And just when it was going so well…I am reminded with some force that there’s always more than one way to read a parable. I am reminded further that we always read from a social position – either actual or imagined, or both. Goodrich’s analysis is solid and well-documented. It is also written implicitly from the viewpoint of and for the benefit of the landowners and masters in the imperial system. The system assumes that it is good, right, and necessary for the landowners and masters to get their money, regardless of how that money is made.
This is an agricultural parable. Therefore, the landowner makes a large portion of his money from the free labor of enslaved laborers and managers. That is not a political statement. That is an historical and demographic reality of the first-century Mediterranean. The enslavement of people to work the land was a regular feature of small, medium, and large agricultural operations in that context. Columella’s agricultural manual assumes the use of enslaved laborers, as do the letters of Pliny the Younger. Very few in that context question the system of enslavement itself.
Christian New Testament documents also rarely question the imperial system of human enslavement. Jennifer Glancy examines at length the figure of the enslaved person in Jesus’ words in the Lukan account. The figure of the enslaved person shows up with some regularity in Jesus’ sayings and stories and less often in his interactions with real people. “Because so many of Jesus’ sayings preserved in Luke and Matthew feature the figure of the slave,” Glancy writes, “they create the impression that Jesus’ audience was as familiar with the world of slaveholding and enslavement as with the worlds of farming and fishing” (Kindle Locations 2112-2113).
Glancy refers to our text, and specifically to verse 13, to examine “the double bind” clamped on enslaved persons who were in fact owned by two or more enslavers. That’s a common occurrence in the first century (at least in Egypt, where we have documentary evidence in the form of contracts, etc.). Yet even the documentary evidence is written from the perspective of and in the interest of the enslavers.
We can surmise these difficulties when two enslavers disagreed on time-sharing, or on freeing the enslaved person. It appears to have been possible, for example, for an enslaved person to be “half-free” if one enslaver renounced ownership! “Considered in the context of ancient slavery,” Glancy writes, “Jesus’ warning against serving two masters no longer sounds vague and metaphorical but resonates with the actual tensions implicit in the not uncommon occasion of a slave caught between the demands of two or more masters” (Kindle Locations 2134-2135).
Was the Unjust Steward a free person or an enslaved person? And what difference would that make in our interpretation of the parable and succeeding verses? Fabian Udoh brings that conversation up to date in his article. While the majority of scholars regarded the (fictional) steward as a free person, Mary Ann Beavis shook that consensus and reasserted what had been a minority opinion. Udoh builds on Beavis’ work and may shake some of my settled assumptions as well.
Udoh reads the parable “in the context of the social and ideological world of chattel slavery.” Especially when it came to agricultural and mining concerns, the use of enslaved labor was the norm. Free hired labor was the exception to that rule. “Slave labor was exploited wherever land was sufficiently concentrated in private hands,” Udoh writes, “so that a permanent workforce was needed outside of what the family could provide” (page 312). Udoh notes that Columella, in his first-century farming manual written a few decades before the Lukan account, declares that an estate manager for a farm should be appointed from among the slaves.
“Consequently, although the Roman Empire cannot be said to have been uniformly a slave society,” Udoh notes, “since the empire was a political (rather than economic) unit in which various modes of production coexisted, chattel slavery, wherever possible, was the most usual mode of production” (page 313). As N. T. Wright has noted, chattel slavery was as ubiquitous in and necessary for the economy of the Roman Empire as electricity is for the contemporary world.
Udoh argues that our Unjust Steward was a managerial slave or a freedman. The classical definition, going back at least to Aristotle, of an enslaved person was that of a “living possession.” The enslaved person is deemed to have no separate personality from the enslaver and is in fact an extension of the enslaver’s body and is therefore inhabited by the enslaver’s “soul” (creepy, I know). “These conceptions enabled the person of servile status (slave and freed),” Udoh declares, “to be the preferred agent for private household management and estate management in the Roman Empire.”
The Lukan account describes the steward as an “oikonomos.” This is the term most often applied to enslaved persons in management positions. This is the case in Luke 12:41-48, in the discussion on faithful and unfaithful enslaved persons. And it is likely, according to Udoh, the case here as well. The steward might have been a freed person, but that would change the dynamics of the relationship with the master very little.
One challenge of reading this parable, Udoh, notes is that it does not interrogate the system of enslavement. The picture we have of the enslaved person contains “the slaveholders’ fantasies, fears, ideals, values, and agenda.” This is a parable, not a sociological case study. The steward “is a literary character – but a character,” Udoh argues, “if he is to be comprehensible, with an underlying social reality” (page 328). The parable does not give us details about the realities of Roman enslavement. Rather, we should use what we know about Roman enslavement to interpret the parable.
