Jesus said to his disciples,
"A rich man had a steward
who was reported to him for squandering his property.
He summoned him and said,
'What is this I hear about you?
Prepare a full account of your stewardship,
because you can no longer be my steward.'
The steward said to himself, 'What shall I do,
now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me?
I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg.
I know what I shall do so that,
when I am removed from the stewardship,
they may welcome me into their homes.'
He called in his master's debtors one by one.
To the first he said,
'How much do you owe my master?'
He replied, 'One hundred measures of olive oil.'
He said to him, 'Here is your promissory note.
Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.'
Then to another the steward said, 'And you, how much do you owe?'
He replied, 'One hundred kors of wheat.'
The steward said to him, 'Here is your promissory note;
write one for eighty.'
And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.
"For the children of this world
are more prudent in dealing with their own generation
than are the children of light.
I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth,
so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
The person who is trustworthy in very small matters
is also trustworthy in great ones;
and the person who is dishonest in very small matters
is also dishonest in great ones.
If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth,
who will trust you with true wealth?
If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another,
who will give you what is yours?
No servant can serve two masters.
He will either hate one and love the other,
or be devoted to one and despise the other.
You cannot serve both God and mammon."
Not exactly one of Jesus’ greatest hits is the so-called “Parable of the Dishonest Steward.” Everyone knows last week’s prodigal son; nobody remembers the cunning steward. The story lacks the dramatic flair of the prodigal; the language is often difficult. But it’s an important story, and there is something potent in Jesus’ words if we can give him our attention. Perhaps it's enough, for our purposes, simply to get a handle on what he's actually saying here. Let’s first walk through the parable itself.
The steward, upon squandering his rich master’s property, learns that he’s to be fired. Knowing that he’ll soon have nothing, the steward devises a plan so that, “when he is removed from the stewardship, [people] may welcome him into their homes.” While he is still steward, he contacts his master’s debtors and drastically reduces the amounts owed. This one owes twenty percent less wheat! This one owes half as much olive oil! The steward risks doubling the wrath of his master ― but he’ll be fired anyway! There’s nothing to lose. At least he can expect the future generosity of these debtors on account of the discounts. But the rich master’s wrath is not doubled. When he learns of the steward’s shrewdness, he is impressed. The steward’s cleverness has saved his job.
So far so clear. But then things get trickier. Finished with the parable, Jesus turns to the crowd: “the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” What’s he getting at here? Let’s notice, first, that Jesus has distinguished the “children of this world” from “the children of light.” These are common phrases used throughout the New Testament. They describe two different ways of living one’s life, two different logics according to which one can order their existence. The “children of light” are those who live according to the logic of Jesus ― the logic of turning the other cheek, of peacemaking, of placing oneself last. The “children of this world,” on the other hand, are those who live by the logic of worldliness ― the logic of things like self-indulgence, of misguided ambition, or the obsessive pursuit of money. They live by the ambitious logic of this human world, rather than the self-sacrificial logic of God’s world.
So what is Jesus doing with this distinction right now? Remember he claimed that “the children of this world are more prudent.” In short, what Jesus’ parable demonstrates is that those who are preoccupied with the difficulties of even dishonest living ― the “children of this world” ― are often more clever than his own followers! If only the “children of light” were as clever as the dishonest steward!
We need not be troubled by this. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus similarly counselled his followers to “be wise as serpents [but] innocent as doves” (Mt 10:16). Jesus even concludes today’s reading with an example ― though the language is difficult ― of how the “children of light” might become clever: “I tell you, make friends for yourselves with [i.e. by way of] dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” Now what does this mean? Jesus is suggesting that, in the same way the dishonest steward cleverly made friends by way of the master’s accounts, so the “children of light” should make friends by way of their own money.
But with whom should we make friends? Without question: the poor. The phrasing Jesus uses here ― namely that once one’s money fails one will be “welcomed into eternal dwellings” ― is a common way rabbis used to talk about giving alms. It was often said that, when you give alms ― when you give everything to the poor ― you will be received into the realms of eternity. The Church, moreover, very deliberately pairs Jesus’ parable this week with an Old Testament reading from the prophet Amos who begs us to stop “trampling upon the needy and destroying the poor” (Am 8:4). Jesus is making this assertion his own. This is how the Christian can behave prudently and cleverly. This is how the Christian can ensure he or she will be “welcomed into eternal dwellings,” just like the steward sought to ensure his welcome into the homes of the master’s debtors. By giving alms, the Christian is as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove.
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