Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Parable of the Unjust Steward

And he said also unto his disciples, There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods. And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward. Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. So he called every one of his lord's debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. 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. And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. 

This Parable is generally considered problematic because it seems like Jesus is praising a selfish person. This is one of my favourite parables but I have never seen or heard the way that I interpret it. Here it is, please let me know if you have seen this interpretation elsewhere:

In the parable the steward acts in a good way for a selfish reason. However, most of the good things that get done are done for selfish or partly selfish reasons. Consider someone who gives to the poor in order to get into heaven, that is selfish, they are no different from the steward. Even when a good deed is motivated by true compassion it is extremely rare that it does not contain an element of selfishness as well. The fact is, more good gets done through selfishness than pure compassion. In relation to this the Dalai Lama has referred to the quest for enlightenment as enlightened self interest. It is vanity to believe that you can do anything without an element of selfishness. However, we have many religious, institutional, and cultural mechanisms to encourage us to do good works for selfish reasons. Ultimately, these structures are motivated by true compassion, but in an indirect way. What this parable is saying is that a good act is good in and of itself, independent of the motivations of the actor. We are all like the steward, we are all selfish, but when we do good things it is to be commended. We tend to make a distinction between people who have internalized systems to make them do good, and people who do good because an externalized system has caused them to do it. Really there is no difference. The saints knew this and this is why, despite their many internally motivated good deeds, they did not see themselves as any better than your average sinner


  1. It's hard to make a distinction between selfish and altruistic acts as you have written elswhere. I assume there are lots of things written in Christianity but in Islam I know that doing good just for the sake of god is a kind of these acts. It's called purity or 'ekhlas'. The point is that doing for god hardly makes sense even for believers.

  2. It's in christianity but it is not discussed a lot. I read something that talked about being able to pick up a piece of straw for God, that is, picking up a piece of straw as an act of love. Buddhists talk about being compassionate to rocks and trees. So yes, I agree, the pure act often makes no sense, even for believers. (the straw guy is here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brother_Lawrence)

  3. Ah, Luke chapter 16. I love this parable -- but principally because I am a bankruptcy lawyer. And you don't need to deal with corporate insolvencies for long before you see that things haven't changed in 2,000 years. Management will always feather their own nest.

    In terms of theology, I'm not sure I agree with you. Praising good acts with bad motivations is a little too consequentialist for me. I would go with a more traditional interpretation. The steward is thinking about the future -- looking to his life after the corporate bankruptcy -- and that is linked in the parable to living for a life to come with god. But it is very disturbing and provocative. The parable seems to be saying that nothing that is of this world is important. All conventions and standards of behavior and orality may be compromised if it furthers the connection with god. The children of this world (the immoral steward) in relation to what they care about (personal success) are wiser than the children of light. The children of light who love god are unwilling to deviate from the conventions of this world to connect with god and instead live worldly lives in conformity with the norms of society.

    This parable is shockingly radical -- the analogy in Buddhism would be to some type of crazy wisdom teaching.

  4. Your post inspired me to study this parable today with a friend. We reached, in the main, the same conclusion as anonymous did. A bible commentary we used also expressed this view. However I liked your interpretation since it caused me to look at the parable anew and to think about my acts of kindness and how much selfishness is involved and how I can get the "self" out of the way. Thanks for your post!

  5. Thank you for all the comments; really made me think about this, which is the point of these things. Here are my general thoughts

    There is a teaching in buddhism which is similar to my interpretation of this parable. It’s based on a more radical interpretation of cause and effect. Buddhists believe that everything is a result of cause and effect. This is connected to the idea of no-self or what cognitive scientists call agency. The idea is that any result is the product of a chain of cause and effect actions. The extreme interpretation of this is that a person (or agent) cannot really be said to be the cause of something as they are merely a part of the hugely complex chain of cause and effect that led to the result. Taken to the extreme this leads to the idea of no-self. This is the belief that there is no permanent fixed thing that can be labeled as self. Therefore, I cannot do anything good or anything bad because there is no distinct I. In practice this teaching can help with humility, since I cannot take credit for anything, and also with regret, since I cannot be held responsible for anything. This obviously opens up a whole can of worms, which I will set aside for now.

    In terms of background I should mention a couple of other ideas. One is distributed cognition. This is the idea that when humans arrange themselves into systems (e.g., religions, governments, departments, etc. ), it is the systems that achieve the end, not the individuals. I think this distinction is very important for thinking about religion because religion operates at the individual level and the institutional level. Another related idea has to do with using evolution to understand how and why we form systems. Darwin’s Cathedral is an excellent book that deals directly with the development of religious systems from an evolutionary perspective

    So, getting back to the parable. I think both interpretations mentioned so far are legitimate, helpful, and lead to fairly radical conclusions. Here I've just re-stated both for my own clarification

    The steward acted wisely, but in his own self interest. He existed within a social/economic system where someone of his status needs the favor of more powerful individuals. He saw what was coming and acted wisely within that system. Although he was selfishly motivated his actions within the system resulted in the forgiving of debt, which is good. The point of this is that many people produce good for selfish reasons and this type of good is just as good as good produced through an internal motivation. Having the internal motivation is its own reward and separate from the good that is accomplished.

    Now take the analogy that the steward is someone worried about whether he will get into heaven or not. He realizes that he may not and goes against the rules laid out by his master to try to save himself. God is presumably meant to be the master, so in this case God has laid out some rules for getting into heaven. According to the rules the steward is in trouble so he ignores them entirely and acts in his own self interest. One way of seeing this is that the rules are rules for running a system - a society, a religion, and they generally produce good things. However, if the rules are not working for you, you should start shopping around for a new way. In the parable this would be analogous to trying to find a new master. However, if we interpret the other masters as other gods that doesn’t work very well, but it does work if you interpret the masters as sets of rules representing different approaches to God.

    One thing for sure about this parable is that it is meant to be critical of the idea that there is one set of rules and you are good if you follow them and bad if you don’t