A bribe

The Steward

David 2016, Jesus, Luke, Parable, Steward, Truth Cast Beside 2 Comments

Luke 16:1-8

The Most Difficult of Stories

If you thought the parable of the sheep and the goats was the most difficult parable to get your head around you probably haven’t read this one. It involves a ‘dishonest’ steward and a manger who in the end praises him for acting shrewdly but losing him money. If you read on Jesus goes on to say;

For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. Verses 8a-9

After these words he then warns us that if we are dishonest with worldly wealth or someone else’s property no one will trust us with ‘true riches’ or property of our own (v10-12). Then comes the final warning found in other gospels as well that we cannot serve both God and money (v13).

So, we should act shrewdly like the ‘dishonest’ steward, use our wealth to gain friends but not to be dishonest or untrustworthy with wealth or property and not allow it to become our master.

Clear as mud…

The Problem of Chapter and Verse

The bible that you read today looks very different to the originally manuscripts it comes from. Apart from the fact they are written in Hebrew, Greek and in places Aramaic the other major difference is that they don’t contain chapters and verses.

Large books and manuscripts have always been separated into smaller chunks to aid in referencing and the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) has been divided in different ways over time. The chapters and verses that we are use to seeing in our modern translations are immensely useful for helping us find the bits of the bible we want to read. They were inserted into the text between the 12th and 16th century in various forms to help in the reading of the text and to aid those who were commenting on the scripture.

These divisions can also at times be immensely unhelpful in aiding our understanding of what is happening in the text. One of the problems faced with this parable is that it is cut off from its context in this section of Luke’s gospel. We need to read it in its larger context to shed light on what Jesus is trying to teach those who are listening and how that can help us understand it today.

The Audience

Chapter 16 verse 1 tells us that this parable was told to his disciples and that it was a continuation from what has gone before. We often assume Jesus disciples were with him but it is important to ask who else was listening in. You may feel that this information isn’t important as his words are true no matter who hears them but to truly understand the parable it is vital to find out the answer. To do this we have to take ourselves back to the beginning of this section in Luke and see who Jesus is talking to and what prompts this teaching

If you turn to Luke 15:1 we see that Jesus is attracting sinners and tax collectors to him and that the Pharisees and scribes were complaining about this. It is because of the Pharisees complaints that Jesus begins to tell a number of parables that speak into their words and addresses the others gathered. We can also see that the Pharisees were still present at the end of our parable by reading Luke 16:14 which tells us that the Pharisees responded to Jesus words by ridiculing him.

This then is a parable told in response to the complaints of the Pharisees that Jesus was eating with sinners. He is talking to his disciples but also to the Pharisees and scribes who where present and those sinners and tax collectors who were with him. This sets out our audience and begins to unpick the story of the ‘dishonest’ steward.

Four in a Row

This parable does not stand alone but instead finishes off a set of four parables given in response to the Pharisees. The first three parables which start in chapter 15 all relate to something that is lost (sheep, coin and son). It is easy to see how these parables fit together because of the common theme that runs through them but it is important to note that the meaning develops as we move through them.

The ‘Lost’ Parables

We can’t go into great detail about these three parables but a brief skim of there meaning will help us better understand the parable of the steward. The lost sheep and coin both deal with a similar issue of seeking the one that is lost. In both an insignificant amount is lost (1 sheep in 99 or 1 small coin our of 10) but in both Jesus tells us that the lost are sought out, leaving no stone unturned in trying to find the sheep/coin. When the lost items are found there is a exuberant celebration far beyond what is called for such an insignificant find. Both go to their neighbours and invite them back to celebrate that which was lost and is now found. Jesus explains both of these parables as an insight into the joy in heaven for every sinner that repents. They are a pointed explanation of why he is spending time with the sinners and tax collectors and others on the edge of society. It is they who are lost and need to be found.

The lost son differs from these two parables which seem to concentrate on those who are lost and found in a couple of ways. The parable is much longer with more detail and characters and it ends on a cliffhanger. We often refer to this parable as that of the prodigal son but the title ‘the father and his two sons’ is much better suited. The story is that of a younger son who demands his inheritance and wastes it away finally hitting rock bottom and returning home. The elder brother also receives his inheritance and works hard for his father in the other sons absence. When the younger son returns home to be a hired hand he is welcomed back and restored to his place as son by the father who throws a great celebration for him. The older brother hears of this and refuses to join in even after the father pleads with him to do so.

