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Ryan Di CorpoNovember 10, 2023
Photo from Unsplash.

A Reflection for the Memorial of St. Leo the Great, Pope and Doctor of the Church

Find today’s readings here.

In a story unique to the Gospel of Luke, the Parable of the Unjust Steward (also referred to as the Parable of the Shrewd Manager) appears at first glance more an account of a corrupt business transaction than a moral lesson. Jesus describes a servant accused of mishandling his wealthy employer’s possessions. “Prepare a full account of your stewardship,” says the manager, “because you can no longer be my steward.” Anxious to maintain his job, the steward organizes (in modern parlance) clever backroom deals with his employer’s debtors to pay his master some funds owed to him. Pay him fifty measures of oil and eighty measures of wheat, directs the steward, who is then praised by his master for his intelligence.

An interesting anecdote for an undergraduate business course, perhaps, but what is the point here? And then, isn’t it a tad dishonest to be shrewd, a word that connotes a cunning or calculating individual? Even more concerning: Is Jesus approving of the steward’s fraudulent behavior?

This parable and the reasons for its inclusion in the Lukan narrative have long perplexed biblical scholars. Scripture scholar John K. Goodrich writes that this parable lacks critical consensus and is “widely considered the most puzzling of Jesus’s teachings.” Goodrich reveals a vast variety of interpretations: The steward truly sought favor with his master by reducing his debts, the steward’s actions were unlawful but justified by his devotion to his master, the parable itself is an ironic tale used to dissuade the disciples from dishonest behavior, and so on. More so than maybe any other parable, this passage is open to debate.

More so than maybe any other parable, this passage is open to debate.

So where does that leave us in our hope to understand Christ’s point? John S. Kloppenborg, the Canadian theologian, provides some insight here by describing the cultural and economic contexts in which the dishonest steward would have lived. In general, it is inadvisable to explain any parable when divorced from its cultural context—this is necessary data for interpreting what Jesus meant. While it is generally assumed that the steward is guilty of squandering his master’s goods, the Gospel text itself does not directly accuse the steward, rather stating that he was “reported” for unjust actions. The master, apparently responding to the rumor in his community, asks his steward: “What is this I hear about you?”

Kloppenborg wisely frames the central issue here not as one of improper business dealings, but of honor. The master’s honor is at stake because his community, rightly or wrongly, believes he is employing an untrustworthy servant. Kloppenborg further characterizes the master’s milieu as “an honor-shame society,” where public honor was “an intrinsic aspect of status.” This interpretation shifts the focus from the steward, who may or may not be guilty of usury, to the master, whose position in society is now imperiled. The expectation, according to Kloppenborg, would be for the master to immediately cut ties with the steward and salvage his reputation. Instead, the steward is praised, not to demonstrate a Christian approval of less-than-ethical money management, but to depict the mercy of the master.

Our master does not abandon us stewards of creation even when we engage in wrongdoing. Rather, God embraces us as flawed yet devoted servants of his word. Fixating on the improprieties of the steward distracts from the radical mercy of the master, which challenges and subverts both our modern assumptions and the expectations of listeners in Jesus's time.

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