For the final Sunday of church stewardship season, I’m preaching the scripture, Luke 16:1-13, from which the word “stewardship” came to characterize the Christian’s relationship to property and money: the Parable of the Dishonest Steward (or Manager), also called the Parable of the Shrewd Steward (or Manager). Trying to decide between emphasizing the the manager’s shrewdness or dishonesty is surprisingly difficult.
There are a few different ways of interpreting what’s happening in the story. The first and most popular interpretation emphasizes the manager’s dishonesty: Reducing the debts that the rich man’s tenants owe him—without the rich man’s knowledge or consent—is dishonest. This isn’t the manager’s money after all, and his master wouldn’t approve of being cheated out of it. Yet the manager pretends that he’s been authorized by his master to reduce these debts.
Moreover, the manager knows that his master would lose face in front of his tenants if he had to go back to them and explain that the manager he employed acted fraudulently. In a shame-honor society of the first century, losing face in this way would be unbearable.
The story hinges on the surprise ending: When the master comes to relieve his manager of his duties, we expect him to be even angrier than before, having found out that the manager deprived him out of money he was owed. Instead, the manager can’t help but be impressed by his shrewdness.
Another interpretation, with which I was unfamiliar until I read N.T. Wright’s For Everyone commentary this week, is that the manager was doubly shrewd: He knew that charging interest was illegal under Jewish law (at least among Israelites; see Deuteronomy 23:19-20) as sinful usury. His master broke this law, charging his tenants 25 percent interest on wheat and a whopping 100 percent interest on olive oil. “If [the manager] reduced the bill in each case to the principal, the simple amount that had been lent, the debtors would be delighted, but the master couldn’t lay a charge against the steward without owning up to his own shady business practices.”[†]
Again, the punchline in this case is that the rich man responds with admiration, not anger.
Still another interpretation is that the manager wasn’t cheating his master out of anything: he was merely reducing or eliminating the commission that he himself collected on these debts. The fifty percent of olive oil and eighty percent of wheat is the amount to which he was entitled anyway—and so it’s what he received. If this were the case, however, why would the rich man notice the manager’s shrewdness in the first place? Where’s the punchline?
I like the second interpretation, but I wonder if it assumes too many facts not in evidence. Jesus doesn’t mention interest or principal, and why would the manager charge different interest rates for the different commodities.
What do you think?
Of course, we haven’t even gotten to the fun part of interpreting the parable: What on earth does it mean? I’m not sure I know, but I’ll offer some thoughts on Sunday. Stay tuned…
† N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 193.