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The downfall of a corrupt official

November 8, 2014

Luke 16:1-8                                       Friday 7th November 2014

‘The master praised the dishonest steward for his astuteness. For the children of this world are more astute in dealing with their own kind than are the children of light.’

Do you find this parable unsettling? Surely an official who is corrupt and cheats his boss should be taken to court and punished. A thieving cheat should certainly not be praised for his astuteness. We find the story of the crafty steward confusing because we are probably, without realising it, applying the social values of our own society to what was (and indeed, remains) a very different society in the Middle East. And because of our basic misunderstanding, we mis-read the conclusion that is made by Jesus. I’ll come back to Jesus’ conclusion. First, what’s the basic misunderstanding?


To get a better insight into this parable we need to realise the unspoken basis of the way we in this country maintain a stable society. The values of British society are fundamentally a system of unwritten social and written legal rules; we are constantly on the look out for people who break the rules, ranging from, say, selfish parking outside schools all the way up to top class criminals. Deep down, we believe rule breakers should be identified and punished. To use the sociological jargon, we live in a blame and punishment culture. Ultimately, we behave as good citizens because we are frightened of being found out, taken to court and sent to jail.

At the time of Jesus, Middle Eastern society had, indeed still has, a completely different set of social customs and rules, identified by sociologists not as a ‘blame-punishment culture’ but as an ‘honour-shame culture’. Achieving honour in the eyes of fellow citizens is what is most important in that society, and at all costs shame must not be brought upon a person, and thereby onto that person’s family or social group. In an honour-shame culture, being associated with those seen as the great and good is very important; people did favours for one another and if someone did you a good turn, you were required, as a matter of honour, to do something in return; and what we would consider corruption would be seen as an honourable way of looking after family and friends: our attempts to label such behaviour as a ‘crime’ would be strenuously denied in order to avoid bringing shame.

I think the story told today by Jesus has deliberate echoes of shameful political events that were taking place in Judea at that time. You find this with Jesus’ teaching – his parables often give a new twist to some event or scandal that was happening at the time – anyone listening to Him would have known what he was referring to. You might even say Jesus sailed closed to the wind. He was very controversial.

So let me tell you about Marcellus Capito. We know his story from Roman and Jewish writers of the time. Capito was the man appointed by the Emperor Tiberius to be the chief tax collector in Judea at the time when Jesus was preaching. Everyone would have known that Capito had not always been a wealthy man. When he had arrived in Judea he had been poor, but as a Roman official he had made a fortune by cheating and stealing from the people. At one stage Capito had begun to worry that his victims might inform on him to the Emperor Tiberius[1], and his reaction was characteristically ruthless – he shamed them, leaking gossip about them (much like politicians still do today). Capito even tried to arrest one of his rivals, a prominent aristocrat called Agrippa, for not paying off his debts to the Emperor. Agrippa managed to escape and set sail for Italy, but Capito was a zealous official, so he sent the Tiberius a letter telling him about the unpaid debts, and as a result Tiberius refused to see Agrippa. Agrippa was highly embarrassed and had to borrow money to settle his tax bill.

A few years later came Capito’s downfall. Tiberius died and was replaced by the Emperor Caligula, who happened to be a great friend of Agrippa. In fact he made Agrippa the King of Judea. Oops! That’s not good if you’re Capito. He suddenly found he was going to lose his job.

Jesus would know about Capito, and so would everyone listening to Jesus. He didn’t need to mention names; everyone would have known what he was talking about.

So, let’s just re-visit today’s story, adding the names…..

The Emperor Caligua had a chief tax collector in Judea called Marcellus Capito. The newly appointed King of Judea, Herod Agrippa, held a grudge against this Capito, and in order to get rid of him, denounced him to the Emperor, saying he had been siphoning off the Emperor’s own money in order to make himself rich. Emperor Caligula and King Agrippa had no intention of bringing Capito to justice – after all, that ‘would not be in the public interest’ (as they say nowadays) for it would expose their own wrongdoing and hypocrisy. No, Capito could be simply dismissed from his post and thereby publicly shamed. He’d never work again. But Capito, being an astute business manager, used his final days in office to feather his own nest by doing favours to prominent taxpayers, knowing they would then be obliged to do him a good turn after he had been dismissed.


So now, we come to the conclusion made by Jesus concerning this unedifying bunch of rogues:‘…

the children of this world are more astute in dealing with their own kind than are the children of light.’

I’ll paraphrase it to make the distinction clear. Jesus is simply praising the dishonest steward for his management skills, NOT for his dishonesty. The crafty steward is praised for the way he responded so quickly to an urgent situation. Jesus finishes by saying how ironic it is that a crook is so good at knowing how to deal with other crooks. In contrast, Jesus only wished that God-fearing, honest Jews would be as quick off the mark to realise how close their own end was, and the urgency with which they should be doing God’s will by leading upright, honest lives, forgiving others and doing good deeds.

[1] Philo: De Legatione ad Gaium, 199

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