What are we to make of this? Often the difficulty in our understanding of Jesus' parables (and scripture generally) is that we forget that they were originally meant for an audience with a very different culture than our own—and differences in the way we look at things can drastically affect how we understand the parable.
We'll step through the parable, but first we have to discuss some facts that I believe will provide us with an interpretive key.
In our society, personal worth is often judged soley by position, wealth and power. This was true in first century Jewish society as well—however they also had another element that is either downplayed or even lost altogether in our culture: the idea of honor.
Certainly, there are some people even in our own modern western society that do things that are so heinous that they become pariahs. However the emphasis on honor and shame in the society of Jesus' time was far more pronounced. One's good name was critical—all of your business and social dealings depended on it. Thus, preserving honor was sometimes even more important than preserving wealth. There is a remnant of this kind of thinking even today among otherwise morally bankrupt billionaires who make a big show of giving away substantial amounts of money in order to be considered 'philanthopists'.
The second key aspect is the concept of agency. In Jesus' society, an agent (like the steward in the parable) was always assumed to be acting on the master's behalf—for good or for ill. An honorable master was expected to be able to control the people in his household. Thus, the servant's bad deeds are directly imputable to his master's honor: either the servant has done them with permission (implying that he condones bad deeds) or he has acted without permission (implying that the master cant control his servant). Either way, it is bad news for the master and his honor in the society. This is a very different way of looking at things than our normal emphasis not on collective honor or shame but in individual guilt.
So now, the parable:
16:1 Then [Jesus] also said to his disciples, 'A rich man had a steward who was reported to him for squandering his property.'
Jesus states that the man is rich, even though having a steward would already imply that. He is emphasizing that the man is very rich, probably an absentee landowner—a type of character that would be familiar to his audience. As for the steward, it is not clear, or even important, what the “squandering” is that is being reported and it probably has nothing to do with the later actions of the steward with regard to the promissory notes. Recall how the younger son “squandered” his father's wealth in last week's parable on immoral living.
Whatever the charges against the steward, they are bad enough that they are already 'making the rounds' and have made it back to the absentee master.
16:2 He summoned him and said, ‘What is this I hear about you? Prepare a full account of your stewardship, because you can no longer be my steward.’
Notice that, though the master asks the steward to “prepare a full acount”, he has already decided to dismiss him. True or not, the accusations have dishonored the master and the only way he can restore a little bit of honor is by 'showing everyone who's boss' by dismissing the steward. Note something else as well—the master could well have been much harsher in his dealings. He could have beaten or imprisoned the steward. Yet he is generous enough to settle for a summary dismissal after all of the accounts have been brought current.
16:3,4 The steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do, now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me? I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do so that, when I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes.’
The steward doesn't argue or protest innocence. He is now caught in an impossible situation. His position is one of trust. When he is fired, he will be known not only as incompetent, but as someone who dishonors his master. Being a steward is all he knows, and no one—not even the tenants that he now manages—would have anything to do with employing him after that. Yet he alights on an idea that can solve the problem of both his and his master's honor.
16:5-7 He called in his master’s debtors one by one. To the first he said, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He replied, ‘One hundred measures of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note. Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.’Then to another he said, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘One hundred kors of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note; write one for eighty.’
Recall that both the good and bad actions of the steward reflect on the master and that the tenants would assume that the steward is acting on his master's behalf. Reducing the rents in such a magnanimous way would be seen as an act of extreme generosity. The tenants would likely assume that the steward came up with the idea and that the master authorized it as a way of righting any misdeeds, thus well restoring an honor lost by the rumors of the steward's misdeeds.
16:8 And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.
By the time the master discovered what the steward had done, the tenants and the people of the town were probably already rejoicing in his great generosity. He could hardly condemn the steward and reverse his actions without bringing great shame on himself. In our translation, the last word is “prudently”, but it would be better translated “shrewdly”--the master recognizes the creativity of the steward's solution and, as he is already very rich, the money is a small price to pay for restoring his good name.
How then does the parable apply to us, and why would Jesus commend it to us for our example?
We, too, have been entrusted with all that we have by God—a master rich beyond measure—who expects us to act as good stewards. Yet from the time of our first parents in the Garden of Eden we have been unjust in our stewardship, squandering God's riches though sin.
As his stewards—and even more as his daughters and sons—we have brought dishonor on God's name. Someday our stewardship will be over and we, too, will have to provide a full account of our stewardship. Jesus asks us, like the dishonest steward in the parable, to recognize our dire situation and act quickly to remedy it by being generous with what we have been given and to, thereby, bring honor and glory to God's name.
In the verse just after Sunday's reading (verse 14), it is revealed that the Pharisees also heard Jesus' parable and are angry because they are covetous. They are convinced that their wealth and success is an entitlement because of their rightousness. They have been 'blessed by God' as a reward and don't see why they should give their well earned blessing to others who are probably being cursed for their sins.
They refuse to see the reality of their role as stewards of God's gifts.
Doesn't this sound suspiciously like the 'prosperity gospel' that is, even now, making its rounds on television and self-help books? So, next time you hear one of these modern false prophets trying to convince you that faith is the sure path to riches, remember Jesus's example here in the parable of the dishonest steward. Remeber that God isn't offering a 'reward' for your faith—he is offering you the opportunity to honor his name with your generosity to the needy with whatever gifts, great or small, that he gives you.