This week’s task is scary. The Gospel for this 8th Sunday after Pentecost presents probably the most difficult of the Lord’s parables to explicate. This week we hear the Parable of the Unjust Steward from Luke 16.
Context: For the last few chapters of Luke we have been presented with Our Lord telling many parables. Just as a reminder, a parable, Hebrew mashal, is a short allegorical lesson. Parables generally have a narrative twist, or nimshal, that conveys a point through something counter-intuitive, a seemingly unrealistic turn out of keeping with daily experience. We should remember when hearing or reading the Lord’s parables that we are separated from the daily experience of the original audience by many centuries and a different culture. Some things in the human condition never change, and so are “evergreen.” Others do change, so we must do some “translation.”
Let’s review the text of the parable this week (RSV):
There was a rich man who had a steward, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his goods. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.’ And the steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the stewardship away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that people may receive me into their houses when I am put out of the stewardship.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ The master commended the dishonest steward for his shrewdness; for the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations.
A few things might need “translation” from 1st century Palestine. “Steward” is Greek oikonomos, the “house – oikos + law – nomos” guy. He is the property manager of a “wealthy man,” whom the steward refers to as “lord – kyrios,” which you should recognize. The steward/manager says, and I like the Douay-Rheims best for this: “To dig I am not able; to beg I am ashamed.” The idea is that the steward, used to a life of physical ease, cannot go out like a day-laborer and toil for the standard daily denarius coin. Also, he is probably too well known to be a beggar. Note that the financial transactions by which the steward cooks the books are not in coinage, but in kind. That was common in the ancient world: you often paid your debts with produce of the land, such as your olive oil or grain. In the context of Luke, mammon is Aramaic. That came into Greek and Latin, for “wealth, profit” and it gained a pejorative connotation, even coming to be personified as a demon. The Lord used the word several times, as when in the Sermon on the Mount He taught in Matthew 6:24: “You cannot serve God and mammon.”
We can find hooks with other passages in the Greek Gospels. For example, in that initial verse (v.1) the RSV has the steward “wasting” the goods of his lord. The Greek verb used is diaskorpizo, which conveys the image of throwing chaff into the wind to be dispersed, to “winnow.” Hence, it is also “waste” or “squander.” The same verb is used in the Parable of the Prodigal Son who “squandered” his portion of inheritance with “loose living” (Luke 15:13). In English, to be “prodigal” is to be “recklessly extravagant, wasteful.” Latin prodigo, “to drive, get rid of” can be “waste, dissipate.” hence the English “prodigal.” Through this verb, we probably see what the Lord was driving at when describing the steward’s use of his lord’s goods. Hence, the lord’s abrupt dismissal of the steward.
How to deal with this parable? After all, Christ seems to have told us to imitate a thief who, after abusing his position and squandering money, then stole more money from his employer in order to curry favor and ingratiate himself with the master’s debtors. Read the parable. That’s what Christ seems to have done!
That doesn’t seem right. There must be some other explanation. How do we get to the nimshal twist wherein the master praises the thieving manager? Who does that? Great writers such as Fathers of the Church struggled with this. The Scripture scholar St. Jerome (+420) even wrote to St. Augustine of Hippo (+430) to ask what this parable meant.
Here are a few approaches.
Firstly, let’s check our moral compass. The plight of the unjust steward shows us how deeply into trouble we can get once we start to slide in the matter of our faults. Small faults lead to bigger faults. Venial sins weaken us so that we commit larger and more serious sins. The irresponsibility of the steward who squandered his master’s money eventually leads him to commit an even graver sin of defrauding his master and leading others to defraud him in his attempt to save his own skin. Be wary, therefore of first steps toward sin. Be wary of near occasions of sin.
That’s a moral, ethical approach to the parable, and one which is easily grasped. However, it seems unsatisfactory because the fact remains that the lord in question praises the fraudulent steward for his clever moves. How to untangle that?
Augustine thinks that this parable is an argument a minori ad majus: if the wicked steward is commended in his cleverness about worldly matters, how much more will the upright steward be commended. If earthly affairs require such cleverness and dexterity and planning and decision in action, how much more do heavenly matters and the spiritual life require planning and decisiveness? St. Paul in Romans 6 calls people to serve the Lord in matters of our sanctification with the same zeal with which, before, we served iniquity. Hence, Christ praises the clever, fraudulent steward not for his fraud, but for his cleverness. The steward saw his situation with clarity and took clever steps to secure his future, even though that was a merely earthly future. This is a metaphor for how the children of the light should work with clarity and shrewd planning to secure their future in heaven. The children of this world are clever in earthly affairs. We must be at least as clever – nay rather, even more clever – in what secures Heaven.
Another way to look at this parable’s startling nimshal, twist, is to remember that the steward squandered and then redistributed what was not his to squander and distribute in the first place. The steward did not own it all, the lord (kyrios) did. This is, of course, the universal condition of humanity: nothing is really ours – all is from God and remains God’s. We use vicariously every material good in this earthly life. Even our bodies are God’s and not truly ours, which is why we are not free to do anything we want with and to our bodies.
