Dishonest or shrewd or both?

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.

4 thoughts on “Dishonest or shrewd or both?”

  1. I think this is one of the most puzzling parables and passages in scripture! It does say that the master commended the “dishonest” manager “because he acted cleverly.” I don’t think it means the manager liked what he did. It might be comparable to a gang accomplishing an especially difficult bank robbery, where you don’t approve of it, but you might have a begrudging “respect” for how they “pulled it off.”

    What Jesus then makes of it is even more difficult to digest. I look forward to your take in your sermon! Jesus notes that unsaved people, thinking of only the “here and now,” may get along better in the “here and now” than the “children of light.” Of course, we will do better in the “long run.” But, nonetheless, we might still learn something from those who are “savvy”; which may be, that one good use of money is to “make friends”, because we may need friends when our own times get tough!

    Nevertheless, it may be that Jesus then takes a step back in saying, hold up, He is not suggesting that we go so far as to actually be “unfaithful” in that respect as far as money is concerned, as the “unjust steward” did. In other words, Jesus does not want us to “make too much” out of the parable and emphasizes what he is NOT saying. Ultimately, come what may, we should NOT “cheat,” and we should NOT covet wealth. (Maybe something like that.)

      1. Please take this with a massive pinch of salt as I haven’t come across this anywhere else… but it seems to make a lot more sense.
        Under God’s good law we are accused and will die unless we find another way of living. Remember, the law shows us our sin, but does not provide a solution to save us. The steward is accused and must find another way to live. He does this by taking even more from his master and gaining a new way to live. Jesus tells us to do the same, therefore we cannot ignore what has happened in the parable. We should look for the most obvious explanation. It seems to me that the parable is quite similar to the parable of the Prodigal son. He wastes his father’s possessions (same Greek verb as in this parable), but then is commended/welcomed at the end of the parable. In the prodigal son a fatted calf is killed to finance the welcome party – I would say that Jesus becomes the ultimate sacrifice. In the parable of the shrewd manager there is no obvious sacrifice, but I think Jesus may have been preparing people for understanding that God’s commendation would come from something other than the law (mercy and justice meeting on the cross). This fits in nicely with the following verses which say that the law was preached until John but now the Kingdom of God is here.
        When we make this parable about shrewd use of money we fall into the same trap as the pharisees, who thought that how they used their money was what determined their righteousness-that would certainly be true if they were judged by man, but to God it was an abomination. I would propose that unrighteous mammon (mamona tes adikias) should not be translated as ‘worldly wealth’ but instead as ‘unjustly received treasures’ – a pretty good definition of the gospel when you consider what awful stewards we are yet what riches we have been given in Christ!

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