Serving: commendable?

dishonest-steward8 And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.  “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9 I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. 10 The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones. 11 If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth? 12 If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours?

What is exactly is commendable? Brian Stoffregen has surveyed the scholarly works and offers several models of interpretation for this notoriously difficult parable:

  1. The point of the parable is not the servant’s dishonesty, but his wise decision-making in the time of crisis. As Tannehill (Luke) states: “…a distinction is drawn between his dishonesty, which is not being commended, and his shrewdness, which is” (p. 247). His whole future depended on quick thinking and immediate actions. So the servant is presented as an example of decisive thinking and acting to save himself. Thus when even dishonest worldly people know how and when to take decisive action, how much more should those who follow Jesus know and decide such things.
  2. The servant is a man of the world, who works and thinks with diligence to protect his interest. What if all people would have the same commitment to the kingdom as they do towards their work or hobbies?
  3. The parable may be an irony. The idea that the master would commend this servant for such unjust behavior is so absurd that no one would believe it. It’s a story about a cheater who expects to be commended for his dishonest actions. Understood this way, perhaps Jesus is attacking the Sadducees or Pharisees. The Sadducees cheated a little on the Mosaic Law, so that they might fit in better with the Roman government. Do they expect to be praised by God for doing that? The Pharisees made a big show of giving a little money to the poor. Do they expect to be praised by God for making these token contributions? You can’t be a nominal Christian. You can’t carry the name “Christian,” and commit little wrongs here and there and expect God’s praise. You are not to act like this steward.
  4. There are suggestions that the steward was acting within his legal rights in reducing the debts as he did. Wealthy landowners would sublet their land to men like this steward. The steward would let out the work to other workers. Sometimes the steward would loan the workers money and charge an exorbitant interest. So, in the parable, the steward is canceling his high interest on the note given to the workers. This becomes a parable against excessive profits. It is the same kind of judgment uttered by Amos in the thematic First Lesson (Amos 8:4-7). People are more important than excessive profits.

In a variation of this idea John Donahue offers that the steward has been required to administer an unjust practice of the owner who requires loaning money and commodities at unjust levels. Thus the steward, realizing his termination is in sight, takes the opportunity, while still able to act as business agent, to undo this wrong. Thus it is for this reason the steward is praised. This idea is tempting but one must deal with the description of the steward as “dishonest” (ádikos, unrighteous). One would have to assume that in reducing the debts the steward is in the process of reforming his own life and a prelude to receiving hospitality from one of the debtors.

A corollary of this line of thought, given that the rich in Luke’s gospel have largely not fared well, is it surprising that a “shrewd” owner might well approve of such marginal actions.

  1. The parable can be about the right and wrong use of money. If the steward or the master were charging a high rate of interest, money may have been the most important thing in their lives. Jesus says to make friends with your money — use it rightly. Use it for human services. The steward gains friends by sharing his profits and helping out the poor debtors. He is our example. Our profits should be used in the service of love — helping to ease the plight of the poor. Otherwise, they can compete with God for our allegiance. This understanding anticipates the parable (Lazarus and the Rich Man) which ends the chapter.
  2. Related to the right and wrong use of money, another approach might center on the word for “squander” (diaskorpizo). The same word is used concerning the “prodigal son” (15:13). However, the literal meaning of the word is “to scatter” (see Luke 1:51). It is used of “scattering” seed (Mt 25:24, 26). By extension, the word was applied to money — the “scattering” of money = “wasting” money or perhaps, “throwing it away.” Some have even suggested “failing to make a profit” or “sloppy record keeping.” What makes such “scattering” wasteful? I think it’s because there is no hope of any return on the “investment” — like scattering seeds where they won’t grow. Perhaps, it is the rich man’s greed — always wanting to increase his wealth that is a fault and the manager’s shrewd use of money to make friends revealed another use.
  3. The use of this life’s goods to secure hospitality in the future. By reducing their loan agreements so generously, the manager has done these debtors a significant favor; because he is still this wealthy man’s manager, moreover, his agreements with these debtors are binding. In this way, the manager has entered into his own patronal relationship with his master’s debtors, apparently themselves also persons of means. He has become their benefactor and, in return, can expect them to reciprocate by extending to him the hospitality of their homes. The manager has thus taken advantage of his now-short-lived status, using the lag time during which he was to make an accounting of his management (v. 2) and his position to arrange for his future. (Green, 592-3).

A Suggestion: As with most parables, there are many layers of meaning – as Stoffregen has shown – but overall, one should always give weight to the simple explanations – in this case, the steward is dishonest and he continues to squander his master’s goods. Yet his actions cast an aura of honestly and goodness on his master and shrewdly provides for his own future.  As did the steward, Jesus urges his disciples to been even more vigilant and seize the moment to make provisions for their future before God. The kingdom is at hand!


Notes

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. children of this world: This could also be translated as “children of this age” thus drawing a parallel to Luke’s use of phrases such as “this generation.”

Luke 16:9 wealth: mamōnás [wealth, mammon] The Greek miamōmás seems to come from an Aramaic noun which most probably derives from the root ’mn (“that in which one trusts”).  The word does not occur in the OT but is used in later Jewish writings in the senses (a) “resources,” (b) “gain” (especially dishonest), and (c) “compensation” or “ransom,” but also “bribe.” In general it has an ignoble sense, is often called unrighteous, and is a target of ethical censure and admonition. In the NT the word occurs only on the lips of Jesus. It denotes “earthly goods,” but always with a stress on their materialistic character. When people trust in it (Lk. 12:15ff.) or give their hearts to it (Mt. 6:21), they cannot love God. Believers, then, must break out of enslavement to it and learn to depend on God (Mt. 6:24). eternal dwellings: literally, “eternal tents” (aiōniai skēnai), possibly echoes the exodus tradition, as it refers to the “tent” (skēnē) or tabernacle of God’s presence. The adjective “eternal” clarifies that Jesus refers not to temporary dwellings, but rather to the permanent place where God’s presence dwells.

Luke 16:10-13 Jesus’ sayings about stewardship and wealth describe “a form of stewardship that is firmly rooted in the OT understanding of Yahweh as the true owner and conferrer of all land and property” with the corollary that since property and land are given to God’s people to manage in the horizon of their accountability before God, they are to be used for the good of all, including the poor (Green, 597, cf Gen. 12:7; Exod. 3:8; 32:13; Lev. 20:45; 25; Deut. 7:13).

Luke 16:11 dishonest wealth: literally, “mammon of iniquity.” Mammon is the Greek transliteration of a Hebrew or Aramaic word that is usually explained as meaning “that in which one trusts.” The characterization of this wealth as dishonest expresses a tendency of wealth to lead one to dishonesty. Mammon is called unrighteous not because it is inherently evil but because of the unrighteous attitudes the pursuit of money can produce. If money were inherently unrighteous, then all uses of it would be evil. But that is not Jesus’ view (see 19:1-10). The attitude reflected here may be similar to that of 1 Timothy 6:10, where Paul says that the love of money is the root of all evil. Our own experience shows us that money brings out distorted values in people. eternal dwellings: or, “eternal tents,” i.e., heaven. his opposed to the teachings.

Luke 16:10-12 The person who is trustworthy in very small matters…: The second conclusion recommends constant fidelity to those in positions of responsibility.

Sources

  • Alan Culpepper, Luke in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995) pp. 306-11
  • Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997) pp. 586-97
  • Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2000) 146-54
  • Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at crossmarks.com
  • Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. ©

 

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