Honor Restored: New Light on the Parable of the Prudent Steward (Luke 16:1-8a)

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Bell & Howell Informnation and Learning: Foreign text omitted ....

Almost every article or book section devoted to the so-called parable of the Unjust Steward begins by noting that it is the most difficult of the parables. A whole series of seemingly intractable problems is involved in its interpretation. When the master accuses his steward of "squandering" his property, what does he mean? And is this accusation fair or unfair? When the steward responds by forgiving a portion of the amount owed by his master's debtors, is he acting righteously or committing fraud? Who is the ... of Luke 16:8a? Is he the "master" of the parable or Jesus himself? Why does the ... "commend" the steward for an apparent act of fraud? Where does the parable end? The following essay reviews the answers scholars have given to these questions and proposes a relatively novel interpretation, based on a combination of literary and sociological criticism. Its thesis is that the steward's job is threatened because he has dishonored his master by squandering his property, and he attempts to restore his master's honor (and preserve for himself the prospect of future employment as a steward) by forgiving the debts and making his master appear to be generous and charitable. The master sees that the steward has acted loyally toward him (while at the same time the steward has advanced his own selfinterest) and he commends the once "unjust" steward for his ingenious plan.

I. Common Interpretations

This parable has spawned a wide variety of interpretations, although none has produced anything resembling a scholarly consensus. While it would not be wise to provide a comprehensive review of the literature here, we will go over the most popular and the most recent solutions to the puzzle of the Unjust Steward.1

The Limits of the Parable

Two issues that are central to every interpretation of the parable, although not finally determinative, are where the parable itself ends and whether one should even attempt to make sense of the one or more "interpretations" of the parable appended to it in the following verses. There is agreement that the story proceeds at least through 16:7, and that the interpretation of the parable (by either the character Jesus or the narrator) begins at the latest in 16:8b. The debate concerns whether to include 16:8a as part of the parable or part of its interpretation. Some scholars believe that the parable ends at 16:7, and that the ... who commends the unjust steward in 16:8a is not the "master" of the story but Jesus. If it is the narrator's voice and not Jesus' that we hear in 16:8a, then 16:7 must mark the end of the story proper and 16:8a the beginning of its interpretation. Critics of this position argue that the only reason for claiming that the ... of 16:8a is Jesus is an inability to understand why the "master" of the parable would "commend" a steward who seems to have just defrauded him.2 If they can explain this phenomenon (either by showing that the steward did not actually defraud his master or by explaining why the master might commend someone who has stolen from him), then there is no reason to think that the parable ends at 16:7. Moreover, it is unlikely that the referent of ... would change from the master to Jesus without some clear indication of this in the text. As Bernard Brandon Scott points out, elsewhere in the Gospel Luke is careful to give clear signals that a change of speaker has occurred. Finally, many scholars have pointed out that if the parable ends at 16:7, there is no satisfactory conclusion to the story.

These are among the few issues relating to this parable on which there is something resembling a consensus. A majority of scholars agree that the parable ends with 16:8a rather than 16:7.3 Moreover, most scholars seem to agree that the interpretations) that follow the parable in 16:8b-13 are either only tangentially related to the parable or they represent misinterpretations of a parable told by Jesus by the author of the Gospel. …