The dishonest steward: shrewdness

This coming Sunday is the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time. In yesterday’s post we placed the gospel reading within the larger context of Luke’s narrative trajectory which transects themes of wealth, the use of wealth and true wealth. Today we will look a little deeper into the scriptural role of stewards and the expanse and limits of their authority. It is an important look because the story of the scheming steward has been a problem for interpreters, earning its reputation as one of the most difficult parables to understand. The root problem is the commendation (v.8) of the steward who is so plainly dishonest.

Stewards in Scripture. The figure of the steward has some significance in Christian thinking regarding one’s relationship with God. In the OT, a steward could be a chief slave/servant put in charge of a master’s household or property (Gen 43:16, 19; 44:1, 4; Is 22:15). Joseph was a steward in the house of the Pharaoh (Gen 39:4-5).  The earth is the Lord’s house (Ps 24) and Moses is his steward (Num 12:7; Heb 3:1-6).  In Jesus’ parables, stewards are expected to invest their talents and when fruitful are given even greater responsibilities (Lk 19:12-27).

Episcopoi are called stewards (Titus 1:5-9) and are expected to possess holy qualities as they manage the household of God. The apostle Paul also saw himself as a steward (1 Cor. 4:1-2) who would have to give an account of his stewardship (1 Cor. 4:3-4; cf. 2 Tim. 4:7-8) as the Apostle to the Gentiles (Eph. 3:2; Gal. 2:7-8; Rom. 1:5-6; 13-15). There is also a sense in which every Christian is a steward entrusted with a divine gift (1 Pet. 4:10).

These are just some of the images of stewards that are part of the Christian imagination regarding the understanding of stewards.

Using Wealth to Make Friends. The story begins when charges are brought to the rich man that the steward was squandering the rich man’s property.  Similar to the rich fool (12:17), the steward begins an internal dialogue: “What shall I do?” (See the “Note” on Luke 16:1 below) Clearly the steward does not like his options: I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg” (v.3).  He thus concocts a plan to be welcomed into another rich man’s home once he has been dismissed from his current position. As the parable unfolds we see that the steward quickly decides and acts and goes about reducing an established debt owed to his current employers.  The first debtor owes 900 gallons of oil; the second owes a huge amount of grain. These are well beyond household quantities and reflect a commercial operation.

Since the steward is technically still the rich man’s agent, the rich man is bound and will not be able to reverse the steward’s actions without a loss of face with the debtors.  Meanwhile the steward will have acquired a debt of honor and gratitude that hopefully will ensure goodwill toward the steward in the future.

That is the “who” and “what” of the story.  The difficulties about the “why” begin to come to the fore when the parable continues: “And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently” (v.8).

Image credit: Андрей Николаевич Миронов (A.N. Mironov), CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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