Although elusive and inscrutable to great ones and elites right down to the present, the Parable of the Shrewd Steward is a story about debt forgiveness, and that spelled Good News to poor Galileans.
Last time we explored the Parable of the Shrewd Steward (or Dishonest Manager), the most confounding and confusing of all Jesus’ parables. Even the evangelist we know as “Luke,” who honored Jesus by recording this story down, failed to grasp its meaning! This was illustrated by the four punchline summary statements he included, none of which worked very well, all of them confusing.
Today we attempt to understand what the story did mean to Jesus the storyteller and to the vast majority of his audience.
Modern Scholars Misunderstand the Steward
First, let’s explore some scholarly attempts to unlock this seemingly-bizarre story of Jesus. Context Scholar Richard Rohrbaugh dismantles two explanations of the parable given by two world-renown scholars, J. D. M. Derrett and Joseph Fitzmyer. We will briefly consider each of their proposed solutions.
Derrett explains that the steward made usurious loans outside the master’s knowledge. He proposes that the steward benefited from the transactions by taking the interest from the loans. Israelites maintained that charging interest on a loan—usury—was dishonoring their patron God and his precepts. To Derrett, the shameful steward repented and paid back the unjust interest and so the master (a stand-in for God?) praises his servant’s transformation and change of life and ratifies that decision. (See J. D. M. Derrett’s “Fresh Light on St. Luke XVI. The Parable of the Unjust Steward”)
Rohrbaugh explains the problem with Derrett’s analysis. Nowhere in the ancient Mediterranean were interest rates on a loan anywhere near as high as 25 percent, much less 100 percent. But to imagine, as Derrett does, that the steward cancels usurious interest assumes that he was charging the debtors 100 percent on oil and 25 percent on wheat! Rohrbaugh says that construing the amount of debt into forgiveness of interest on a loan is therefore untenable.
Joseph Fitzyer—Steward Waives His Cut
The late Joseph Fitzmyer saw the parable as a depiction of acting prudently as regards to wealth and the kingdom. He agreed with Derrett that the loans in the parable were usurious. But Fitzmyer understood the interest as the steward’s fee, his own earnings from the transactions he manages. So, when the steward returns the interest, he is forfeiting his own profits. Fitzmyer explained this as a way of ingratiating himself with prospective future employers, and was thus acting prudently.
Rohbaugh destroys Fitzmyer’s take on the story. No audience of either Jesus or “Luke” would imagine the steward being allowed to charge a fee from his master! All ancient sources tell us that contracts were between landowners and debtors—other than representing the master, the steward plays no role. Fitzmyer was terribly off concerning who owes who what. People are indebted not to the steward, but to the master.
Other Wrong Contemporary Views of the Steward
Many commentaries on the Parable of the Shrewd Steward claim that the focus is on his prudence which saves him. But Richard Rohrbaugh and his fellow Context Group scholars constantly remind us: Jesus came to preach good news to poor people. What sense would it make to tell starving peasant audiences, “I want you all to be prudent!” Would they celebrate that advice as being “GOOD NEWS”?
Because the steward gives away his master’s money Western scholars usually assume that he is dishonest, hence the oft-given title for this parable, “the Dishonest Manager.” But is he dishonest? If you think so, you may be in for a surprise.
Western scholars also explain the master’s praise is for the steward acting decisively through quick thinking rather than for his fraud. (See Joachim Jeremías, Parables of Jesus, p. 182; C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, p. 17; A. Plummer, The Gospel According to St. Luke, p. 380; J. M. Creed, The Gospel according to St. Luke, p.201; and I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, p. 616.)
Could that be what Jesus was telling starving peasants? “Amen, amen, I say to you, I want you to be prudent, decisive, and quick thinkers”? Could that possibly make sense to a Galilean peasant folk healer or his audience? Regardless of its unlikeliness, that is how many Western readers understand it.
Ugly American Takes on the Steward
Think about such an understanding. Doesn’t it look suspiciously as if Jesus and his audience’s situation is being replaced by a legitimizing of 21st century American values? Thus, the Gospel becomes a message about being a smart Western winner-type—a clever doer who thinks quickly and acts decisively. So Jesus becomes a Sherlock Holmes, or Dr. House, or Mr. Spock, or some other clever, congenial-to-Western-values-hero type.
