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Does God want us to cheat? Difficult parables - the parable of the unjust steward

Updated: Mar 3

My dear ones,

There are some parables that leave us quite perplexed. At the top of the list of incomprehensible parables is probably the one about the unjust steward.

And because it is so incomprehensible and unclear, it is usually, gladly, simply not preached very often.

No, for Jesus to praise the fraudulent behaviour of this steward - that seems quite grotesque.

But listen:

Basically, we have to assume that Jesus wanted to show us something - because he did not speak parables for nothing.

I was really relieved and a little amused when, a few years ago, I came across the first comprehensible, meaningful and at the same time charming interpretation of Luke 16:1-8, so I cannot and will not withhold it from you. It is proof of how much detailed knowledge and cultural understanding we have lost in order to truly understand the words of Jesus.

And, this must also be clearly stated, there are various approaches to the parable that make my hair stand on end because they justify lying. "The end justifies the means" is often used by large ministries to justify ways that are clearly crooked and not straight. But that is not what this parable says at all.

Today I admit that most of the interpretation is not mine. I am sharing with you a pearl that fell at my feet, given to me by the founder of the Institute for Near Eastern Studies, Professor of New Testament Dr Kenneth E. Bailey, who died in 2016. The bibliography follows the article.

Follow me into a wonderful story with strong parallels to the prodigal son:

"There was a rich man who had a steward, and he was accused with him of squandering his possessions" (Luke 16:1).

There is a very wealthy man who entrusts his affairs to his steward. The steward is responsible for contracts, bills of exchange, taxes to be paid, trade and sales. When a householder entrusts these matters to such a high authority, he expects loyalty, honesty and trustworthiness.

But now it is brought to his attention that this steward is a bad steward, wasting his money instead of working faithfully for him. Who is telling him this? Other servants? Friends?

It is customary to question such an accusation- unless... it comes from someone you trust implicitly. A long-time friend, for example, who expresses concern. We read nothing about further investigation, the administrator takes the accusation on faith and acts accordingly:

"And he called him, and said unto him, What is this that I hear of thee? Put away the account of your stewardship! For you can no longer be a steward". (Luke 16:2 Elb.Trans.)

The opening question is rhetorical and confrontational, not open to dialogue.

The decision to dismiss the steward has already been made. The steward realises this and responds to this (trap) question with silence. Anything else would have meant admitting more than his Lord knew....

When this question is left unanswered in the room and the administrator sees that he will get no further answers, he dismisses his employee, because what he has been told is enough. Filing the accounts does not mean drawing up a balance sheet, but handing over the books. The administrator is dismissed without notice.

Under the Middle Eastern law of the time, the appointment and powers of an administrator could be revoked at any time. However, the dismissal was not effective until it was served. In this case, it was a personal notice, so the administrator knew that any decision he now made was not binding on the householder. The latter could revoke it at any time on the basis of the notice. This is very important to understand. He is effectively, as Bailey puts it, "an ex-manager who still has access to the accounts but has already been fired".

Now, what's interesting is that this approach was and is completely unusual in the Middle East. A dismissal in one conversation without any follow-up negotiations? That may be common in the West, but not in Middle Eastern culture. What the listeners of the parable were expecting was a negotiation: "Dear Lord, I serve you after my father, who served you after my grandfather with loyalty and devotion! Our families have been bound together for generations; are you going to throw it all away because of an unfortunate misunderstanding?" Or the blame would have been passed on to subordinates, or the liars who claimed this would have had to answer for it, on the administrator's honour! But all this... does not happen.

The administrator accepts the dismissal without protest, without support, without a good word. His silence symbolises an admission of guilt. He takes full responsibility for his offence. Such an approach - the lack of debate about whether there might not be reinstatement - is almost unthinkable in the Middle East. Trying to pass the buck, however unsuccessfully, has been a deeply human trait since Adam and Eve.

But how does the steward react when he is alone?

"And the steward said within himself: What shall I do? For the Lord has taken away my stewardship. I cannot dig; I am ashamed to beg". (Luke 6:3 Elb. trans.)

The steward broods.

He searches for a solution to the misery in which he finds himself. He is self-realistic enough to understand that he doesn't have the physical prerequisites for working in the fields ("I can't dig"), but at least he thinks about it, even if it means a social degradation not to be underestimated, and begging, which he is ashamed of, represents the last spark of honour in his body.

And then he had an idea:

"I know what I will do, so that when I am taken from the government, they will receive me into their homes. (Lk 16:4, Elb. transl.).

