Luke16v1to15: THE PARABLE OF THE UNJUST STEWARD

(A) Introduction. Read: Luke16v1to15

Of all Jesus' parables this is the most misunderstood. I haven't read an explanation of it anywhere that makes sense. It is a great mistake to call it the, 'Parable of the Shrewd Manager,' as in the N.I.V.. There is nothing shrewd about the manager! The two mistakes made by almost all commentators are to ignore the context and underestimate Jesus' use of irony.

(B) The problem.

Commentators struggle to explain the rich man's reaction to his agent's dishonesty. The Master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. v8.

The rich man obviously discovered his agent's scam. He doesn't throw him into prison but appears to commend his shrewdness.

Various attempts have been made to cast the agent in a better light. Some argue that the agent was forgoing his commission on the deals that he had made. The problem with this is that the commission was far too high - 50% of the value of the olive oil that was sold is just not realistic. Secondly the agent would hardly be dishonest if this is what he was doing.

Others see the explanation of the rich man's reaction in the strategy he used for getting round the laws prohibiting usury. Money was lent on the pretext of purchasing commodities like wheat or olive oil. The loan would be for a fixed term. The interest would be included in the purchase price of the commodity. When the fixed term expired the value of the wheat or olive oil was called in. So all the agent did was to cancel the interest on the loan - something the financier couldn't make too much fuss about as he was breaking the Jewish law on usury.

I think it is doubtful whether a financier - a merchant banker - would let an agent agree very substantial loans and a rate of interest. Loans carry a much greater risk than commodity dealing. Traders in commodities all knew one another. Loans are made to a much greater variety of people. I am sure most financiers would assess risk and arrange loans themselves.

(C) A realistic interpretation.

(1) The context.

Three very strange statements are sandwiched between 2 very odd parables.

We need to ask why the statements and the parables are grouped together by Luke. Do they have anything in common? The answer lies in the statements. In the first of them Jesus said: "Since that time (of John the Baptist) the good news of the Kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it." v17. Now the plain fact is: THEY WERE NOT!! Hardly anyone understood what the Kingdom of God was. People had deserted Jesus in droves. The Jews were not stampeding into the Kingdom like bargain hunters into a major store's New Year sale.

Jesus was being ironical. We might say the same sort of thing: "I've organised a grass-cutting rota for the graveyard - people are queuing up to join it!" "I've asked for volunteers to clean the toilets - people are rushing to put their names forward!"

Jesus second statement is also ironical: "It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the law." v17. The huge contrast between heaven and earth and the tiny marks that constituted a jot and a title leave one in no doubt that Jesus is being ironical. This is not a statement defending the immutability of the Law but a dig at the Pharisees' legalistic inflexibility. Jesus had come to fulfil the law and in fulfilling it he made much of the ceremonial law redundant. He said: "You have heard that it was said, ........ but I tell you." Mt5v43.

Jesus obviously thought it was highly ironic that the Jews divorced to avoid committing adultery. He could see that men were divorcing women over such trivial matters that adultery was actually becoming legalised.

It seems to me that what the three statements and the two parables have in common is irony. The whole of chapter 16 is ironical. This will certainly help us to understand the Parable of the Unjust Steward. It means that Jesus' comments about the agent and those like him in verses 8 and 9 are consistent with the lessons he draws in verses 10 to 15.

(2) The story.

Jesus' Parable of the Unjust Steward is unusual because in it he deals with the world of big business. This makes it very relevant to our day and age.

The rich man was a merchant who speculated in commodities. This is evident from the quantities other merchants had bought from him - two and a half tons of olive oil and twenty five tons of wheat. G.B. Caird reckons the value of the wheat was 2500 denarii and the value of the oil was 1000 denarii. This probably reflects the fact that about 100 acres were needed to produce 25 tons of wheat. (Average yields throughout the Roman Empire were about 0.33 tons an acre.) The oil could be produced from 150 olive trees. Probably less than 25 acres was needed. (Olive oil yields per acre under olives varied very considerably from place to place)

It is not easy to put a modern value on a denarii. It was the average daily wage for a hired agricultural labourer at a time when the standard of living was much lower than it is in Britain today. We have to look to Asia or Africa for a realistic sum - perhaps, 3 to 5 a day. This would make the wheat worth between 7,500 and 12,500 and the oil worth between 3000 and 5000.

