The Parable of the Unjust Manager (Luke 16:1–9)
After the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus takes the opportunity to teach a valuable lesson to His disciples. Notice, therefore, He is changing audiences again. This was for hearing ears, not merely for confounding judgment upon the faithless “others” (Luke 8:10) who hearing would not hear. In doing so, we move from one of Jesus’ most famous parables to perhaps His most confusing. But it need not be: the new lesson simply regards the need for the disciples to position themselves for when the day of reckoning actually comes. Jesus says,
He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings (Luke 16:1–9).
This passage is notoriously difficult. The difficulty arises in that the manager (literally “ruler of the house”—oikonomos) is clearly called “dishonest” (adikias), and yet the master praises him for his actions. More difficult yet, Jesus then calls His disciples to make friends with “unrighteous” (again adikias) wealth. People have been puzzled for centuries asking if Jesus has really called us to emulate the behavior of a swindler. What good moral lesson worth following could be hidden in this story? The typical answer has been to the effect that we are called to be clever like the unjust steward, but not dishonest like him. Jesus does, after all, elsewhere teach His disciples, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matt. 10:16). This latter verse is related to the idea, but the overall answer seems to fall short of explaining what this has to do with being received into “eternal dwellings” by friends of the unrighteous wealth, which seems to be the overall conclusion of the whole parable. There’s more to the story here than we have hitherto seen.
Indeed, when seen in the context of the preceding parables and especially a soon-coming destruction of Jerusalem, this whole lesson makes perfect sense. Israel was being condemned for her unfaithfulness—indeed, for her unrighteousness. In fact, Jesus had just recently used this very term to refer to those of His generation who would knock at the narrow gate after it was too late: “I tell you, . . . Depart from me, all you workers of evil [adikias]!” (Luke 13:27). Since this adikias is not a common word, the repetition in close proximity here is not to be overlooked. Israel had been entrusted with God’s accounts, as Paul says: “The Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. . . . [T]o them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” (Rom. 3:2, 9:4). And yet we know that “being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they [the Jews] did not submit to God’s righteousness” (Rom. 10:3). In other words, being entrusted as the manager of God’s house, they themselves were unjust managers. It is clear to me here that the unjust manager is Israel. Paul’s later teachings help establish this, though they are not necessary to cross reference in order to understand the parable this way.
The parable makes it clear that a time of reckoning had come. The manager’s failure was exposed; the master called him to account and fired him. This means the relationship between God and Israel was being severed—Israel would soon be unemployed. Yet the master further demanded a final tally of his accounts. This gave the manager a little time in which to devise a plan to protect his own future. This is the key to understanding the parable: the manager is looking out for his own future—literally for a place to stay. He says, “I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses” (16:4). In an “ah hah!” moment, he realizes he still has time to secure favor with the large network of his master’s debtors. As he compiles the final tally for which his master asked, he substantially lowers the debts for each account. This gains considerable favor from the debtors, for these were very large debts. The manager now has very happy friends all over the place who also now happen to owe him large favors. The master realizes what the manager had done, and he commends him—not in general—but for being particularly shrewd in this case. In the space of a short time, he had saved himself from the homelessness that would come due to the reckoning day.
Then Jesus gives an explanatory note: “the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light” (16:8). While I normally stick with the ESV, it incorrectly translates aion here as “world” instead of “age.” Most of the other modern translations get it right. It could more simply and more accurately be translated, “the sons of this age are more shrewd in their own generation than the sons of light.” He is clearly referring to the “age” which was coming to a close (which we discussed before) and the children of that generation. He is also clearly saying that the disciples would need to be willing to write off some short-term losses for long-term gains and security in the near future. In this endeavor, it would be very wise to have many worldly-shrewd friends in many places who can help—or who are indebted to help—when the time of displacement comes.
Then Jesus gives a clear directive: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings” (16:9). Jesus is not saying to engage in unjust business practices, nor is He saying that all worldly wealth is by nature “unrighteous.” He is simply instructing His disciples to make friends among that marketplace of shrewd dealers—the very thing Jesus was doing, and for which the Pharisees just criticized Him (15:2). He knew the disciples in the near future would need a network of people who knew how to operate outside the normal operations, knew the back alleys, and could meet the needs of an underground movement. Just as the manager in the parable made friends in order to be received into their houses, Jesus instructs the disciples to make friends among the “unrighteous wealth”—sinners, tax collectors, and gentiles—in order to be received into “eternal dwellings.”
So what are these “eternal dwellings”? Before we answer that, let us again consider the importance of the audience.
Keep in mind that Jesus is telling this specifically to the disciples, not to the Pharisees directly (though they are eavesdropping, as we shall see) or the multitude. This is a teaching directed to the elect remnant, not those destined to be destroyed. And even though the unjust manager in the parable represents unfaithful Israel, nevertheless the virtuous aspect of the parable will be obeyed only by the elect remnant from among unfaithful Israel. The disciples, after all, would live through the destruction (unemployment) of that unjust manager, and it would be their particular saving grace to get out of town when the time came, to avoid the final destruction, to survive until the end. To them would be the promise (twice), “But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt. 10:22; 24:13). So while the day of reckoning comes upon the whole of Israel, only the remnant would get out. This message is fully consistent with the parable of the unjust manager, as well as with every other parable Jesus has told during this journey so far. It is also consistent as a response to the Pharisees’ criticism (15:2); except this last part of that response belonged to the elect only. They, and they alone, would be looking for new places to live and new connections and “friends” as part of the age to come. The rest of faithless Israel would be dead, captive, or left to the dogs, and Jerusalem herself would be leveled to the ground.
