Counting on the Master
Did Jesus just make up tales like the storytellers at the Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough on the first weekend of October *OR* were his stories taken from real life? Just a generation ago, the great Biblical scholar Jeremais (1) made the case that Jesus' stories...
1. Were taken from the life that people lived everyday: stories like the Parable of the Sower or Children in the Marketplace. They are true to life even if the details are made up.
2. Or, they were taken from specific events which would have been familiar to everyone. Remember when Jesus asked, "Who would build a house without counting the cost?" Everyone knew that actually had happened; they knew the family and passed by the unfinished house often.
My guess is that the Parable of the Dishonest Steward fits this second possibility. Something had happened in the neighborhood; everyone knew the story which involved people familiar to them. Jesus just used the familiar situation to teach us something about God.
One further note as we begin, I am very dependent in this Bible study today on the work of Dr. Kenneth Bailey, whom I met in the late '70's at a pastors' school in Spokane, Washington. Because he spent his career outside the U.S.A. at the Middle Eastern School of Theology in Beruit, Lebanon, we mainly know him through his writings (2).
The Parable of the Unjust Steward is one of the most difficult of all the parables. In his commentary on the Gospel according to Luke, C.C. Torrey said of this parable:
This passage brings before us a new Jesus, one who seems inclined to compromise with evil. He approves a program of canny self-interest, recommending to his disciples a standard of life which is generally recognized as inferior: "I say to you, gain friends by means of money." This is not the worst of it; he bases the teaching on the story of a shrewd scoundrel who feathered his own nest at the expense of the man who had trusted him, and then appears to say to his disciples, "Let this be your model!" (3)
This particular parable has been an embarrassment to the Christian movement from the time Luke first put his Gospel into written form. But, is it a poor choice of stories on Jesus' part? Or, could it be that we do not know the situation, which everyone hearing Jesus knew, and thus fail to see the point he was making? With Dr. Bailey's help, we will see the situation as Jesus' audience knew it. I believe it will give us a new appreciation for the parable and the great message which Jesus intended.
B. Now, let's consider two questions about the parable that we need to answer:
1. Is the master an honorable man, or is he a partner in crime with the dishonest steward?
2. Did the steward get himself into this situation by inflating the contracts with his master's debtors? Thus, is he now getting them to write the honest contracts he should have written in the first place?
The interpretation of the parable hinges on the answers to these questions. So, let's work on them one by one.
#1. Everything indicates that the master is an honest man. It appears that he is not part of the steward's dishonesty. If anything, he stands to lose from the steward's last minute maneuvering. Further, the steward is clearly described as "squandering his master's property." The master investigates and calls in the steward to account for his actions. Clearly, the master is an honest, and even an honorable man; the steward is and has been dishonest. Knowing that the steward has been dishonest, the master could have taken him to court for further punishment, but being an honorable man, he only dismisses him from his employment.
But, if the master is an honorable man, how could he commend the dishonest steward for his shrewdness? Well, ask yourself: Under what circumstances would you, as an honorable man or woman, be forced to commend the shrewdness of someone who had just taken you to the cleaners? Well, think about that as we continue our study.
#2. Remember that our second question asked: Did the steward get himself into this situation by inflating the contracts with his master's debtors? This one is hard to figure. Common thinking is that Middle Eastern landowners, who are often absentees, agreed with their agents on a fixed amount which they expect to receive from land rentals. The owners then allow the agents to inflate the bills beyond this amount to whatever the traffic will bear. This follows the same thinking we have assumed for the hated tax collectors like Zacchaeus.
If the steward inflated the debtors' contracts to make himself rich at their expense, then several additional points would also have to be true:
A. The master doesn't care what the community thinks about him; in other words, he is not an honorable man, and as a result they would not respect him.
B. The master does not care if the leading citizens of the community are badly cheated.
C. The steward is hated bitterly by all the renters for all the same reasons the tax collectors were hated. Restoration to their good graces would be almost impossible under any circumstances. If he is hated for cheating them, they will beat him to death if they ever get him down.
D. The master is just as cruel and dishonest as the steward turns out to be.
But, none of these assumptions fits the parable.
A. Someone in the community cared enough about the master and the community to tell the master that the steward was squandering his property. The master is clearly a part of the community and respected.
B. According to Middle Eastern custom, a dishonest steward has many ways to cheat, but all of these are under the table and off the record. The master's contracts with the debtors are public and in the open. Remember, everything the steward did at the last minute affected the official bills.
C. The steward is respected by the debtors enough that they do not question his authority to change their bills.
D. The debtors appeal to the master directly which suggests that he is not dishonest like the steward.
To sum it up: the cultural setting of the parable is that of a large farm with a manager who had authority to carry out the business of the farm. The debtors were most likely tenant farmers, who had agreed to pay a fixed amount of produce for their yearly rent. The steward may have been making extras "under the table," but these amounts were not reflected in the signed bills. The master was a man of noble character respected in the community who cared enough about the good operation of the farm to fire a wasteful manager. It appears that the bills were not the place of the steward's dishonesty; they were OK. With these relatively clear answers to our questions, we can look at the parable itself.
III. The parable:
A rich man had a steward and charges were brought to him that the steward was squandering his goods. So, the rich man called in the steward and asked, "What is this I hear about you? Turn in your records; you can no longer be steward."
And the steward says to himself, "What am I going to do? I am not strong enough to farm and ashamed to beg." Then, he had an idea. "I know what I'll do so that, when I am put out of my stewardship, they will receive me into their homes."
