by Vesa Hautala
To many readers, the parable of the unjust steward in Luke 16:1–9 is one of the most perplexing passages in the New Testament. Jesus tells a story about a steward (or manager, depending on the translation) who squanders his master’s possessions and is going to be fired. The steward invites his master’s debtors to alter their bills to make them lower, so that the debtors would receive him into their houses after he loses his job. The steward is then praised for his shrewdness. This biblical encouragement of shrewdness creates an argument in favour of an optimising approach, which is central to effective altruism, as it encourages us to be as effective as possible when using sour resources.
People are often confused by how Jesus appears to praise dishonesty. However, this can be resolved by taking into account an essential property of parables and similar figures of speech: they compare two things that are similar in some respect, but do not imply they are similar in other ways. Here shrewdness, not dishonesty, is the point of comparison between the dishonest manager and what followers of Jesus should be like. The steward is exemplary in his effective use of resources, not in his dishonesty. The steward is not praised for dishonest conduct but provides an example of wisdom and diligence. There are also other, different explanations for the apparent difficulty, but these mostly agree about the intended message of the parable.
What is the “shrewdness” the steward expresses? He assesses the situation correctly and comes to an effective solution. He uses available means wisely to reach his goal. Friberg’s Analytical Greek Lexicon defines the Greek adjective translated as shrewd “as relating to the quality of one’s thinking resulting from insight wise, intelligent, sensible”, and Danker’s Greek NT Lexicon as “using one’s wits effectivly” [sic] There is clear similarity to the ideas of effectiveness in effective altruism.
The point of Jesus’ parable is to urge Christians to be more effective in their use of resources. In his application of the parable in Luke 16:8b–13 Jesus compares his followers unfavourably to the “children of this age”, who are “more shrewd” than “the children of light”. He urges his followers to use their unrighteous wealth to “make friends … by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” (Luke 16:9 ESV)
Making friends by unrighteous wealth is commonly interpreted as helping those in need. The church fathers placed a heavy emphasis on helping the poor when explaining this parable, and saw it as a strong ethical obligation for the rich. The parable is part of a unit dealing with possessions and is linked with the importance of charity in Luke’s Gospel and the whole New Testament. (Cf. “sell you possessions and give alms”, Luke 12:33).
Wealth is called unrighteous in the parable because its accumulation and use are often intertwined with all sorts of unrighteousness. Many Biblical texts warn about the morally corrupting influence of wealth. (Matt. 19:24, 1 Tim. 6:10) Following the parable of the dishonest steward Jesus warns that it is impossible to serve both God and wealth. (Luke 16:10–13)
Jesus’ followers are supposed to use their wealth for heavenly goals. They should use it shrewdly to benefit those in need in order to “make friends” who will welcome them to eternal dwellings. In this way they are serving God and not wealth. This offers a distinctively Christian perspective on a common theme in effective altruism, using wealth to do good.
The parable aligns well with the principles of effective altruism, even though its focus is different. Resources must not be used only for personal gratification but to “make friends”, which can be applied to helping the disadvantaged with one’s resources. An easy practical application is to expand the meaning of resources from money and goods to include time, opportunities and abilities. Christian teaching views every good thing as a gift of God, so these things can also be included in what God has given to people and what he expects them to use “shrewdly” (compare this to the parable of talents in Matt. 25:14–30, Luke 19:11–27). The famous early church father John Chrysostom spoke of possessions as a loan from the poor when explaining the parable of the dishonest steward. This idea fits well with the common EA observation of economic inequality and ideas of moral obligation to use wealth for altruistic endeavours. The Lukan emphasis on giving alms to the poor is very easy to combine with EA.
There are also differences. The parable seems to be more about “effective enlightened self-interest” than pure altruism, as it focuses on the steward securing his own future; even the praised shrewdness seems to be more about being wise with regard to one’s own eternal welfare. The focus of Jesus’ teaching following the parable is on avoiding the moral and spiritual peril often associated with wealth. The “shrewdness” mentioned in the parable is focused on the benefit to the user from intelligent use of resources. Still, the parable and the following teaching are not opposed to pure altruism, even though they are coming from a different point of view. Other passages in the Bible support charity for purely altruistic ends and motivated by gratefulness to God, love for other people, imitation of Christ, good of the community etc. From the point of view of EA, the parable is most important for its clear recommendation of effective use of resources. It provides support for the idea of optimisation, which is otherwise quite rare in Scripture.