Here comes the saving thought that will guarantee him a new job in the future as a steward in another wealthy house, even after the news of his dismissal has "gone round". And so he pulls out his last trump card: no one knows about his dismissal except the head of the house, and everyone will accept his invitation accordingly. He doesn't have much time - he has to hand over the books to his landlord. So he must act quickly, efficiently and thoroughly - using a clever strategy that will make him popular despite his dishonour:

"5 And he called every one of his master's debtors, and said to the first, How much do you owe my master? 6 And he said, An hundred baths of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy debtor's bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. "7 And after that he said to another: How much do you owe? And he said, An hundred shekels of wheat. And he said to him, "Take your bill and write eighty. (Luke 16:5 ff)

Ibn al-Tayib* notes in this passage that sin leads to more sin. The steward should repent, but instead he bravely goes on.

In order to avoid a public situation and also to emphasise the urgency of the matter, he summons his master's debtors and holds a personal meeting with each of them. There has been no talk yet, he acts quickly, and so those summoned think it is an important message from the lord of the manor, outside the harvest season, which is unusual. Everyone is still following the steward's orders, servants, draftees - up to this point it is a matter between him and his lord. So it is important to understand that the bonded labourer believes that he is acting under the full sovereignty and authority of his master and is only carrying out the instructions until he finds himself in a situation where he is invited to make a "small deal" by massively reducing his debt and each of the two parties ends up in a win/win situation where the money is shared between them.

And this is where an aspect comes in that we don't understand in Western thinking and context:

There is a massive difference in the Middle East between public honour and private, well, ... agreements, deals.

None of the parties would have agreed to such a "deal" if it was already known that the manager had been fired. No one seriously wanted to come into conflict with the landlord, but to take a small advantage that no one knew about was well within their means.

And it wasn't a small amount: it was a lot of money that the steward gave them, the equivalent of a year and a half's salary, and so there was a certain... gratitude towards the unjust steward, who was playing a bit of 'Robin Hood' here. The situation of the field workers was not a privileged one, he relieved them of their burdens. He enabled them to live better.

But what about the landlord?

Well, in a society of public shame and honour, public reputation is extremely important. And, of course, those who were so "gifted" went back to the village and praised and extolled the landlord's generosity, grace and honour - and that of the steward who had persuaded his landlord to make such a generous gesture!

His subjects rejoiced. He was praised over the green clover! And, of course, no one would ever speak ill of the steward with such cunning and dedication....

The signature makes it clear that the tenants had also accepted the change as valid, and in one way or another had agreed to the cancellation of the debt.

The landlord now had two options:

He could set things right and denounce his steward. But that would have turned the good mood into grumpiness and a lack of motivation among his workers, to his detriment. Or he could bless his former manager's trick - and thus preserve his public image and the praise for his generosity. He chooses to pay the price for his manager's wickedness and sin: For he is indeed generous, honest and upright, and he has already refrained from exercising his full right against the fraudulent employee: He did not send him to prison, nor did he make his family slaves. He could have done either.

In all that the steward does, one thing is central: he is aware that he is a swindler and a cheat - but he is also aware that the goodness and generosity of his master is real, irrevocable.

The whole plan is based on this belief that the Lord will not let him down in the end.

To have that kind of faith in the goodness of a Lord in the first place! Amazing!

"And the Lord praised the unjust steward[1] because he had done wisely; for the sons of this world[2] are wiser than the sons of light against their own kind. 9 And I say to you, make friends with the unjust mammon[3] so that at the end you may be welcomed into the eternal tents. (Lk 16:8 Elb.Trans.)

And this is what Jesus praises: the wholehearted recognition and acceptance of one's own guilt. The wise action that blesses others and gives the steward a way out. But above all, his faith and trust that his master is good. That it is more important for the latter to save this resilient little impostor who believes in that goodness, and to pay the price for that salvation, than to condemn him and have his generosity questioned.

No, Jesus is not praising cheating here.

He shows this very clearly by calling the steward a "son of this age/world", a carnal man, pointing out that he is entrenched in sin and making his sin even greater.

He praises him for his prudence and, moreover, for his correct estimation of the mercy of his Lord. And he advises us to do the same for our own good. And to advance the kingdom of God with that very cunning, that very craftiness, and at the same time with the innocence and sincerity of doves.

It is not an invitation to lie and deceive, although it is said that Jesus would sometimes like to see more tactical shrewdness from us.

And there is something else in this parable: The steward used his landlord's money to increase his fame and make friends. Money does not take the place we give it. It is to be used for the things that really matter.

Be blessed.

Sibylle/Daughter of Zion.


Kenneth E. Bailey (ed.): Jesus Was Not a European. Middle Eastern Culture and the World of the Gospels, SCM Verlag 2018, pp. 398-410.

* Ibn al-Tayib, indirectly quoted from ibid, more on the person:

Photo: Pixabay

Music: "Ya Mor" - Aramaic praise.

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