Unraveling Jesus’ most confusing parable (the Shrewd Steward…and how it matters) – Luke 16:1-15

18 Jan

Would Jesus teach his disciples to do something evil?  Specifically, did he say “Use your money to buy friends?”  It seems so, as I mentioned last week.  Yet, we know Jesus, and it’s pretty clear that he wouldn’t teach his disciples to do something so wrong.  So it is surprising when we read this in Luke 16:9: “Use your worldly wealth to gain friends.”  And that comes after he has told a parable that seems to make a hero out of a wasteful, dishonest, sneaky guy, telling his disciples to be like that guy.  What is going on here?  We have to do a little digging.  That means we need to try to discover the background of this story.  We’ll try to unravel what some have called the most confusing and problematic of Jesus’ parables.

Scholar Kenneth Bailey tells us that “the most probable cultural setting for the parable is that of a landed estate with a steward who had authority to carry out the business of the estate. The debtors were most likely renters who had agreed to pay a fixed amount of produce for the yearly rent.  The steward was a salaried official who managed the accounts. The master was a man of noble character respected in the community who cared enough about his own wealth to fire a wasteful steward.”

Now that we know the setting, let’s take a look at the story itself:

The rich landowner has been hearing bad reports about his steward, so he calls him in and tells him this.

The steward is silent. No response. How much does the master know? The steward manger figures silence is best.

Then the master fires the steward on the spot saying: “You cannot be steward any longer. Hand over the books.” What is amazingly missing here is that there is no argument, no backtalk, nothing from the steward. He still remains silent. He knows he is caught. There is nothing to say.

Scholars tell us, though, that while his legal authority as his master’s agent is canceled, at the same time his dismissal is in progress. He still has some time to cook the books because word of his dismissal has not gotten around to the renters.

As he is on his way getting the books, he converses to himself, and he concocts a plan. He knows he is guilty, he knows his master knows he is guilty, but he also realizes something very important that is lost on us culturally. Or maybe not, if you think about it: the steward realizes that his master is NOT throwing him in jail.

That’s huge. He is fired. But the master is not bringing up charges against him, and the steward knows that master could do so if he wanted. The master is gracious though. The master doesn’t even scold the unjust steward! The master is merciful in his firing.

The crowd listening to Jesus that day, says Bailey, would have intuitively picked up on some things that were culturally significant about the master. First, the master expected obedience and he acts in judgment on the disobedient servant. That was normal. Second, and this is what is astounding in the parable, the master is incredibly gracious and merciful to the servant, though the servant was dishonest.

So the steward starts thinking to himself, what should he do? Digging (manual labor) or begging are both socially unacceptable for an educated man in authority like he was, and culturally we would expect him to reject both options out of hand. Surprisingly he actually considers digging, but feels he is not strong enough.

There’s more here, Bailey tells us, than the steward trying to line up his next meal. The people in the crowd that day would have realized that the steward is in a terrible cultural predicament. To be fired for wasting his master’s property would be shameful, it would give him an awful public image in the community.

Here’s where Bailey’s observations get really interesting. He says “The steward’s plan is to risk everything on the quality of mercy he has already experienced from his master. If he fails, the steward will certainly go to jail. If he succeeds, he will be a hero in the community….and the key to his plan is that no one in the community yet knows that he has been fired. They will find out soon enough, so he has to act quickly.”

In verse 5 we see that the word of his firing has not spread because this steward still has authority to summon the debtors to come see him. If they knew the steward had been fired, they would not have come. They would say “You’ve been fired, buddy; I’m not doing business with you anymore. You have no authority.”

But they do come in. And take notice of the word “quickly” in verse 6. The steward wants this process to move along fast. He knows he has only a short amount of time before his master or the renters find out what is going on. He knows that he has already been fired, he has already lost his authority, and what he is doing is wrong. But the renters have no idea.

The steward is really taking pains to lead them on in verse 5 when he asks the renter, “How much do you owe MY master?” Since the steward has been fired, the master is no longer HIS master. The steward is being dishonest to the renters.

Also, because of the cultural significance of community, the relationship between the master and his renters would have been a very close one. If those renters suspected that the steward was doing something illegal, they would never have risked getting in bad blood with the master landowner. So the result is that the renters believed what was going on here was an arrangement that the master was fully aware and approving of.

One more cultural point about this: the bills are not due, that is clear. The reductions are coming out of the blue, before the bills are due. Bailey notes that a steward like this would have been in the fields regularly, seeing the conditions which could have included lack of rain, insects, or hot sun, which would adversely affect production. So he could easily tell the debtors that he talked with the owner and got their bills reduced. He is like a factory foreman that arranges a Christmas bonus for his workers, and gets praised.

Bailey summarizes the cultural situation by saying: “the steward openly asserts that he still has authority. The debtors assume that the reductions are authorized; otherwise they would not cooperate. The steward quietly lets the debtors know that he has arranged for the reductions. With these assumptions all the cultural elements fall easily into place.”

The debtors each get huge reductions. With the bills adjusted, he now delivers the books to his master as requested in verse 2.

Do you know what the master is thinking when he reads these adjusted numbers? Is he angry? It seems he would be. He just lost loads of income on these contracts. How do you think your boss would react if he lost 50% on one contract and 20% on another? But amazingly, this master is not angry.

He is thinking “Well played, steward, well played.”

