The Unjust Steward

Twenty-Fifth Sunday of the Year. Am 8:4-7; Ps 113:1-2, 4-8; 1 Tim 2:1-8; Lk 16:1-13

Today’s Gospel reading of the Unjust Steward is possibly the most mysterious of all Jesus’ parables. Why is a steward commended for prudence by reducing the debts of his master’s debtors, seemingly squandering his master’s property still further? Furthermore, is the steward truly prudent or not, given his apparent dishonesty and Jesus’ warning that the person dishonest in small matters cannot be entrusted with great ones? For these and other reasons, no explanation of this parable from the Tradition of the Church seems wholly satisfactory. This morning I propose merely to sketch out what can be said, without claiming to exhaust all the hidden meanings.

I think that a key to unraveling the puzzle is to understand what is meant by prudence. To have prudence means to act wisely with a view to attaining one’s goal. Jesus’ reference to the ‘children of light’ (Luke 16:8) implies that this parable is intended as a lesson in prudence for the ‘children of light’, that is, those who have received the light of grace and who look towards heaven as their goal instead of mere happiness in this passing world.

By this interpretation, the children of this world have some important lessons to teach the children of light. The children of this world are often very astute at looking after their worldly best interests, and Jesus is recommending that we apply the same kind of foresight and energy to the attainment of our own goal, namely heaven. Furthermore, there are many parallels between the steward’s predicament and our own lives. We are all stewards in the sense that we have temporary responsibility for what is not our own property, especially our lives. Moreover, we also face giving an account of our stewardship when we die and are judged. So what does the Unjust Steward in the parable do? He prepares for the end of his stewardship by working urgently to reduce the debts of his master’s debtors. Now, the last line of the Letter of James (5:20) tells us that “whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” In other words, when we preach the Gospel, teach the Faith and work to bring others to God, in addition to saving the souls of others we are also ‘covering’ our own sins, reducing our own debt to God. So even out of self-interest, not the highest motive but still an acceptable one, we should be busy working to bring sinners to salvation as a way of preparing for when we too face God's judgment. Furthermore, in this interpretation the steward in the parable is not dishonest. While the natural goods of wheat and oil in the parable decrease when they are given away, the spiritual goods they represent, such as sound teaching, hope and charity, multiply when they are given away. So in a spiritual interpretation, the parable of the Unjust Steward is perfect: working to reduce the spiritual debts of others increases God’s glory and will be to our own great credit on Judgment Day.

However, following the parable, Jesus adds whole new, mysterious and inverted layers of meaning. He begins to refer, not to spiritual goods, but specifically to the use of ‘dishonest’ or ‘tainted’ wealth’ in a way that seems extremely worldly, “make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth.” (Luke 16:9) How can we understand this part? One possible approach is to grasp the kind of view that he is excluding. From the beginning of the Church, there have been many Christians, such as the Puritans, who have felt such revulsion at evil that they have attempted to establish separate and ‘perfect’ societies, untainted by evil. Such movements were highly influential in settling what became the United States of America and we see their modern counterparts in communities such as the Amish. Now it is true that some Christians are called to create places of refuge in the face of great evil: for example, the founding of Constantinople and the Benedictine Monasteries saved Western civilization after the fall of the Roman Empire. However, most of us are called to live in this world – a very imperfect world. In doing so we have to make use of material goods that are tainted, including wealth. All worldly wealth is, perhaps, dishonest in some sense: there would not have been any dollars, I assume, in the Garden of Eden. But in this parable Jesus seems to be validating the principle that such things, even such tainted things, can and should be put to work to ‘win friends’. Now among created beings, the only friends that Christians will have in the end are saints. So Jesus seems to be emphasizing how we should put not only spiritual goods, but even the tainted goods of this world to work in spreading the Gospel and making saints.

In summary, the parable of the Unjust Steward underlines the urgency of preparing ourselves for the Day of Judgment, the day when we too have to give an account of our stewardship. One of the best ways in which we can prepare for this judgment is to help others reduce their spiritual debt by bringing them to salvation. To this end, not only our spiritual goods but even our tainted material goods can and should be put at the service of the Gospel. In doing so by the grace of God we shall make true friends, that is, saints who will joyfully welcome us one day into our true and eternal home.

Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St. Ambrose Church, 23rd September 2007

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