Thursday, August 14, 2008

Parable of the Shrewd Manager (Addendum)

Someone has questioned my assumptions about the role of stewards in the first century CE in the post I just published.  I make the assumption that the steward in the parable can actually be be commended or held responsible for good behaviour because although he was actually using someone else’s money he still had the authority to make decisions about rents and profits. Therefore an explanation is in order concerning how much authority the steward actually had as he took charge of the rich man's accounts.  I believe that he did have the ability and responsibility to act – and with almost complete autonomy. It would have been the steward who set the rents and collected the debts – or actually overcharged the tenants in his desire to make his master wealthy and increase his master’s honor (and therefore his own). That situation was common in first century well-to-do households. A quote from another source (a real book and a first century expert) might help my position here.

I have been reading Ritva William’s book Stewards, Prophets and Keepers of the Word: Leadership in the Early Church (Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA 2006). It has provided a wealth of insight on the patriarchy and patronage system in place in the first century. A few quotes should make the situation with the steward and his master’s money more clear. First she quotes from another author:

"In the "limited good" world of the first century Mediterranean ... seeking "more" was morally wrong ... Because the pie was "limited" and already all distributed, an increase in the share of one person automatically meant a loss for someone else. Honorable people, therefore, did not try to get more and those who did were automatically considered thieves. Noblemen [like the rich man] avoided such accusations of getting rich at the expense of others by having their affairs handled by slaves [the steward]. Such behavior was condoned in slaves since slaves were without honor anyway.”
Malina, Bruce and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Fortress Press, Minneapolis. 2003 p.124

Williams continues with these comments:

"Here we see one reason why the majority of private and public oikonomoi [the Greek word for steward] were of servile origin. Slaves were not only regarded by their elite masters as lacking the appropriate sensibilities for honorable activities, they were also actually encouraged to develop the money-grubbing attitudes and behaviors that their masters despised. Slaves and lower status persons (clients [or tenants]) were socialized to believe that their “well-being was completely wrapped up in the well-being and benevolence of the patron. Slaves and freedmen who had been put in charge of their patron’s wealth were proud [and honored] when they were able to increase it.  (p.58)

The unjust steward actually does have significant control over the financial debts owed by the tenants. Others have also asserted this as well - but for different reasons.  I believe Williams gets it right when she asserts that the first century stewards were more like "high roller" profit maximizers [fund managers?] as opposed to hesitant, obsequious "go-fers" [domestic staff like a butler or cleaning lady].

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