An analysis of the Unjust Steward

The Parable of the Unjust Steward has several confounding qualities that make interpreting it very difficult.

I find the parable particularly interesting because it provides an intermediate, Old Testament-tinged, account of Jesus that seems much more akin to the Gnostic ideal of mastery and dutifulness; a spiritual appeal to the flawed material world where the only way out is through.

The Unjust Steward is often interpreted as the steward heroically subverting his master for the benefit of his master's debtors, but to me it seems to convey a much more interesting message where one's spirit is measured by principled shrewdness over their own realm. I hope to elucidate a few important clues that drastically influence how the story may be interpreted.

In true-to-source translations, such as the following from the Geneva Bible, v.8 has "the lord", sometimes upper-cased, commending the steward for his actions. Most translations have chosen to rewrite this verse as "the master" commending the steward. The cause for this discrepancy is that the word in the Greek source, "κύριος", while used broadly throughout the bible to refer to Jesus, may also refer generally to a person in power. This has shockwaves, as it shifts the focus to the master and the intent towards discriminating his ethics rather than the steward's.

8 And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely. Wherefore the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.

An interesting surface level observation is that there is a categorical value-assessment between worldliness and holiness made in the same breath (the Greek source lacks verses). In the case that it is the master's words, the sentiment expressed in the following sentence then seems to endorse the master's lack of affect, if only to suggest that the master lacks all other wisdom.

9 And I say unto you, Make you friends with the riches of iniquity, that when ye shall want, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.

v.9 seemingly intensifies the existing message; one's shrewdness in material matters will yield positive results, yet leaves unanswered a new question: Is the steward faulted for his inability to "make friends" with his master, or is he commended again for winning the favor of the debtors for future gain?

Analyses that I have read attempt to contextualize the parable by measuring the master's ethics in the correct historical context -- the master is understood as an oppressive landowner, and the steward a slave. What is left up to inference is the probability that the steward stole by means of increasing the debtor's dues, effectively maximizing the master's injustices. The steward, now under pressure, does right by the debtors, however his original actions were unfaithful to both the master and the debtors.

vv.10-12 provide context that affirms that Jesus is, in fact, endorsing mastery and righteousness over chthonic matters, although is still somewhat confusing in the context of the story.

10 He that is faithful in the least, he is also faithful in much: and he that is unjust in the least, is unjust also in much.
11 If then ye have not been faithful in the wicked riches, who will trust you in the true treasure?
12 And if ye have not been faithful in another man’s goods, who shall give you that which is yours?

Peeling back the onion

  • The steward was unjust all along, not only to the master, but also to the debtors.
  • The steward demonstrates a degree of competence in keeping his faith to "the wicked riches" by forgiving some of the debts and winning the favor of the debtors.
  • The steward undermines himself by demonstrating clear unfaithfulness to his master, so that he may not be trusted by any of the debtors regardless.

v.13, on the surface, seems to completely contradict vv.10-12:

13 No servant can serve two masters: for either he shall hate the one, and love the other: or else he shall lean to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and riches.

I propose the steward behaved unscrupulously on behalf of himself. Assuming the steward has stolen by means of increasing the debt owed, he has stolen from the debtors, lost the favor of his master, and lost future credibility as a trustworthy worker.

Exercising one's will over the material world places them in a position of mastery over it, sparing matters of faith. One who is faithful in the wicked riches respects the possibility that he can do wrong by others, however has the discipline to overcome it. The world judges you appropriately, giving you "that which is yours" in exchange for your faith in "another man's goods". To the contrary, serving the wicked riches is to become prone to them, acting without principle.

This is a Gnostic/Jungian tinted parable to the degree of the Parable of the Pearl, for a display of heroism necessarily requires the capacity for evil.

The parable of the Unjust Steward suggests that taking on wickedness for one's self puts them in the position to overcome greater evil as well as the ability to become it themselves. This is the Jungian story of the shadow, and the Gnostic demiurge. If you forego the effort and strain of excelling, effectively repressing the shadow and not "rising to the occasion" (see: Nietzsche's will to power), you really haven't displayed much character to begin with. If upon encountering the shadow, you lack care and control over it, you will be overcome by it. Your character in gaining and maintaining a position of power in the material world is a display of how you may respect the "true treasure".

As above, so below.