Dedicated to the writings of Saint Luke.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Parable of the Unjust Steward

In 1929, during an archeological excavation of Corinth, a first century pavement was uncovered which contains the following inscription: “Erastus, Aedile, laid this pavement at his own expense.” Was this the Erastus who was the companion of Paul?

Erastus and Timothy were sent to Macedonia to help organize the mission for the collection of funds for Jerusalem. Erastus, identified as a city treasurer in Romans 16:23, would be well qualified for the collection task. This Erastus was an example of the public οκονμος which the RSV translates as city treasurer.

Luke uses two different Greek words for steward. The Greek word used to describe Chuza’s position is πτροπος. This is a person who manages a household but Chuza is Herod Antipas’ steward and his household is quite large. What then is the significance when Luke uses a different Greek word οκονμος translated as “steward” in the Parable of the Faithful Servant and the Parable of the Unjust Steward? Is there anything in Luke to suggest that Luke is in fact discussing the temple establishment?

There are a number of clues. In Chapter Two, it was noted that “The numerous metaphorical references to ‘house’ in Jesus’ teaching likewise find commonality with the story of 1 Samuel 2-3, where God promises to bring Eli’s ‘house’ down and raise up a faithful priest, for whom he will build a “sure house” (2.35). Nelson had stated that “Precisely because priests were seen as custodians of the faith, the issue of unfaithful and disobedient priests became a recurring literary theme: . . . .” Since οκος is the root word of οκονμος, we can suggest that this steward is serving in a different capacity than Chuza and that his capacity is more like Erastus than Chuza. Was this unjust steward a priest?

Lee Dahn suggested that one verse of the Parable of the Unjust Steward may be an allusion to a verse in the Book of Ezra. Two different biblical resources stated emphatically that there are no quotations in the New Testament from several books of the Septuagint including the Book of Ezra.

Ezra was a priest and scribe, a direct descendant of Aaron through Eleazar (Ezra 7:1-5). His father was Seraiah, the last High Priest to serve in the First Temple (2 Kings 25:8-21). What we know about Ezra is found in Ezra chapters 7 to 10, and Nehemiah chapters 8 to 10, where he led the second group of exiles that returned from Babylon to Jerusalem. Ezra is the only person in the Bible described as “skilled in the law of Moses” [Ezra 7:6 RSV].

Ezra was a man of extraordinary learning who educated his people. “For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach his statutes and ordinances in Israel” [Ezra 7:10]. Ezra is credited with reviving an interest in the study of scripture. Ezra led the reform of post-exilic Judaism.

The temple at Jerusalem had been rebuilt and dedicated but more priests were needed to carry on its services. There was a pressing need of men of God to act as teachers of the people. Therefore Ezra issued a second appeal to the Levites, sending them an urgent invitation to unite with his company. To emphasize the importance of quick action, he sent with his written plea several of his “chief men” and “men of understanding.” Ezra 7:28; 8:16.

As a special precaution in safeguarding the treasure, Ezra “separated twelve of the chief of the priests,” men whose faithfulness and fidelity had been proved “and weighed unto them the silver, and the gold, and the vessels, even the offering of the house of our God, which the king, and his counselors, and his lords, and all Israel there present, had offered.” These men were solemnly charged to act as vigilant stewards over the treasure entrusted to their care. “Ye are holy unto the Lord,” Ezra declared. Ezra also stated “the vessels are holy also; and the silver and the gold are a freewill offering unto the Lord God of your fathers. Watch ye, and keep them, until ye weigh them before the chief of the priests and the Levites, and chief of the fathers of Israel, at Jerusalem, in the chambers of the house of the Lord.” 8:24, 25, 28, 29. Ezra appointed faithful officers to act as stewards. These people by the first century had become known as treasurers of the temple.

There are no details provided about what happened during the five month journey of the second wave of repatriates led by Ezra. In his memoirs Ezra writes “I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way; since we had told the king ‘The hand of our God is for good upon all that seek Him’...” Fasting and prayer thus secured safe passage (Ezra 8:22ff.) The contents of chapters seven and eight indicate concern for Temple cult and personnel played a primary role in the organization of the journey.

Thus it is apparent that the Book of Ezra has described how Ezra appointed twelve trustworthy chief priests to act in a role which could easily be described as treasurers of the temple. Is there any Second Temple literature confirming the existence of temple treasurers? Josephus told how when Ezra arrived in Jerusalem he “presented the sacred money to the treasurers, who were of the family of the priests).” Josephus also stated in describing the custody of the vestments of the high priest during a particular period: “Before that time they were kept under the seal of the high priest, and of the treasurers of the temple.”

