‘And How Much Do You Owe …? Take Your Bill, Sit Down Quickly, And Write …’ (Luke 16:5-6) -- By: Luca Marulli

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 63:2 (NA 2012)
Article: ‘And How Much Do You Owe …? Take Your Bill, Sit Down Quickly, And Write …’ (Luke 16:5-6)
Author: Luca Marulli

‘And How Much Do You Owe …?
Take Your Bill, Sit Down Quickly,
And Write …’ (Luke 16:5-6)

Luca Marulli


The parable found in Luke 16:1-8a has very often puzzled Christian commentators. The history of its interpretation shows that only a few fathers accepted the challenge to interpret it (mostly allegorically).1 Today we are all the more aware of the benefit of understanding the socio-economic backdrop of such an unsettling story.2 This essay is an attempt to shed light on the meaning of the parable in the context of debt contracts and rates of interest in first-century Palestine. We shall start by a short description of the pyramidal social structure, the relational function of honour/shame values, and debt reduction dynamics in first-century Roman Palestine. The second part of this article will review some biblical, rabbinical and non-literary papyri

sources on the topic of loans and debts in order to shed light on the practice of lending/borrowing money and goods, as well as some practical aspects referred to in the parable of the shrewd steward, such as the possible contractors, the rates of interest, the steward’s share, and the documents used in the context of ancient loans.

1. First-Century Roman Palestine: Social Structure, Honour/Shame Values, And Debt Reduction

The parable of the Shrewd Steward refers to an agrarian and hierarchically structured society lacking a ‘middle class’ proper. A large population of peasants (90-95%) were obliged to work for the elite class of owners (1-2%), to whom they were mostly linked through the often unpopular work of retainers or stewards. We might number those involved in military matters (soldiers), in governmental, administrative, and judicial affairs (for instance bureaucrats, educators, scribes and Pharisees), and also in priestly offices as belonging to the latter class.3 Retainers and stewards could not be considered as an actual middle class since their power was ‘derived’ and the possibility of falling back ‘into the peasantry’ was a haunting companion.4 Among the peasants we find tenant farmers and their slaves, day labourers and manumitted slaves who, despite their acquired status of freedman, were de facto socially doomed to work and be considered as slaves. As a matter of fact the freedmen or liberti remained very often at the service of landowners despite their n...

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