Within this parable we have the lost and found theme of the younger son restored by the fathers mercy and grace. There is also the situation surrounding the older son who has and continues to benefit from what is his fathers and ultimately his, though he doesn’t see it. Relating this to those being told this story and the complaint it is responding to we can see how these characters link to them. The younger son is like the sinners and tax collectors and the older the pharisees. One group realise they need God and throw themselves on his mercy the others have had the privilege of being God’s people by birth but refuse to accept the inheritance.

Managers and Stewards

In Jesus day the land was managed under an absentee landlord arrangement. There was someone at the top of the tree who owned the land and they were usually very wealthy. These people did very little work themselves but outsourced the task of looking after the land and making money from it to managers. These managers or stewards did the leg work between the landlord and the tenants that farmed the land. It is a system that we aren’t particularly familiar with but it was an important economic system in Jesus day.

The manager did much more than just the leg work for the owner though, they also had an important representative role to play in society. If they treated the tenants well this reflected positively on the landlord. If the manager was dishonest or untrustworthy this in turn brought scorn on the landlord. In a culture where honour and shame were almost as important a commodity as money this role cannot be underplayed in this story and what happens within it.

The Debt

100 barrels of olive oil and 1000 sacks of wheat. To put this into context it would be around 2300 litres of oil and 24,493 KG of wheat. We have seen Jesus use huge numbers to make a point and this is happening here. These original debts would never be able to be paid by the tenant farmers they are beyond price and would take years of work to clear.

Restoration

Taking all of this into account what truth is Jesus trying to teach in the parable of the dishonest manager. Often because of the teaching that immediately follows the parable, we read it as a parable about wealth and possessions. This is often why the parable is so difficult to understand because it’s messages about wealth and it’s trappings are somewhat confusing.

Instead of looking at wealth let us look at this as a parable about restoration and forgiveness. The beginning of the parable starts with a breakdown in relationship between the rich man and the steward. There is also a strained relationship between the rich man and his tenants who’s debts are substantial. The steward by going to the tenants and reducing their debt does three things. First, they have their burdens lifted and are freed from the oppression of living under an extreme debt. This in turn opens the door for a future development of the relationship between themselves and the steward. Second, the stewards actions bring honour to the rich man. Even though the steward is acting alone, his actions show grace and mercy and as a representative of the rich man those traits are reflected on him also. Third, the stewards actions begin the process of restoring the relationship between the rich man and himself. There is a short term loss of produce in the reduction of debt but this is outweighed by the restoration of honour. The rich man at the end of the parable praises the steward, commending him on his actions.

Like the father and his two sons in the parable before this one we are left on a cliff hanger. The parable should probably stop halfway through verse 8 with everything else coming as additional sayings and teachings of Jesus that turn the focus onto wealth and possessions. The point of this parable though is not about how we use our possessions but about the ability to restore relationships and bring forgiveness to those in need.

This is how Jesus acted, he went to those ladened with guilt and told them they were forgiven. This offended the Pharisees who thought Jesus was dishonouring their way of life by welcoming in sinners and tax collectors. Jesus though was doing things God’s way. He was going to those in need and removing their debt, starting relationships afresh and restoring old ones.

Credits – ‘Did You Say “Bribe”’ by Chris Potter under CC BY 2.0

Comments 2

  1. Jeananne Holtorp

    This has been a meandering journey for me this morning, starting with your daily Bible Study on the Methodist Church website. I always like to know about who is behind the the thoughts and interpretations, it’s a connection thing for me, like being part of a bigger picture of Methodism, and being excited, or thoughtful, or questioning, but most of all being led to rethinking and being thankful for all the freedom and blessings we have to express and explore what Jesus is saying “now” to so many people, and because of the wonder of the internet
    ( which I just love, and as an older person, it’s a great stepping stone, and conversation starter ) I have loved your art works, your sermons, and generally have had a great start to my day.

    Thank you and may you grow in every way, God has an exciting and challenging road for you.

    1. Post
      Author
      David

      Thank you for your words.

      It’s good to know random connections and meandering have led you hear and blessed you a little.

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