This parable has given the church fits for centuries. Jesus seems to be holding up this servant as a role model precisely because of his dishonesty, and telling his disciples, “You go and be just as dishonest”—and that doesn’t fit with the rest of his teaching, or with his character. Part of our problem is that we aren’t familiar with the culture in which Jesus was teaching; I’ve been leaning on the work of Dr. Kenneth Bailey quite a lot this year, and especially for the work he’s done on the parables of Jesus, but I’m indebted to him above all for making sense of this one. Beyond our cross-cultural issues, however, part of our problem here is the chapter break.
That might sound odd to you, but if you’ve been around long enough to hear me go off on the headings they stick in our Bibles, maybe it doesn’t. The thing is, the chapter and verse numbers aren’t original to the text, but were added quite some time later. Imagine if this wasn’t Luke 16:1-8 but Luke 15:33-40—mentally, where would you connect it? To the parable right before it. You’d read that great story of the Father’s mercy, and you’d go right into this one and understand it as a continuation of the same theme. The chapter break tells us “This is something new,” however, so instead of attaching it to the parable of the two lost sons, we naturally connect it to the poem on money that follows it, and we read this as a parable about money and how we ought to use it. It isn’t. Jesus uses money here to make a point about something else entirely.
He gives this story a common setting: a great landowner hired an estate manager to take care of renting out the land. Some of the tenants would farm the land or tend the trees themselves; others were rich enough to rent larger pieces and hire people to do the work. Each one paid a fixed amount of their yield as rent—and note that: a fixed amount, not a percentage. They owed the same regardless of how good the year was. The manager was paid a salary by the master, and also collected a fee from each renter as they signed their contract; that fee was not reflected in the contract, which stated only what the tenant owed to the master.
In some way, this manager was abusing his position and stealing from his master; the master was liked and respected in the community, so someone came and told him about it. The master, of course, went through the roof, summoning his servant and demanding, “What’s this I hear about you?” The servant doesn’t answer; the master has him dead to rights. Since he doesn’t know how much the master knows, if he says anything, all he can do is make things worse. His silence is its own confession, of course, so the master continues, “Turn in the books—you’re fired!”
Now, there are a couple key points to note. First, the master is showing him great mercy here. Under Jewish law, he could have had his servant hauled off that instant and thrown in jail until he could repay or work off his crime, but he didn’t; he left the steward at liberty. Second, Jesus’ listeners would have expected the steward to loudly and firmly protest his innocence. There were manytime-honored defenses he could have used, and many people to whom he could have tried to shift the blame, including the master himself. That would have been the classic response. Amazingly, however, he just turns and leaves the room, affirming by his silence his guilt and the justice of his punishment.
The situation is hopeless and he knows it, so he doesn’t waste his breath trying to get his job back. Instead, he puts all his energy into trying to find himself a new one. He considers manual labor, which would have been a tremendous comedown for an educated man in a white-collar job, but rejects that because he isn’t strong enough for the work. He also looks at the possibility of begging for a living—it was considered a legitimate occupation, though extremely low-status—and rejects it on the grounds that he doesn’t want the shame that would come with it. But having decided against both these options, what others does he have? He’s been fired as a scoundrel, so who would hire him?
He’s clearly a gambling man; his master has already showed him great mercy, and he decides to stake everything on that mercy. He’s been told to turn in the books, but no one else knows he’s been fired, and by leaving his master without a fight, he’s avoided having any sort of guard on him. He has the freedom to act, and he uses it. If his plan fails, he’ll be thrown in prison, but that might happen anyway. If it works, he’ll be a hero in the community. Sure, the whole story will come out, but someone will hire him anyway, out of gratitude for his actions and respect for his ability—they’ll just keep a very close eye on him, is all.
He has to act quickly, as he can’t delay long to turn in the books. Before he does so, he calls in the tenants, one by one. Because no one else knows yet that he’s been fired, the lower servants obey his orders, and the tenants answer his summons; they would only have come because they believed the steward had a message for them from their landlord. He treats them rudely, for he’s in too much of a hurry for the usual courtesies: at any minute, the master might discover his plan, and all would be lost. The tenants would never cooperate with him if they knew he was cheating the master, for that would end their relationship with their landlord—not only financially, but socially as well. That would cause them serious damage in the community, and could not be risked.
As it happens, however, the manager is not discovered, and his plan goes off without a hitch. He asks each tenant, “How much do you owe my master?”—not because he doesn’t know, he has the contract right in front of him, but just to bring the full force of their debt home to them. He reduces their debts by about the same monetary value in each case, about 500 denarii—some twenty months’ wages for an ordinary laborer—letting them believe he talked his boss into making the reduction. No point in doing this if he doesn’t get the credit, after all. He has them make the changes in their own handwriting, so it’s clear they’ve signed off on the deal, and away they go, rejoicing.
That done, he takes his newly-changed account books and turns them in to his master. The master looks at them and knows immediately what his former employee has done. He can be quite sure that as a result, the whole village is throwing a party in his honor. His tenants think he’s the most noble and generous man who has ever lived, for he has given them an unprecedented and almost unfathomable gift. Legally, he has every right to cancel the unauthorized reductions—but if he does that, their joy will turn to rage, and he will be cursed by the whole community for his stinginess. It isn’t rational, but it’s human. Otherwise, all he can do is keep his mouth shut, accept the praise of the community, allow the manager to do the same, and act like he meant it all to happen.
This was the servant’s calculation: that faced with such a choice, his master would choose to keep quiet. After all, he was a generous man (even if he hadn’t meant to be quite that generous), and generosity was one of the qualities expected of the rich and powerful. He was also a merciful man, as he had already shown by not jailing his errant manager. And so he reflects for a moment, turns to his former employee, and says quietly, “You’re a shrewd man.” You’ll note that’s all he praises the manager for, certainly not for his morals; that’s the point of Jesus’ comment which follows.
The manager is an example for us not in his dishonesty but in the fact that he was wise enough to know where his salvation lay. In a way, his actions are a compliment to the master—backhanded, to be sure, but no less sincere for all that; the manager knew his master to be generous and merciful, to the point that he was willing to stake his entire future on it. He won. Out of his generosity and mercy, the master chose to pay the full price for his former employee’s salvation.
The principle here is a standard one in rabbinical teaching, commonly referenced as “from the light to the heavy,” which roughly means, “how much more.” In other words, if this crooked manager got out of his crisis by relying on his master’s mercy, how much more will God help you in yours if you will only trust his mercy? And all humanity is in crisis. God—the master—is a God of judgment, but also of mercy. We are the steward who has misused what was put in our trust. Excuses are worthless. All we can do is stake everything on the unfailing mercy of God, trusting that he will pay the price for our salvation; and indeed, he has already done so.
For those who haven’t thrown themselves on the mercy of God, the application is obvious. Those of us who have might think this is irrelevant to us, but it isn’t; this isn’t just a one-time thing, and then we go back to business as usual. Watching us sometimes, you’d think we were saved by mercy and then spent the rest of our lives earning it, but that isn’t the gospel. As we were saved, so we live—all of life, at every point and every moment, wholly dependent on the mercy and grace of God.