Another way to assess the sums of money involved is to calculate the value of wheat produced on 100 acres in Israel today. It would probably amount to about 200 tons - worth at present prices between 16, 000 and 20, 0000.

The parable indicates that dealing in commodities has changed little in principle through the centuries. Deals are done verbally and the buyer and seller make a note of the transaction. The system is built on trust - a man's word is his bond. Later promissory notes or bonds are called in and used to claim the money owed on delivery of the product. A promissory note still in the possession of a purchaser could be sold on to someone else who wants the product. A promissory note in the possession of a seller could be used as a kind of currency to finance other deals.

The unjust steward was the merchant's commodity broker. He had been incompetent. "There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions." v1. The merchant arranged a meeting to call his broker to account for the losses he had incurred.

There is evidence of the broker's incompetence in the story Jesus told. He didn't appear to have a record of the deals he had done. He had to ask other brokers what they owed. This also suggests he was slow in calling in outstanding promissory notes and recovering debts. His method was very slapdash.

The broker knew that he hadn't a leg to stand on and that the merchant would sack him. He wasn't fit enough for manual labour and he couldn't face begging for a living! So he devised a cunning plan to secure a position as broker in some other merchant house. "I know what I'll do so that when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses." v4.

His scheme was to call in the promissory notes due and to instruct the merchants concerned to revise downward the agreed prices. (Note: the merchants were not told to alter invoices - that wouldn't be legal - try doing it with your electricity bill!) The broker reduced retrospectively the agreed prices by the same amount - 2000 - in the two examples given.

If the indebted merchants adjusted their promissory notes with the agreement of the broker no one was acting strictly illegally. The merchants were doing what they were asked and the broker didn't take a cut of the 2000 he saved them. But of course the financier is being cheated out of money. All he can do is sack the broker - but he was going to do that anyway.

(3) So was the scheme a clever one?

Would the merchant commend the dishonest broker because he acted shrewdly? The answer to that question is a resounding NO!

Notice how the dishonest broker relies on the honesty of the other merchants when he asks: "How much do you owe my master?" Their word is their bond and they tell him the truth. Also notice how the broker pressurises the merchants who owe money: "Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it 400." He wants them to act quickly so that they don't have time to think about the repercussions from their actions.

It was a very risky fraud. It was hardly sophisticated. All that was needed was for one honest merchant to reject the overtures of the crooked broker and inform his boss - the financier. Once the rich man found out, the merchants who broke their word and dishonoured their bond would no longer be trusted and go out of business. There would be no room in their houses for the dodgy dealer. He was the agent of their downfall.

(4) Three ironical comments.

(a) "The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly." A literal translation would be: "And praised the lord the steward of unrighteous because prudently he acted?" (See, 'The Interlinear Greed-English New Testament,' by Rev. A. Marshall D. Litt.) All I have added is the question mark. If Jesus poses a question like this it is likely to be an ironical one! He is saying: "Do you really think the rich merchant commended the dodgy broker for acting shrewdly?"

(b) "For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light." The Living Bible paraphrases this as: "And is it true that the citizens of this world are more clever than the godly are?"

(c) "I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings." This is paraphrased in the Living Bible as: "But shall I tell you to act that way, to buy friendship with cheating? Will this ensure your entry into an everlasting home in heaven?" Or, as I would put it: "Go on use money to win friends and influence people! When you no longer have the use of it you are sure of a rapturous reception in heaven!"

(D) Lessons

(1) Jesus' opinion of the money men.

Jesus' ironical remarks about the fiddles practised by men of business indicates that he had a low opinion of those in the world of high finance. He did not admire men who got rich quick by wheeling and dealing. In the view of Jesus you don't need to be clever to get rich.

And of course you don't! You need to gamble. You need to be lucky. You must be ruthless - singleminded in your pursuit of gain. You need brass-necked nerve - to be something of a con man. You need an eye for the main chance. Above all you need to buy cheap and sell dearer.

Today Jesus would not have a high opinion of bankers who pay themselves huge bonuses, brokers who speculate with other people's money, M.Ps. who milk the expenses system or, indeed, supermarket bosses who squeeze and squeeze and squeeze their suppliers.

(2) The remaining lessons all follow on from this.

    (a) It is important to be honest in small things. "Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much." v10.

