Magazine article The Christian Century

Living by the Word: Shrewd Steward

Magazine article The Christian Century

Living by the Word: Shrewd Steward

Article excerpt

Sunday, September 23

Luke 16:1-13

ONE OF THE strengths of my Anabaptist tradition is that it takes the Bible and biblical authority seriously but also expects believers, particularly younger people, to argue and raise questions about the text. The parable of the shifty steward in Luke 16 was a delight to my friends and me in our coming-of-age years. Any adult defending a "one right answer" approach to biblical interpretation had to be prepared to take on a barrage of questions about this parable from avid teenagers.

The setting of the parable is a wealthy estate. The rich owner, or master, receives a report that the steward has not been doing his job adequately and calls him to immediate account. This demand throws the steward into a tizzy. He does not fall apart, however, but faces up to his limitations honestly. He knows himself pretty well--he's too out of shape to do manual labor and too proud to beg.

He not only knows himself well but also is able to take action. He calls in those he knows to have outstanding debts with the master and reduces the total amount of the debts--some by as much as 50 percent, others by 20 percent. His goal is to create enough gratitude, enough goodwill, enough indebtedness of another kind so that he has a place to land when the master throws him out on his ear.

Thus far in the parable nothing is surprising. The thoughts and the actions of the steward are self-serving, but most of us can empathize with his frantic scrambling to salvage what he can out of the situation. What is surprising is the master's reaction to all this scrambling. We have been led to understand that this master is hard--fair, maybe, but no softie. So we are surprised by his unexpected commendation of the steward and all his sly acts. He is actually pleased.

We can try to understand this inexplicable change of attitude in several ways. Some have speculated that if the debtors were to actually pay the reduced amount of the debt, the master might be pleased that he has gotten some of the money back even if he never receives the full interest on the loans. Others have suggested that if the steward was reducing the debts by the percentage of his own take, then everybody but the steward would have come out even--and supposedly quite happy. Yet the story ends without satisfying our curiosity. We do not know if the master ever received payments on the loans or if the steward, in reducing the loans, was giving up his own percent age. We do not know whether the master kept the steward in his employ or let him go, whether the steward actually had to rely on his plan or whether it worked. The parable has a classic open ending.

The best reading of the parable is one that takes into account its setting in Luke's Gospel. The theme of the preceding chapter had to do with table fellowship and celebrations over those who are "found. …

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