“And he said, ‘One hundred jugs of olive-oil.’ So he said to him, ‘Take your note and authorize payment soon—you write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how greatly are you indebted?’ And he said, ‘One hundred measures of grain.’ He then says to him, ‘Take your note and write eighty.’”
Now we are fully shown the tactic of this steward. He is calling in debtors and is essentially reducing their respective debts so that payment can be made swiftly. This raises many questions. Why did he reduce the debt of the first debtor more than the second? Is this action what earns him the name as the “dishonest manager” or is this the action that gets him commended by the master in the next verse? Why is he doing this anyway if he is on his way out—is he trying to harm or to gain favor with his former employer? Are these the only two debtors that he brings in, or are they representative of the whole? Is there any significance to oil and grain? And the questions can go on and on.
Let us make a couple observations up front. First of all, it is clear from the story that this steward is being commended by his boss for this action; the next verse follows naturally from this one and it makes very good sense to see them as connected. Secondly, in the context of the previous verse, it is pretty clear that these debtors are meant to be representative of the whole. Thirdly, though some have argued for the ceremonial significance of oil and grain in terms of priestly offerings, oil and grain were also staple products of the culture and would have been perfectly reasonable to have present in a story like this. Fourthly, it is also clear from the context that this manager is not having these payments made so as to line his own pockets. He is not saying, ‘I am on my way out, how much more can I extort from my master.” Again, there is nothing in the story or the described actions of this steward that would imply any dishonesty on his part, and again, it seems hard to believe that the master would praise his steward for extorting wealth from him. Some have also argued that stewards took a cut of the debts collected for their master as their wage and that this steward is simply deducting what his normal cut of the income would be. This seems quite odd for two reasons. First of all, one would expect a steward’s cut to be consistent across the board and the amount that the steward deducts from each debtor is different. Secondly, these are pretty significant discounts that the steward is giving out, for a steward to have been getting a 50% cut of the master’s income seems quite unreasonable.
So what are we left with? It seems that the steward is genuinely seeking to collect on some debts. Yet, are these discounts an honorable way to do so? A number of years ago I was hired by a flooring distributorship to come in for a few hours a week and help straighten out their books after they were badly handled by a previous office manager. In addition, I was to train the replacement in how to properly use the accounting software that the company used. As I was going through the books, I was astounded at just how many bad debts this company had from previous customers—some companies being more than $20,000 in debt to this distributor—debts that would likely never be collected upon. For a family owned company, that is a lot of money. Even if they had been able to collect half of the debt they were owed across the board, that would have made a substantial difference in the company’s fiscal health. This is the same principle that debt collection agencies operate on; something is better than nothing, and those “somethings” add up when you have a number of debtors.
Is it possible that this is what the steward is seeking to do? Is it possible that instead of being dishonest in the collection of the master’s debts, that he is being zealous to see the debts remitted even at the cost of some forgiveness? Is it possible that this steward’s fault had been his overzealous approach to the letter of the debt, and in doing so, he was failing to do his job, for in seeking to only bring in the full amount, he was failing to bring in much of anything? Is it just possible that in his zeal for perfection he had lost sight of the merciful nature of his master? Is it just possible that this zeal for making people pay the letter of the debt caused a greater division between his master and the people who served him? And is this not the very problem of the Pharisees?
Beloved, we serve a God of mercy, and in their zeal for the letter of the law, the Pharisees alienated the people from their God and obscured God’s mercy. Healthy business relationships grow when both parties are interested in the growth and well-being of the other. Sometimes, in business, you need to take a loss, forgiving a portion of a debt, for the overall health of both companies. When that happens, it is not so much about the exact dollars and cents of the debt, but it is about the intent behind the business arrangement. The Pharisees had lost sight of that. In their zeal, they had kind of created a “checklist” religion, where unless you could mark off all of the boxes in fulfilling all of the rules, then you could not be considered holy. Yet, the rules that God has given us are not so much a checklist as they are a sign of God’s holiness and a reminder that we are in desperate need of grace. Indeed, we owe a debt—a debt we cannot pay at that, yet God did not leave us to our own destruction, but offered us his Son, one who would pay the debt on our behalf, so that we might know the mercy and grace of the Living God toward his people. And beloved, those of us who are stewards of that grace—teachers of God’s word—have an obligation to demonstrate that grace to those around us, faithfully communicating the Gospel to all who would hear. That was also the task given to the Scribes and Pharisees—a task that they woefully failed in, being more concerned about their own vain righteousness and forgetting that even they were debtors to grace.
O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be;
Let that grace now, like a fetter, bind my wand’ring heart to thee.
Prone to wander—Lord, I feel it—prone to leave the God I love:
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.