This parable invariably
troubles the capitalistic convictions of American believers.
Why would the defrauded master in Jesus’ parable “commend
his dishonest steward?” What lesson did Jesus intend
to teach with this disturbing parable?
In the preindustrial world of Jesus, agriculture was the heart of the economy.
Modern contrasts such as “rich” and “poor,” “urban” and “rural,” “industrial”
and “agricultural” are irrelevant to this time. The chief issues were who controlled
the land and the
agricultural production, and who had the power to extract the surplus.
The landowner (Lk 16:1) has a steward who manages the agricultural production of
his property. The debtors owe the master produce: olive oil and wheat. Money
in peasant economies is neither the only nor the predominant medium of exchange.
The Mishnah (postbiblical tradition in Judaic literature) identifies three kinds
of renters: some pay a percentage of the crop; some pay a fixed amount of the
produce; some pay rent in money. The debtors here seem to be in the second category.
A rough modern approximation of their fixed rent is 900 gallons of oil and 150
bushels of wheat. The amount of the debt forgiven by the steward, though different
in terms of percentage, nevertheless approximates five hundred denarii.
A steward, or estate manager, was entitled to a commission or fee on each transaction,
which itself was recorded, principal and interest, in a public contract. There
is no evidence that a steward could extract a fee as high as 50 percent. Peasants
would have immediately informed the landowner or would have rioted if a landowner
were in collusion with such extortion.
The Mishnah also decrees that an agent should pay for any losses he caused his
employer. This steward is extremely fortunate. He is simply dismissed, not fined
or imprisoned. The steward is both stunned and inspired by his master’s mercy.
The dismissal is effective immediately, but the shrewd steward realizes he has
a “window of opportunity” before the news reaches the renters in the
village. He summons debtors and instructs them to “sit down quickly” (Lk 16:8) and generously alters their debts.
When the master discovers the steward’s strategy, he faces a genuine dilemma.
If he rescinds the steward’s new contracts, as he is legally entitled to do because
they are unlawful, he will alienate the renters and the entire village. They
have already been celebrating the master’s generosity!
If he allows these reduced contracts to stand, he will be short of produce this
year, but his “honor” will spread far and wide (as also will the “honor” of
the shrewd steward for arranging the deals). People will praise the noble and
J. Pilch is a biblcal scholar and
facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published
fourteen books by Pilch exploring the
“cultural world” of the Bible.
Go to http://www.litpress.org/ to
find out more.
Copyright © 1997 by The Order of St.
Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, MN.
All rights reserved.
Used by permission from The
Liturgical Press, Collegeville,
The complete text of the
above article can be found in:
The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle C
John J. Pilch. The Liturgical Press. 1997. pp. 133-135.
Martin Erspamer, O.S.B.
from Religious Clip Art for the
(A, B, and C).
Used by permission of Liturgy Training
Publications. This art may be reproduced
only by parishes who purchase the
collection in book or CD-ROM form. For
more information go to: http://www.ltp.org/