In Luke 16, Jesus tells us this one particular steward ('oikonomon') was reportedly "squandering his possessions" (NASB; Greek: διασκορπίζων τὰ ὑπάρχοντα αὐτοῦ). In practical terms, that means the manager had not been profitably overseeing his portion of the master's portfolio. However, we also know that each on-site contractor kept account of how much they owed (thus being called ‘debtors’, χρεωφειλετῶν) to their landlord, and by their own reckoning, these particular holdings seem to have been doing quite well. So what was actually going on?
In virtually any case, the rich man would not have purchased these "possessions" at all recently. Likewise, the typical on-site contractor at each property would have been skilled, experienced specialists at whatever their chores. Each contractor had probably held their position for some years, and did not need to be checked up on for productivity’s sake. They may not have needed more than a dispatch from the landowner to send him his share of the positive output.
What, then, was the role of the steward?
The first thing we see the rich man ask of his steward is information. “Turn in the account of your stewardship.” But this lazy servant could not give accounts without checking with each contractor.
Now then, a capable oil manufacturer would not have agreed in principle ahead of time to promise eight-hundred gallons of oil if he had no idea what that year's olive crop was about to be like. Rather, the fact that he self-reported this sizable debt tells us his operation must have been doing well.
Eight-hundred gallons of oil is the landowner's personal profit after the oil-press contractor had sold enough else of their product to pay for the workforce, overhead, and his own cut - not to mention the bill for the olives they'd most likely purchased the previous autumn or winter. Likewise, a thousand bushels of grain was the landlord's personal share from that harvest. That's how business was done. Whatever smaller amount the wheat farmer had kept, used and sold, a percentage is what they would have agreed to beforehand.
This basic picture of how business was done turns many readings of Luke 16 on their head.
The stewards’ possessions weren’t actually unprofitable. It was only the steward’s management which has been said to be wasteful. Here were two very successful businesses, obviously being run by competent on-site foremen, but the steward must not have talked to those foremen in some time, because he wasn’t prepared to give an account for how well they ‘d been doing.
Again, the possessions were good. It’s the steward whose management had been wasteful.
To be continued…