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Philosophy of Religion

Religion and Science in the
Parable of the Unjust Steward

Eugene S. Poliakov

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ABSTRACT: The Parable of the Unjust Steward should be interpreted allegorically, its literal interpretation shown to be impossible. Certain facts make this parable unique: a lord as the Lord; divine possessions; the symbolism of the house interpreted as a human being; the material principles of the world understood as the governor of a human being; the Lord’s debtors as spiritual teachers of various kinds; theological doctrines with their own theogonic and cosmogonic views, all claiming to know the truth in its wholeness. Their debts consist of their misunderstandings and errors which have caused the difference between them and truth. Examples of the part of the material principles of the world in correcting theological doctrines are adduced. Two different kinds of debt are considered. I conclude that ‘make to yourselves friends of the riches of unrighteousness’ means that the material reasons of the world, the wisdom of this age, must be used for the good of spiritual teachings.

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The subject I am going to approach may at first glance seem not to belong at all to the subject of the current session. However we shall see that the subsequent material has the most immediate connection to the theme of philosophy of religion. The question is of the Parable of the Unjust Steward.

Before I begin the interpretation itself, let me remark that this parable is a text unique with respect to its isolation from the rest of the texts of the Bible. For in all of Scripture there is not even the slightest reference to this parable. And the Parable of the Unjust Steward has remained in the darkness of misunderstanding not only after the first glance, but even after the thousandth one. No exegete has ever been able to give an interpretation which is free of internal and other contradictions. This fact also makes this parable unique. So much for the rule declaring that closer an interpreter to the time of Scripture better is his chance to penetrate into the mystery of it, which lies at the base of the habit of magnifying the opinions of the Church Fathers.

It will not be out of place here to recall the words of Maimonides: "a story which is repugnant to both reason and common sense ... contains a profound allegory ... and the greater absurdity of the letter, the deeper the wisdom of the spirit." We have just such a case. Yet, even without finding any literal sense in this parable, purely on the grounds of the complete absurdity of attempts to interpret it literally we could assume that its allegorical, figurative sense was uniquely precious. And so, the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Lk 16):

  1. There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods.
  2. And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship [more exactly house-management]; for thou mayest be no longer steward.
  3. Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship [or house-management]: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed.
  4. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship [or house-management], they may receive me into their houses.
  5. So he called every one of his lord's debtors [unto him], and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord?
  6. And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty.
  7. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore eighty.
  8. And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world [more exactly age] are in their generation wiser than the children of light.
  9. And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon [better riches] of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail [more exactly become indigent], they may receive you into everlasting habitations.
  10. He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.
  11. If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon [better riches], who will commit to your trust the true [riches]?
  12. And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man's, who shall give you that which is your own?

(1) As we begin our interpretation of this remarkable text, here, as with other parables, we recognize the figure of a lord or "a certain rich man" as the One God. This lord has goods, or to be more precise, possesses some wealth. What kind of wealth? What is the content of this symbol? The first obvious inclination is to interpret God's possessions as our transient world. But if we are attentive in reading our Scripture we should not accept so simple a conclusion. The world has quite a different governor, quite different from the steward the parable tells about. The world is ruled by another, who has a clear name: "the prince of this world" (Jn 12:31). If we should suppose that the world to be God's wealth, we would then have to identify the unjust steward as the Devil. But there is a very simple argument against this identification. The unjust steward gets later commendations from the lord that after the manner of men would be hard to take as applying to the Devil "because the prince of this world is judged" (Jn 16:11). Thus the steward would be judged also, and not by any means "received into everlasting habitations" (9). Therefore, since the unjust steward cannot be interpreted as the Devil, then the lord's wealth cannot be the world, but rather something else, with a symbolical sense remaining to be discovered.

