“Parables of Jesus: The Unjust Steward,” Ensign, July 2003, 28–31
The parable of the unjust steward is about a business manager who manipulates his employer’s debts. I have wondered many times why the Savior ever gave it. Some people have even read it and wondered if He was justifying or excusing unethical behavior. It is a curious parable, but one that is also rich with truth, including teachings that show us how to make our way financially in this world.
Jesus taught almost half of His parables while traveling the countryside on His way to Jerusalem for His last Feast of Tabernacles. The good Samaritan, the rich fool, and the unjust judge are but a few of the characters featured in them. One of the most unusual people He spoke about was an unjust steward. Jesus spoke of him to a gathering of His disciples not long after giving the parable of the prodigal, or wasteful, son (see Luke 15:11–16:1).
The Savior began, “There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods” (Luke 16:1). The steward was a manager who handled the business affairs of an owner. And apparently, someone had reported the steward’s reckless squandering of his master’s property.
The rich man had many business holdings, including assets based on what people owed him. He sent word to his steward to prepare a report on how his businesses were going. This made the steward very nervous, for he feared he would be fired when the master found out what he was doing. He said to himself: “What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed” (Luke 16:3).
So the steward devised a plan to ensure he would not be left destitute. He decided to use his position of trust to negotiate some business deals for his own benefit. He offered to discount the debts of his master’s business partners in return for their friendship and generous future considerations for himself. They happily agreed, for the discounts the steward was offering were up to 50 percent!
Now comes the curious part of the parable: “And the lord [the rich man] commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely” (Luke 16:8). Was the steward giving away what really belonged to his master, or was he forgiving interest payments his master did not have the right to charge under the law of Moses? In Jesus’ day owners sometimes overcharged debtors, so the discounts the steward gave could have simply returned the debts to their original amounts. This approach would have satisfied the rich man and gained the favor of the debtors. But whatever the steward did, the Savior described his actions as “unjust,” or morally wrong, for the Lord does not excuse sin for any reason (see D&C 1:31). It is essential we realize that in the parable it was the rich man—not the Savior—who commended the steward.
After telling the parable, Jesus explained some points that were important to Him.
Those who are spiritually strong need to give proper attention to the temporal affairs in their lives. “For the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light” (Luke 16:8).
When possible the righteous should be friends, not enemies, with people in positions of authority or wealth, for someday those friends may assist the righteous and the kingdom of God. “Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations” (Luke 16:9; see D&C 82:22).
Those who wisely manage their temporal affairs are more likely to also wisely manage their spiritual affairs. “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much. … And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own?” (Luke 16:10, 12; see D&C 51:19).
My life has been abundantly blessed by my living these four principles. I share with you two stories—one that relates to friendship with people not of our faith, the other with obedience to God—even when it might cost us great sums of money.
I was converted in 1973 at the age of 24. I was single and living with my parents. As is traditional in Taiwan, my parents believed in Buddhism and wanted all their children to follow their religion. Before I learned about the Church I did not live the Word of Wisdom. I quit smoking and drinking the day I decided to be an investigator. It was not easy, but the desire to smoke and drink was burned out of me by the Holy Ghost.
When my mother found out I had attended the Latter-day Saint Church, she was very angry. It was very difficult to choose between respecting my parents and following the Savior. I did everything I could to maintain a good and respectful relationship with my parents, while living my new religion.
Three years after my baptism, I was called as a bishop. One year later I had the privilege of traveling to Salt Lake City to attend general conference. In those days imported cigarettes and wine were very expensive in Taiwan. My father asked me to buy some American cigarettes and wine for him on my trip. I told him I couldn’t. He was very upset and complained to my mother. I still remember her wise comment: “Your son is a bishop, and his religion does not allow him to smoke and drink. Asking him to carry cigarettes and wine for you would be like asking a Buddhist monk to carry a pig’s head through a street market.” My father said nothing after that because he knew that Buddhist monks are vegetarians and are highly respected in Chinese society. They would never carry a pig’s head in public.
My mother passed away several years ago. She did not want to change her religion, but she taught me wisdom I will never forget. She used her position of authority to help me with my father’s request in a way that I could not have done for myself.
In the 1970s the manufacturing business in Taiwan was booming. We were exporting all kinds of products all over the world. I was a manager in the exporting department of a small private factory. Most manufacturing plants in Taiwan required their employees to work on Sunday. I told my boss I could not work on Sundays because I needed to observe the Sabbath day. He was Buddhist and didn’t understand much about my religion, but he respected me and I didn’t have to work on Sundays. I worked very hard during the week to compensate for my absence on Sundays.
Our export business prospered; sales increased tremendously every year. Finally, we built a beautiful new factory, and the entire company decided to work Monday through mid-Saturday. Today most companies in Taiwan don’t work on either Saturday or Sunday.
I know that the Lord will bless us when we put obedience to God ahead of making money. I also know that it is very important to work diligently to prove to those in worldly positions that we are living our religion.
From the parable of the unjust steward, we realize we must learn how to use properly the worldly things God has entrusted to our care. Elder James E. Talmage (1862–1933) wrote:
“Worldly-minded men do not neglect provision for their future years, … while the ‘children of light,’ or those who believe spiritual wealth to be above all earthly possessions, are less energetic, prudent, or wise. …
“… Emulate the unjust steward and the lovers of mammon [money], not in their dishonesty, cupidity, and miserly hoarding of the wealth that is at best transitory, but in their zeal, forethought, and provision for the future.”1
I no longer wonder why the Savior gave this parable. It reminds me of principles that continue to bless me and my family. I am thankful that the Lord’s parables not only contain great spiritual concepts but also provide very practical advice for achieving financial success within the teachings of His glorious gospel.