The shrewd manager in Luke 16 discounted the debts in order to win favor with the debtors. What hermeneutic principle should be used to determine if this was an evil act, or just good business?
Warning. Giant wall of text from my master's thesis upcoming.
It is likely that the discount applied by the steward had no impact on his employer because of the practice of adding excessive commission to sales. The discount can be seen as the steward discounting his own commission in order to gain favor with the debtors.
The Parable of The Steward (Luke 16:1-13)
Since this parable precedes the Parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus, the literary context will be the same though the meaning within that context will be significantly different. It represents a shift in Jesus’ attention from the crowd in Luke 15 (the “lost” parables that demonstrate the value that God places on His people) to his disciples in this parable. The transition is almost jarring and out of place. Thus this passage is considered to be the most perplexing and even baffling of Jesus’ parables. In addition to the purpose of the transition of focus, there is confusion surrounding what appears to be a bizarre and almost confused litany of meanings or applications simply tacked on to the end of the parable itself beginning in verse 8b. There is also the question of how Jesus could possibly use the rich man to praise the action of the manager especially in light of the seemingly short time span between the termination of the manager and the praise. Finally, what are we supposed to take from this parable given the logical knots it seems to tie in attempts to interpret it?
Exposition and Interpretation
This parable has an interpretive history nearly as complex as the parable itself. The taxonomy employed by Ireland is helpful in navigating a diverse landscape of understanding and interpretation. Within this history of interpretation, he finds a primary differentiation between views that understand the manager’s actions as fraudulent and those that do not. He finds further differentiation within this first category in that there are those interpretations that generally fall within a traditional (monetary), a non-monetary, or a negative example interpretation. Given the nature of the category that does not find fraud in the manager’s actions, there are fewer subcategories, and more nuanced moral and ethical applications.
The traditional interpretation attempts to draw a positive application, usually focusing on the appropriate use of worldly wealth and possessions, from an inherently sinful situation. However, this interpretative direction also usually requires the interpreter to clarify the praise of the master in verse 8 along the lines of following the underlying wisdom, and not the actions, of the steward. This effectively “disengages” the fraudulent behavior of the steward from the wisdom that he displayed in exercising the fraud. This weakens such an interpretive approach since it is an unconventional form into which this parable is pressed. It is difficult to think of a parable in which the underlying motives of a character’s sinful actions are commended as a pattern for disciples to follow.
The non-monetary interpretations are even further subdivided still into eschatological and non-eschatological understandings. The eschatological perspective sees the monetary lesson (and vv. 8b-13) to be a later, church-added lesson in order help aid the understanding of the parable itself. Instead, the eschatological perspective uses the separation of the manager’s wisdom from his behavior to capitalize on the lesson that crises must be met with resolute actions. There is no manuscript evidence to suggest that such later additions were made. In fact, earliest manuscript evidence includes verses 8b-13 so any additions made by the early church would have had to have been made extremely early in the process.
A potential resolution to this is a literary approach that does not begin with a need to find the inherent meaning of the parable. This approach views this parable not as a parable of Jesus, but as one that has been incorporated into the text to appear as though it were. It also sees verses 9-13 as an attempt by the author to find some meaning within the text. However, adopting this strategy of explaining the text ignores the author’s stated intent and purpose which has been covered and defended (see above: “Audience and Authorial Intent”). Such a practice would be an irresponsible departure by the author from his stated objective.
An alternative explanation is that this lesson was incorporated into the oral tradition of the story and ultimately into the written record. Though this is certainly a possibility, it still doesn’t fully explain the awkward transitions found in verses 7-9. It also does not explain the difficulty in understanding Jesus as commending the manager for his actions. Instead, it explains away the difficulty of this commendation as eschatological, leading one to believe that the ends may very well justify the means. Additionally, if verse 8a is the end of the original parable, this is certainly an unprecedented lack of conclusion in Jesus’ parables. With this in mind, it is unlikely that verses 8b-13 were a later addition to the original story.
