For we write to you nothing but what you can read and understand; I hope you will understand fully, as you have understood in part. 2 Corinthians 1:13-14
Yet then there is that unjust steward (Luke 16) who meets us by way of Jesus’ parables and has been a qualm of our faith for centuries. Are we to underhandedly and sneakily build the kingdom? Is Jesus teaching us that it is wise to take whatever actions necessary, even dishonest ones, to ensure our needs are met?
It appears the good doctor Luke, understanding the nature of men, strategically eliminated these options by following this parable with a word on our handling of mammon. So what is the message of the parable? Why was the steward considered wise, and the children of the kingdom encouraged to follow his lead?
In this story, a manager of a wealthy man’s properties is caught with his hand in the cookie jar, or at least mismanaging his loot. The master terminates his employee, who realizes he’s not cut out for manual labor and does not like the thought of begging, so he concocts a plan. He allows his master’s renters to get one over on their debt-holder, to pocket what should have been payment. It leads one to wonder why the master was such a softy in his handling of the firing of his steward.
His master could have possibly taken legal action or worse; but he didn’t. He could have demanded retribution; but he didn’t. It seems the master is even allowing the steward time to get his books in order, setting himself up for the folly that follows.
I think we are supposed to pick up on the fact that the steward does not defend himself. He hears the accusation, takes ownership of his guilt, then begins to plot. He strikes deals with those who owe his master by bridging a union of his own rapport with that of the wealthy landowner.
It probably sounded something like this, “Our good master has chosen to show compassion on you today, so break out your debt books and knock a decent percentage of what you owe off the top!” He has now linked himself with the master by being the bearer of joyful news to a band of farm-land renters. They will be able to keep and sell a greater portion of their crops.
So what will happen when the master finds out what the steward has done? What will be his response when the renters show up with a lesser payment? While the text clearly allows us to know the response, “You are one shrewd dude,” we are sort of left scratching our heads wondering why, and especially when Jesus joins in the high-fiving of this unjust steward by poking at we kingdom kids for not being just as wily.
I jested not when denoting that this parable has been a thorn in the paw of biblical scholars for a long, long time. Many have just sat it on the back burner and refused to get caught up in the speculation. Others take stabs at it, but still admit that being dogmatic is ill-advised. One author, Kenneth Bailey, offers these words.
“A summary of the theological cluster of this parable can be briefly stated as follows: God (the master) is a God of judgment and mercy. Because of his evil, man (the steward) is caught in the crisis of the coming of the kingdom. Excuses will avail the steward nothing. Man’s only option is to entrust everything to the unfailing mercy of his generous master who, he can be confident, will accept to pay the price for man’s salvation. This clever rascal was wise enough to place his total trust in the quality of mercy experienced at the beginning of the story. That trust was vindicated. Disciples need the same kind of wisdom.”
Is it possible that the manager of the master’s goods is merely being praised for wisely recognizing the merciful character of his master?