Two Sundays ago the Gospel reading was the parable of the Unjust Steward, perhaps Jesus’ most challenging and enigmatic parable of all. The reason for this is that while the narrative of the parable itself is straightforward enough, the application Jesus gives seems, at first blush, completely contrary to the type of thing one would expect for him to say.
The essence of the parable is as such: A master has a steward who has squandered that with which he was entrusted, and so calls him to account, telling him he is basically fired. While in the process of getting the business’ books in order for his final report, the steward has an internal monologue about his future. I am too weak to dig ditches or grave, he demurs, and I have too much pride to beg. In a flash of inspiration, however, he realizes the solution to his problem, and puts his plan into action.
Essentially, he goes to each of his master’s debtors and has them collude with him in changing the amount of the debt to something significantly lower, the idea being that such an act on his part will ingratiate himself with them, and so he will have a safety net when the axe is finally lowered.
Ironically, the debtors he is helping he now expects to be indebted to him.
When the master finds out about what his manager has done, instead of flying into rage he can only sit back and admire his shrewdness. As Jesus says:
The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. (Luke 16:8 NIV)
There is nothing too terribly out of the ordinary in the narrative, but the difficulty is soon coming in that immediately after relating how the master commended the manager for his shrewdness, Jesus drops this bomb:
For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. (Luke 16:8b-9 NIV)
The challenging nature of this teaching should be obvious, for Jesus kind-of-sort-of seems to be saying that in the same way as the unjust steward was shrewd with money, so should those who follow Jesus, which can come across as kind-of-sort-of saying that doing unscrupulous things with money is not only something to be commended for, but also something that will secure you a place in heaven.
While there is a more traditional means of understanding and explicating this parable (as will be mentioned near the end), much of modern biblical exegesis and homiletics has attempted to make an end around the force of Jesus’ statement here, as much on theological grounds as exegetical. And while there are many approaches to this parable, two in particular tend to dominate.
Usury and Commissions
The first looks for a means of mitigating the injustice of the steward’s actions, the goal being that Jesus’ statement is not advocating something dishonest or unjust in and of itself. And in many respects it has something to commend to it, for it has a contextual flavor which, if nothing else, at least makes for a better homiletical device.
Jewish law forbid the practice of usury, as is well known, but since the master’s business was presumably in large part based upon gaining interest from his loans, resourceful business owners had to find a way to get around the law while simultaneously keeping it. One (apparently common, we are told) way of doing this was to essentially build the interest into the loan itself, so that the debtor wasn’t ‘technically’ paying interest but the lender could still receive some form of return. Parsed in this manner, the steward in our parable essentially returns the loan amounts to the actual amount of the principal, and thus is not really cheating the master out of anything that is his since the interest he would have gained would not have been something which he was legally due. His shrewdness thus is not dishonest in and of itself, but can be commended because he is basically turning an evil system against itself and helping others who are being oppressed by unjust financial practices.
A similar approach engages in the same sort of contextualization, but this time focuses on the steward’s supposed selflessness. As in the case of tax collectors, stewards received whatever money they did not by means of a salary but rather by commission. Tax collectors had the liberty to tack on whatever extra they wished so that, after the required taxes were collected, they could pocket the rest. Likewise, stewards (we are once again told) would add on a surcharge to loans (over and above the built in interest) which would represent the profit they would earn on each transaction. In this scenario, the steward is selfless in foregoing his (rather hefty, it would seem) commission on the loans. The point of Jesus’ words would thus seem to have more force, in that he commends the steward for how he used money shrewdly (and selflessly) in this way.
From a homiletical standpoint both of these variations on a theme have plausibility and even a rhetorical force, but only so to make a very specific homiletical point. The largest difficulty lies in the fact that the manager is both previously accused of squandering or misusing the master’s possessions, and then said to have been ‘dishonest’ or ‘unrighteous’ in the way in which he came to secure his future. He is praised for his shrewdness, but nowhere do we even get the hint that he is anything but dishonest. It would seem that the only reason to favor an approach in which one mitigates the wrongness of his action is a theological or homiletical reason.
The second common approach is to take Jesus’ words here as purely ironic, and to understand that in his seeming commendation of the steward’s shrewdness (and, by extension, his dishonesty) he is really setting his opponents up for a zinger, since those who seem to behave with money as the steward does (i.e., the Pharisees, who sneer at Jesus’ parable) are likewise indicted in his actions. By praising his shrewdness he implicates those who act like him in his unrighteousness.
