Some scholars say that the parable of the Unjust Steward, told in Luke 16:1-13, is one of the most difficult passages in all of Scripture to interpret. In this parable, Jesus tells a scandalous story where a steward lowers the debts of his master's creditors for the selfish reason of being welcomed into their houses when he is fired.
How could the God who spoke "Thou shalt not steal" commend this unjust steward of robbing his master?
There are several things we need to note to start to make sense of this parable:
- This parable begins in Luke 16:1 by saying "Jesus said also". It is a continuation of the last set of parables in chapter 15. Jesus just finished telling a story of an unrepentant brother who was outwardly righteous, but inwardly covetous and unloving of his brother.
- Although the disciples are explicitly stated as the audience of this parable, the previous set of three parables were addressed to Pharisees (Luke 15:2-3), and the Pharisees are still around when Jesus finishes this parable (Luke 16:14).
- Although the steward was described as unjust, Jesus he did wisely in reducing the debts of his master's creditors.
J. Duncan M. Derrett has an excellent commentary on this difficult passage in his book Law in the New Testament:
Our steward was an agent possessing the most comprehensive authority. He had been inefficient and possibly dishonest in his control over the household, whence his title 'unjust', and his master characteristically upbraided him and dismissed him. The dismissal was to operate from the moment when the steward cleared his accounts, that is, gave an account of the state of the property when he last rendered account, of income and disbursements, and the present totals. This account would take time to prepare, and was essential for the purpose of enabling another man to be taken on as steward. Our steward would leave with as little as he first brought with him, save items which might pass his master's scrutiny. His social equals, other stewards, would not welcome him; those who had dealt with him as steward in the past would either scorn him or rejoice at his fall; and re-employment in a similar capacity would be possible only far enough away for news of his dismissal not to have been heard. That would require capital, and good fortune. His situation and predicament are clear. Good will, on a generous scale, he must try to win.
The Dust of Usury
Luke 16:6 gives us some hints as to why this steward was being called unjust by his master. We are told that the master's debtors owed 3 tons of olive oil and 18 tons of wheat. To my knowledge, we have no reason to believe that people in the ancient middle east found it convenient to borrow and haul semi trucks of wheat around.
There must be something else going on.
To understand this, we investigate some of the laws surrounding loans that the Jews used in Jesus' time. The same God that said, "Thou shalt not steal" also prohibited usury, the collecting of interest.
Exodus 22:25-27 "If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury. If thou at all take thy neighbour's raiment to pledge, thou shalt deliver it unto him by that the sun goeth down: For that is his covering only, it is his raiment for his skin: wherein shall he sleep? and it shall come to pass, when he crieth unto me, that I will hear; for I am gracious."
Leviticus 25:37 "Thou shalt not give him thy money upon usury, nor lend him thy victuals for increase."
Deuteronomy 23:19-20 "Thou shalt not lend upon usury to thy brother; usury of money, usury of victuals, usury of any thing that is lent upon usury: Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury: that the LORD thy God may bless thee in all that thou settest thine hand to in the land whither thou goest to possess it."
Despite these principles, creditors of Jesus' day spent much time trying to find loopholes to still charge interest. J. Duncan M. Derrett writes in his book, Law in the New Testament:
The rabbis applied here their general maxim of erecting a 'barrier round the law', so that the pious Jew might know when he was within the verge of incurring the sin which was unambiguously denounced in the law. [...] Now we inspect the Pharisee's 'barrier'. Their invention was 'dust of usury'.
The theory behind the concept of the 'dust of usury' was that the original biblical prohibitions aimed to prevent exploitation. This seems to have been true, and because the spirit of the law, if not its letter, did not comprehend transactions which were intended to bring joint or mutual commercial advantage, there seemed no harm in evading the law by, for example, fictitious partnerships. [...] If it could be shown that the borrower was under no immediate necessity to borrow the object in question, it seems a loan of such an object in circumstances facilitating the taking of hidden interest was unobjectionable. This at least explains why it was that the strictest Pharisee had accepted by the time of the Talmud, without discussion in our surviving authorities, that a man who 'had a drop of oil' could borrow any amount of oil in circumstances which would otherwise be tainted. It strikes us at once that the same rule would justify morally contracts which were expressed in terms of oil, but in fact were restatements or liquidations of indebtedness which had quite other origins. And it is obvious that every debtor would be likely to have, for example, enough oil to light a lamp, and enough wheat to make a cake: and so oil and wheat were the obvious choices for the pious Jew who wanted to enter into a contract which was not biblically usurious, but would have been within rabbinical usury, 'dust of usury', if the commodity had been one which the debtor did not possess. The Pharisees had thus been scrupulous; their scrupulosity had not emended the court-law; and it had been vitiated by an enormous loophole. The reason that loophole was there is stated indirectly by Luke: they were lovers of money, and piety and good business ought not to be incompatible.
