The Dishonest Steward: Reflections on Luke 16:2-8a

Lectionary Reflections
Luke 16:2-8a
September 22, 2013

This parable of the Dishonest Steward is one of the strangest of the strange. Commentators are all over the map in their opinions of what we should make of it. One scholar insists that the focus is on the radical mercy of the rich man to his steward, comparing it to the actions of the father in the parable of the prodigal son, which precedes it. Another scholar believes that the parable illustrates the need for radical decision in light of the coming kingdom. Still another commentator sees as the focus that shrewd, dishonest preparation is better than none at all.

If we skim this parable quickly, we assume that the steward is dishonest because of what he does in the parable, lowering the amount each debtor owed his master. If we read more carefully, we notice that the parable doesn't tell us that the steward is dishonest because of what he does in Luke 16:5-7. It doesn't even actually come out and say that he was dishonest before that. What it does say is that charges were brought to the rich man against his manager, that he was squandering his employer's property. Was he? Or did somebody or group want the rich man to think he was? In my view, the adjective "dishonest" refers to the actions he was accused of at the beginning of the parable, not to his actions in lowering the debtors' debts to his boss in verses 5-7.

If we understand the parable's social setting, we'll see that his actions are not dishonest, just shrewd. By shrewd, I mean calculated to insure one's own self-interest. I think this parable disrupts our usual definition of what acting in our own self-interest means in light of the reversal of fortunes the kingdom of God will bring.

In ancient Palestine, there was a complex social, economic relationship among landowners, stewards, peasants, and merchants. The wealthy landowners sought to get as much profit as possible from their holdings and tenants. The steward was the middleman between the landholder and the merchants and tenants in the exchange of goods and services such as buying and selling grain, oil, and crops and collecting rents. If he was able to get an additional take for himself in these transactions, the master didn't mind; in fact he expected it. As long as the master's profits kept rolling in and the steward did not get too conspicuous in his consumption, the master was fine with the steward's benefiting from each deal. As for the merchants and tenants, they were in a relatively powerless position, unable to directly confront the master. Their target, when they were disgruntled or felt put upon, was the steward, the master's retainer.

The steward's position in this complex social network was both privileged and vulnerable. He had a relatively high standard of living, a benefit of his being able to read and write and his training by the master, but he was completely dependent on the goodwill of the master. He himself states it in verse 3. "What will I do now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg." We might assume that he is whining here, selfishly unwilling to engage in honest labor. He is actually just stating the fact that he is not prepared by physical training or by the habit of hardship to compete with the peasant labor pool for the hardest, most menial of jobs: digging. His strength gone, he would be reduced to begging, and, in short order, would die because of the malnutrition and disease that came with poverty. His situation is dire. Something must be done to prevent this future. No one can do it but him.

Most commentators don't mention the fact that the parable does not directly state that the manager was squandering the rich man's property or acting dishonestly. It says that charges were brought to the master to this effect. In such a complex system of profit and self-preservation, the line between honest and dishonest was blurred, as it often is today. Parable scholar William Herzog points out that the motivation for the charges, probably from a group of tenants and merchants, may have been a desire to undermine the steward. It may be that he had contributed to their ill feeling toward him by flaunting his higher standard of living.

The two references to "dishonesty" (16:8, 9) are probably to the charges brought against the steward at the beginning of the parable, rather than a reference to his dealings reported in verses 5-7. Those dealings, while shrewd, were not, strictly speaking, dishonest. The Torah prohibited charging interest (Ex. 22:25-27; Lev. 25:36-38; Dt. 15:7-11, 23:19-20) because it viewed it as oppressive (Herzog, 246). But the wealthy found ways to charge interest under other guises. One way was to add the interest into the total amount of a debt, presented as part of the total, not in a separate line item. A contemporary analogy would be a restaurant check in which, for dining groups over a certain number of people, a gratuity is simply figured into the total, not left to the discretion of the diners.