The Gospel for Friday's daily Mass (Luke 16:1-8) has often confused me, so I spent some time reflecting on it the other day. It's a parable that, as I looked at various commentaries, seems to generate a good deal of confusion and (sometimes silly) speculation.
The passage goes like this:
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 he said, 'And you, how much do you owe?' He replied, 'One hundred kors of wheat.' He 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, 6 so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
As this Gospel passage stands, it’s quite confusing.
Why in this parable would Jesus seem to speak approvingly about a dishonest steward who cheats his master after already mismanaging his property?
Why should we imitate this shifty money-grubber?
The moral of the parable Jesus gives is:
For the children of this world?are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than the children of light.
One commentator suggested that Jesus was speaking "tongue in cheek." Another proposed the story as a balance to the dim view Jesus takes of wealth elsewhere in the Gospel of Luke. He saw it as a suggestion that disciples be more realistic about the use of money in the world.
So the children of light – the disciples of Jesus - aren’t crafty enough when it comes to finances?
If this is the meaning of the parable, then we Dominicans must be children of light. We can’t even raise a few million to pay for renovations to our seminary.
But I don’t believe that’s what Jesus means.
The verses following this Gospel (Luke 16:9-13) are full of parallels and these parallels are the interpretive clues to his story.
9 Jesus says, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. 10 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
This sounds more like the Jesus we’re used to – but it may still not be clear as to what he’s getting at.
The dishonest steward is making friends for himself by means of dishonest wealth so his master’s debtors will let him into their homes.
The parallels in Jesus’s comments are
Dishonest wealth / eternal homes
Dishonest wealth / true riches
What belongs to another / Your own (which is received as gift)
Dishonest / faithful
WEALTH / GOD
Logic indicates that dishonest wealth, mentioned twice, is parallel to – the same as – "what belongs to another." The dishonest steward was writing off his commission from the debts he had imposed on the tenants on his master’s land. And it was a hefty commission: 50 measures of olive oil = 400 gal. (225 trees); 20 measures of wheat = 200 bushels, or the yield of 20 acres. That would have belonged to the debtors, if he weren’t so greedy.
If we have money or resources that rightfully belong to another – and face it, you and I consume way more of the worlds' resources than is our due – then we should be generous in sharing. It’s not ours to begin with, but God’s.
No, Jesus isn’t telling us to be deceitful, or more crafty when it comes to dealing with the worldly. Rather, we are to live with foresight – to keep our eyes on the goal of our life: our eternal home, true riches, that which is given to us as a gift, i.e., GOD Himself. We are to be as shrewd and calculating about pursuing what’s really important – a relationship with God – as the dishonest servant was shrewd and calculating about pursuing what was important to him – a warm home and freedom from hard labor and begging.
But as Christians we cannot be satisfied with merely our own relationship, our own salvation. We have to imitate St. Paul, who saw himself as a high priest offering to the Father the souls of those who had come to know Jesus through his preaching and the power of the Holy Spirit demonstrated in charismatic signs and wonders that were part of his ministry. In the New Evangelization, we cannot be content with merely preaching to those who come to our churches – but, like Paul, preach Christ where he has not already been named – to those who do not know Jesus. For we who are receiving from God the gift of faith in a lived relationship with Him are also stewards of that faith and relationship.
And truly, we are unfaithful and dishonest stewards of that gift unless we constantly and lovingly share it. And we are unfaithful and dishonest stewards of our worldly resources if we do not constantly and lovingly share them. The sign and wonder of being unconcerned with the things of this world will make it easier to share our faith – the key to the next world.