The misunderstood "Parable of the unjust steward"
By Jeff A. Benner
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In the book of Luke is one of Yeshua's parables that have had many people scratching their head wondering what this parable is trying to teach.
And he said also unto the disciples, There was a certain rich man, who had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he was wasting his goods. And he called him, and said unto him, What is this that I hear of thee? render the account of thy stewardship; for thou canst be no longer steward. And the steward said within himself, What shall I do, seeing that my lord taketh away the stewardship from me? I have not strength to dig; to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. And calling to him each one of his lord's debtors, he said to the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, A hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bond, and sit down quickly and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, A hundred measures of wheat. He saith unto him, Take thy bond, and write fourscore. And his lord commended the unrighteous steward because he had done wisely: for the sons of this world are for their own generation wiser than the sons of the light. (Luke 16:1-8, ASV)
A summary of this parable is that a rich man is about to fire his steward, the manager of his affairs. The steward is worried that after he is fired he will have no way to make an income, so he goes to the people that owe his master money and he reduces their bills in order to curry favor with them in the hopes that after he loses his job, one of them may hire him. For his actions, his master commends him and says that he has acted wisely.
At first glance we might conclude that the steward was cheating his master by reducing the money owed by his master's debtors. But if this were true, why would the master commend him? Because of this apparent conundrum there have been many theories as to what this parable is teaching.
Many years ago I had the privilege to sit under the teachings of Dr. William Bean, a scholar in the history of first century Israel and the Dead Sea Scrolls. According to him, recent archeological evidences provided the answers to this parable.
In our culture, an employee, such as a manager, keeps track of the moneys owed to his employer by his customers and in return, the employer pays the manager a wage. If that manager reduced the bills that his employer's customers owed to his employer, and was caught, he would most likely be fired and may even find himself in jail. Is Yeshua commending this behavior? Not at all. The problem is that when we read the Bible, we assume our own cultural perspectives onto the text, which will often cause serious problems with the interpretation of that text.
According to Dr. Bean, it was discovered that in the first century, the master (the employer) did not pay the steward (the employee) a wage. Instead, a steward made his money by adding his fees onto the bills of his master's debtors (the customers). When the debtor receives the bill from the steward, he does not know what amount on the bill belongs to the master and what amount belonged to the steward, only the steward would know. When the debtors would pay their bill to the steward, the steward would pocket his portion of the bill and then forward the remaining money to his master.
As this steward is called "unrighteous," we can assume that he was placing an extraordinary high amount on the bills for his fee, in order to make large amounts of money, at the expense of his master and his master's debtors. However, when he found out he was going to be fired, he took the debtors bills and reduced, or eliminated, the amount owed to him. Thereby currying favor with these debtors in the hopes that one of them may hire him due to his perceived "generosity."
The 'parable' of this parable is; if you want to interpret the text correctly, you must read it from the perspective of the peoples who lived there in that time.