It gets worse. Understanding the parable this way makes Jesus into promoting centripetally-selfish activities which crash into the whole body of everything else he taught! Alas, as far as this parable goes, what we have received from much of Western scholarship has been a sophisticated identity theft of Jesus. Truly, Western commentaries on it have hindered our understanding!
Richard Rohrbaugh and the Context scholars wisely recommend a fresh start. Perhaps we are even more lost than “Luke” was with his four summarizing statements.
A Key Element about the Steward, Missed
The Context Group scholars highlight a key aspect of the story that Western Bible readers tend to miss entirely. Recall that the master is informed of his steward’s mismanagement. You might ask, was he actually doing mismanaging? The story is silent here. Maybe he was and maybe he wasn’t, but whatever the case, it’s irrelevant, and if you understood the role played by the cultural values of honor and shame in the Mediterranean, you’d see why.
Imagine that the public complaint brought to the master about the steward was a wicked lie. Let’s say this steward was really a loyal and faithful servant, always honest with his master and responsible with his affairs. Who cares? All that matters is there has been a public complaint that generated great shame. The public sees the stain of shame—that is what matters. The rumor mill and the gossip network matter more in the world of the Bible than any dispassionate investigation.
Richard Rohrbaugh explains the complete blindness Western scholars have for this story. Is it really the steward who is on trial? No. Rather it is his master! Consider: if this elite landowner has someone under his roof whom he has no control over, what becomes of his reputation, his honor? Won’t his peers see him as a failed Mediterranean male? He will be seen as a fool, a laughing stock!
What’s at Stake
Consider all those persons embedded in the honor he has over his household as the paterfamilias. There you will find the steward as his property manager and agent, along with his wives, sons, daughters, and slaves. Even though he is a greedy man, honor dwarfs the importance of money in this world. Therefore this humiliation challenges and threatens his social standing.
Sure, things look bad for the steward. His shameful termination is basically a death sentence. Scholars like Rohrbaugh explain that the average life expectancy of a first century Israelite who lost all his connections and was forced to become an urban day laborer was no more than 18 months. We have abundant skeletal remains that tell us this story. The steward is indeed in deep trouble. Should he lose his place among the retainer class and become a day laborer, he will soon fall to begging, and then, soon after, he will die.
And yet the steward is not really the one being roasted in the public eye, is he? Instead, it is his master who is being tried and found lacking! He has the most to lose! What will he do to save his face, to rescue his honor, to defend his reputation? We Westerners are oblivious to this! Concerns for honor are not really on our cultural radar screen, and so, even though it can be found on every page in the Bible, it remains hidden to us, invisible!
Honor is Everything
The key matter to this terribly named story never was the doom of the steward but how the master needs to save his honor. The master’s family would be utterly destroyed should he lose his honor in this scandal. No matter how greedy men like him were, he would give away all possessions for just a taste of honor among his peers.
Why would the master need absolute certainty about the truth concerning his steward? All that matters is what the gossip network says! The Master’s honor is severely damaged if the rumor spreads that his servant is cheating. The real innocence or evil of the steward, whether he was accused falsely or not, is insignificant. What matters is the honor status of the master, not the steward.
Is my family recognized by the people as good?—that is the only matter the master wishes to investigate. It’s essential that his family look good and be recognized as such. In the Mediterranean world, it is better to look good than to be good.
Public comment says that the master has been dishonored by his steward’s actions. Shame or dishonor is a public reality. The correction or remedy must likewise be public. The public knows of and is commenting on the dishonor of the master. Therefore, the steward can only right things in an equally public manner. Otherwise the master’s honor cannot be saved.
How Does the Steward Fix Things?
The steward wisely ensures that everyone everywhere will praise his master. He does this by cancelling the enormous debts owed to his master. In doing so, Rohrbaugh explains that the entire social dynamic of the parable is reversed. Not only is the master’s honor restored, it has been augmented exponentially. Now the greedy elite will be seen and proclaimed as being a generous patron.
Understanding this explains why the master commends his steward. He has received a treasure far more valuable than any lost wealth. And please understand: if the master refused this arrangement, and attempted to reverse the cancelled debt by destroying his servant, this would bring against his house unforgettable shame! So he is completely trapped by his steward.
But being backed into a corner is a small price to pay for the riches of honor the master is reaping! While his servant really did give away his wealth, he nonetheless rescued his far more valuable reputation. Well done, good and faithful steward!
