- Voluntary Debt Remission and the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1–13)
The parable of the unjust steward is widely considered the most puzzling of Jesus’ teachings. Although a seemingly endless string of interpretations continues to appear in print, no single reading has convinced the current scholarly majority.1 To be sure, a number of studies in recent decades have offered new and important interpretive insights into the parable, and as a result the number of issues remaining in dispute appears to be on the decline.2 But, despite these general agreements, [End Page 547] the climax of the story remains highly contested among interpreters; Luke 16:8 is even considered by some to be “perhaps the most difficult verse in the entire Gospel.”3 In this article I will not attempt to resolve definitively every debated part of the parable. I will focus, however, on its trickiest feature and that which is in most need of resolution, that is, how the steward can be commended in v. 8 for reducing the debts owed to his master.
I. Survey of Existing Explanations
There exists no shortage of alleged solutions to this interpretive crux. Still, one is hard-pressed to find even a single approach that is without significant drawbacks. Some interpreters, for instance, suggest that the steward genuinely earned his master’s favor by subtracting from the charges either unlawful penalties or his own commission.4 As many critics have observed, however, the parable itself states that the entire sum was owed to the master (v. 5). Beyond that, John S. Kloppenborg has shown that Jewish landowners were not embarrassed to assign unlawful interest rates in their leasing contracts, and the percentages subtracted by the steward do not correlate with those normally added as commission.5 Additionally, these explanations [End Page 548] assume familiarity with legal customs that neither Jesus’ nor Luke’s audience probably observed.6
Other interpreters propose that the steward’s actions were fraudulent but were nonetheless worthy of commendation on account of his acquisition of public admiration for the master, who received honor for appearing to concede to such generous benefactions.7 The chief assumption of this view is that the steward’s shaming of the master through the squandering of his property was the steward’s primary offense. This supposition, however, is also the approach’s main weakness, since proponents must assume a sociological dynamic which, though presumed in a first-century context, only appears explicitly in the parable with reference to the steward (αἰσχύνω, v. 3; ἐπαινέω, v. 8). Additionally, not only does the steward’s offense plainly concern the loss of possessions (τὰ ὑπάρχοντα, v. 1) rather than just honor, but extrabiblical literature demonstrates that a master’s praise and approval normally accompanied loyal servitude that brought about economic benefit.8 Thus, while there might be some validity to this position, it cannot entirely explain the master’s praise. [End Page 549]
Still other interpreters posit that, while the steward’s actions were unrighteous in the eyes of both the master and Jesus, he received praise only for his ingenious attempt to find a new home.9 However, the passage in no way distinguishes between the steward’s foresight and the ethical nature of the actions performed in vv. 6–7. Indeed, the reductions themselves are the actions that the master considered to be prudent (φρονίµως ἐποίησεν),10 an attribute coupled in the earlier steward parable with the quintessential servile trait of faithfulness (ὁ πιστὸς οἰϰονόµος ὁ φρόνιµος, 12:42). Furthermore, if the steward’s actions were indeed fraudulent, then it is unlikely that he would have successfully found a home or future employment with the master’s debtors, since they would have every reason to fear that the steward would commit similar crimes against them.11
In an attempt to circumvent the shortcomings of the previous position, some interpreters suggest that ὁ ϰύριος in v. 8 refers not to the parabolic master but to the Lord Jesus, who commended the steward for his generosity and foresight.12 But aside from the fact that the use of direct speech in v. 9 (ϰαὶ ἐγὼ ὑµῖν λέγω) makes it improbable that ὁ ϰύριος in the preceding verse is to be identified strictly as Jesus, this interpretation portrays Jesus...