The Talmud preserves a lamant of Abba Joseph ben Hanan, who lived during the era of Herod's temple; he conveys the plight of the common person under the high-priestly families:

Woe to me because of the house of Boethus, woe is me because of their staves.

Woe to me because of the house of Hanan, woe is me because of their whispering.

Woe to me because of the house of Kathros, woe is me because of their pens.

Woe to me because of the house of Ismael ben Phiabi, woe is me because of their fists.

For they are high priests and their sons are treasurers

and their sons-in-law are trustees and their servants beat the people with staves.

The significance of this first century lament is that the sons of the High Priests were treasurers providing further proof of the existence of this temple position. Does the Greek word οκονμος in the Parable of the Unjust Steward refer to a person connected with the temple? The answer is a qualified yes. Thayer’s Lexicon notes that the word can mean “the superintendent of the city's finances, the treasurer of a city (or of treasurers or quaestors of kings)” and the entry under Strong for this word includes a fiscal agent (treasurer). Since οκος is the root word of οκονμος, this Greek word in the context of this parable may mean treasurer of the House of the Lord.

We now come to the verse which Lee Dahn believes is an allusion to a verse in the Book of Ezra. Note that in Luke 16:6-7, the owed amounts are 100 baths of oil and 100 measures/cors of wheat. In Ezra 7:22, we read “up to a hundred talents of silver, a hundred cors of wheat, a hundred baths of wine, a hundred baths of oil, and salt without prescribing how much.” The Greek words for “a hundred cors of wheat” and “a hundred baths of oil” appearing in the Ezra 7:22 (LXX) match the Greek words appearing in Luke 16:6-7 for these two phrases.

In verse 21, we read the King decreed these quantities of silver, wheat, wine and oil were to be turned over to Ezra as a gift for the temple in Jerusalem. Josephus describing this same gift to the temple stated, inter alia, “And that God may not be at all angry with me, or with my children, I grant all that is necessary for sacrifices to God, according to the law, as far as a hundred cori of wheat.” Thus the treasurer of the temple, translated in the parable as steward, had each debtor reduced the quantity of the item owed to the temple. In several other verses, these items, but in different quantities, are mentioned in temple transactions.

The following words, phrases and concepts appearing in the chapters of the Book of Ezra describing Ezra and his accomplishments can be found in Luke-Acts: “law of Moses”, Luke 2:22; 24:44; “set his face” may allude to “set his heart” (but see Gen. 31:21; Isa. 50:7; Jer. 21:10; 44:12; Ezek. 6:2; 13:17; 14:8; 15:5; Dan 11:17-18); “chosen vessel,” Act 9:15 may allude to “You are holy to the LORD, and the vessels are holy” and “men of understanding” is contrasted with lack of understanding in Luke 2:50; 8:10; 18:34 and 24:45; Acts 7:25; 28:26-27. The fact that there are a number of allusions in Luke-Acts to the Book of Ezra is confirmation that the allusions are intended.

The scholars have generally agreed that Luke has presented us with a group of parables and sayings dealing with possession and wealth one of which is the Parable of the Unjust Steward. For the most part, these scholars have assumed the steward was a slave and the master a rich man and that the transaction was one involving the extension of credit, perhaps involving usury.

In these academic writings, there has been no discussion about the ownership of property. After the exodus, sacred history records that the people wandered in the desert for forty years. Early Judaism was influenced both by its experiences in Egypt and by nomad concepts of property, individual rights and essential equality for all members of the community.

The people of the exodus left a land which experienced numerous extravagant building projects and great wealth where the oppression of foreign slaves was the norm. The priests of the land participated in this increase of power and wealth, with a third of the land coming under their ownership, and with temple slaves constituting 20 percent of the total population. This experience influenced the community and its social structures established in the Promised Land.

Hanson notes “Even the economic system of the new community was drawn consistently out of this norm, for according to the institution of the nahala, each family received from Yahweh as a trust in perpetuity a piece of land (its inheritance or patrimony) sufficient for its sustenance. Since there was no absolute authority save Yahweh, no one was allowed to dispossess another, for to do so would violate the norm upon which the entire society was based, the norm of righteous compassion and equality, the norm drawn from the heart of a loving God.” When the land was divided among the tribes “no portion was given to the Levites in the land, but only cities to dwell in, with their pasture lands for their cattle and their substance.” The purpose of the jubilee law was ultimately to protect basic individual property and to guard against unlimited accumulation, thus preventing the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few individuals.

