Research Paper: Luke 16:1-8 Is Known as the Parable

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Luke 16:1-8 is known as the parable of the unjust steward. It has been described as an "eschatological warning to sinners," (Bailey 86). Landry claims that the Unjust Steward is "the most difficult of the parables" because it raises a lot of ethical problems and invites ethical inquiry into potentially ambiguous areas. The hero of the parable has been called a "pragmatic schemer," (Donahue 13). Jesus relates the story of the rich man who suspects that his property manager, the steward, has been mismanaging the estate. The rich man particularly accuses his steward of "wasting his possessions," (Luke 16:1). It is uncertain precisely what he means by this, but it can be inferred that the manager is potentially committing fraud or embezzlement or doing what would be the ancient version of charging things to the company card: "much as a modern executive with a budget at his/her discretion might illicitly spend some of these funds on personal items," (Landry). The steward becomes determined to devise a scheme whereby he can avoid being fired. He cleverly negotiates a debt reduction plan, and surprisingly, the rich man is impressed. The rich man comments that the manager did good, using his social networking skills to maintain trust and ensure the repayment of debt. Moreover, the rich man recognizes that money can facilitate social relations, "so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings," (Luke 16:8). The story provides a Biblical view of wealth and an ethic related to business and financial transactions.

The prevailing socio-cultural context of the parable offers clues for its interpretation. Luke 16:1-8 has proved problematic and perceived of as "insolvable" mainly because modern social, legal, and economic customs are projected onto the past (Bailey 86). Anachronistic interpretations do not work. First it is critical to comprehend the purpose for the parable and its audience. Jesus is speaking directly to the disciples here and not to a crowd (Bailey). The underlying and overt messages of the parable need to be understood in light of its primary audience, which reveals the intent of the author and of Jesus.

Bailey points out that there are contextual questions that need to be posed before engaging the text critically. Those questions include the master's ethical role; was he in collusion with the steward and thereby fostering an atmosphere or corruption in the community? What were the customs regarding debt and debt reduction in Israel at this time? Was the steward getting (or taking) a massive "cut" of the rent, and in order to save his job, became willing to reduce or eliminate that cut? (Bailey 86). What is the master's role in the community? What is the steward's role and status? Does the master have an official "business" whereby he is a creditor, or is he one of the dreaded "moneylenders"? These questions can elucidate the socio-political and ethical context from which to better understand the parable of the "unjust steward."

The fact that historians and biblical scholars have referred to the parable as that of the "unjust steward" reveals the core bias. The steward performed debt reduction; why is debt reduction considered "unjust"? If he were unjust, then why would the master congratulate him on his cleverness? It can safely be assumed, as Bailey claims, that the master is a morally righteous man because his role in the story perfectly parallels the role of the master/landowner/rich man in the parable of Lazarus, and the parable of the Prodigal Son.

Moreover, it can be assumed that the master had no prior notion of the steward's intentions. No indication of prior knowledge is indicated and in fact, the master at the beginning of the parable seems angry and ready to fire the manager unless he can help balance the books. It can, however, be assumed that the land steward is entitled to take a "cut." This interpretation does explain why the steward was able to negotiate with the farmers and also why the master was not upset. After all, the master might have minded if the steward cancelled debts altogether. That would have certainly made the master mad, because it would have defeated the purpose of his scolding in the first place. As it was, the master was simply trying to get the steward to be more honest with his land management practices. Taking a small cut is considered part of the job, and part of the arrangement the steward has with the farmers. "The steward is not depriving his master of his own property," and is depriving himself of the cut in order to do right by both master and peasant (Landry). Viewed in this light, the steward is hardly an unjust man; quite the contrary.

The master is clearly viewing the steward as being from a different social class, one more akin to the farmers than to the rich landowners. As the master states, "For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light," (Luke 16:8). This statement may be one of the most mysterious in the entire passage. The master here suggests that he, the master, belongs to a category of "people of the light," which can be implied to mean righteous people. By making this statement to the steward, the master is essentially stereotyping all working and laboring classes as being a "kind" that is naturally deceitful and in need of instruction.

The steward is offered a certain degree of responsibility in the relationship he has with the master. The master hires the steward to ensure that the land is being tended to properly; the steward relieves the landowner of the burden of land management including human resources management. As Johnson puts it, the steward "had control" over the property and was thereby entrusted with the responsibility of maintaining the property and any accounts associated with the property. The issues of professional and ethical responsibility also come into play vis-a-vis the responsibility the landowner has to both the steward and to the peasant serfs. At the beginning of the parable, the landowner admits that all he heard were rumors and was willing to give the steward the benefit of the doubt: "What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management," (Luke 16:2). The landowner could have fired the steward on the spot but did not, because he trusts him.

Jesus might be making a case for debt reduction, which could be viewed as a matter of social justice and business ethics. After all, the steward could have been extorting as much as 100% of what they owe the landlord given that each of the farmers' debts is cut by half. Threatened with the loss of his livelihood, the steward learns to be satisfied with whatever wages or salaries the rich man provides. He opts out of the cut, which empowers the workers and reduces their poverty considerably. The landowner knows that the steward made the right choice, which is the ethically correct choice given the income disparity implied by the passage. The socio-economic landscape of the region was complex, revealing stratifications that are similar to an upper, middle, and lower class. Debt reduction improves the lot of the poor, and does not harm either the wealthy or the middle class. Furthermore, the reference Jesus makes to people of the "light" suggests that the wealthy have a spiritual and moral responsibility to do the right thing with regard to managing their employees. The right thing includes giving the manager/steward and chance, and seeing to it that funds are dispersed in a manner according with custom and law.

One of the more complicated aspects of the parable is the landowner's peculiar conclusion. Landry points out that the conclusion might not even be tied… [END OF PREVIEW]

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