Thus it makes sense that the disciples would soon be looking for new dwellings, literally. But what about “eternal” dwellings? Consider the phrase itself. While the word for “eternal”—aionios—often should be translated as “eternal” or “everlasting,” this is hardly the case universally. In fact, it is something of a cousin word to aionos which we generally translate as “age.” Most importantly, the word is frequently used in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) to speak specifically of elements of the Old Covenant system of worship—things we know for a fact have come to an end. The list of these allegedly “eternal” (should the word actually mean that) elements is considerable: it includes the Old Testament feast of Passover (Ex. 12:14, 17), the olive-oil lamp in the tabernacle (Ex. 27:20–21), special garments of the priest (Ex. 28:43), priestly offerings (29:28), ritual washings (Ex. 30:21), and the Old Testament Sabbath (Ex. 31:16, 17); and these are only the references in Exodus. (See also Lev. 6:11, 15; 7:34, 36; 10:9, 15; 16:29, 31, 34; 17:7; 23:14, 21, 31, 41; 24:3, 8, 9; 25:34; Num. 10:8; 15:15; 18:8, 11, 19, 23; 19:10, 23; 25:13.) In fact, we are told that the Aaronic priesthood itself is aionia (Num. 25:13), and yet this priesthood we know has been superseded by Christ in the priesthood of Melchizedek (Heb. 7); and the epistle to the Hebrews teaches that all of these Old Covenant priestly ordinances are done away with. So how could they be literally “eternal” in the sense of never-ending?
The answer is that they were not eternal in that sense, but merely belonging to the long “age” of that Old Covenant. They were “perpetual” throughout that era. The word used in this way could best be translated as “continuing.” And that is how we should understand Christ’s statement here—as pertaining to a covenantal age, particularly the age that was to come. The disciples were to prepare for the change in covenantal administration—including the destruction of the Temple and the Old Covenant system—and thus to find resources to provide for continuing dwellings.
The second word of that phrase is just as interesting. While the manager in the parable hoped to be received into people’s houses (Greek, oikous), the disciples are expected to find continuing “dwellings” (Greek, skenas). The first word oikous is the word for “house” essentially as we would use it today; the latter word skenas, which related to the disciples’ future, refers most commonly to temporary dwellings such as tents (Matt. 17:4; Mk. 9:5; Luke 9:33; Heb. 11:9), and particularly the Old Testament tabernacle (itself a large tent; see Acts 7:44; Heb. 8:5; 9:1–3, 6, 8, 11, 21; 13:10). The idea of a continuing tabernacle in the age to come appears further in the Bible’s teaching concerning a new “heavenly tabernacle” (Rev. 15:5; 21:3), which refers to Jesus Himself. Jesus Himself had come to “tabernacle” (eskenosen) in the flesh among us (John 1:14), temporarily. The general point here is that these “continuing” dwellings are also temporary in nature—and thus hardly “eternal.” So we should not think of “eternal dwellings” as something heavenly and infinite, but as “continuing tabernacles”—places for the disciples to abide during the shift of the ages.
Understanding the idea of “tabernacle” as referring to a fleshly dwelling—a skin tent, or a fleshly body—the apostles, assembled at the first general council in Jerusalem, considered the addition of the Gentiles into the church as fulfilling the prophecy of a restored tabernacle of David. In Acts 15:14–17, James explains,
Simeon [Peter] has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,
“After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the tent [tabernacle, skenen] of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will restore it,
that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,
says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.”
This prophecy comes from Amos 9:11–12 which at the time referred to a future restoration of Israel (9:11–15). James considered the New Testament church including Gentiles to be a fulfillment of that restored tabernacle of David, the true remnant of Israel. I would argue that this is exactly the remnant Jesus had in mind when He instructed the disciples to seek continuing dwellings among the “unrighteous” mammon—the gentiles. He expected this both literally and theologically. And James, Acts, Revelation and Hebrews show that this was indeed fulfilled.
This normally confusing parable, then, is cleared up by the recognition that it 1) pertained to the disciples, 2) in the context of the coming destruction of Jerusalem. Indeed, this ties into a phenomenon we have mentioned more than once already—that of disciples selling off their property in Jerusalem and then distributing the money amongst themselves to those in need (Acts 2:44–45; 4:32–37). It is clear they were preparing to get out of town once the day of reckoning arrived, and after that first great council, they officially didn’t mind developing relationships with the gentiles during that brief interim before faithless Israel’s great bills came due.
This section of Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees continues through the end of Chapter 16, including the very interesting parable of the rich man and Lazarus. This, unfortunately, will have to wait for a later posting.
Next Section: Divorce and Disinheritance (16:14–31)
 There is considerable discussion in the commentaries (this is one of the few places I have checked commentaries) over the nature of this debt cutting. Three general positions appear: 1) the manager was causing his master a loss with each cut (why not, the guy had just fired him); 2) the manager had overcharged the debtors to begin with and had been pocketing the difference; the reduction merely returned the debt back to where it should have been (though the debtors did not know this); or 3) the rich man had been charging interest contrary to Moses’ law; the manager’s reduction represented the debts cut to a no-interest rate; this meant that the debtors were happy, and yet the master could not legally sue the manager because he would have to admit his own infraction of Mosaic law in order to do so. Thus the manager was really clever. It is impossible to know which of these is correct, for none appear directly from exegesis. In each case we have to speculate or generalize based on what we know of business practices back then from extra-biblical sources. The main meaning of the parable, however, must arise from pure exegesis, else it is useless to the average reader. In the end, the point of the parable is not why the manager is unjust, or exactly how he reduces the debt, but rather the fact that he is able to make himself friends that will receive him in the future. He is able to turn a losing prospect into a winning situation, in the particular context that he faces. Since this is spoken to the disciples, that situation must have come in their context.