He was hired to manage people and property. That’s his job. Make money for his master, the landowner. Pause.
In the preindustrial world of Jesus, agriculture is the heartbeat of the economy. The chief issue at play in the economy was who controlled the land and who had the power to extract the surplus. In this case (Luke 16) the landowner had the power and the steward (manager) had the responsibility to manage the agricultural production on the property. In the case of this story, the debtors (who rented/worked the land) owe the master produce – olive oil and wheat. Money, in peasant economies, was neither the only nor the primary medium of exchange. The Steward will pay regardless if the peasants produce or not. Go.
But he was terrible at his job! He squandered his Master’s money. The property he was given to manage has produced and he has not managed it appropriately. Now, he’s going to pay. Pause.
The verb translated “squandered” here is the same word that is used to describe what the Prodical Son did with his inheritance – wasted it. Threw it away. Took the blessing and responsibility from his father and spent it on worthless things. The passage does not say what the Steward did to squander the money, I suspect it does not matter, what DOES matter is that it’s time to pay up and there’s nothing to pay.
It’s worth noting that the Mishnah, postbiblical tradition in Jewish literature, identifies three kinds of renters: those who pay a percentage of the crop, those who pay a fixed amount of the crop, and those who pay in money. This passage speaks of the second kind. They need to pay regardless of what the ground produces. A risky business after all. If they do well, they will have a great year since it’s settled up front what they owe, if not, it’s coming out of their savings or debt. And it’s not a small amount. The amounts in question underscore the rich man’s wealth. The first debtor owes one hundred “baths” of oil. Since a bath is equivalent to nine gallons, this man owes nine hundred gallons of olive oil. The second debtor owes one hundred “kors” of grain. Estimates of the size of a kor vary from 6.5 to 10-12 bushels, and even Josephus gives inconsistent reports as to its meaning. Nevertheless, a hundred kors of grain would have been a large amount. The rich man and his debtors were dealing in large commercial interests therefore, and not in household quantities. Go.
The master returns angry. He calls the Steward to himself – you’re fired. You can’t produce. You are fired. The Master shows mercy to the manager. After all, he had the right to have him fined or imprisoned. He does neither, just lets him go. The steward’s reputation will proceed him and he’ll not find work anywhere else. The Steward is in chaos. What will he do? Where will he go? It’s not like he can go apply at the Synagogue for unemployment! He’s simply out of a job, out of a home, out of security, and out of time! He’s too old to dig (read: work) and too proud to beg! Desperation creeps into his thoughts.
Except… he’s not out of time. A plan forms in his mind. There is some hope here if he plays his cards right. Pause.
A Steward, or an Estate Manager, was entitled to a commission. He was entitled to a fee for each transaction, which itself was recorded, principle and interest, in a public contract. There is no way that he could extract a fee of 50% as peasants would immediately inform the Lord that of the extortion. If the Lord and the Steward were in cahoots, there would be revolt. What he does here is described as “shrewd” or brilliant, or terrible based on how you see it. Go.
The Steward realized that he had a window of opportunity to write new contracts with the peasants before they realized that he was no longer the Steward. He rushes out and speaks to the debtors. You owe the master 100 measures of oil? Make it 50. You owe the master 100 measures of wheat? Make it 80. The peasants love him! They begin to dance in the streets! They begin to praise the master’s generosity! What a great year it’s going to be!! The Steward has never been more popular. Pause.
Here’s the brilliance – by renegotiating the contracts, he has set the Master up. If the Lord rescinds the legally binding contracts because they are unlawful, he will alienate the renters AND the entire village who are out singing his praise. If he allows the contracts to stand, he will lose money but will gain honor. And in the ancient Mediterranean culture, honor is better than money. To some extent, it IS money. The good favor received from these transactions will carry him far in the economy of the time. That said, it’s still going to be a touch year. The Steward, though now unemployed, can turn to his former clients and make claims on them for favors as he needs them since everyone knows who “arranged” the deals. Nicely played Steward. Nicely played. Full Stop.
So. Now we ask the obvious question – why?
1. Steward is a worthless manager, also corrupt, so in response to getting fired, cheats the master out of the contracts. He sends a blanket email to everyone in the company and does not use BCC declaring that they are all… wait, I’m jumping ahead a few centuries…
2. Steward was acting righteously by excluding any interest figured into the debt.
3. Steward reduced the debt by his own commission – however, no steward gets half as we’ve already discussed.
Whatever the reason – it costs the landowner a significant amount of money. The mere fact that he does not have the faithless steward killed on site probably reveals a good deal about how wealthy this guy was. Seems like the owner looks at the big picture and decides that there are better things than money – honor being one of them. So he commends the steward… and then has him escorted off the property.
Jesus follows this up with what seems to be a sarcastic comment – make friends with unrighteous mammon and you’ll be welcome in that world but it’ll cost you. Is that the kind of person you are? Slave to money?
Faithfulness and honesty. These are bywords of the person who desires to live a “kingdom life.” They can be described as faithful and honest in all their dealings. You can live shrewdly but there is a reward for that – emptiness, separation from the service of the master. There are more important realities than things and money – there is faithfulness and honesty.
Notice the conclusion:
1. A slave cannot serve two masters.
2. If he does, he’ll hate one and love the other or despise one and love the other.
3. We cannot, as servants of God, serve God and wealth. The two do not go together. This is not to say that wealth is somehow bad or that Christians should immediately give everything they have away and move into socialist communes (although, to be fair, the early Christians did…) – it is to say that if wealth is driving you, God certainly is not.
It is reminiscent to me of Ephesians where Paul admonishes the Christian to be led by the spirit of God (rather than drunkenness).
One of the marks of a Christian is that they are faithful regardless of the size of their paycheck or responsibilities. Our faithfulness is not about a measurement, it is about our faithfulness.
This week, you may be called upon to “defend the faith” but probably not. It is more likely that you will be challenged – even today – to be faithful in what God has called you to be. Will you help another on the road of life? Will you offer a listening ear to someone suffering? Will you defend that person who is always getting picked on at work? Will you be patient with your children? Will you be honest in all you dealings? Often, we say we want to have God challenge us to greatness – I’m wondering if we’re actually ready for it.