Although we are dealing with the first verse, further verses also provide useful information for interpreting this context. And so we should read the parable attentively, with an eye to interpreting the image of the lord's wealth. We find that stewardship is oikonomia in Greek, which is to be translated precisely as 'house-management.' This word contains the root oikos, which means 'house.' This is the key word for us—possessions and house are used almost synonymously; for the parable tells about both wasting of the lord's wealth by the unjust steward (1) and—on the other hand—taking away the house-management from the steward (3), putting him out of the house-management (4). We can not yet give a complete interpretation of the symbol of the house. However we can be satisfied with Paul's words on God's "own house; whose house are we" (Heb 3:6). In other words the house is an image of a human being—an image of neither the flesh nor of the soul alone, but rather an image of everything which makes up the human, including things whose existence the human may not even suspect.

If the human thinks of himself as an integral part of the world—as he may or may not do—then even mentioning the world will not be an incorrigible mistake. The wealth we are dealing with in this parable is managed in an unjust way; and in the image of this kind of wealth we see a man of the world, a man whose consciousness is definitely against such words as "Love not the world, neither the things [that are] in the world" (1 Joh 2:15). What then governs such a man? Is it the idea of traditional Christianity? Not at all! The negative answer is included in Paul's words: "I would to God ye did reign, that we also might reign with you" (1 Cor 4:8). What then governs a man of the world? Maybe, by chance, faith with hope and love?

Here I could provide a lengthy analysis of the opinions of multitudes of philosophers and wise men. But I shall not, for the only thing required from us is not possession of the highest gifts, but simply the ability to read Scripture attentively. Again the answer is found in Paul's epistles. And so Paul writes in Galatians: "The heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant [more precisely, bondman], though he be lord of all; But is under tutors and governors [Gr. oikonomos or house-manager or steward] until the time appointed of the father. Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world" (Gal 4:1).

Well, do you really believe that a man of the world is governed by winds, earthquakes and other manifestations of the elements of the universe? That would be ridiculous! But in fact "the elements of the world" are nothing more than "the material principles of the world." That is the proper translation. And have we never been in bondage to the material principles of the world? This time it is not ridiculous at all! Because many are in this bondage right now. And so, the most exact definition of the unjust steward is in Paul's passage: "the material principles of the world." This steward also has less imposing names: "materialism," "wisdom of this world," or "wisdom of this age." It is just this material wisdom which is that unjust steward who wastes the goods and possessions of the Lord, that is, destroys the man of the world. I could here provide examples of the number of suicides in the materially most advanced countries; of the irreversible changes in the climate of the Earth caused by the race for material benefits; of the threat of mankind's nuclear self-annihilation; and so on. These examples are correct but a bit crude. The most terrible thing is a man's endeavor to turn spiritual things into material things even in his mind: to do so with miracles, with Jesus Christ, with God ... and then to comprehend them all in a material way, using the "wisdom of this age." When we speak of the unjust governor I want you to realize that the unjust steward is not any abstract substance outside of man. In a certain sense the unjust steward abides in everybody, binding him to the world.

(2) In time it becomes clear to a man, that it is impossible to go on in the same way. It begins with simple things. First he realizes that man cannot live by material food alone. Then he realizes that it is impossible to trust the unjust steward especially as more and more things occur which could not be explained and researched with the help of material wisdom. They may be explained specifically by ideas which have nothing in common with the material principles of the world. All this threatens to put the unjust steward out of the government of man, that is the house of God.

(3) But it is impossible to do anything in the spiritual sphere with the help of the material principles of the world, a fact recognized by the unjust steward, who says: "I cannot dig." Let us refer to the following short parable in Luke: "Whosoever cometh to me, and heareth my sayings, and doeth them ... He is like a man which built an house, and digged deep, and laid the foundation on a rock" (Lk 6:47). In other words, digging means working in the spiritual sphere, which material principles are unable to accept. The wisdom of this age cannot appeal to the branches of knowledge that take spiritual principles as their basis. And it cannot appeal to faith, even while acknowledging it: "to beg I am ashamed."