You know why? Bailey tells us that we need to think about the community. Again, this is why community and the social ramifications are so important to understanding this story.  Imagine the reaction in the community that by this time has already started as the word of what just happened spreads. One renter just got 50% off, and the other 20% off. We’re talking huge amounts. Their personal profits this year are going to be 50% and 20% more. Imagine getting that kind of raise! You would be on the phone to your wife in a flash.

And remember that it was almost certain that the steward led the renters to believe he had authority from the master to dole out these raises. The renters would be applauding this landowner like you would not believe. Their wives would be ecstatic. Their kids would be rejoicing. Christmas was going to be awesome this year. These are peasants who were struggling all the time to make ends meet, and they just got what might have been the best financial news of their lives. The whole community would be in party mode, and they all would be thinking their master’s generosity was wonderful.

Let’s imagine the two main options the master has at this point:

First, he could stop the party and say “This was all an unfortunate mistake,” explain that the steward was actually fired, that he had no authority to make the reductions, and revert the bills back to their full amounts. But you and I know exactly how the community would respond if he did that.

There was an episode of The Office where that very thing happened. The boss, Michael, led the whole office to believe that they were getting $1000 bonuses. The place erupted. People got on the phone. Told their wives. Started planning vacations. Made purchases. Michael was the hero. But it was all a lie. He lets some time go by and tells them he was just teaching Dwight how to give an influential speech, and once they get over their disbelief, their loathing of him runs deep.

In other words, the master would be stupid to choose this option.

Second, he could accept the losses, and receive the praise that is being given to him. He has already shown his generosity in how he treated the wasteful steward, by not jailing him, and so he chooses this option, and says to the steward “you were shrewd.”

Do you see what happened? The steward risked everything on the master’s generous reputation, and his risk paid off!

To the Eastern listener and reader, Bailey tells us, the steward is a hero. This is a David vs. Goliath kind of story. We love that.  What would have been strange to the Eastern listener, to the people in the crowd that day, was that Jesus calls the steward dishonest. In verse 8 he also contrasts the actions of the steward with the people of light, thus equating the steward’s actions with darkness!  We Westerners are surprised at Jesus for putting a dishonest man in the role of hero. But Easterners are surprised at Jesus for calling him dishonest at all!

Bailey says this is very much like one of Jesus’ “How much more” parables. In this case it could be said that his teaching in this parable is “if this dishonest steward solved his problem by relying on the mercy of his master to solve his crisis, how much more will God help you in your crisis when you trust his mercy.”

Before we get too far in the meaning of the parable, though, there is a word in verse 8 we really need to look closely at: shrewd.

We tend to look at shrewd with a negative bent. But this word could be understood more positively, using the word wisdom. So we could understand Jesus as teaching that the steward is praised for his wisdom, Bailey tells us. The steward is sensitive to the hopelessness of his own situation. He is aware of the one source of his salvation, namely, the generosity of his master.  He is praised for his wisdom in knowing where his salvation lay, not for his dishonesty.

This brings us to the second half of verse 8 and the verses following.

In verse 8b Jesus uses shrewd again. If we take the meaning of the parable, that of praising the steward for knowing where his salvation lay, then Jesus is saying that we, the people who he calls the people of the light, should be so shrewd, so wise.  Jesus is saying that we should use our earthly means wisely for eternal purposes. We’ve heard him talk like this before. Store up treasure in heaven.

In verse 10 his comments about being trusted with money, about being dishonest, are reflected in the steward who was dishonest and untrustworthy to start off with, but in the end does something quite wise with his master’s wealth.

So we need to see ourselves as stewards of God’s possessions. Of course Jesus is not condoning wastefulness and dishonesty. Instead he is condoning the wisdom of the steward and the mercy of God.

That causes us to think, then, as we review what Jesus taught in verses 11-13: How am I doing as God’s steward? Am I trustworthy in handling the true riches of God? Which master am I serving? God or Mammon? Mammon is a word that means worldly wealth. Do our lives give evidence that we are serving or pursuing worldly wealth?  Instead, we should see God as the owner of all wealth, and use it to serve his interests.

While Jesus focuses on money throughout this entire section, there is more than just money in view here. Jesus is not just talking about writing a check, putting money in the basket at worship services.

It takes more than just money to make friends.  Our generosity to people can really help, of course. It might open a door. But we also know that we cannot buy friendships. We must give of ourselves. Making friends takes an investment of our lives.

I’ve long admired the lead singer of the rock band U2, Bono, for using his star power for good. He talks about it openly. He knows he has influence and he wants to use it for God’s Kingdom.

We might not have the money and influence of a world-renowned rock star, but we do all have gifts and abilities, money and influence in our families, in our neighborhoods, in or schools. So let us spend our lives using our influence to promote God’s Kingdom, to make disciples. If we do that, just as the renters and their families would have been praising the master for his mercy, more people in our lives will be praising God for his mercy to them.

5 Responses to “Unraveling Jesus’ most confusing parable (the Shrewd Steward…and how it matters) – Luke 16:1-15”

  1. Pr. Michael Jannett August 10, 2016 at 9:10 am #

    This is one of the best and most concise explanations of this difficult text. Bravo!

  2. GB November 12, 2017 at 3:18 am #

    “Friends” are not only other human beings: peace , protection , security, quality goods and services can all be friends, In fact, retirement is a “friend”, since it provides isolation from the insanity of the business world. I believe He is saying we should use our wealth to purchase friendly, beneficial goods and services that help others and ourselves. Elsewhere in the Holy Scripture He advocates using wealth to protect yourself from unjust lawsuits. Using our wealth wisely is in full harmony with the teachings of King Solomon and Yeshua Ben Sirach.

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