From the perspective of the enslavers, a “just” steward would always and only represent the interests of the master. “Servile subservience and loyalty,” Udoh writes, “were necessary for the personal safety of the slaveholder and the stability of slavery as a system of economic exploitation” (page 329). Enslavers in the Roman system (and in the American system, by the way) were always afraid that the enslaved would murder them in their beds, steal them blind, and/or rise up in rebellion. Therefore, servile subservience and loyalty were encouraged with brutality.
An ”unjust” steward would resist being used as an extension of the master’s body and soul. Enslavers expected such resistance. They labelled such resistance as lazy and criminal. The enslaved were described in enslavement literature as greedy, drunken wanton, reckless, cowardly, cruel, stupid, and dangerous. The Lukan account, according to Udoh (and Glancy as well) takes these opposing types, created by and for the masters, for granted (page 330).
So we come to the “unjust” or “unrighteous” steward in our text. The steward “is said to be ‘unrighteous,’” Udoh argues, “not because his actions were ‘dishonest’ by an extrinsic, universal, moral code but because he was disloyal and caused injury to his master’s interests” (page 331). I think this is a critical insight for our interpretation. In another historical context, “unjust” equals “uppity.” If we read the parable from the view of the enslaver, then we see the steward as a criminal, and we collaborate with the enslaver. But what if the steward is a resistor rather than a felon?
Let’s look again at the parable. The gossip mill generates accusations, never proven, against this highly vulnerable manager. The enslaver gives no thought to due process or investigation since an enslaved person does not deserve such consideration. The manager doesn’t begin to look for alternative employment. Instead, as Udoh argues, he creates an escape plan. He’s not looking for new work. He’s trying to survive with his hide intact.
Udoh believes the manager builds that plan by falsifying the master’s accounts. I’m not sure, based on Goodrich’s work, that such a conclusion is required. I think the strategy of giving everyone a “win” (including the steward) is still a valid observation here. The enslaved person always understands the “system” better than the enslaver and has to be “shrewd” in order to survive. In the end, the enslaver recognizes this cleverness, I think, and decides not to beat the hell out of the enslaved manager.
In this analysis, Udoh notes, the steward doesn’t become “just” by the end of the story. He receives the enslaver’s praise at the precise moment, in Luke 16:8a, when he is described as the “unjust manager.” He has continued to shrewdly pursue his own interests, which for the moment may coincide with those of the enslaver and the debtors. “Why does the parabolic Lord praise the unfaithful manager?” Udoh asks. “Perhaps, so that the Lord can urge the ‘children of light’ similarly to be prudent ‘in their generation…” (page 335).
But don’t lose sight of the nature of that “prudence.” I quote some of Udoh’s concluding sentences. “If the Lord’s (sic) praise means that, in spite of the expectations and anxieties of the propertied classes, Justice is on the manager’s side, then Luke has told a subversive tale. Subversive because this would be the only text in the NT that commends, even if incidentally, such servile behavior as would threaten the stability of the system of slavery itself…” (page 335).
We may find ourselves captive to unjust systems and structures. How can we work as Jesus followers to subvert those systems and do some good for the oppressed? That’s a subtle question, but I think it works with this text.
Resources and References
Dinkler, Michal Beth. ““The Thoughts of Many Hearts Shall Be Revealed”: Listening in on Lukan Interior Monologues.” Journal of Biblical Literature 134, no. 2 (2015): 373-399.
Glancy, Jennifer A. Slavery in Early Christianity. Kindle Edition.
Goodrich, John K. “Voluntary Debt Remission and the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1—13).” Journal of Biblical Literature 131, no. 3 (2012): 547–66. https://doi.org/10.2307/23488254.
Levine, Amy Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
Sellew, Philip. “Interior Monologue as a Narrative Device in the Parables of Luke.” Journal of Biblical Literature 111, no. 2 (1992): 239–53. https://doi.org/10.2307/3267542.
Sherouse, Alan. “The One Percent and the Gospel of Luke.” Review and Expositor 110 (Spring 2013): 285-293.
Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. The Pilgrim Press, 2006.
Udoh, Fabian E. “The Tale of an Unrighteous Slave (Luke 16:1-8 ).” Journal of Biblical Literature 128, no. 2 (2009): 311–35. https://doi.org/10.2307/25610185.