, the word does not carry this sense because no metaphorical overlay lies here, such as the rich man representing God and the steward standing for the devil or some other detested personality.

I cannot dig: The expression means that the steward is physically unable to perform hard, physical labor for some reason.[14]

to beg I am ashamed: Society’s true view of beggars and abject poor appears in the steward’s words.[15] Of course, a person who has enjoyed a high standard of living tries to avoid such an outcome in life. The shame does not arise in the steward because of remorse for his irresponsible actions but because begging will show that he has been caught and dismissed.[16]

16:4 I am resolved what to do: The Greek expression literally means, “I know what to do,” and bears the meaning, “I have it!” because the solution just now occurs to the steward.[17]

they may receive me into their houses: Here the steward’s intent becomes obvious. The question is whether this is plan A or plan B. That is, is his first, unspoken intent to remain in the employ of his master?

16:5 every one of his lord’s debtors: Jesus’ words signal that the steward doggedly contacts all of the master’s debtors, although the story will feature only two. The skill of the story teller is to keep weaving the thread of the story without slowing to recite all the details. On his part, Jesus deftly highlights two examples to make his point.

16:6 An hundred measures of oil: The amount of oil cannot be determined precisely, but it is approximately 900 gallons. The term translated “measures” (Greek batos) is actually a Hebrew measure which, according to Josephus, amounts to 72 sextarii or about 8.6 gallons per measure.[18]

bill: This document is a hand-written promissory note (Greek gramma). Typically, it does not specify the interest to be paid on the goods, but spells out the entire amount owed, including both interest and principal.[19] Thus, under Jewish law, which specifically forbids the charging of interest (see Ex. 22:25; Lev. 25:36–37; Deut. 23:19–20), the amount of interest to be paid remains hidden in the promissory note’s total.

fifty: Evidently, this amount represents the quantity that the debtor really owes. The rest is interest, though this cannot be established firmly from other ancient sources.[20] One of the reasons that the interest on oil is so high rests on the observation that, if the debt is repaid in kind, the repaid oil can be diluted with water, which sinks to the bottom of a ceramic jar and is thus invisible.

16:7 An hundred measures of wheat: The exact amount of grain (Greek sitos)[21] is difficult to determine. The measure is the Hebrew kor, a dry measure which, in one passage, Josephus reports is equivalent to ten medimnoi, a very high ratio, and to 4⁄7 of one medimnos in another.[22] By the best calculation, a kor is approximately 360 liters. At all events, the total amount exceeds 100 bushels.[23]

16:8 because he had done wisely: In the view of Fitzmyer, the commendation genuinely reflects Jesus’ high praise of the steward and applies specifically to Jesus’ disciples. Why? Because the steward acts quickly and decisively in a crisis and, as Jesus’ next words indicate, he wishes his disciples to respond similarly when facing the decision that his preaching presents to them about accepting his kingdom.[24] We can add that a further decision follows directly on this one—whether to work to obtain that kingdom.

wisely: The Greek adverb means something like “shrewdly” or “cunningly” in this context (phronimōs), although the adjective generally carries the more positive sense of “wise” in other passages (see 12:42; Matt. 7:24; 10:16; 24:45; 25:2).[25]

the children of this world: Beginning with this expression, which appears in the New Testament only here and at 20:34, Jesus’ following words of explanation through 16:13 are widely regarded as a later addition to the parable proper.[26] But because the expression, here with the meaning of “the sons of this age,” is at home in the Jewish world, as the Dead Sea Scrolls illustrate, these words and those that attach to them need not be thought of as foreign to Jesus’ vocabulary and interests.[27] After all, he offers explanations of parables and stories in other contexts (see 8:11–15; 18:6–9, 14; 19:26).[28]

in their generation: Jesus places a limit on the sphere wherein “the children of the world” are and can be effective. Their activities, which bring them what the steward now seeks, a materially prosperous life, find a place in this world, not the next.

wiser: Much of what Jesus teaches rests on this term, which derives from the same root as the word translated “wisely.” One admirable virtue that he wishes his followers to emulate, and to transfer to the spiritual side of their lives, is that of always and eagerly organizing their lives to inherit his eternal blessings just as those of this world organize their lives with singleness of purpose to succeed in the here and now.

the children of light: This expression, too, is mirrored in the Dead Sea Scrolls, most often translated as “the sons of light.” Its appearance in the Scrolls shows that it belongs in the Jewish religious environment of Jesus’ day, and points to those fully within the kingdom (see John 12:36; 1 Thes. 5:5; also Eph. 5:8) who receive God’s light both in its form as the brightness of the sun and especially in its aspect as spiritual enlightenment (see 2 Cor. 4:6; the Notes on 24:31–32; also D&C 84:45–47; 88:6–13; 93:40, 42).[29] Importantly, in modern scripture, this term ties to a person’s readiness at the end-time, at “that day” (D&C 106:5).

16:9 I say unto you: To make his point more earnest, Jesus draws on his own authority, an aspect of his preaching ministry that he exhibits elsewhere (see 4:24; 5:24; 6:27; 7:9, 14, 26, 28, 47; 9:27; etc.; the Notes on 6:27 and 7:26).

Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness: Jesus’ command offers a proper orientation to the modern world. We are to become friends with it, accepting what it brings, but not to embrace it and allow it to overpower our commitment to the world of righteousness. For how disciples deal with the world shapes to a large extent how and whether God “will commit to [our] trust true riches” (16:11). This principle seeps into how we use possessions in the service of the kingdom: are we as careful and scrupulous as givers and stewards of donated funds, such as alms and tithes, as people are about their material goals?[30] In a different vein, modern scripture renders this expression with a slightly different focus: “make unto yourselves friends with the mammon of unrighteousness,” placing emphasis on making proper use of this world’s goods (D&C 82:22; emphasis added).

mammon: This Aramaic term means wealth or property, but in this context the word features property gained for the wrong reasons.[31]

when ye fail: This reading from later texts, including the Vulgate, is surely wrong. The reading from earlier manuscripts is “when it fails,” meaning “when the world of mammon fails,”[32] pointing either to the end of a person’s life when property no longer matters or to wealth’s inability to sustain righteous purposes by itself.[33]

they may receive you: This expression has invited much discussion. Does the plural “they” refer to those who are already in heaven, such as family members and friends, or even to angels, or is the plural a Jewish circumlocution that points to God as the one who receives the faithful? All are possible interpretations.[34] In an interesting twist, modern scripture substitutes the expression “they will not destroy you,” signaling that mammon can act as a protection of sorts (D&C 82:22).

everlasting habitations: This expression is unusual because the Greek term for “habitations” refers to tents or temporary dwellings (Greek skēnē). But here it points both to the permanent place that one inherits in the world to come (see D&C 78:7) and, very likely, to the place where God dwells, because of its connection to the desert sanctuary of the Exodus.[35]

16:10 He that is faithful . . . he that is unjust: The words of Jesus in this and the following verses (see 16:10–12) turn on the observation that a person’s actions in one sphere of life will surely mirror those in another sphere. In Jesus’ view, they cannot be separated. As the following verses will remind us, we must hold onto the noblest virtues because we “cannot serve God and mammon” (16:13).

16:11 faithful in the unrighteous mammon: Jesus underscores the principle that worldly wealth does not belong to us but rather comes to us as a trust, in effect testing us in how we value and use it.[36] This very positive view of wealth does not stoop to the world’s material culture, but carries with it a deepened sense of responsibility (see the Note on 18:27).

who will commit to your trust the true riches: Genuine, eternal wealth belongs to God and is his to give, as hinted by the Greek interrogative pronoun tis (“who”) (see 12:44; the Notes on 12:50; 13:32; 14:11; 18:31; 22:37;

24:31, 44; also see Rom 8:32; Rev. 21:7; D&C 84:38).[37]

16:12 that which is another man’s: In contrast to wealth and property that belong to a person in the prior verse, the issue in this verse stands astride the principle of stewardship over another’s property, bringing readers back to the parable of the unjust steward. Here the Savior enunciates one of the principles that he wishes hearers to grasp from his story.

that which is your own: At the end, Jesus draws hearers to his ultimate point about how a person receives the deed to heavenly possessions—it is through faithfulness both in personal matters and in matters that have to do with the well-being of others.

[1] Fitzmyer, Luke, 2:1095.

[2] Ford, Parables of Jesus, 14–15.

[3] Marshall, Luke, 621; Fitzmyer, Luke, 2:1109.

[4] Fitzmyer, Luke, 2:1096–97, offers a list of studies and the notable differences among scholars about where the parable ends and the later comment begins.

[5] Marshall, Luke, 620–21, 622; Flusser, “Jesus’ Opinion about the Essenes,” 150–168; Green, Luke, 595.

[6] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 29–56.

[7] Smyth, Greek Grammar, §§1790, 1890–94, 1900, 2341; BAGD, 469–71; Blass and Debrunner, Greek Grammar, §§325, 327.

[8] Fitzmyer, Luke, 2:1099; Johnson, Luke. 243.

[9] Plummer, Luke, 381; TDNT, 5:149–50.

[10] TDNT, 7:418–22.

[11] Ford, Parables of Jesus, 14–15.

[12] Fitzmyer, Luke, 2:1100.

[13] Marshall, Luke, 617; Morris, Luke, 270.

[14] Marshall, Luke, 618; Fitzmyer, Luke, 2:1100.

[15] Green, Luke, 60, 590.

[16] TDNT, 1:189–90.

[17] Moule, Idiom Book of New Testament Greek, 7, 11.

[18] Josephus, A.J. 8.2.9 (§57); BAGD, 137.

[19] TDNT, 1:763; Fitzmyer, Luke, 2:1100–101.

[20] Marshall, Luke, 619; Fitzmyer, Luke, 2:1101.

[21] BAGD, 759.

[22] Josephus, A.J. 15.9.2 (§314); 3.15.3 (§321).

[23] Fitzmyer, Luke, 2:1101; Powell, “Weights and Measures,” 6:904–5; William G. Dever, “Weights and Measures,” in Harper’s Bible Dictionary, ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), 1130–31.

[24] Fitzmyer, Luke, 2:1102.

[25] BAGD, 874; TDNT, 9:234.

[26] Beare, Earliest Records of Jesus, 179; Jeremias, Parables, 45–46; Fitzmyer, Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament, 166–67; Luke, 2:1105–7.

[27] TDNT, 1:206–7; Marshall, Luke, 621; Green, Luke, 593.

[28] Marshall, Luke, 622.

[29] TDNT, 9:312–13, 319–20, 326, 343–45; Marshall, Luke, 621; TLNT, 3:475–76, 482,

484; Flusser, “Jesus’ Opinion about the Essenes,” 150–168; George W. E. Nickelsburg, 1 Enoch: A Commentary on 1 Enoch, 2 vols. (Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg Fortress, 2001, 2012), 1:557–58.

[30] Morris, Luke, 272.

[31] BAGD, 491; TDNT, 4:388–90.

[32] Plummer, Luke, 385; Fitzmyer, Luke, 2:1110.

[33] Johnson, Luke, 245.

[34] Marshall, Luke, 621–22; Morris, Luke, 272–73.

[35] TDNT, 7:378–79; Marshall, Luke, 621.

[36] Morris, Luke, 273; Johnson, Luke, 246.

[37] Marshall, Luke, 623.