Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. 10“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Translation: And also he said to the disciples, "There was a certain rich person who was having a steward, and this (steward) was accused to him of squandering his possessions. And he called him and said to him, 'What is this I hear about you? Give the word of your stewardship, for you are no longer able to steward.'
But the steward said to himself, 'What might I do? For my lord is taking away the stewardship from me. I am not strong enough to dig. I am ashamed to beg. I know what I might do so that when I am removed from the stewardship they might receive me into their homes.'
And he called every one of his lord's debtors. He began saying to the first, 'How much do you owe my lord?' And he said, 'A hundred measures of oil.' And he said to him, 'Take your bill, and sit down quickly (and) write fifty.' Then he said to another, 'And how much do you owe?' And he said, 'A hundred measures of wheat.' He said to him, 'Take your bill and write eighty.'
And the lord commended the unjust steward because he did wisely, for the children of this age are wiser than the children of light in this generation. And I say to you, make to yourselves friends out of the mammon of injustice so that when it might fail, they may welcome you into the eternal tents.
The faithful one in least is also faithful in much, and the one unjust in least is also unjust in much. If then, you have not become faithful toward unjust mammon, who will trust to you the true? And if you have not become faithful toward the things of a stranger, who will give you yours? No servant is able to serve two lords, for that one will hate the one and love the other, or will hold the one and despise the other. You are not able to serve God and mammon."
Background and situation: Today's reading is the fourth of five parables that stretch over chapters 15-16. The first three are the famous "party parables" of Luke 15--the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son.
The connection with the prodigal son story is evident in verse one of today's text. Just as the prodigal son "squandered" his inheritance, the unjust steward "squandered" his master's property. (The word is dieskorposinin both instances. The word literally means "scattered in all directions.")
The story is unique to Luke, with the exception of 16:13 which has a parallel in Matthew 6:24. Jesus is speaking to the disciples, though the pharisees are also present. (We are told in 16:14 that they have been listening.)
The parable of the unjust steward: The story begins with "a certain rich man" and his "steward" (oikomonon). Oikomonon is formed from words for "house" and "law," and means "house manager" or "steward."
In the first century world, the "rich man" was probably Greek or Roman and lived in luxury in Jerusalem. His steward would likely have been a slave or freedman.
The steward had access to his master's wealth, and took care of the owner's various properties. At least some of these properties, if not all, were likely to have been acquired because the crushing debts of the original owners resulted in them losing their property to the wealthy landowner.
Moreover, they now buy their staple items--the items they used to raise for themselves--from the wealthy landowner at highly inflated prices. ("I owe my soul to the company store" could have been a line from a song in the first century as well as the twentieth.)
The debt burden of the poor was a major social problem in first century Israel--a problem that had been steadily getting worse, and one that was met with utter indifference by the powers-that-be. If you couldn't pay your debts, so much the better. They'd just take your land. If you didn't have any land left, they might take your daughter.
The steward has been "squandering" the master's holdings. The master has heard about this through the grapevine, calls in the steward, and demands an accounting. "Give the word (ton logon) of your stewardship," demands the master, and then promptly cans him.
What does the steward do now? He lacks strength for physical labor, and is "ashamed" to beg. In first century Israel, as much as 85% of the people were poor, with most getting poorer. The very wealthy constituted about 2-3% of the people, with another 6-8% who made a good living through their association with the rich--people such as the steward, for example. Indeed, physical labor or begging would be quite a come-down for someone used to the good life of the plantation hierarchy.
The steward no longer has a job and, given his record, no other landowner is likely to hire him as a manager. Nor can he go back to the "common people" since he has historically been allied with the wealthy landowner. They would not trust him, and, having tasted the good life, the steward doesn't want to join them anyway.
The steward hits upon an ingenious solution. He calls in the master's debtors and has them re-write their bills, whittling them down enough so that they might possibly be re-paid. (The steward tells the debtors to re-write their bills. This is because the bill had to be in the debtor's handwriting in order to be considered authentic.)
In psychology, there is a therapeutic approach called "paradoxical intention." Sometimes this is called "prescribing the symptom." You instruct the people to do exactly that thing which is causing the problem.
Here's an example: A colleague of mine once had a pre-school age boy as a client. His presenting problem was temper tantrums. Of course, the parents had already tried to stop this behavior through various methods, none of which had worked.
