Serving: shrewdness

dishonest-steward1 Then he also said to his disciples, “A rich man had a steward who was reported to him for squandering his property. 2 He summoned him and said, ‘What is this I hear about you? Prepare a full account of your stewardship, because you can no longer be my steward.’ 3 The steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do, now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me? I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I know what I shall do so that, when I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 He called in his master’s debtors one by one. To the first he said, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He replied, ‘One hundred measures of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note. Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.’ 7 Then to another he said, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘One hundred kors of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note; write one for eighty.’ 8 And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.  

Jesus returns to the theme of use of wealth; the chapter begins and ends with parables. The story of the scheming steward has been a problem for interpreters, hence its reputation as one of the most difficult parables to interpret. The root problem is the commendation (v.8) of the steward who is so plainly dishonest.

Stewards in Scripture. The figure of the steward has some significance in Christian thinking regarding one’s relationship with God. In the OT, a steward could be a chief slave/servant put in charge of a master’s household or property (Gen 43:16, 19; 44:1, 4; Is 22:15). Joseph was a steward in the house of the Pharaoh (Gen 39:4-5).  The earth is the Lord’s house (Ps 24) and Moses is his steward (Num 12:7; Heb 3:1-6).  In Jesus’ parables, stewards are expected to invest their talents and when fruitful are given even greater responsibilities (Lk 19:12-27).

Episcopoi are called stewards (Titus 1:5-9) and are expected to possess holy qualities as they manage the household of God. The apostle Paul also saw himself as a steward (1 Cor. 4:1-2) who would have to give an account of his stewardship (1 Cor. 4:3-4; cf. 2 Tim. 4:7-8) as the Apostle to the Gentiles (Eph. 3:2; Gal. 2:7-8; Rom. 1:5-6; 13-15). There is also a sense in which every Christian is a steward entrusted with a divine gift (1 Pet. 4:10).

These are just some of the images of stewards that part of the Christian imagination regarding the understanding of stewards.

Using Wealth to Make Friends. The story begins when charges are brought to the rich man that the steward was squandering the rich man’s property.  Similar to the rich fool (12:17), the steward begins an internal dialogue: “What shall I do?” (See the “Note” on Luke 16:1 below) Clearly the steward does not like his options: I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg” (v.3).  He thus concocts a plan to be welcomed into another rich man’s home once he has been dismissed from his current position. As the parable unfolds we see that the steward quickly decides and acts and goes about reducing an established debt owed to his current employers.  The first debtor owes 900 gallons of oil; the second owes a huge amount of grain. These are well beyond household quantities and reflect a commercial operation.

Since the steward is technically still the rich man’s agent, the rich man is bound and will not be able to reverse the steward’s actions without a loss of face with the debtors.  Meanwhile the steward will have acquired a debt of honor and gratitude that hopefully will ensure goodwill toward the steward in the future.

That is the “who” and “what” of the story.  The difficulties about the “why” begin to come to the fore when the parable continues: “And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently” (v.8).

Notes

Luke 16:1 steward: In the Roman context a steward has access to his master’s wealth and acted as his agent in business affairs – leading to an enviable social status strongly associated with his master’s standing. The implication of losing such a position pointed to the alternatives of manual labor or begging – and homelessness as well.  In other words, the steward is facing life “outside the camp” as a newly marginalized member of that world.

The parable of the dishonest steward has to be understood in the light of the Palestinian custom of agents acting on behalf of their masters and the usurious practices common to such agents. The dishonesty of the steward consisted in the squandering of his master’s property (Luke 16:1) and not in any subsequent graft. The master commends the dishonest steward who has forgone his own usurious commission on the business transaction by having the debtors write new notes that reflected only the real amount owed the master (i.e., minus the steward’s profit). The dishonest steward acts in this way in order to ingratiate himself with the debtors because he knows he is being dismissed from his position (Luke 16:3). The parable, then, teaches the prudent use of one’s material goods in light of an imminent crisis.

Luke 16:6 One hundred measures: literally, “one hundred baths.” A bath is a Hebrew unit of liquid measurement equivalent to eight or nine gallons.

Luke 16:7 One hundred kors: a kor is a Hebrew unit of dry measure for grain or wheat equivalent to ten or twelve bushels.

Luke 16:8 dishonest steward: literally, steward of wickedness (oikonomos tes adikias).  acting prudently: other translations take the term phromimos as “cleverly” as term close to the more common word for prudence (phronesis).  These are both terms that Aristotle described as a kind of practical wisdom.

Sources

  • Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. ©
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