What an odd parable we have in today’s Gospel reading! To our modern ears, this makes no sense; it’s almost as if Jesus is extolling immoral conduct. But, whenever we find a piece of scripture that bothers us, I always find that it means I should pay attention, because the Lord has something important to say. Not only that, but today’s reading comes on the heels of last week’s reading about the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. In my homily last week, I mentioned that Jesus used all of these “trick question” stories to get the people’s attention. I think this week’s parable is a lot like that. So let’s dive in and figure this out together.
The steward in the parable seems to be some kind of high-ranking assistant to the rich man. He has enough authority that he is able to rewrite the deals people had made with the man, such that the rich man would have to honor them. But apparently he has not been doing his job, because he learns that the rich man is about to fire him. Much as anyone would do when they learn of that impending crisis, he takes stock of his abilities: he isn’t strong enough for manual labor, and his position has made the prospect of begging too humiliating to bear.
Given that state of affairs, he knows that he has to start cutting deals with the rich man’s clients so that they will be more likely to help him when he is looking for it after he is fired. So he basically writes off a large chunk of their debts to the rich man. Now how he could do that is anyone’s guess. Some scholars say that he just wrote of the commission he himself would have received for collecting the debt. Others say that he wrote off the usurious interest the master had been charging. Since we don’t know the answer, we have to assume that detail was either understood by Jesus’ hearers or simply unimportant to the story itself.
Now the next statement is difficult for biblical scholars to unravel: “And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.” Are those words part of the parable? In other words, did the rich man call the servant dishonest, and if so, was this what was about to get the steward fired? It doesn’t seem like that is the case. The Greek word used for “master” here is kyrios, or Lord, which usually refers to Jesus in the gospels. So it seems like Jesus is the one who is calling the servant dishonest, and that serves to squash the impression that Jesus was commending the steward for his dishonest dealings; clearly that was not the case.
But having said all that and having waded our way through the strangeness of this parable, the question remains: what is the point? Certainly Jesus isn’t saying that we should deal deceitfully with others, be they poor or rich. I think what Jesus wants us to understand is that, in the vast scheme of things, there is something more important than money. For the steward on the eve of his unemployment, the money owed to his boss was far less important than his ability to live after he was let go. Perhaps all of this is summed up best by the words that come at the end of the gospel reading: “You cannot serve both God and mammon.”
Here’s the line that I think should really get us thinking: “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” So I think our Lord is reminding the people that they are to be children of light, and they’re not doing it very well. This Gospel parable is paired with a very strong proclamation from the prophet Amos, who never minces his words. His central message was that the worship of the people Israel was completely messed up, because they dishonored God in their daily living, in every possible way, at every possible moment. Today’s first reading is evidence enough of what Amos was sent to preach: he details the various ways the rich cheated the poor who came to buy life’s sustenance from them. And he concludes with the very haunting words: “Never will I forget a thing they have done!”
So I think the message here is that the world around us knows well enough how to deal with dishonest wealth. We see dishonest dealings go on all the time: deals that use the poor for their labor, while the poor suffer without the basic things that we couldn’t live without. But we are children of light. We should know how to take care of the wealth that we have in an honest way so that we and all those in need can live with dignity. The children of light serve God, not mammon, which is the love of money at the expense of every other good thing.
So our reflection this week should lead us to taking stock of how we use the money we have been given to steward. Have we been careful to take care of the poor? Have we used the gifts we have for the good of others? Or have we hoarded what we have been given and denied others what is rightfully theirs? God sees all of that, and would that he would see us living as children of light.