Notwithstanding these extensive provisions throughout the Torah, power and wealth did become concentrated in the hands of a few by the first century. Hecataeus (Diodorus Siculus 40.3.7) indicated that Moses gave the priests a larger share of land than other Israelites. Stern suggests that this statement reflects the social condition in Palestine in the Second Temple period. Stern reaches this conclusion because according to the Torah, (Dt. 10:9, 12:12, 18:1, Num. 18:24) the priests and Levites did not own any land.

This directive to the unjust steward to “give an account” is reminiscent of the instructions of Ezra to the twelve. This directive is also comparable the demand required prior to initiating legal proceedings in a collection case. In this instance it appears the unjust steward falsified an account which, under the modern criminal laws, is one of the elements of a theft by a fiduciary. The falsification was necessary to conceal missing funds. What is missing is that the rich man is not the real owner. The high priestly families owned and controlled a lot of real estate. In the original scheme of things, the priests were not to own any land but were supposed to be solely dependent upon contributions. What the high priests did was seize the land of persons who had defaulted on their loans obtained from the Temple. In the process the high priests took for themselves the collateral that should have been owned by the Temple. This economic fraud committed has never been fully developed within the context of the Lucan parables.

The crime of a fiduciary falsifying an account is a modern concept. When money was transferred to a person who was supposed to transfer it to a third person and the person in the middle stole the money it was not viewed as a crime but a business problem to be sorted out in civil court. In one Pennsylvania case, cited by the Model Penal Code draftsmen as an example of the confusion in this area, an employer-defendant was acquitted of fraudulent conversion. The failure of the employer to pay a grocer on behalf of employees who had authorized him to deduct from their wages the amounts of their grocery bills was not seen as involving any money technically belonging to the employees. Hence, the only wrongdoing found by the Pennsylvania court was civil breach of contract. In fact it is still viewed this way when the executor of an estate or trustee steal a little bit of money. The Pennsylvania statute and the statutes of other jurisdictions adopting the Model Penal Code now criminalize conduct where the actors in question are “merely conduits for the transmission of money to persons designated by the real owner of the money.” With this background it easy to understand why first century people did not consider the steward of the Parable of the Unjust Steward to be walking away with the temple treasury since he was stealing it from the people making the donations and or stealing the sums being used to pay rent or to pay off the temple loans made from the sacred money.

Having demonstrated the cultic context of the parable with the quotation of Ezra 7:22 LXX by the Lucan Jesus, we need only ask whether or not there is any evidence that οκονμος was used for the administration of a temple. John Reumann in his doctoral dissertation presented to the University of Pennsylvania made such a determination.

John Reumann demonstrated that οκονμος was commonly used in cultic contexts to describe those who were responsible for acquiring and/or performing sacrificial rituals. In many instances οκονμος was used to describe a temple official with financial responsibility with respect to acquiring temple sacrifices. In a number of Greek cities there were persons identified as οκονμος who were the persons who had the financial responsibility with respect to the acquisition of temple sacrifices. This person was a low ranking city official unless he actually was in charge of the public sacrificial rituals. The role of the person was determined by the context in which the word was used. In many instances οκονμος should be translated as “temple treasurer” including in this Parable.

In the JBL article published shortly after the dissertation was accepted and published, Reumann wrote, inter alia, “A separate investigation is required to ascertain whether there is any influence from an οκονμος concept in the teachings of Jesus (vouched for only in Luke) . . . .”

Francis E. Williams asks the question: “Is Almsgiving the Point of the ‘Unjust Steward’?” Because Williams did not address the question of who owned the goods, he was not able to fully develop his argument. There was a surprising response to the conduct of the unjust steward in falsifying his account. The verb παινω expresses praise for the manager’s prudence. It also reflects the official act of approval or ratification of the account. We are shocked that the master in the words of the RSV “commended the dishonest steward for his shrewdness.”

The Master commended the unjust steward who was facing dismissal from his position for stealing goods intended for the Temple. This commendation makes sense only if the goods are not owned by the Master but by the Temple. The approval of the account truly makes sense if the “steward” was really the one of treasurers of the temple and the goods belonged to the temple. The Parable is an example of irony as suspected by the early commentators. The Unjust Steward properly identified as one of the treasurers of the Temple is commended because he was now performing his duties as one of the administrators of institutional almsgiving program that was once an important role of the Temple.

The unjust steward was facing dismissal. This is surprising because he was doing exactly what was standard operating procedure. Thus this parable is a form of social criticism because it is urging most excellent Theophilus, the High Priest to restore institutional almsgiving.

This parable may in fact represent one of the strongest attacks on the temple establishment issued by the Lucan Jesus. However, it is necessary to review each of the parables before coming to any final conclusions.

This is a work in progress (footnotes omitted)

Copyrighted 2008


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