The therapist and the mother agreed that they would try a paradoxical approach. They would "prescribe the symptom." They would instruct the boy to have a temper tantrum. Then, they would "grade" the tantrum, at which time they might say something like this: "Well, Billy, throwing yourself on the floor was a nice touch, but your screaming was only fair, and your kicking lacked enthusiasm." After a few sessions, the boy was heard to say that temper tantrums "weren't as much fun anymore."
The steward got in hot water for "squandering" property. Rather than stop, however, he does even more of it. He drastically marks down the debts of those who owe his master, squandering even more of his master's money. His approach is paradoxical, and--mirabile dictu--it works! Squandering his master's property got him into hot water, and, by golly, squandering that money would get him back out.
In the first century world, a person's wealth was connected to "honor." In fact, wealth was not necessarily an end in itself, but rather a means to get honor. Money could buy respect, or so it was thought. A person could be "dishonored" for any number of things, but two of them included having an unscrupulous servant, and taking back a gift.
When the master leaves his life of luxury in Jerusalem and goes out in the countryside to assess his situation, he finds that the steward has put him in a position where, if he fires the suddenly popular steward, he himself will be dishonored.
The steward's ingenious and counter-intuitive "paradoxical" approach has placed the master in a quandry. Firing the steward would have confirmed that his steward was dishonest in the first place, and, if he cancels his steward's agreements, the master will be seen as one who has gone back on his word.
The master, however, displays some political jiu-jitsu of his own. In order not to lose face, he decides to make a virtue out of necessity. He commends the steward for his shrewd manuevers, and, in effect, takes credit for what the steward has done!
Interpretation of the parable: The example of the steward is commended to the disciples--"Make to yourselves friends out of the mammon of injustice (mamona tes adikias) so that when it might fail, they may receive you into the eternal tents." "Mammon of injustice" might also be translated as "treasure of unrighteousness," "dishonest wealth," "unjust money," or, even better, "riches of injustice."
In other words, take the devil's money and use it to your advantage. That money will inevitably fail, as will all aspects of "this age" (16:8), but you can use it, in the meantime, to make friends for yourselves. What is the benefit? Your new friends "may welcome you into the eternal tents."
The word "tents" is skene, which means "tents" or "booths." It recalls the children of Israel living in "tents" during their sojourn in the wilderness. The "tents" in 16:9, however, are called "eternal tents," and they refer not to "this age" but to the age to come.
The steward's aim might have been to finagle shelter for himself in this life, but the general principle of taking the devil's money to do the Lord's work has eternal implications! The very people to whom you have redistributed the "riches of injustice" will be the ones who welcome you into the "eternal tents" of the age to come.
Was it Elie Wiesel who once said that if Hitler is saved it will be through the prayers of the people he killed? Jesus' interpretation of the parable alludes to a similar idea, which is that the opinion of the poor is taken into account. Will the poor "welcome" you into the age to come, or will they say, "I never knew you"? (The parable seems to assume that the poor are in the "eternal tents" first.)
Jesus then says that how one handles small amounts of money is a good indicator of how one would handle large amounts. That being the case, how will one handle "the true" if one has not first handled "unjust money" in a faithful way? How will one handle "true riches," one might say, if one has not first handled "false riches" in a way consistent with the values of God's kingdom? As Joel Green writes:
Even though "dishonest wealth" is a reality of the present age, one's use of this wealth can either be "dishonest" (i.e. determined by one's commitment to the present world order) or "faithful" (i.e. determined by the values of the new epoch). (p. 596)
More than any other gospel, Luke confronts the issue of money and wealth. In Luke's gospel, the Lord's Prayer petition about forgiveness is explicitly linked with monetary debts--literally: "and release us from our sins, for we ourselves release all (the money) that is owed to us." The phrase is panta opheilo. It's present tense, active voice, passive mood, and it's about money--"all that is owed." (Luke 11:4. Notice how much more emphatic and direct this is than our pale de-monetized versions of the Lord's Prayer.)
Further, Jesus says to cancel debts--"lend, expecting nothing in return" (6:34)--and calls for selling of possessions and giving alms to the poor (12: 33). In the first century middle east, the people who borrowed money were the poor, and, of course, alms went directly to the poor.
Treat the poor with generosity, in other words, and the poor will welcome you "into the eternal tents." The story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, which follows in verses 19-31, adds another severe warning about ignoring the poor.
Image: Dishonest steward, Ian Pollock