A textual analysis of the parable
Who was the audience of parable? The immediate audience of the parable is given in 15:1 and numbered the tax collectors, “sinners”, Pharisees and the disciples. The teaching is framed by the muttering of the Pharisees that Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them” (15:2). That the Pharisees were still listening throughout the piece is attested by 16:14 “the Pharisees heard all this and were sneering at Jesus”. Time does not permit here to discuss who were the “sinners”, but it is likely that Luke was using is as a technical term to denote all those who for whatever reason, such as poverty, disease / disability (uncleanness), ethnicity or divorce (as far as women were concerned) were unable to participate in the regular Temple sacrifice system, and therefore remained “in their sins” and to be shunned by respectable people.
What type of person is the “shrewd manager”? Coming to the detail of the parable we should look closely at a few details. We will come back to the rich man, who is absent for the major part of the story and concentrate firstly the shrewd manager. He is a retainer of the household of a rich absentee landlord. He was no house slave, as he could be dismissed from his post. As a member of the household he would have lived well. He would have his own rooms. He would enjoy regular meals. He would be paid well and might also have his own under-servants. As a steward or estate manager he would enter into binding contracts in his absent Master’s name. Under local laws he could not be sued for his any losses arising from his decisions, but he could be dismissed or shamed. It was typical that a steward would take a cut for himself alongside any transaction that he entered into for his lord, as a form of kickback to cement preferential business relationships. It is important to note that these bribes would not be entered onto the main books of account. The reductions we see later in the story cannot work simply as the steward foregoing his collateral deals, as the master notes both the original and reduced sums in the books at the end of the story.
His role gave him a precarious, but privileged position within the noble household. If he lost the position he would also lose his accommodation and sustenance and also his livelihood. Unskilled work such as digging was all that might await him. He knew that, as a sedentary worker, well used to enjoying regular meals and good comforts he would adapt poorly to the life of irregular meals, back breaking labour and long periods of hunger. The spiral towards sickness and then begging would be inexorable and, like Lazarus and thousands of others he would die, most likely from malnutrition and its complications. The prospect of his dismissal from the position of household steward was a death sentence. Within the narrative he would have known that and in the telling of the story Jesus’ audience would have known only too well.
In the next post we continue the textual analysis with a look at the debtors and their debts…