The Gospel for September 18th, 2016: “The Parable of the Dishonest Steward”
Reflection: It is About the Money
“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” (8-9).
This is the spot in this gospel where I get confused. The dishonest steward has been reported to be so to the master and informed to make a full account before he loses his stewardship. He goes around and lowers the debts of the tenants and is consequently praised by the master for being prudent. I’m not sure I see anything prudent about what he did in Christian sense. On first reading, it seems the steward is acting with complete self-interest from beginning to end.
Confronted with this puzzle, I did some web-based research looking for some insight. Generally, I prefer not to do this for my reflections because evaluating the credibility of the forum and blog posts, the non-Catholic websites, and free academic articles this sort of search generates can be as confusing as the gospel passage itself. I did ask for some help from the Holy Spirit on this one out of desperation.
First, I found that I am not alone in being confused by this parable. One academic cited it as one of the most debated parables in all the gospels. As such, I was able to find a wide range of interpretations of Jesus’s point in telling it. While I did not walk away with a definitive interpretation of the overall moral personally, I did gain some understanding that brings me closer.
The insight is about the dishonest steward’s motive to lower the debts of the tenants in response to being found out by the master. I thought, as have others, that he is cheating the master whom he has already lost favor with to gain favor with the tenants in the hope of having benefactor to turn to when he is forced to leave the master’s land. This simply doesn’t square with the praise he receives from the master for doing this as “acting prudently.”
What I learned that makes more sense is that the arrangement between the steward and the master probably had the steward paying the master a set amount prior to collection from the tenants to lease and manage his land. In other words, the land was leased to him, and the tenants were sub-letters from the steward. Under such an agreement, the tenants would not know how much the steward needed to cover the original lease terms. Therefore, the dishonest steward could charge them a highly inflated amount to accrue his own fortune dishonestly. If that is the case, the lowering of the debts that occurs is taking money out of the pocket of the dishonest steward, not the master. In his moment of crisis, he acts unselfishly and does the right thing, which is wise. Now whether he does this out of a sense of mercy, since he is being treated mercifully by his master at the discovery of his dishonesty, or whether he is doing this to befriend the tenants in the expectation he will still lose his job and place to live and need some help, I am still not sure.
However, his willingness to make things right with the tenants when he easily could have bilked them one final time to have some wealth to get him through his coming crisis is praiseworthy. It is more satisfying that Jesus would call this prudent. I prefer this to some interpretations that suggest Jesus is praising his craftiness, though not his dishonesty, and would have us apply the gift of craftiness, or prudence, to achieve the aims of His Kingdom. This understanding lacks the simplicity of message that marks so many other gospel parables.
In this light, I will offer a tentative interpretation of the other stumbling block for me in the quotation referenced above. When Jesus says, “make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (9), I don’t think in any way is He endorsing dishonest practices in obtaining wealth or friends. Instead, I think He means the friendship we make with dishonest wealth or otherwise is a relationship of detachment from it completely. In other words, we don’t give in to the temptation to exploit others for our own financial security and gain. This would be the only way that when it fails, as it does for the dishonest steward, that one would still be “welcomed into eternal dwellings.” It is consistent with Jesus’s teachings that we must put the good of others before ourselves.
To close, while I am not confident I have a robust understanding of all Jesus is saying to me in this gospel, I do think it is about the money for me in this time, at this moment. While I am not a business person per se, I have financial obligations that consistently dominant my thinking. I justify so many uses of my time based on how it will benefit my family’s financial bottom line. This is serving the god of money, which is a master I can not serve, if I am to serve the Lord. I think it is a typical modern problem that many in wealthier countries allocate their time so much in favor of work and accruing material wealth, rather than in worship, prayer, and helping others. I am guilty of this crime, and in so doing, have much to learn from the parable of the dishonest steward.