In many ways there is much to commend to this approach as well, for there is certainly a great deal of irony in the parable itself. For example, the master and the steward both seem to share the same basic approach to money, it is just that the master has more power and can throw around more weight. If interest is being added to the loan, then the master is behaving just as badly with money as the steward.
We might wonder why the master actually commends the steward for his shrewdness rather than being angry, but we find another hint of irony here. The steward, still acting on the master’s behalf, knows that the contracts he mitigates carry the master’s seal of approval, as least as long as he is still his steward, So while the debtors probably know that something fishy is going on (who, after all, randomly writes down a debt?), they also know that the steward is placing the master in a weak position. For if he flies off the handle and demands the original amount even after he has, by proxy, written them down, he will be seen in the wider social context as someone with whom one does not want to do business, which could have series repercussions for him financially, certainly more so than the writing down of these debts.
In a sense, we can sense the wry smile form on his lips as he realizes that his former steward has essentially beaten him at own game. Sure, he was probably angry at the lost revenue, but he also recognized the singular shrewdness of the steward, and could only exclaim, as we are wont to in modern parlance: Well played, sir.
Jesus thus would have seemingly crafted a caricature of how the world approaches wealth and power, and in this final line is the ultimate ironic punchline: “Yes, if you approach money in this way and love it so much, by all means, use it to make friends and see how far it gets you. They will certainly be there for you when it dries up (that the story of the prodigal son occurs immediately before this is immensely relevant) and welcome you into eternal dwellings.”
The astute observer, of course, will recognize that the word used for ‘dwellings’ here essentially means ‘tent’, and we all know how oh-so-permanent and eternal tents are meant to be…
Being a lover of irony, I am naturally drawn to such an explanation. And, to be sure, there are certain ironical elements in the parable, as already explained. Nevertheless, one of the greatest weaknesses with such an approach is that nothing in the parable itself would seem to necessitate or even suggest that the payoff is meant ironically, or at least in the way in which ironic interpretations tend to parse it. Rather, it is more of a theological consideration which would compel one to try and get around Jesus’ rather enigmatic application of the steward’s shrewdness. It is his shrewdness (or prudence, as some render it) that is commended, not his dishonesty, and Jesus elsewhere is not opposed to drawing lessons from unsavory characters (e.g., the unjust judge).
Further, the final application which follows would have to be seen as somewhat unrelated, seemingly tacked on to what amounts to little more than a sarcastic device, For we read:
“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Luke 16:10-13 NIV)
The idea here seems to be that if one cannot be trusted to act with shrewdness or prudence or wisdom with what one is given here on earth in the form of worldly wealth, how can one expect to be entrusted with riches that are far greater? But if the parable is meant only ironically, it becomes very difficult to get to this point, for in both cases (the squandering of the goods and the writing down of the debt) the steward has been unfaithful and ultimately imprudent, and thus there is no real crossover into this lesson, or if so it becomes incredibly strained so that one is forced to have Jesus saying the exact opposite of what he appears to be saying.
Christian commentators from ancient times have struggled mightily with this parable, and the church fathers, while often providing an explanation that could be said to fall along the traditional line, nevertheless do not always seem entirely convinced of the passages’ applicability to their homiletical intent. Nevertheless, seeing Jesus’ admonition here as a compulsion to do good works and excel in works of charity has long been a common treatment.
The biggest difficulty has arisen in the precise relation of riches to unrighteousness, or of the possibly of doing good with that which is said to be the fruit of iniquity. The scriptures, while not declaring riches to be evil in and of themselves, nevertheless tend to wish to keep it at arm’s length; St. Paul, after all, speaks of how the love of money is the root of many evils, and he is no doubt correct.
The riches of iniquity- ‘mammon,’ in Hebrew- came to mean ‘that which one puts one trust in.’ Money, while amoral in and of itself, can nevertheless quite easily become a god, for one’s life can be spent and consumed in pursuit. And thus mammon becomes a shorthand for those little idols that are constantly threatening to supplant God as supreme, to gain our affections and draw us into their orbit. This danger is ever near, and the prudent man (like the steward) is eventually able to look beyond it and use it to gain something greater. St. Augustine explains the believer’s relations to mammon:
Whatsoever good thou hast done, thou hast gotten from Him; and whatsoever good thou hast given vent to, thou hast drunk in from Him. