One of the story forms Jesus used to communicate his message, according to the gospels, was the parable. Nearly all scholars acknowledge the authenticity of this characteristic of Jesus’ teaching. Some of the parables we encounter in the gospels, however, are enigmatic to say the least. In fact, Jesus is even quoted as saying that an element of mystery in his parables was intentional so that outsiders could not discern their meaning (Mark 4:11-12). Certainly one of the most inscrutable of Jesus’ parables is the one often called the “Unjust Steward” only found in the Gospel of Luke. It concerns what we might call today a business manager and his boss whom Jesus calls a “rich man.” The rich man was likely an absentee landholder with large agricultural possessions in an area in which he did not reside.
In brief, the parable tells us that the landowner has discovered that his business manager has “squandered his property,” in other words he has cheated him out of what was his due. The landlord is returning to exact punishment on his employee. Quickly, the business manager, fearing the inevitable loss of his job, tries to ingratiate himself with debtors who have borrowed from his client via loans arranged by the manager. His plan is to get the debtors to agree to rewrite their promissory notes for less than their current value. One debtor, for example, is instructed to reduce the amount he owes the rich man by fifty percent, from 100 jugs of olive oil to 50. Another is told to reduce his debt by twenty percent, from 100 bushels of wheat to 80. On the surface, this seems to be yet another instance of the business manager ripping off his client, re-writing the promissory notes so that the rich man is further cheated by being denied the repayments that are truly owed to him. But not so fast!
Joseph Fitzmyer, in his article, “The Story of the Dishonest Manager (Lk 16:1-13),” re-published as a chapter in his excellent book, Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament, examines the circumstances of Jewish Palestine in the first century in order to shed light on the understanding that Jesus’ audience would have exhibited upon hearing the parable. It turns out that the business manager is not dishonest because he renegotiated the loans – rather he is dishonest for something he did earlier, squandering the rich man’s property, the details of which are not shared with us. In fact, the rich man in Jesus’ parable praises the subsequent actions of the manager, calling his loan renegotiations “prudent.” Why would the absentee landholder praise the manager for reducing the amount of earnings due him?
Fitzmyer informs us that, in the first-century, absentee landlords like the one in Jesus’ parable would not hire a business manager by paying him a salary as would be done today. Instead, the manager had to earn his pay from debtors by way of loans he arranged from his master’s wealth, charging interest on the loaned amounts. That interest was raked off by the business manager for himself. But there was a problem for Jewish managers: usury was sinful according to Torah (Deuteronomy 23:20-21). To get around this prohibition, clever managers would simply write the loan repayment amount for more than was actually loaned. In this parable, the man who had agreed to repay 100 jugs of oil likely only borrowed 50 jugs; the excess 50 jugs was the profit exacted by the manager for himself. The same with the man who agreed to repay 100 bushels of wheat. This “hidden interest” was not unusual at the time, nor considered sinful according to the rabbis.
So why was the business manager “prudent”? Knowing he was going to lose his job, the manager decided to forego the interest that he had built into the loans, eliminating his take. His actions presumably put him in good stead with the debtors who might therefore be more disposed to look favorably on him and perhaps hire him after his termination. It was in this way that his master, and thus Jesus, thought the manager prudent. What does the story mean on a less superficial level?
Jesus likely intended his hearers to identify the rich man as God. The manager is a cypher for each member of Jesus’ audience. God has heard that his people are misusing and mismanaging the resources and blessings given to them, be these economic or spiritual. The people are treating their brothers or sisters uncharitably and God is coming to set things right. In light of that eventuality, the wise person will quickly try to establish good relations with those he has cheated or treated unfairly by extortion or neglect. Such a repentant believer would be acting prudently in light of the coming Kingdom.