Historical Cultural Context
The Dishonest Steward
This parable invariably troubles the capitalistic convictions of American believers. Why would the defrauded master in Jesus’ parable “commend his dishonest steward?” What lesson did Jesus intend to teach with this disturbing parable?
In the preindustrial world of Jesus, agriculture was the heart of the economy. Modern contrasts such as “rich” and “poor,” “urban” and “rural,” “industrial” and “agricultural” are irrelevant to this time. The chief issues were who controlled the land and the agricultural production, and who had the power to extract the surplus.
The landowner (Lk 16:1) has a steward who manages the agricultural production of his property. The debtors owe the master produce: olive oil and wheat. Money in peasant economies is neither the only nor the predominant medium of exchange.
The Mishnah (post-biblical tradition in Judaic literature) identifies three kinds of renters: some pay a percentage of the crop; some pay a fixed amount of the produce; some pay rent in money. The debtors here seem to be in the second category. A rough modern approximation of their fixed rent is 900 gallons of oil and 150 bushels of wheat. The amount of the debt forgiven by the steward, though different in terms of percentage, nevertheless approximates five hundred denarii.
People will praise the noble and generous landowner.
A steward, or estate manager, was entitled to a commission or fee on each transaction, which itself was recorded, principal and interest, in a public contract. There is no evidence that a steward could extract a fee as high as 50 percent. Peasants would have immediately informed the landowner or would have rioted if a landowner were in collusion with such extortion.
The Mishnah also decrees that an agent should pay for any losses he caused his employer. This steward is extremely fortunate. He is simply dismissed, not fined or imprisoned. The steward is both stunned and inspired by his master’s mercy.
The dismissal is effective immediately, but the shrewd steward realizes he has a “window of opportunity” before the news reaches the renters in the village. He summons debtors and instructs them to “sit down quickly” (Lk 16:8) and generously alters their debts.
When the master discovers the steward’s strategy, he faces a genuine dilemma. If he rescinds the steward’s new contracts, as he is legally entitled to do because they are unlawful, he will alienate the renters and the entire village. They have already been celebrating the master’s generosity!
If he allows these reduced contracts to stand, he will be short of produce this year, but his “honor” will spread far and wide (as also will the “honor” of the shrewd steward for arranging the deals). People will praise the noble and generous landowner.
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University