In one of his parables, Jesus commended a man who swindled his employer (Luke 16:1-8). How is this compatible with Christian ethics?
The parable in question reads as follows:
“There was a certain rich man, who had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he was wasting his goods. And he called him, and said unto him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship; for you can no longer be a steward.’ And the steward said within himself, ‘What shall I do, seeing that my lord is taking away the stewardship from me? I have not strength to dig; to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they [certain debtors] may receive me into their houses.’ And calling to him each one of his lord’s debtors, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my lord?’ And he said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ And he said unto him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then said he to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ And he said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said unto him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ And his lord commended the unrighteous steward because he had done wisely: for the sons of this world are for their own generation wiser than the sons of the light” (Luke 16:1-8).
There are several important points that must be taken into consideration in analyzing this parable. Please reflect upon them carefully.
Purpose of a Parable
A parable is an illustrative narrative that generally is designed to teach one main point. Occasionally there are subsidiary, practical truths to be gained as well, but usually the focus of the story is limited. It certainly is the case that there are various elements that form the framework of the presentation that have no essential relevance to the main thread of truth.
In his classic work on the science of biblical interpretation, D. R. Dungan noted that “there may be many things in a parable that are merely incidental, and are no part of the lesson to be learned” (p. 242).
In another fine work that deals with analyzing parables, Lockhart has shown an important distinction between the essential “analogy” of the parable, and other features he calls “embellishments.” These embellishments are descriptive elements that form the background of the persons or actions by which the prime truth of the narrative is presented.
“The careful interpreter, therefore, will not hastily impose analogies upon such parts, otherwise, he may be certain that in many cases he will burden the parable with lessons which the author never intended to convey” (p. 169).
Be Careful With Parables
If one is disposed to treat the Savior’s parables with such harsh and unwarranted criticism, there is no end to which he might go in indicting the Lord with unsavory implications.
For example, might one suggest that Jesus approved of robbery and violence because some of the characters in the parable of the “good Samaritan” robbed and beat the Hebrew traveler, leaving him in a desperate strait (Luke 10:30-35). After all, if it had not been for the outlaws, the Samaritan would hardly have had the opportunity to exhibit such benevolence! But what reasonable person would draw such a conclusion?
Should the Lord be charged with carelessness because he told the story of a shepherd who left ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness, while he went seeking a solitary lost animal (Luke 15:3-7)?
Is God’s foreknowledge nullified because he is represented as saying regarding the people of Israel, “They will reverence my son” (Matthew 21:37)? Is the parable misleading since God knew that the Jews would reject and crucify his Son before he ever sent him? Obviously that is pressing the imagery much too far.
A skeptic recently contended that Jesus sent his disciples out to murder those who would not accept him. He attempted to argue his case on the basis of Luke 19:27. “Bring them here and slay them before me.” Could a position be more irrational? No reasonable argument could persuade the gentleman that the Lord was teaching by means of a parable (v. 11), and this element of it referenced the Judgment and the ultimate punishment of the wicked.
What About the Unrighteous Steward?
Now to the case at hand. It can hardly be fairly suggested that Jesus endorsed the chicanery of the manipulative servant, since the Lord, as the narrator of this story, characterized the man as an unrighteous steward (v. 8). The term “unrighteous” is a strong one in Greek. For example, elsewhere it is used of the treacherous act of Judas in receiving a reward for betraying Christ (Acts 1:18).
The subsequent commendation of the unrighteous steward comes from his master (the very person who had been wronged), and the expression of admiration was not on account of the dishonesty. Rather, it was for a solitary, isolated trait—that of showing shrewdness in taking advantage of one’s present opportunities to provide for his future welfare.
To press it beyond that principle is to seriously abuse the story, and such reveals more of the critics’ desperation than anything else.
Consider the Reaction of Christ’s Audience
Is it not revealing that the Pharisees, who were “lovers of money,” and who “scoffed” at Christ on this occasion, nevertheless did not raise the charge that Jesus was promoting dishonest conduct among his disciples? Other ridiculous allegations were made from time to time, but this one never was.
By What Standard Will You Judge Christ?
Finally, those who censure the alleged compromise of ethics in this parable are obliged to show by what rule they make moral judgments.
If, for example, there is no God (as atheists contend), hence, no ultimate ethical standard, why should the steward’s conduct be judged “evil”?
Or Jesus’ supposed endorsement of it? If the ideology of “situation ethics” is permissible, why was not this a “situation” which justified the steward’s fraud? The critic ever is entangled in the web of his own spinning.