Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Parable of the Unjust Steward: A Profound Message that Gets Butchered Often

The parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1-8) is one that many people have a hard time understanding and accepting.  I've heard lots of arguments over the decades trying to explain why Jesus  couldn't have said it - that it just has to be something that was written into the record by someone else - or that there has to be some deeper symbolism that isn't obvious in the parable itself.  I don't agree with those arguments, since I think it's a pretty straightforward story with a fairly simple meaning.  In the spirit of parsing, to which everyone knows I'm inclined, here is how I see this parable:

1 And he said also unto his disciples, There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods.

The "steward" is a manager - someone who has stewardship over (responsibility for) something. This manager had been given control over the handling of some of the rich man's goods - and had failed miserably. In fact, it appears he had lost everything with which he had been entrusted - since the goods had been "wasted".

2 And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward.

In other words, the rich man said, "Tell me what you've done with my goods. You're in danger of being fired."

3 Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed.

This wasn't a "poor man" naturally; he wasn't even necessarily a poor man until he was threatened with being fired. (It appears he had no other marketable skill and relatively little physical strength - and he also was a proud man. It also is implied that he knew there was no way he could keep his job, since he knew "my lord taketh away from me the stewardship".)

4 I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.

He said, essentially, "There is no doubt I will be fired, so I better ingratiate myself into the good graces of those who owed money to the rich man while I can (before I am fired officially and still have the authority to make a deal)."

5 So he called every one of his lord’s debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord?

6 And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty.

7 Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore.

These verses simply say that he cut deals with the debtors, so they would appreciate him and be more likely to hire him when we was fired.

8 And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.

There is nothing in this verse whatsoever that even implies the man kept his job with the rich man. There is nothing in this verse that says anything the steward did was "right" or "good" from a moral standpoint. There is nothing in this verse that says the rich man approved of the steward himself (since he still called him "unjust") or that the rich man kept the steward on as an employee (that isn't stated anywhere). All it says is that the rich man "commended" the "unjust" steward for doing wisely - BUT it doesn't say toward what the commendation for doing wisely was directed. In other words, it doesn't say WHY the rich man commended the steward, other than that there was something "wise" about his actions.

My take is quite simple - though not short (*grin*):

When he heard about the wasted goods, the rich man knew what kind of man the steward was. He also knew that, given the way the steward had "wasted" the goods, he was unlikely to get much, if anything, from his debtors once the steward was fired. (Again, "wasted" carries that connotation - that there appeared to be no getting anything of worth out of them.) So, even as the rich man fired the steward he commended him for at least getting as much as possible out of an otherwise wasted situation - for minimizing his losses and putting himself in a position to get work once he left the rich man's service, even if such an approach was "unjust" - which simply means "not in accord with a normal understanding of what is right or lawful". In other words, the unjust steward didn't demand justice, but rather, in order to get what he could, he extended mercy - thus getting more by being merciful than he could have by sticking strictly to the letter of the law.

(Contrast this parable to the one where the man who owed his master money threw people in jail who couldn't pay him what they owed him in order to get out of his own debt. That man was condemned for being totally "just" - while this "unjust steward" was commended for not adhering strictly to the demands he could have made. Those "just" demands would have put others in jail, not done the rich man any good in the process and reduced the steward himself to death - since he had no other option, given his unwillingness to beg.)

The steward apparently learned an important lesson from his previous failure and successfully carried out a plan to minimize the damage to both himself and his "lord". He started to turn his life around (by being merciful, getting the most out of a bad situation and positioning himself to have another shot at it with someone else) and gave himself an opportunity to do somewhere else what he had been tasked to do in the first place.

I don't think there's a "higher" moral to this story than the obvious one - that it's better to tackle mistakes and bad judgments head-on and try to change your future in the here and now than to leave yourself unable to function in the world as a result of past mistakes (or to rely on the mercy of someone whose "goods" you've wasted). I think the point is simply:

Do the best you can to make the past and the future right - even if you've wasted your stewardship up to this point. Get out of the clutches of those who have claims over you and start fresh with a clean slate - and do a better job with your second chance than you did with the first.


Repent and be merciful toward others, and God will commend you for your efforts.

I don't have to believe this parable actually was taught (although I do believe that), and I don't have to believe it's message is divine in some way. However, I think there are lessons that can be taken from it without "wresting" it in any way.

I think there are two main issues that have to be addressed in order to do so:

1) I think we modern people get hung up on the word "unjust" - and I don't see the steward's actions in the parable as "unethical" in any way. The dictionary definitions of "unjust" are:

a) not just; lacking in justice or fairness;

b) unfaithful or dishonest.

I found this definition enlightening, when viewed in the context of this parable:

not in accordance with accepted standards of fairness or justice

In this parable, one person paid 50% of what he owed, while the second person paid 80% of what he owed. (My guess is the difference was due to the ability of each person to repay the debt immediately - that the steward got as much from each person as was possible in a lump sum at the time.) The steward wasn't being "fair" - since he wasn't applying the same terms of repayment - or "just" or "faithful" - since he wasn't collecting for his boss what was owed to the boss - but he also wasn't being "dishonest" in any way. (See point #2 below for more about that.)

That's smart money management, IF the purpose is to get as much NOW as possible - for whatever reason. That was the steward's objective. Lenders do it all the time, now and all throughout history. If they have lent money and face the real probability that the borrower won't be able to pay it back in full, they work out a compromise, partial payment - and the terms often are "everything you can pay". It's not "unethical" at all - but, technically, it is "unjust". We don't bat an eye at the "unjustness" of it (especially if we are the beneficiaries) - and we generally commend the lenders who understand and try to work out alternate payment options. On the other hand, we generally castigate lenders who don't even try to understand exceptional circumstances and work with borrowers who need to rework their debt payments.

2) It's easy to forget that the steward still was responsible for the distribution of the rich man's goods and the payments for them. That was his job. He did a lousy job of it, but it still was his job. He hadn't been fired yet at the time the parable relates. He had the authority to do whatever he wanted to collect his lord's debts - and he chose to exercise that authority in an "unjust" but totally "ethical" way. He got the rich man as much as could be expected before he was fired, so the rich man understandably commended him for that - even though (I think) he still was fired for wasting his lord's goods.

I don't know exactly what the original point was for this parable, but I can see very good lessons that can be taken from it about repentance and duty.

1 comment:

larryco_ said...