The dishonest steward: commendable?

This coming Sunday is the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time. In yesterday’s post we looked more closely into the scriptural role of stewards and the expanse and limits of their authority. Today we will consider the troubling v.8: And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently. On just a quick technical note, the expression dishonest steward is literally, steward of wickedness (oikonomos tes adikias). The expression acting prudently (phromimos) can also be translated as “cleverly” a term close to the more common word for prudence (phronesis).  These are both terms that Aristotle described as a kind of practical wisdom.

That being said, what exactly is commendable in the steward’s actions? Brian Stoffregen has surveyed the scholarly works and offers several models of interpretation for this notoriously difficult parable:

  1. The point of the parable is not the servant’s dishonesty, but his wise decision-making in the time of crisis. As Tannehill (Luke) states: “…a distinction is drawn between his dishonesty, which is not being commended, and his shrewdness, which is” (p. 247). His whole future depended on quick thinking and immediate actions. So the servant is presented as an example of decisive thinking and acting to save himself. Thus when even dishonest worldly people know how and when to take decisive action, how much more should those who follow Jesus know and decide such things.
  2. The servant is a man of the world, who works and thinks with diligence to protect his interest. What if all people would have the same commitment to the kingdom as they do towards their work or hobbies?
  3. The parable may be an irony. The idea that the master would commend this servant for such unjust behavior is so absurd that no one would believe it. It’s a story about a cheater who expects to be commended for his dishonest actions. Understood this way, perhaps Jesus is attacking the Sadducees or Pharisees. The Sadducees cheated a little on the Mosaic Law, so that they might fit in better with the Roman government. Do they expect to be praised by God for doing that? The Pharisees made a big show of giving a little money to the poor. Do they expect to be praised by God for making these token contributions? You can’t be a nominal Christian. You can’t carry the name “Christian,” and commit little wrongs here and there and expect God’s praise. You are not to act like this steward.
  4. There are suggestions that the steward was acting within his legal rights in reducing the debts as he did. Wealthy landowners would sublet their land to men like this steward. The steward would let out the work to other workers. Sometimes the steward would loan the workers money and charge an exorbitant interest. So, in the parable, the steward is canceling his high interest on the note given to the workers. This becomes a parable against excessive profits. It is the same kind of judgment uttered by Amos in the thematic First Lesson (Amos 8:4-7). People are more important than excessive profits.

In a variation of this idea John Donahue offers that the steward has been required to administer an unjust practice of the owner who requires loaning money and commodities at unjust levels. Thus the steward, realizing his termination is in sight, takes the opportunity, while still able to act as business agent, to undo this wrong. Thus it is for this reason the steward is praised. This idea is tempting but one must deal with the description of the steward as “dishonest” (ádikos, unrighteous). One would have to assume that in reducing the debts the steward is in the process of reforming his own life and a prelude to receiving hospitality from one of the debtors.

A corollary of this line of thought, given that the rich in Luke’s gospel have largely not fared well, is it surprising that a “shrewd” owner might well approve of such marginal actions.

  1. The parable can be about the right and wrong use of money. If the steward or the master were charging a high rate of interest, money may have been the most important thing in their lives. Jesus says to make friends with your money — use it rightly. Use it for human services. The steward gains friends by sharing his profits and helping out the poor debtors. He is our example. Our profits should be used in the service of love — helping to ease the plight of the poor. Otherwise, they can compete with God for our allegiance.  This understanding anticipates the parable (Lazarus and the Rich Man) which ends the chapter.
  2. Related to the right and wrong use of money, another approach might center on the word for “squander” (diaskorpizo). The same word is used concerning the “prodigal son” (15:13). However, the literal meaning of the word is “to scatter” (see Luke 1:51). It is used of “scattering” seed (Mt 25:24, 26). By extension, the word was applied to money — the “scattering” of money = “wasting” money or perhaps, “throwing it away.” Some have even suggested “failing to make a profit” or “sloppy record keeping.” What makes such “scattering ” wasteful? I think it’s because there is no hope of any return on the “investment” — like scattering seeds where they won’t grow. Perhaps, it is the rich man’s greed — always wanting to increase his wealth that is at fault and the manager’s shrewd use of money to make friends revealed another use.
  3. The use of this life’s goods to secure hospitality in the future. By reducing their loan agreements so generously, the manager has done these debtors a significant favor; because he is still this wealthy man’s manager, moreover, his agreements with these debtors are binding. In this way, the manager has entered into his own patronal relationship with his master’s debtors, apparently themselves also persons of means. He has become their benefactor and, in return, can expect them to reciprocate by extending to him the hospitality of their homes. The manager has thus taken advantage of his now-short-lived status, using the lag time during which he was to make an accounting of his management (v. 2) and his position to arrange for his future. (Green, 592-3).

A Suggestion: As with most parables, there are many layers of meaning – as Stoffregen has shown – but overall, one should always give weight to the simple explanations – in this case, the steward is dishonest and he continues to squander his master’s goods. Yet his actions cast an aura of honestly and goodness on his master and shrewdly provided for his own future.  As did the steward, Jesus urges his disciples to be even more vigilant and seize the moment to make provisions for their future before God. The kingdom is at hand!


Sources

  • R. Alan Culpepper, Luke in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995) pp. 306-11
  • Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997) pp. 586-97
  • Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2000) 146-54
  • Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at www.crossmarks.com
  • Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. ©

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

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