Oh, the Irony: How the unexpected praise of an unlikely exemplar might function in the parable of the unjust steward (Lk 16:1-13)
The prevailing interpretation of the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Lk 16:1-13) is that the master merely praises the steward’s cleverness—not his scheming. So, the steward, though unjust, serves as a positive example in shrewdness, and the story is an analogy for eschatological preparation. While this reading works, it is somewhat unconvincing, as it fails to explain why the master would commend embezzlement that took place at his expense. For this reason, some scholars resort to interpolations that might justify the steward’s actions and render them praiseworthy. Yet, there is another reading that neither leaves loose ends nor interpolates: the steward and his actions are actually a negative example, and the master’s praise is sarcasm or situational irony. The merits of this argument have gone unrecognized, as it is usually dismissed out of hand because the text does not readily convey irony and because there is no additional evidence for it—for instance, contrary use of words or possible textual corruptions that obscure the irony. It is sufficient, however, to suggest the passage’s irony is not obvious, as is often the case in written form. Since the parable portrays the steward as dishonest, it would make the most sense as a cautionary tale. It just so happens that this reading is perfectly legitimate if we glimpse the irony, which is to say, recognize that, in absence of some conjectural interpolation, it is simply unlikely that this master would have praised this steward under these circumstances.