The non-eschatological, non-monetary interpretation seeks to find a more abstract moral application. For instance, one application is that the manager’s character was consistent throughout the story, even if it was consistently fraudulent. Therefore, the primary value of the parable is to reinforce the need for consistency within the Christian life. Such interpretations are seemingly disconnected from the larger context of the parable, which finds Jesus addressing specific character concerns in the Pharisees as behaviors to not emulate.
The final group within the category of monetary interpretations is the negative example interpretation. In contrast to those interpretations that attempt to derive a positive lesson from the sinful behavior of the manager, this interpretive vein attempts to show his behavior as altogether reprehensible and not worthy of imitation. Non-ironic interpretations fall within this category and ultimately conclude the interpretation is unknowable to modern readers since the application was appropriate only for those in the immediate audience and has been lost on subsequent generations.
In contrast to this, the ironic interpretation sees the steward’s actions as ironic in that it was not initially obvious why the steward would have the debtors slash their bills. This interpretation sees Jesus’ primary intention as one of discouraging emulation of the manager. He achieves this through the irony, particularly in verses 8 and 9, of presenting a shady character as someone who is worthy of emulation. Such an unexpected twist would captivate the audience and promote greater consideration of the message at hand. This interpretation also takes for granted that the audience would understand the temporary nature of the deliverance secured by the manager, especially when Jesus later explicitly juxtaposes it against eternal salvation.
The other main interpretive stream finds no fault in the actions of the manager. Among the groupings within this stream are those interpretations that emphasize charity, repentance, and other righteous qualities displayed by the manager in the parable. Some of these interpretations are based on the Sitz im Leben of Jesus telling the parable in the presence of his disciples, publicans, tax collectors, and the Pharisees. Such characteristics would have both encouraged those who were entering into discipleship with Jesus, and would have also been instructive to his disciples.
A more socio-economic interpretation finds no fault in any of the manager’s actions either in the parable or outside of the parable. This is based on the understanding of the role of the οἰκονόμος (“household steward”) in the ancient Near East. Functioning as the debt collector on behalf of the master, he had the right to add something akin to a commission upon any debts owed to his master. Therefore, within this group of interpreteations, no fraud is found within any of the relationships between the steward and those with whom he has business contact. The lesson is one of financial prudence and priority-setting.
I find the traditional interpretive stream, which finds fault with the manager’s actions, to be somewhat unsatisfactory because of how it requires that the lesson be separated from text especially when there is a reasonable solution that does not require this. That there is no other immediately available context in which such a process can be applied to a teaching of Jesus at least indicates that this unconventional approach should be seriously scrutinized before using it. Instead, because (as we will later see) the manager’s actions within the context of the parable are inherently commendable, there is no need to disengage the lesson from the narrative.
Yet, there is still some nuance that must be applied to the socio-economic interpretation in order for it to be justifiable. There is little mention of the beginning of the parable which contains the precipitating incident for the rest of the story. This manager was accused of wasting possessions and was called in to give an account for his actions. This does not sound like a situation in which there is no fault. However, in the ancient Near East where honor and shame were extremely important, such accusations would take honor away from the wealthy landowner. Preservation of his own honor would have been reason to demand such an accounting from the steward. Therefore, the vein that does not see the steward’s actions as fraudulent seems to be the best explanation, especially in light of the socio-economic support gained from the historical context.
The Identity of κύριος
Another exegetical issue raised within this parable surrounds the identity of the κύριος in verse 8. Many scholars see this as the key exegetical crux upon which interpretation hangs. The first issue surrounds κύριος (“lord”, “master”) in verse 8a. Given the appearance of κύριος within the context of the parable itself (vv. 3, 5) it is initially taken by most to indeed be the rich man. However, κύριος is also frequently used of Jesus and is used to describe him when he begins to explain a parable in 18:6 so it is reasonable, given the context, to understand κύριος as Jesus as well.
Liefeld and Pao explain that κύριος was commonly used in secular terminology and is not required to refer to Jesus. It also seems that 8b is Jesus’ initial reference to “real people” which lends itself to the argument that 8b, and not 8a, represents the inception of explanation. Finally, if 8a does not represent the rich man then it represents an awkward transition from Jesus’ direct speech to indirect speech and back to direct speech. Finally, some have found Jesus as an unsatisfactory referent of κύριος since there is no clear textual indication that a shift has occurred.
