If you have the time and energy to read Goodrich’s article, I’d encourage you to do so. I will summarize and comment on his work here. Goodrich notes that our parable “is widely considered the most puzzling of Jesus’ teachings.” There is no scholarly consensus on how to interpret the story or the application which follows it. Goodrich chooses to focus on Luke 16:8, “how the steward can be commended…for reducing the debts owed to his master” (page 548).
Goodrich first reviews the existing explanations for what’s happening in the text. It’s good to briefly list those here. We will see that we’ve visited a few of them in previous posts. One option is that the steward got the master’s approval by somehow forgoing either his normal commission or the amounts he was in the process of stealing. But the parable states that all the debt was owed to the master, not just a portion. In addition, the numbers don’t make sense in terms of known first-century management practices or legal customs.
A second option is the one suggested, for example, by Malina and Rohrbaugh. This option proposes “that the steward’s actions were fraudulent but were nonetheless worthy of commendation on account of his acquisition of public admiration for the master, who received honor for appearing to concede to such generous benefactions” (page 549). This position goes some way to explaining the situation. However, when it comes to property management, talk is cheap. Honor doesn’t buy luxury goods. This perspective still assumes the steward is a swindler.
A third option is that both the master and Jesus commend the steward for developing an ingenious escape plan. But it is the reduced debts themselves that the master finds prudent and praiseworthy. “Furthermore, if the steward’s actions are indeed fraudulent,” Goodrich writes, “then it is unlikely that he would have successfully found a home or future employment with the master’s debtors, since they would have every reason to fear that the steward would commit similar crimes against them” (page 550).
That last point is fairly weak. Malina and Rohrbaugh note that the steward acts with haste. This haste may be the way the steward gets his welcome guaranteed before the word gets out. Nonetheless, the plan is not the reason the steward is called “shrewd.” It’s the debt reduction itself.
Still other options propose that the parable is a negative example. Or the parable is a description of the end of the age rather than one of life in the current age. Punting the parable into a new epoch solves the problems too neatly, however. The bite of the parable and others like it is that it makes sense in terms of daily life, but there’s a rhetorical twist that gets us in the end.
All of these options assume that the steward is screwing the master financially in some way. “But,” Goodrich argues, “these assumptions rest on a limited understanding of the purpose and function of debt remission in the ancient economy” (page 552). Based on texts of the time, Goodrich seeks to demonstrate “that the instability of land tenancy during the early imperial period quite often required wealthy proprietors to reduce debts (rents and arears) in order to enable and encourage their repayment, as well as to secure the longevity of their tenants and their own profitability” (page 553).
Renegotiating and writing down the debts of tenants wasn’t sharp under the table dealing. Such actions were part of the steward’s regular job, Goodrich argues. “Debt remission in antiquity, then, was advantageous both to landlords and tenants,” he writes, “an insight that has significant implications for the interpretation of our parable” (page 553).
Modern property owners and tenants will get this immediately, I think. Commercial property owners will often forgo the first year’s rent on a property in order to get it occupied long-term. Banks re-negotiate the terms of loans in order to get continued payments rather than having to deal with a default. Farm and business loans are re-drawn in light of the past year’s performance. This is what loan managers do. They manage the overall debt portfolio to produce both short-term returns and long-term sustainability.
It’s not the least bit mysterious. In this light, the steward is unjust because he hasn’t been doing his job, not because he cheats the owner in the end. Somehow, he’s been using his position to benefit himself at the expense both of the owner and of the tenants. That’s the behavior which has to change.
Goodrich examines ancient texts that deal with tenant farming arrangements in order to make his case. He reminds me that some time I want to read Columella’s first century farm management manual (as well as more of the letters of Pliny the Younger), but that’s for another time. These texts indicate that rent remission was a common management practice in the first century imperial system. Rent remission “proved to be not only a sensible course of action to secure consistent and long-term profitability, but also a prudent strategy for obtaining debt repayment” (page 555).
Confiscating assets from tenants would satisfy the short-term debt but would make the tenants incapable of producing future crops. Finding new and reliable tenants was a risky proposition for landowners. “Thus, remitting part or all of a tenant’s rent remained the wisest course of action for proprietors who wished to keep their farms occupied and cultivated” (page 558). In addition, debt remissions made the current tenants even more beholden to the landowner. And the reputational benefits to the landowner were the icing on the economic cake (not the chief reason for debt remission, as Malina and Rohrbaugh would argue).
Could stewards exercise such debt-reducing power as part of their management portfolio? The documentary evidence tells us that such was the case, for example, in Roman Egypt in the first century. “It was,” Goodrich writes, “well within the power of a steward to write and adjust leasing contracts, as shown in those extant rental applications addressed not to landlords but to their stewards” (page 562). These days, for example, most renter complaints are directed not to the owner, but to the manager, and are rectified (if they are) by the manager.
Documents exist showing that stewards reduced debts, just as we see in the parable. Debt remission gave the landowners increased leverage with their tenants, obliging them to pay the debts still outstanding. There was also increased pressure to make timely future payments. The existing debt virtually guaranteed that the renters would have to renew their leases. The result was stable tenancy and consistent income. As I think about it, another result might be sharecropper slavery. That requires more thought, but not now.
With this context in mind, Goodrich suggests, we can come to a plausible reason why the master praises the unjust steward. The steward has developed a bad reputation. The steward has not kept adequate records to refute that gossip. The injustice of his actions refers to the squandering, not the debt remission. The differing amounts of remission were likely based on the renter’s ability to repay. The remissions were partial, so the landowner would get some income from the land that year. Goodrich argues that the reductions were permitted and above board. This is what stewards did. The fact that the steward could squander the master’s wealth and was expected to keep records his work demonstrates that management of that wealth was the norm.
The steward makes generous adjustments and expects to be rewarded. That’s obvious. And the steward is praised by both the landowner and Jesus for such shrewd management. “But it would be wholly inconsistent with the character of the master,” Goodrich argues, “for him to penalize the steward for mismanagement (vv. 1-2) yet praise him for slashing profits (v. 8), that is, unless the reductions show the steward somehow to be faithfully supporting the master’s interests (vv. 10-12)” (page 565).
The master praises the steward because everybody wins.
This interpretation makes it much easier, Goodrich notes, to connect the parable to the interpretation in vv. 9b-13. “If this interpretation is correct,” he writes, “and it is concluded that the steward acted wisely, honestly, and faithfully at the climax of the parable, then he becomes precisely the kind of disciple Jesus is describing in vv. 10-13” (page 566). The steward is faithful with unrighteous mammon and with what belongs to another. He illustrates service that is faithful toward God as opposed to what which is directed toward money (mammon). The steward “who had previously squandered his master’s resources eventually proves faithful by reducing debts and thus creates greater allegiance between the landlord and his tenants” (page 566).
I have loads of privilege. How will I use that privilege? Will I use it only to benefit me and people like me? Or will I use it in such a way that everybody wins? The first option is “diabolical,” according to the text. The second option is “commendable.” The potential for applications abounds.
A question gnaws at me, of course. Where is the good news in this text? More on that next time.
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.
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.