(4-5) In order to realize what happens subsequently we have to determine what or whom the lord's debtors symbolize, and what symbolism there is in their bills. It is not hard to conclude that the rest of the heroes of this parable, or as they called a little later "the children of light" (8), are spiritual teachings of various kinds. They are theological doctrines with their own theogonic and cosmogonic views, claiming to know the truth in its wholeness. Nevertheless they do not possess the truth in its entirety and thus they cannot be more than debtors before God. Their debt to God (and to man also) consists of their misunderstandings and errors, which cause the difference between them and the truth. The doctrines themselves are their bills (6–7). What is the meaning of the unjust steward's further conduct which, if literally understood, would set a rather bad example not only for a Christian, but even for a materialist in the most obtrusive sense of the word? Excuse my inconsistency, but the logic of my exegesis requires that I consider the second debtor first. However, I can note preliminarily that the simplest way to tell this parable, if it were really simple, would be to have the debtors owe the lord plain money. In this case the parable could manage with only one debtor; a second one would be too much. Actually this is not the case—the debts of the children of light are differentiated, with wheat and oil separate. There are quite definite reasons for this.

(7) If, for instance, the material principles of the world acquire knowledge that the Earth is a sphere, they address themselves to some religion which holds the Earth to be flat saying: "Your debt—that is, the difference between your views and the true situation—is too great. You have so many delusions and offenses! Renounce your theory now, take your debtor's note and write a new one, which would correspond with the achievements of worldly wisdom. Thus your doctrine will be closer to the truth, and your debt will be reduced." Or the wisdom of the world appeals to some religion defending the geocentric cosmology. "Your knowledge is imperfect, and you have a debt to your master. Behold, here is the heliocentric cosmology. Take now your doctrine where you teach the Earth to be the center of the universe and write a new one so you shall owe the Lord less." You can multiply examples of this kind without effort. Thus, the unjust steward changes the bill of a hundred measures of wheat to a bill of a somewhat smaller debt of wheat or corn or grains of truth.

(6) However let me return to the debtor of oil. We may by no means ignore the qualitative difference between his debt and the first debt. And I must not forget the secret of the oil symbolism which is love. Accordingly, we can see here that the debtors or the children of light have too little love for each other. Instead of mutual love we can observe the picture where love has given up its place to mutual intolerance and enmity, to and including the willingness to use violence. So what is there praiseworthy here in the role of the unjust steward? The answer is found in the fact that investigating the structure of the world through material principles, which brings incompatible theories closer to the truth, clearly brings them closer to reconciliation with one another. This can multiply neither their love nor their spiritual knowledge—there is not a single word about that in the parable. But the material principles can eliminate grounds for mutual hostility and melt their enmity, thus reducing their debts of love. Here is a rather crude example. One child of light declares that the Earth rests on the back of a whale. Another one believes it is standing on three elephants. Each is angry for "distortion of the truth" by the other. "You both are wrong," the unjust steward says, "The Earth is not based either on the back of a whale or on three elephants. There is nothing to quarrel about."

The parable does not tell that the unjust steward completely clears away any debts, although it seems that such conduct could make him even more friends. But the wisdom of this age is unable to do that. In other words, the material principles of the world, being completely unable to replace the spiritual principles, can bring theological teachings closer to the truth. The unjust steward has no power over fifty measures of oil and over eighty measures of wheat. Regarding the rest of these debts the children of light ought both to dig and to beg to clear their debts off, that is, to lead their views to the truth.

(8-9) So how could the lord help but commend the unjust steward for this? An unjust steward, a child of this age, always on the move, is really wiser than the children of light, debtors that continuously sin in their attempts to change the living and knowable truth into a salt-pillar of the law. But that law is fabricated by men who only claim to introduce it as the absolute truth. Returning them from dead things to living ones is an act indeed worth complimenting.

It is worth noting the nonsensicality of attempts at literal interpretation. Although the unjust steward merited the gratitude of the lord's debtors, with his last step he enlarged his crime before his lord, in wasting the lord's goods even more. Nevertheless he is not only left unpunished by the lord, but on the contrary earns his appreciation. But from the debtors, for whom he has done such a good deed, he receives nothing but a promise—also coming not from the debtors themselves—to receive him into their dwellings when he should become a pauper. "Make to yourselves friends of the riches of unrighteousness." It means that the material reasons of the world, the wisdom of this age must be used for the good of light. We now know that the unjust steward can promote making friends in the Lord. But on the other hand, without underestimating its significance, we must not forget Paul's commandment: "Charge them that are rich in this world [or age], that they be not high-minded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God" (1 Tim 6:17).

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