Others are not convinced that Jesus is not the κύριος, though. To expect grace, mercy, and even praise from an explicitly labeled πλούσιος (“rich man”) in Luke would be to ignore much of Luke’s moralistic themes and characterization of the πλούσιος. Another argument against the rich man as the referent of κύριος asserts that it would be nearly impossible to see a rich man praising a manager who secured his future by defrauding him.
Schellenberg draws upon Gerard Genette’s study of narrative levels to assert that Luke has, in this setting, constructed a Jesus character that is able to break through the two narrative levels found in this parable. Jesus is a real being in Luke’s historical account, but like God in the Parable of the Rich Fool (12:15-21), Jesus also intrudes into the “metadiegetic” narrative of the parable. Thus he uses Genette’s understanding of metalepsis as an explanation that the κύριος is Jesus but with one foot in the diagetic (Lukan) narrative and one foot in the metadiegetic (parabolic) narrative.
There is no consensus within the above interpretive streams as to the identity of κύριος in verse 8. Older tradition avoids the debate and leverages the eschatological interpretation that focuses significantly on the hasty manner in which the manager works to secure his future. In this treatment, though, the importance of both the identity of the κύριος and his approval are diminished and it quickly loses all strength once Jesus begins his commentary after the parable. It becomes clear that this parable is not intended to have a purely eschatological purpose.
With the identity of the κύριος still in question, his approval seems even more perplexing. Again there is wide acceptance of a single interpretation which hedges against Jesus completely endorsing the manager but affirming his business sense either directly (so Schellenberg) or indirectly through the rich man (so Liefeld and Pao). This interpretation reads Jesus’ commentary (8b–13) back into the parable. This is not completely abhorrent and may even allow the interpreter to establish Jesus’ intent in telling the parable.
In support of the socio-economic interpretation, recent scholarship has discovered information that may provide even more insight into the commendation. Study of social and legal customs in the first century indicate that the steward’s actions may have been legal. Stewards were entrusted with authority to manage the estates of the extremely wealthy (πλούσιος). Much of this management entailed letting the land out to tenants, perhaps the am ha’aretz, and collecting payment from them. It was not unusual for the stewards to attach interest for lent monies and commodities and pocket the excess interest for themselves. Liefeld and Pao endorse this explanation as legal and even justify it against the Torah since, in the example of the parable, the repayment was commoditized and the interest (against which the poor were protected in the Torah) would have been hidden in the billed amount. The debtors would also have been spared certain debt slavery and bondage to the rich man by the actions of the steward.
If we accept this socio-legal explanation for the manager’s actions then the value of the identity of κύριος is diminished. In both circumstances the dishonesty of the steward is found not in his “redemptive” action with the debtors but in his original decision to charge exorbitant interest. If κύριος is the wealthy man, then the steward’s actions are praiseworthy because uncollected debt would have been retrieved and the master’s reputation would have been restored or even elevated and the steward did what was necessary to secure a more pleasant future for himself. However if κύριος is Jesus then the praiseworthy action is also found not just in his slashing of interest, but slashing it to the extent that he forfeited his ill-gotten gain for the sake of his future and the future of others. In understanding κύριος we must also understand that had the borrowers not been able to repay, they would have gone into debt slavery and the steward would have no friends to receive him. Such shrewdness is commendable whether κύριος is Jesus or the rich man. It seems, then, that the debate about the identity of κύριος in this passage blurs the parable’s stated, dual lessons of using worldly wealth to gain eternal “friends” and trustworthiness.
