What Can I do? (Luke 16:3)
“Now the steward said to himself, ‘What can I do since my lord is cutting off the responsibility to manage from me? To dig, I am not strong enough. To beg, I am ashamed.’”
The steward realizes that his dilemma is severe. Note that as of yet, the role of management has not been totally removed from his hands. The verb used here, ajfairew (afaireo), which speaks of the man’s removal from his position, is in the present tense, which implies that it is happening, but still in the process of going on at this point in the story. The fact that the steward can bring the debtors in and has the authority to collect the debts he collects echoes this fact. The verb itself is also in what is called the “middle” voice, which reflects one doing something for oneself. The statement, “I picked myself up,” would use a middle voice with the verb, for example. In this case, it implies that the rich man himself is in the process of divesting the steward of his responsibilities. Why is this significant? It is significant because it means that there are no criminal charges being leveled at the steward. Had the steward been truly guilty of squandering the man’s wealth, then the rich man would have been within his rights to have the steward arrested and thrown into prison. Yet, that is clearly not the case with this man. The rich man is personally removing the steward from his duties, which seems to imply that this incident has more to do with the rich man’s honor than with the skillfulness of the steward in fulfilling his task.
The steward continues his line of thinking, recognizing that he does not have the physical strength to dig and that he is ashamed to beg. The language of digging is normally used in the context of agricultural work, implying that what is being talked about would be hiring on as a common laborer, working in the fields tilling and planting. For this kind of labor, the man simply does not have the strength. He has been a steward for his career and has gotten accustomed to a comfortable lifestyle. In modern terms, we might say that his hands have grown soft and is not equipped to do manual labor for a living.
In addition, he says that he is ashamed to beg. The term that is used here is the word aijscu/nw (aischuno), which refers to being embarrassed or humiliated by something. The question that we must ask ourselves is whether this shame is a result of him being too prideful to ask for help or whether it is because he is too honorable to live at the expense of others in the community. Part of the answer is found in the word that we translate as “to beg.” This is the word ejpaite/w (epaiteo), which speaks of a lifestyle of begging, not seeking temporary assistance. It is used in only one other place in the New Testament, to speak of the blind beggar in Luke 18:35, but it is also found in the Septuagint, the Greek Translation of the Old Testament, in Psalm 109:10, which speaks of begging in terms of being a curse to those who are the enemies of God. We also must consider the statement he makes about digging. If he considered menial labor in the first place, it seems that we can safely say that this man is willing to work, and, if given the liberty to extend the argument to its logical end, would rather work than to beg, living off of the earnings of others.
I am reminded of what Paul teaches us in 2 Thessalonians 3:10 in regards to this principle. In that community, they were plagued by many Christians who would be content to live off of the charity of their brothers and sisters in faith. Now, we must not forget that there was active persecution against Christians in many places of the Roman world by this point, and often, when a person would come to faith, they would lose their jobs because they would no longer make offerings to the patron deity of the particular trade guild to which they belonged. Thus, there was a need for believers who had wealth to assist believers who were struggling. Yet Paul does not allow that to give one an excuse for laziness. The rule he set down then is that if you are unwilling to work, it demonstrates that you have a lazy spirit—something that is never seen in scripture as a godly character trait—and should not be allowed to eat. Paul is not saying that charity and assistance is not to be given—on the contrary, it should be given—but only to those who would genuinely seek to work. It seems to me that this particular steward’s heart is in the right place when it comes to this later teaching by Paul. The man recognizes that he will need to work to earn his own support, but is in an awkward position—his reputation has been besmirched, so he cannot be a steward, he is not strong enough to labor in the fields, and he will not beg because he is an honorable man.
There is one other question that one must ask. If this steward is genuinely guilty of squandering his master’s wealth, he certainly has not done so in such a way that would line his own pockets. Were he embezzling money from his master, he certainly would not need to worry about begging. Once again, it would seem that this man has done honorably what he was hired to do—even if , in others eyes, he has not done it well. We will revisit this again, but I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself just yet.
Beloved, sometimes our presuppositions about what a particular passage means cloud our vision, not allowing us to see the truth behind what Jesus is saying or teaching. Take time with this parable (and other passages as well), and take the time to think through the questions that you might have. God has given us the ability to reason and we ought to use it. What a wonderful gift that God has given us in his word—it is rich and deep, and teaches abundantly about His nature and his will. Treasure it and drink deeply of its riches.