The parable is about how to secure a place in Heaven. Christ told us how to secure for ourselves “eternal habitations,” the word for “habitation” being Greek skene which is used for the “booth” or “tabernacle” that referred to the movable “temple” in the wilderness during the Exodus and the tents or booths people lived in, as well as what the Jews annually built during the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles which involved an octave of celebration. That Feast looked backward to the time in the wilderness and, simultaneously, forward to the New Jerusalem of the Kingdom of God fulfilled. So, the parable is about how to get to Heaven: prodigal, lavish, extravagant distribution of alms, event to the point that it seems like wasting it on the unworthy. The alms are ultimately from the Lord. The recipients are from the Lord. Alms open the heavenly doors when we are poor and in need, as we all always truly are. After all, in giving to the needy, we give what is the Lord’s back to the Lord Himself.
How lavish must we be, you ask, sounding like Peter asking how many times we must be forgiving (Matthew 18:21-22)?
In a magnificent sermon on patience and hope (s. 359A), Augustine pours it out for us:
Mammon is the Hebrew word for riches, just as in Punic the word for profit is mamon, So what are we to do? What did the Lord command? Make yourselves friends with the mammon of iniquity, so that they too, when you begin to fail, may receive you into eternal shelters (Lk 16:9). It’s easy, of course, to understand that we must give alms, that a helping hand must be given to the needy, because it is Christ who receives it in them. It’s what he said himself: When you did it for one of the least of mine, you did it me (Mt 25:40). Again, he said somewhere else, Whoever gives one of my disciples just a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, amen I tell you, he shall not lose his reward (Mt 10:44). We can understand that we have to give alms, and that we mustn’t really pick and choose about whom we give them to, because we are unable to sift through people’s hearts. When you give alms to all and sundry, then you will reach a few who deserve them. You are hospitable, you keep your house ready for strangers; let in the unworthy, in case the worthy should be excluded. You cannot, after all, be a judge and sifter of hearts.
Talk about lavish. Treat your enemies this way too.
Finally, I can’t help myself. Augustine’s s. 359A is simply too good. It is about something we all need right now, given what we face in the Church and in society: hope, patience, willingness to be long-suffering in perseverance in view of what will come. Let’s have a taste of the very beginning of s. 359A.
In this he has some great Latin word play. He was, after all, once the official imperial orator in the court in Milan before his conversion. In his language of above and below and fixing something like an anchor, Augustine invokes a favorite image of a big crane or derrick used for constructing buildings (aka faith, hope and charity), which they did have in the ancient Roman world. Note too that Abraham, in 23:3-4 at 137 years old died as a “stranger in a strange land,” without seeing what God had promised about his numberless descendants. We are all “strangers and sojourners” (Lev 25:23) and “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps 24:1). Hence, we are to live as “aliens and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11).
As long as we are in this world, if we take care to have our hearts filed up above, the fact that we are walking here below won’t be to our disadvantage after all, in this flesh. We are walking here below, after all, in this flesh. So, by fixing our hope up above, we have set it like an anchor on firm ground, able to hold against any of the stormy waves of this world, not by our own strength but by that of the one in whom this anchor of our hope has been fixed. Having caused us to hope, after all, he will not disappoint us, but will in due course give us the reality (Latin res) in exchange for the hope (spes). For hope, as the apostle says, which is seen is not hope: for why should anyone hope for what he can see? But if, he goes on, we hope for what we cannot see, we wait for it with patience (Rom 8:24-25).
It’s about this patience that I wish to speak to your graces [the members of Augustine’s congregation] whatever the Lord grants me to say. The Lord Jesus Christ too, you see, says somewhere in the gospel, By your patience shall you gain possession of your souls (Lk 21:19). It also says in another place, Woe to those who have lost patience! (Sir 2:14). Whether it’s called patience, or endurance, or tolerance, the same thing is signified by several names. We, though, should fix in our hearts not the variety of sounds, but the unity of the thing itself, and have inside us what we outwardly give names to. Those who realize they are living the life of strangers in this world, in whatever country they may find themselves as regards the body; who know they have an eternal home country in heaven; who are confident that that is the region of the blissful life which one is at liberty to long for here below, not at liberty to possess here; who are burnt up with such a holy, such a chaste desire—they know how to live here patiently. Patience doesn’t seem to be needed when things are going well, but when they are going badly. Nobody patiently tolerates what is enjoyable. But anything we bear with patiently, is harsh and bitter; and thus patience is not needed when you’re happy, but when you’re unhappy.
However, as I started to say, any who are on fire with a yearning for eternal life, in whatever country they may be happily living, must of necessity live patiently, because they have reluctantly to tolerate the fact of their being strangers and exiles, until they reach the desired home country after loving it so long. Love expressed in desire is one thing, love satisfied by sight another. I mean, when you desire and when you see. Your love, when you desire, is aimed at arriving; your love, when you see, at staying. Now if the desire of the saints burns so hot when fueled by faith, what will it be like when fed by sight? If we love like this while we believe what we cannot yet see, how shall we love when we actually do see?
Dear readers, we will see the end of all this and Christ will see us through.
Convert from Lutheranism, ordained to the priesthood in 1991 by St. John Paul II in Rome for the Suburbicarian Diocese of Velletri-Segni. Classics at University of Minnesota. Licence and Doctoral studies in Patristic Theology at the Augustinianum in Rome. Formerly a collaborator of the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei,” moderator of the Catholic Online Forum, columnist for The Wanderer and the UK’s Catholic Herald, Fox News contributor. Speaker. Blogist. fatherzonline.com @fatherz