    We come across many examples of petty dishonesty in life - the person who dents your car and drives away without leaving his name and address, the holiday maker who pilfers the hotel towels, the child who copies someone else's homework, the cricketer who cheats .... . Jesus teaches that small scale dishonesty undermines a person's integrity and makes them suspect when taking big decisions.

    I love the story Corrie ten Boom tells about her father in, 'In My Father's House.' Although Mr ten Boom was facing a financial crisis he refused to take business away from a young competitor, Mr Van Houten, who had just lost his father. Mr ten Boom had conducted the funeral of Van Houten's father. Corrie was aghast at her father turning away custom. He told her: "Corrie, what do you think that young man would have said when he heard that one of his good customers had gone to Mr ten Boom? Do you think the name of the Lord would be honoured? There is blessed money and cursed money. Trust the Lord. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills and He will take care of us."

    Later in life Mr ten Boom's integrity was such that he sheltered Jews from the Gestapo in occupied Holland and under no circumstances would he give them up. He died alone in prison rather than compromise his Christian principles. Integrity, like every other virtue, has to be developed through practice. If we start with the small things it will help us to remain honest when big temptations come.

    (b) A reputation lost. "So if you have not been trustworthy handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches." v11.

    Jesus teaches that if you cannot be trusted with money you won't be trusted with what really matters. This is almost self-evidently true. If you are known to be dishonest with money:

    • Certain jobs are closed to you. You cannot be a magistrate, teacher, policeman or doctor.

    • You will not be able to raise money for a charitable cause. Paul was only able to make a substantial gift to the poor Christians in Jerusalem because the Gentile churches trusted him.

    • Relationships suffer - friendships are broken and marriages fail. A great deal is lost when a son steals from his parents or a husband from his wife. Love and respect are lost.

    (c) How to acquire responsibility. "And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else's property, who will give you property of your own?" If you have been a poor employee under supervision no one is going to set you up in a business of your own. No sensible farmer would buy a farm for a son who has worked half-heartedly and carelessly on the family estate. It would be a poor investment. An apprentice electrician who does not take the work seriously will not qualify to work as an electrician. He won't be given that additional responsibility.

    The same should be true in the church. Men and women should prove their worth in small things before they are given leadership roles. For instance a person who only attends church irregularly should not be made a deacon or elder however talented or nice he is.

    (d) Two masters. "No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Money." v13.

    This truth is recognised by the House of Commons. MPs are expected to declare their interests. For example, an MP might earn a retainer as spokesman for the tobacco industry. His constituents have a right to know this because the interests of the tobacco industry may not coincide with their own. Supermarkets have several masters: suppliers, customers, employees and shareholders. Who takes precedence?? It is difficult to serve 2 masters let alone 4!

    If getting rich takes precedence in our lives it will eat into the time and energy we expend on Christian service. Lots of well-to-do Christians make little contribution to their church. I knew a couple who expended almost all their energies on their business until retirement. They attended church very spasmodically. On retirement they threw themselves into the life of the church. But God only gave them a few years before calling them home.

    (e) What God values. The Pharisees sneered at Jesus' dismissal of the pursuit of wealth as a worthy aim in life because they loved money. v14. Jesus told them: "What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight." v15. God hates:

    • Ruthless self-interest. Jesus despised the Pharisees for devouring the property of rich widows. I cannot stand the ruthlessness of celebratory business men like Alan Sugar. There is more to life than profit.

    • The obsession with glamour. Consider the money wasted by men and women in the attempt to retain their youth and look glamorous. Fortunes are spent on clothes, jewellery, cosmetics, health farms, gyms, fitness trainers, plastic-surgery - all to what end?

    • Extravagant luxury - the purchase of second, third and fourth homes, palatial houses, yachts, private jets, football clubs, fine wines, Ferraris .....

    • The pursuit of power through wealth. Rich men have power. Politicians associate with the mega-rich - even Labour politicians - who should know better.

    All this is detestable in God's sight. Do we grasp it?? Make no mistake, Jesus meant just what he said. When he died all he possessed were the clothes he stood up in - and even these were taken away from him. But how great he was! His apostle to the Gentiles, Paul, went about, by his own admission, in rags. If anything, he was worse off than his master. But how great he was! We shouldn't want to be super rich. We shouldn't envy or admire the super rich. Surely we don't want a life style that is detestable in God's sight. I hope no one is sneering!!

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