Perhaps the most puzzling of all Jesus’ parables is that of the crafty steward in Luke 16:1-8. A steward is dismissed for being wasteful. Behind his master’s back he gives his debtors big reductions in their debt, the net result being that the master receives far less in repayment. The master then praises him for his astuteness. Is Jesus really praising this dishonesty? What is going on here?
First of all we must drop any assumptions that this first century economy works like our own. There are no clear goodies and baddies here. The master is probably a wealthy absentee landlord who lets out his land to poor tenant farmers. Life was a continual tug of war between the two; the landlord, rather greedy, trying to squeeze every last ounce of profit from the tenants; the tenants not exactly paragons of honesty trying to give the master the absolute minimum possible and the steward caught between the two. Probably it was one of the tenants with a grudge who denounced him for being wasteful.
The crucial issue here is the way in which interest is negotiated. The master makes a loan of fifty measures of oil – or more likely it’s monetary equivalent. Jewish law forbade the taking of interest in any form, but with the vagaries of the climate and the agricultural market, an ‘unprotected’ loan could well be economic suicide. (Isn’t this parable starting to sound rather modern?) The way round this was to charge interest to express it as part of the principle in the contract. In other words instead of saying; “I borrow 50 measures of oil at 100% interest = 100 measures,” the contract just said: “I borrow 100 measures of oil – full stop.” In addition the steward would take his own cut – not expressed in the contact, but understood by landlord and tenant alike. If the steward is dishonest, let’s remember that his master isn’t exactly opposed to a little ‘creative accounting’, a little legal fiction.
This is not a morality parable whose message is “being dishonest can be bad for you”. Jesus never wastes his time saying the obvious. It comes after three parables of grace; the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son. Their message is emphatically not “don’t get lost”. Rather it is that when we are lost grace comes to find us, and the prodigal son being lost and then found is an occasion of grace and rejoicing for all except the older son whose attitude of “my brother should never have got lost in the first place” is the only thing that cuts him off from grace. There is a further similarity. We are told that the prodigal son squandered his money and that the steward squandered his master’s property. In the Greek original the verb used is identical – diaskorpizein. Just as the prodigal son is a hero of sorts – it is through him that grace is poured out on the household – so the steward is not the bad guy but in a sense the hero of the story. Through his shrewd rearrangement of the accounts everybody manages to benefit from a potentially destructive situation. How?
The master depends totally on the steward. He would probably not want dismiss him but if the tenants see him take no action, then they will take that as a signal to run rings around him. He is the only one who knows all the ins and outs of the business and to find a replacement will be difficult. The tenants are also a bunch of crooks and who knows how they will manipulate a new steward. There is no knowing how the steward will react to his dismissal and the master may well have to write off most of this year’s profits. Surprise surprise, the tenants all pay back the principle (without interest) so although his profits are down he has got back all his principle, the tenants are all delighted and the steward has made himself a load of new friends into the bargain. So out of a situation in which everybody was likely to lose, the steward has, through his astuteness, brought about a situation in which everyone is a winner (at least to some extent). The only reason for this is that he realised how utterly destitute he might become. Just as the prodigal son only returns home out of desperation, so this steward only changes the contracts because his back is pressed tight against the wall. It’s in these no-hope situations that grace seems to work most powerfully. What promised to be a very ugly time for all, turned out – somehow – to everyone’s advantage. No wonder the master praises him!
The religion of the Pharisees was very much a kind of meticulous spiritual book-keeping, everyone had to pay their dues and there was no room for people who did not come up to standard. In this parable Jesus makes the scandalous claim that the ways of God are much like those of the steward than those of the perfect accountants. Strange isn’t it? But then so’s the cross!
The steward is rescued from himself, being caught is a blessing for him since if he continued to get away with his dishonesty he would have become more corrupt and eventually really bad.