In 2 Kings 4:1-7 we have an example of perhaps the poorest woman in all of scripture. In 2 Kings 4:2, this woman explains that the only thing she has is a pot of oil. According to Derrett, a Jewish creditor could therefore lend this woman an unlimited amount of oil, because this woman had some to begin with and was technically not in immediate necessity to borrow oil.
Apparently, a practice evolved in which a creditor could lend a sum of money to a debtor, and ask for repayment in some other commodity, such as oil or wheat. While no explicit interest would be charged to the debtor, the money-to-commodity exchange rate would be adjusted in the creditor's favor. A modern day example may be the lending of $1000 in exchange for repayment of 100 gallons of gasoline. The price of $10/gallon would include 300% interest to cover inflation, uncertainty in the future cost of gasoline, and usury.
This practice sheds light on why this steward was in the business of lending 3 tons of olive oil and 18 tons of wheat in Luke 16:6.
In ancient times, powerful or wealthy individuals appointed stewards to manage their households. The objective was to free up time so the master could focus on other things. Joseph did such a good job managing Potiphar's household that Potiphar did not have to worry about anything that he had, except for the bread that he ate (Gen 39:6).
According to Derrett, there were three great maxims of the Jewish law of Agency, for which he cites various Talmudic sources (I link to just a few representative samples here) as well as L. M. Simmons' The Talmudic Law of Agency:
- A man's agent is like himself. Stewards were often free men, rather than slaves. However, stewards did not receive any salary or wages for their work, but were treated as part of the family: their payment was enjoying the wealth of the estate just as a son of the master would enjoy it. By enjoying such a close relationship to the master's family, the objective was to have a steward that reflected the personality and character of the master.
- There is no agency in wrong-doing. It is conceivable that a steward could enter into an immoral business transaction, and apply to the first maxim for personal protection. In such a case, the master would be punished for the sins of the steward. To protect against such a scenario, the master could not be accused of wrong-doing if the servant did something immoral (cf. Ezekiel 18:19-20) In like means, a master could not order his servant to perform a transgression on his behalf.
- It is presumed that an agent executes his mission. Provided the instruction is moral and legal, an agent follows through the instruction of the master. It is presumed, from the first maxim, that the converse applies: contracts entered into by the steward are always ratified by the master.
Since a steward received neither salary nor commission, selfish stewards might try to line their pockets with dishonest profits by under-the-table deals. If a steward could charge interest on his master's goods, the steward would be doing something immoral. By the second maxim, the owner had no claim to the goods that came from this immoral transaction, and the steward could pocket the margin.
The Master's Position
When the master started to see semi trucks of grain unload into his warehouses, he probably got suspicious. In Luke 16:2, the master comes to his steward and says, "It has come to my [and everyone else's] attention that you're slandering my name and lining your pockets with my estate. You're fired. Email me your spreadsheets so I can hire someone better."
Derrett writes with support from Horowitz and Maimonides: "The best evidence of debt was a written acknowledgment attested by witnesses. Since even a witness to a usurious transaction came under a rabbinical condemnation, such contracts were often unattested, but it appears that a holograph document signed by the debtor was good and sufficient."
The written contracts in this parable do not state the original price, nor do they state the exchange rate, nor the time of repayment. All of this was done to avoid the dust of usury.
By destroying the old contracts and issuing new contracts, the servant was acting wisely. The conversation between the master and the steward was held in private, and so from the eyes of a lender, the reduction in debt was coming as a direct order from the master, who had a moral obligation to relieve those who were in financial distress. The reduction in debt was a sign of the master's generosity.
In his last hours of employment, the steward attempts to gain favor from debtors, his master, and from God. By receiving new contracts, the debtors locked in a 0% interest rate. The steward also clears himself of any evidence of wrongdoing and resentment from his master, and is able to credit him of a magnanimous act that the owner did not initiate. In doing all of this, he establishes favor and eternal security from his Heavenly Master (Psalms 15:5).
The Pharisee's Reaction
Upon hearing all of this, the Pharisees, who loved money, deride Jesus (Luke 16:14). It is, of course, this class that invented these loopholes, so we know without a doubt that these were the class that exploited them first and most frequently.
The purpose of this parable is not to encourage Christians to rob from their masters. On the contrary! God entrusted Pharisees with financial goods to benefit their fellow man. By inventing loopholes to the Old Testament laws against oppression, the priestly class grew exceedingly wealthy. Of course, to categorize any of this wealth as "increase" would place it under the category of usury, and would need to be tithed. But the Pharisees saw themselves as righteous, and thus were exempt from tithing their colossal incomes, much less using it to benefit the poor and needy.
In Luke 16:9, Jesus begs the Pharisees to use the money they have acquired through immoral means to benefit those who are poor (as we see again in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man). If the Pharisees will not be faithful with earthly possessions, how can they be expected to inherit the kingdom of heaven (Luke 16:11-12)?