The unfaithful steward.
April 19th, 2002
Received by H.
My dear brother.
When people preach religion, present precepts for living together, or advise what you should do or what you should leave alone, naturally they are confronted on many occasions with practical questions on “real life.” This also happened in the case of Jesus.
One day, when in the course of a sermon the topic of righteousness was addressed, the Master told a parable that today constitutes a big problem for people. This parable is considered the most difficult to understand or interpret in the New Testament, contained in chapter 16 of the Gospel according to Luke.
“Once there was a rich man whose agent was reported to him to be mismanaging his property. So he summoned him and said, ‘What’s this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your stewardship — you’re not fit to manage my household any longer.’”
So far, we do not know whether this accusation is justified or false, but it is clear that the manager really fears for his work.
“At this the agent said to himself, ‘What am I going to do now that my employer is taking away the management from me? I am not strong enough to dig and I can’t sink to begging. Ah, I know what I’ll do so that when I lose my position people will welcome me into their homes!’”
Here it is worthwhile explaining that the owners of the large landed properties did not live on their estates in the country, but in the big cities, often even outside Palestine. From time to time, they visited their large landed estates in order to check how they were run.
In the Palestinian countryside, an awful poverty reigned. Many deprived people leased land parcels to cultivate them, but instead of getting out of their poverty, their debts increased steadily, and in extreme cases, as a last recourse, they sold themselves as slaves to their landowners for an agreed upon period of time. In other cases, their debts were transferred to their children, and they had to work the lands of the rich people, without a hope of ever being able to overcome their dependence.
“So he sent for each one of his master’s debtors. ‘How much do you owe my master?’ he said to the first.
‘A hundred barrels of oil,’ he replied. ‘Here,’ replied the agent, ‘take your bill, sit down, hurry up and write in fifty.’
Then he said to another, ‘And what’s the size of your debt?’ ‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied. ‘Take your bill,’ said the agent, ‘and write in eight hundred.’”
And here, let us take a look at what is happening in that instant: Two debtors, who have no possibility of paying their debts in money, had agreed upon paying the value in kind. That was something very common in that time. But let us investigate the amount of debt:
The first one said: “A hundred barrels of oil,” olive oil, of course. And of course, he did not say barrels, but “bath,” a Hebrew measure corresponding to more or less 40 liters, or 10 gallons, each. Therefore, the poor man owed his landowner the quantity of 1000 gallons of olive oil, corresponding to the annual crop of between 100 and 200 mature trees. An enormous quantity!
The second man said: “A thousand bushels of wheat.” He used the word “a hundred kor,” indicating a measure of between 6 and 7 bushel or 220 litres, each. Therefore, he owed 22,000 litres or 650 bushels of wheat, perhaps ten metric tons, or in that time, the annual crop of between 10 and 15 hectares. He certainly could not even consider owning a parcel of such dimensions for cultivating.
In both cases, the weight of the debt squashed the poor peasant.
But why does the manager reduce the debt from 100 to 50 barrels of oil and from 100 to 80 kor of wheat?
And now comes the key point of the story. The Mosaic Law prohibited Jews to charge interest for their loans, at least in those cases where the loan-taker was also a Jew. That law is very clearly established in the Old Testament, and for that reason it was also prohibited for Christians, in the Middle Ages, to charge interest.
But in reality, nobody cared about this law, and everybody charged an interest rate even above the effective norm in the Roman Empire, that is to say, an interest rate of above 20%.
For wheat, because of its more stable price, the amount of interest was fixed at 25%. For olive oil, with a price that fluctuated widely, they used to charge an interest of up to 100%, fatal for an agrarian society, where the maximum interest should not go beyond 5%. And those amounts are exactly what the administrator reduced.
The peasants and merchants, who listened to Jesus’ speech, understood very well what he was speaking of.
And Jesus continued:
“Now the master praised this rascally agent because he had been so careful for his own future. For the children of this world are considerably more shrewd in dealing with their contemporaries than the children of light.”
This is a seemingly enigmatic sentence. It is commonly not understood by people. How can the owner praise an unjust steward, one who even caused him damage? Well, because in fact he did not cause him damage, but rather simply reduced the amount of usury prohibited by the law. Therefore, he made friends with the poor people, with whom he would have to live together with in the future, and his master could not sue him. Such cunning caused the landowner’s admiration.
Here it is worthwhile to indicate another detail: The Greek text does not speak literally of an unjust steward, but of “oikonomoV thV adikiaV,” that is, of the “administrator of unrighteousness.” And this would be a much more appropriate translation, although the traditional translation of the text is also formally correct.
Now, who are the children of light? It is the denomination which the Essenes had given themselves. They lived, generally, in closed and isolated communities, without much contact with their neighbors, without sharing their spirituality, without benefiting others, and without being able to expect anything in turn from their neighbors.
“Now my advice to you is to use ‘money’, tainted as it is, to make yourselves friends, so that when it comes to an end, they may welcome you into the homes of eternity.”
This sentence is also very controversial. What does he mean with it? Exactly what the administrator had done: To reduce debts, to alleviate the life of the poor. Not to charge in excess, and if they have done it, to return the money charged in excess. This is a quite modern admonition, don’t you think? Jesus did not speak of “homes,” but of huts, the miserable huts, where the poor lived. Because wealth does not last forever, and when this happens, the poor will welcome them in their homes, which do last. Because, as you know well, the adjective which is commonly translated as “eternal,” which in fact means “durable,” “which persists for an epoch.”
In later times, some church officials judged the Master’s words to be inappropriate and they tried to change them. There are still manuscripts where we can see that the verb had been manipulated in this passage, so that it would say: “so that when you come to your end, they may welcome you into the homes of eternity,” shifting the social criticism (which could have been used against the feudal church) to the afterlife.
And Jesus said:
“The man who is faithful in the little things will be faithful in the big things, and the man who cheats in the little things will cheat in the big things too. So that if you are not fit to be trusted to deal with the wicked wealth of this world, who will trust you with the true riches? And if you are not trustworthy with someone elseÂ’s property, who will give you property of your own? No servant can serve two masters. He is bound to hate one and love the other, or give his loyalty to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and the power of money at the same time.”
This needs no comment.
So you see, my dear brother, is not so difficult to interpret this parable. It teaches us not to take advantage of our neighbors, to charge what is just, to return unjustly earned money, and simply to live a righteous life in harmony with God’s Laws.
The problem with the interpretation of this parable arises when one wants to force a highly religious meaning that it simply does not have. It is pure social criticism. The allusion of the parable is not to God, etc. And people in that time understood it exactly as I have explained it to you.
Perhaps you have wondered why the Padgett messages do not dedicate one single word to this parable: it is because it has nothing to do with Jesus’ central teaching, Divine Love and soul transformation. It is not a parable of the category of “the leaven in the batch of dough,” or the “mustard seed,” etc. It is a teaching about living together, or “natural love,” if you want to put it this way.
We have come to the end of our exposition. It is time to say good-bye.
I hope this message may serve to clarify a difficult passage in the Bible. In the same chapter of Luke, there is another example of Jesus’ social criticism. But of that, we will speak on another occasion.
God bless you,
Your brother in the spirit,
© Copyright is asserted in this message by Geoff Cutler 2013