This is not one of Luke’s clearer narratives. As many commentators suggest, the complicating factor is the narrative’s use of comedy. The steward is an anti-hero who achieves his goals through deceit. Similar heroes appear in popular Greek and Roman comedies, suggesting at least some background for this parable. Translating humor is difficult; anyone who has tried to do so quickly realizes how important cultural context is for humor. Since Scripture contains very few humorous narratives, a biblical context that could help interpret this narrative simply does not exist.
‘The children of this world are more prudent than the children of light.’ Lk 16:8
How can you lighten the burdens you have placed on others?
Whose debts can you cancel?
Do you trust the generosity of others as much as the dishonest steward did?
If one focuses purely on the role of possessions, certain insights come through. An important clue comes from the description of the steward’s action—he “squanders” his employer’s property. Luke used the same Greek word, diaskorpízō, to describe the profligate spending of the prodigal son, whose story appears in the passage immediately before this one.
In this Sunday’s Gospel reading, the word takes on a different nuance. The root meaning of the word is “to scatter.” The prodigal son “scattered” his wealth in dissolute living, but the steward scatters his through loans. Loans of cash and tools or the investment of seed at planting would increase the rich man’s property, but it would also enrich the steward, who could add a personal commission to each transaction. The steward overdid it, however, and scattered too much of his employer’s wealth. The rich man, perhaps stricken at the loss of his liquidity, demands to know where all his property has gone and orders a full account.
What happens next is confusing. The steward meets with his employer’s debtors and modifies the terms of their loans. Some commentators speculate that he had overcharged them and was now providing more acceptable terms. Others suggest that he was rewriting the loans without his commission, which, as steward no longer, he would not have been in a position to collect. Still other commentators suggest that he was defrauding his employer outright by lowering the terms and cheating the rich man out of his due. Any of these possibilities could justify Jesus’ characterization of the steward as dishonest.
The moral point lies in the steward’s purpose for lowering the terms. He is corrupt but not a fool. He knows that people appreciate generosity and that they will respond with generosity of their own. Jesus uses this comic anti-hero as evidence for the truth of the Gospel: If even scoundrels recognize the value of generosity and forgiveness, then “children of light” ought to recognize their value all the more.
This is not always the case. The verse that follows this Gospel passage states, “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all these things and sneered at him” (Lk 16:14). In every age, otherwise righteous and pious people tend to forget that the same God who gave them so many gifts also gave instructions to share them. The benefits of generosity are obvious even to a crook like the steward. His brazen acts may have been utterly self-serving, but they can also challenge us to consider whether we have learned the lessons that were so obvious to him.Do you trust the generosity of others as much as the dishonest steward did?