Why the Story is Unreachable to Western People
Sorry American Christians, but this story is not about being clever, or prudent, or being quick-witted, or decisive in action. Rather, this is a story told by a starving Galilean village artisan about cancelling debts. Go through all of the literature commenting on this story throughout Western civilization. What a sadness it is to realize that never once does it dawn on anyone what this parable is actually about.
Consider the celebrations what such debt relief would cause! Not only the master’s family saved, but they will be celebrated as benevolent patrons. Not only the steward and his family saved, but the merchant debtors will know it was the steward who had arranged their forgiveness, and they will be his propaganda-machines. And in turn the village tenants who pay rent to the merchants and therefore live beneath subsistence level, this year at least, will live equal to subsistence or even above it.
Here is where the peasant audience of Jesus would find Good News worth celebrating. This parable is about cancelling debts, some very good news to starving Galilean peasants. Think of the honor brought about by such debt-forgiveness and the celebrations at all social levels because of it. In this story, we find a greedy man who gets it—despite his greed and elite status, he recognizes the good of cancelling debts and showing mercy.
Even though peasants are not mentioned in the story, Jesus’ peasant listeners would understand that if such a thing happened, villages would be singing in celebration. Windfalls are shared in the collectivistic world of the Bible.
Good News for Peasants
Think of the Our Father and its petitions:
Give us this day our daily bread.
Cancel our debts as we cancel our debtors.
We glibly pray these lines, petitions that bleed the very starvation realities of Galilean peasants. What Good News is there telling a person starving to death, “Be smart! Be prudent! Think quickly! Act now!” As Rohrbaugh explains, this kind of message would create shame and hatred, not celebration! Therfore, such a message cannot be gospel! But for a peasant’s debts to be cancelled so as to also cancel debts to those who owe him, surely, this must be very Good News indeed!
Perhaps the Parable of the Shrewd Steward should rather be called “the Parable of the Merciful Master,” because in it we learn of a greedy man capable of canceling debts. If a wicked, greedy, SOB elite can cancel debts, what about the Patron God of Israel? Certainly, in theocracy, all debts are canceled, no? Thus, every peasant hearing Jesus can likewise afford to cancel the debts owed to them.
But what if someone were to shame them, and they are owed wrath? Cancel the debt, says Jesus, the village artisan and day laborer.
“Luke” & Jesus
Why did “Luke” fail to understand this story? Even though he was Mediterranean and Israelite, the author we call “Luke” was socially distant from Jesus. He was fifty years distant from Jesus in time. He writes far away, probably in Athens or Corinth, and was a Hellene Israelite and an elite. Luke was wealthy, folks!
Without doubt “Luke” is the best educated and most skilled writer in the New Testament. He must originate in the upper classes. The Greek he uses is excellent, polished and superior by far to all other New Testament authors with perhaps the exception of the person who wrote the essay called “Hebrews.” His was an elegant Greek mastered only by the smallest population of the Mediterranean world population. He had to have been educated by private teachers. He was of the highest elite.
World of “Luke” Had Beds and Tiled Roofs
Consider: “Luke” comes from a world of beds. Jesus comes from a world of mats. So, in the Synoptic Tradition, when we encounter the story of the paralytic lowered in through the roof to be healed by Jesus, the earliest version (in “Mark”) tells us he is on his mat. This makes sense in Jesus’ Galilean peasant context. But that’s alien to “Luke” who comes from a world of beds. So when he copies this story from “Mark,” he “corrects” “Mark” by indicating that they lowered the paralytic in on his bed. (Note: the NABRE Luke 5:18 should read “bed,” not “stretcher.”)
Also in that Synoptic story, “Mark” tells us that the friends of the paralytic had to open up the roof to create the hole through which to lower him. This also makes sense because the roofs in Galilean homes were dried mud over scaffolding. But those kinds of roofs are alien to “Luke.” He doesn’t know that scenario. His world is one of tiled roofs. So again he changes the story he gets from “Mark” by including tiled roofs. See?
Maybe “Luke” Did Get what Counted?
But let’s cut “Luke” some slack. Even though the New Testament’s greatest spinmeister did not understand the parable found in Luke 16:1-13, he did get Jesus. “Luke” is very concerned for the poor and presents Jesus with humble beginnings in ways “Matthew” doesn’t. “Luke” was a rich elite who did understand Jesus even if this story slipped by. And kudos to “Luke” who recorded the words of the Master even if he couldn’t fathom the meaning of this story.