BIBLE READING: Luke 16: 1-13

This parable has many problems. Was the steward called dishonest because of the conduct which earned his dismissal or because of the transactions described in the parable? Is the lord (kyrios) who commended the steward the master who employed him (so R.S.V.) or Jesus? (i.e. is v.8a part of the parable or a comment on it?). If the verse is regarded as part of the parable, why did the master commend an action by which he himself lost a great deal of money? And what is the relation between the parable and the sayings which are connected to it? The choice appears to lie between two types of solution.

If we say that the transactions described in the parable were dishonest, we can hardly believe that they were praised by the landlord, the victim of the fraud. The kyrios in v.8 then must be Jesus, who commended the steward not for his dishonesty but for his realism and determination in dealing with a sudden emergency. In that case the parable is a warning from Jesus to his disciples to take determined and immediate action in the face of impending disaster.

It is the story of an engaging rascal who, faced with dismissal for incompetence, and being too soft for manual labour and too proud to live on charity, made provision for the future by a systematic falsification of his accounts, which put each of his master's debtors under a lasting obligation to himself. Two examples of his transactions are given, and the large amounts involved show that the debtors were not tenants who had agreed to pay their rents in kind, but merchants who had bought the produce of the estate on the strength of a promissory note. The point is that crooks like these - the sons of this world - cope with an emergency in their affairs with a far-sighted realism and a resourceful acumen which religious folk - the sons of light - would do well to copy in their spiritual calling.

Alternatively, the steward is called dishonest because of his previous mismanagement of the estate, that there was nothing dishonest about his negotiations with his master's debtors, and that it was the landlord who commended him for the ingenuity with which he extricated himself from his predicament. This solution depends on the intricacies of the Jewish law of usury (taking loans at interest). The Law of Moses forbade the taking of interest from Jews on loans of any kind (Exod. 22:25, Lev. 25:36, Deut. 23:19-20).

The Pharisees, who had large financial and commercial concerns, had found ways of evading the intention of the Law without transgressing its letter. They argued that the purpose of the Law was to protect the destitute from exploitation, not to prevent the lending of money for the mutual profit of lender and borrower. There were some situations in which a loan could be regarded as a business partnership and interest as a fair sharing of the profits of a joint enterprise. They had, therefore, laid down the rule that, if a man already possessed some of the commodity he wished to borrow, he was not destitute, and the taking of profit by his creditor was not usurious. However poor a man might be, he was likely to have a little wheat left in his bin and a little oil for his lamp. These were therefore the two commodities most commonly chosen for the working of this particular form of legal fiction. The two debtors mentioned in the parable had received large loans from the steward out of his master's estate. It matters not how their debts were incurred nor what form the loan took. What matters is that, for legal purposes, the loans were expressed in terms of wheat and oil, and were therefore free (by the law of man, though not by the law of God) from the taint of usury. There were no witnesses to the contract and as security the steward held simply a note in which the debtor, without mentioning interest, undertook to pay to the estate a lump sum (Principal + interest). After the steward had received notice of dismissal, but before he had surrendered his position by the final presentation of his accounts, he remained his master's agent, legally authorised to act in his master's name. What he did was to return to his master's debtors their promissory notes and to require them to write new ones, undertaking to repay the principal of their loans without interest. His action was legal, because he was still an accredited agent; it was also righteous, because, perhaps for the first time in his business career, he had done what the law of God required. In the absence of either witnesses or written evidence the landlord was in no position to challenge his agent's action. Instead of complaining about his financial loss, he seized the opportunity presented to him, confirmed his steward's transactions, and so acquired an entirely undeserved reputation for his pious observance of the Law against usury. He was, in fact, no less a son of this world than his steward, and, like many another rich man whose wealth has been amassed without too many scruples about business ethics, he was ready to make spiritual capital by a generous gesture, especially when no other course was open to him.

When we interpret the parable like this, it is an attack on the methods of scriptural interpretation by which the Pharisees managed to keep their religious principles from interfering with business, and an appeal for a whole-hearted service of God. If worldly men like the steward and the landlord can recognise in a crisis that their best interests will be served by keeping the good opinion of their neighbours, religious people ought to be equally astute in keeping the good opinion of God.

The collected sayings that follow provide a set of variations on the theme of the parable. If a dishonest man can use another's money to make friends so that there will be people to receive him into their houses when he is out of a job, how much more can honest people use their own money to make friends so that God will welcome them into the heavenly mansions. All the opportunities of this world are tests of character, and by their behaviour in small matters a person shows whether or not they are fit for larger responsibility. In particular, worldly wealth is given to us on trust; it does not belong to us, but by our use of it we can show whether or not we are fit to be entrusted with real wealth, the wealth of the heavenly kingdom.

In two of these three sayings wealth money - is called 'unrighteous mammon'. Jesus is not, of course, telling his friends how to dispose of immoral profits, but warning them that where there is money there is menace. These sayings describe how money can be redeemed from its normally sinister character only if it is used as a means of promoting friendship; to invest money in caring for others is to exchange it for the currency of heaven. The reason why mammon is 'unrighteous' is given in the fourth saying: it is the great rival of God for our devotion and service. All of us must choose between the road of self-serving that leads to the worship of money and the road of self-sacrifice that leads to the worship of God.