Who were the debtors and what were the debts? Next the debts themselves. We should first note, if our translations preserve it, that these are Jewish rather than Roman measures. Batous (Luke 16:6) is a liquid measure, equivalent to about 30 litres and corous (Luke 16:7) is a dry measure of about 1/3 tonne. When we look at the vast quantities involved these become significant. 3,000 litres of oil and 30 tons of wheat can only be commercial quantities. At a very rough estimate, each of these contracts is worth more than ten year’s average wages. These are not contracts of local retail consumption into the peasant economy, or even contracts for additional supply from the harvests of outlying smallholdings not owned by the rich landlord but can only be agreements with merchants who have secured distribution rights to the landlord’s crops.
How would that work? The landowner has a large harvest of cash crops, but no immediate distribution channel. The merchants have the distribution outlets, either into the export market or parcelled down for local retail, but they lack the working capital to buy a big harvest. Remember there are no banks. So instead the landowner, through his steward, lends them the commodities, expecting payment at the going rate in several months time. Now it was contrary to Jewish law to charge interest on a loan, so the common way around this was to overstate the volume of the consignment, and therefore the payment eventually due. A relatively stable commodity such as wheat would attract a 25% mark up, whereas for a product which could spoil, or more likely be adulterated, such as virgin olive oil a 100% mark-up was more likely. The merchants did not mind. It facilitated their transaction and the full weight of the mark up, and more, would be passed on to their customer. Doesn’t the customer always pay? The people who worked in the fields and who would down the line pay over the odds for produce of their own sweat, knew full well that such arrangements were certainly counter to the spirit and the letter of the Mosaic law (Exodus 22:25, Leviticus 25:36, Deuteronomy 23:20), but the Pharisees it seems were usually quite complicit in some pragmatic interpretations which enabled the aristocratic and commercial elites to sustain and strengthen their position of economic advantage.
What is the “shrewd manager” doing in writing down these debts? In this context what is the Shrewd Manager doing? He is writing down the unlawful contracts by exactly the value of the hidden interest, leaving his master’s principal fully intact. What impact does this have on the merchants? Well this outbreak of Jubilee economics would have been a quite unexpected windfall. In fact a favour such as this, in the culture of the time, could not go unrepaid. The manager therefore had, potentially, a set of business contacts who were all under a moral debt to him, and from whom he could call in favours if he was left destitute.
More importantly what impact does this have on the master? The master knows full well that the amount written down on this occasion was the unlawful hidden interest that he has enjoyed over the previous years. This act of seeming piety serves to remind the master what the steward has been doing for him through the years, and what risks he has been taking for him. In breaking the Mosaic Law he was risking the judgement of God, as well as the covenantal punishment of the society, and all for his master’s gain. Whatever faults the master may have been minded of in the first place when the gossip reached him, which occasioned the dismissal from service, he has been powerfully reminded of the value of a steward who is willing to enter into such contracts for his benefit.
Furthermore, although there will be a loss of the hidden interest on this year’s harvest the master has the opportunity to realise a further gain, but only if he retains the crafty manager. If the manager remains in his employ, all of the social capital gained by the steward in giving a kickback to all of these merchants will be to the benefit of the landlord. His clients will be even further in his moral debt than they were under the unlawful hidden interest contracts. Thus the clients will end up paying for the steward’s fast dealing. Perhaps clients always do. The steward has therefore placed new cards in the hand of his master, but only ones which may be played if he retains his job.
Finally in the next post we come to the identity and role of the master in this parable…