He called in one debtor and asked, "How much do you owe the master?" He replied, "A hundred measures of oil." The steward said, "Take your bill and write fifty."
He called in another debtor and asked, "How much do you owe the master," He replied, "A hundred measures of wheat." And he said to him, "Take your bill and write eighty."
I would just observe that all of this maneuvering only works because the debtors have no idea that the steward is about to be fired. They have to assume that he has the authority to do this or else they are just as dishonest as he is and this maneuver does not work. And the master has to know that he has not decisively and publicly fired the steward, or he could reject these modified bills. Speed is absolutely essential to the steward's maneuver.
Then, the master commended the dishonest steward for his shrewdness.
Then, Jesus seems to add the comment:
...for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.
It appears from the parable that the master was a bit of a softy, and did not fire the steward on the spot. Instead, he gave him a bit of time to turn in the records. It does not matter whether it was just a short time or a long time; it was *enough time* for the steward to maneuver. This possibility is the major reason that when you fire someone one you make the firing as definite and immediate as you can to close off the possibility of doing anything like this.
At the same time, we see something about the master's character in this firing. He could have had the steward jailed for his dishonesty but he did not; the master is merciful. The master expects obedience and honesty; he will act in judgment on a disobedient servant. But he will show great mercy and generosity even to a dishonest servant. This is the kind of man the master is. The people who heard the parable from Jesus would have recognized this. And, as I suggested before, this parable may have been based on actual events that had recently taken place in the nearby community so that his listeners knew the names of all these people.
Now, the problem faced by the steward as he walks out of the master's presence is not just his next meal. He does not want to become someone's perpetual guest. What the steward needs is another job. But, who is going to hire him when everyone finds out that he has been dishonest with his long-time master? He needs to create a situation that will change his devastating public image.
[IMP:] Thus, the dishonest steward's plan is to risk everything on the quality of mercy he has already experienced from his master. If he fails, he will go to jail. If he succeeds, he will be a hero in the community and the master will let him off.
The key to this plan is that no one yet knows he is has lost his job. They will find out soon enough, so he has to act quickly. He summons the debtors; obviously, he still has the authority of the steward of the master's business or he could not do this. If the debtors have any way of knowing that there is any deception involved they will not cooperate. They would become co-conspirators and just as guilty as he is. They have to remain innocent. In this parable there is no criticism of the debtors; they are honest people.
For the debtors, these debt reductions come out of the blue; they are unexpected; they are generous. They are welcome as they would be for us. The steward thus achieves the position of a foreman who arranges a generous Christmas bonus for all the workers in the middle of August. The bonus is from the owner, but the foreman is praised for arranging it for everyone.
Now, think about what happens as these renters go back home to tell their families what has just happened. "Hey! Good news. The master has just cut the rent... for the year! The steward made all the arrangements." And by suppertime, the word has spread throughout the community of tenants who live and work this farm. "The master has cut the rent for everybody; isn't the master a great guy! It's going to be a good year!" People are out talking about it; dinner is going to be a feast; there might even be dancing after supper. And everyone agrees: "We have the most generous master anyone could want."
IV. Now, we can see the social situation in which the master now finds himself. He did not fire the steward decisively and allowed him room to maneuver. As a result, the whole community is convinced that this master is a good and generous man. His reputation for generosity has just set a new standard that is the envy of the county. He has been *had*, but what can he do?
1. If he runs through the streets telling everyone that it's all a mistake, that he failed to fire the steward decisively enough and allowed him time to pull this off, then he looks both tight-fisted and stupid.
2. If he keeps quiet and leaves the new bills alone, he is the hero to every family that works for him. People keep using words like "generous, kind, big-hearted" when they describe him. He likes this reputation.
A. But, think, too about the steward, who is clearly a scoundrel. How did he put his master into this awkward situation? Easy: he did it by counting on the character of his master. He knew, probably before this confrontation, that his master was merciful and kind. When his master did not jail or humiliate him immediately, he figured that the one thing he could count on was his master's good character. The dishonest steward knows that if his future depends entirely on his character or his reputation, then he is toast. So, he counts on the master's good character in the hope that the master's good character will be enough.
Think about it, when we come to stand accountable before God, should we bring the record of all our accomplishments, present them to the Almighty, and declare with confidence that God must surely be impressed? Or will we present ourselves to the Almighty and place our hopes on the character of God?
Remember Paul's words in Romans 5.8: "Jesus died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God's love toward us."
Remember in the great pastoral prayer in Isaiah 63 and 64, the prophet speaks to God for the people:
6 We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
8 Yet, O LORD, you are our Father;
we are the clay,
and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
We dare to come before God, not because of our own righteousness, but because of God's righteousness and mercy. It other words, everything all depends on the character of God. Except for *this*, we cannot stand. Except for the mercy and kindness of God, we have no hope. In this parable, Jesus tells the story of a steward who risked everything on his master's character, and now invites us to risk everything on the character of God.
One final thought:
1. What do you think happened to the dishonest steward when he went back to stand before the master for the last time? Jesus leaves the story for us to finish.
2. What do you think will happen to you and me when we stand before God on the last day? Jesus also leaves our stories for us to finish.
Jeremais, Jehochim. The Parables of Jesus.
Bailey, Kenneth. Poet and Peasant, pp. 86ff
Torrey, C.C., Our Translated Gospels, New York: Harper, 1936, p. 59.