There is little, if any, comment surrounding Jesus’ abrupt transition from addressing the Pharisees with parables (Luke 15:3) to addressing his disciples (16:1), and it is generally taken as a matter of fact that allows Jesus to share the purpose of his story. Perhaps this is because the transition depends on how one interprets this parable. Thus the common interpretation of this parable is used to inform Jesus’ objective transition from the crowd to his disciples. However, an alternative explanation that sits independent of the interpretation is that Jesus has just finished teaching about the value of forgiveness and the unsurpassed joy in heaven when one accepts forgiveness. He then turns to his disciples and begins to invite them into his ministry of redemption and this is one way to do so. This fits the shift in tone of Luke 17 in which he continues to focus on his disciples with futuristic overtones. The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus then serves a rebuke to the scoffing Pharisees who continually seek to discredit Jesus’ teaching and ministry. Based on this, and the stated lessons of the parables, it seems more likely that the solution to the debate over κύριος in 8a may actually be the metadiagetic explanation which sees Jesus as both storyteller and rich man. This seems to be the best mediating view because an either-or perspective does not resolve the awkward transitions in verses 7-9. If the wealthy man is the referent for κύριος in 8a, how was he informed of the manager’s actions in the preceding verses? Such a gap in the narrative is not present in Jesus’ other parables and pushes interpretation of Jesus as the referent. However, the awkward indirect/direct speech transitions in 8a-9 are smoothed out by understanding the referent to be the rich man.
The metadiagetic understanding allows Jesus to affirm both the manager’s action to reduce the exorbitant interest that he was charging, and to secure his future and the future of potential friends protecting them from slavery, as both teacher/story teller and character within the story. This, then, is how Jesus transitions into the lesson about securing friends who will receive us into eternal dwelling. Appropriate use of material resources is a key theme throughout Luke and verses 10-12 restate this teaching, culminating with the implied command in verse 13 to not be mastered by resources but to serve God with them. Though the debtors occupy a small space in the story they are the lynchpin that holds the parable and subsequent teaching together.
As we will see, this parable stands in contrast to both the Widow’s Mite and the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus as an instruction on how we can use material resources for good. Certainly we can still see in this story the taint of money within a person, in this instance greed and dishonesty. This does not mean, though, that it cannot be used for good. The steward put aside his selfishness and in so doing preserved a future for him and those with whom he had contact. The ultimate lesson of this parable then becomes to put aside material selfishness as money can ultimately benefit many people. Such a lesson was adopted by the early church whose acts of mercy and relief toward their own internal needs not only relieved the needs of those within the in-group, but were also very attractive to those who witnessed this charity.
I'd cite my sources here, but there are a lot. Feel free to find them in this specific section in my thesis which can be found here.
The context of the passage shows that the manager's actions are both dishonest and shrewd. The literal meaning of the text is the primary meaning.
The parable calls the manager both shrewd and dishonest:
Certainly, reducing the debt owed to the manager's master was dishonest. (It's not dishonest because discounting of debt is and/or was wrong, but because discounting debt on behalf of another for personal gain is a white-collar crime.) However, even the manager can see that it was shrewd. From the manager's point of view, it was good business since he had nothing to lose—not his job and not the property that is owed. But the commendation is only for the shrewdness of the decision.
The main thrust of the parable is actually the contrast between "unrighteous wealth" and "true riches". Perhaps the most famous rewording of the parable is:
Using Drash in Sensus Plenior:
Linked portions of scripture:
How they are linked:
Jacob took the inheritance and ran away. Upon his return he forfeits all by placing all his belongings ahead of him as gifts to dissipate Esau's anger before Jacob arrives. He is welcomed back.
The prodigal takes the inheritance before his father is dead. He spreads it all around until there is nothing. He is welcomed back and given more as a son.
The manager takes what belongs to his master, spreads it around, then is apparently commended for doing so by Jesus.
Interpretation by various voices of sensus plenior:
In the voice of the judge which asks for a moral determination:
All things that we have, no matter what the source, ultimately belong to God, and are not to enslave us in this world, but to be profligately spread around so that we return to the Father empty handed, as Christ gave all and was fully spent on the cross.
As such the merchant is not a human merchant who is being cheated, but represents God who owns all things. The shrewd merchant was freeing himself from the entrapment of the world system.
In the voice of the prophet which speaks of the life of Christ:
The Eternal Son of God left his high estate and emptied himself in the kenosis. He took his inheritance and "squandered it" dying alone on the cross. He was accepted back by the Father in resurrection.