Shrewd Manager Part 2 of 2

(Continued from yesterday)

Do indirectly what they are not permitted to do directly. Lenders hire an agent to do their dirty work, with authority to determine the “interest”. If they are caught, the master disavow any knowledge and shifts the responsibility to the agent. This is no different from governments nowadays denying any knowledge of their agents’ covert operations if they are discovered.

Redefining terms so that “technically” they do not break the Law. To do that loans were given out at a discount, similar to how Treasury bills are transacted today. For example, a bill with a face value of $100 can be issued to a purchaser for $90.90. Upon maturity the issuer pays the buyer the nominal $100. The difference of $9.10 is the imputed interest of 10% on $90.90. Neither the principal nor the interest is explicitly spelled out, just how much has to be repaid upon maturity. Only the lender and borrower knew what the real interest was. Since interest was not mentioned in any document, they reasoned that they had not broken any law. This is similar to people redefining when does life begin, marriage and gender to justify abortion, homosexuality, and gender confusion. They are self-deceived and deceiving others. Both ploys were used in this parable.

Third, the interest rates used. The manager reduced a debt of 100 measures of oil to 50, but 100 measures of wheat to 80. Why? Oil, likely olive oil, was a valuable commodity. The yield and the quality vary from year to year depending on the weather, and risk is high. Unscrupulous borrowers can also mix “extra virgin” olive oil with ordinary olive oil, or even add water which sits at the bottom of the cistern and not easily discovered. To “protect” themselves loan sharks charged a usurious rate of 100%, so 50 principal + 50 interest =100. Wheat is a more common staple. Although borrowers can cheat by putting sand at the bottom of the bushels, it’s harder to conceal, so the rate was commonly 25%, such that 80 principal + 20 interest (25%) = 100. What the manager did, then, was to reduce the respective bills to their principal only, what the debtors actually received from the rich man, waiving the embedded interest altogether, which the master was not supposed to charge in the first place according to the Law. No wonder the debtors were happy and the master could not charge him with fraud since he complied with the Law!

Seen in the light of its historical-cultural context, the unrighteous steward found a way to gain favor with the debtors, while at the same time making right any wrongs his master might have done by charging usurious interest (unless if he is totally unaware of his manager’s dealings). I believe that’s why he was praised for his shrewdness. The Lord is indeed teaching us to use the wealth entrusted to us wisely to further eternal ends, but understood this way I believe it resolves misunderstandings some might have toward this parable. Hope this helps.

Shrewd Manager Part 1 of 2

Q. How can Jesus use the unrighteous steward in Lk 16 as a model for us to follow? He squandered his master’s resources and reduced the repayment required from debtors. How can he be an example?

A. That’s a good question. Some commentators argue that a parable has one main point and we need not dwell on the peripherals of the story. They suggest that Jesus was teaching His disciples to make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness. He was not commending the steward for his dishonesty, but for his shrewdness. The rest of the story does not matter.

I disagree, based on Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the Sower, His basic parable (Mk 4:13). Each element there – the sower, the seeds, the soils, the birds – means something. I am not suggesting that you spiritualize things to force meaning into each and every little detail in all parables, but usually we misinterpret the parables because we do not do enough homework to understand the culture and customs of those times.

Let’s work through the issues. First, the rich man or master. If he represent God, how can he praise his manager? This puzzled many Christians. My opinion is that the master here plays the same role as the unrighteous judge in Lk 18:1-8, as a contrast rather than a comparison to God. There, if the unrighteous judge is willing to give the widow legal protection because of her continual petition, how much more is God willing to answer the prayers of those who kept coming to Him. Here, if the master praises the manager because he acted shrewdly, how much more will God commend the sons of light if we are more shrewd in using wealth to accomplish eternal purposes.

Second, the matter of interest. Israelites were not allowed to charge interest when they lend to fellow Jews, only to foreigners:
Ex 22:25 If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, you are not to act as a creditor to him; you shall not charge him interest.
• Deut 23:19-20 You shall not charge interest to your countrymen: interest on money, food, or anything that may be loaned at interest. You may charge interest to a foreigner, but to your countrymen you shall not charge interest, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all that you undertake in the land which you are about to enter to possess.

However, to circumvent this restriction cunning creditors devised two schemes:

(To be continued)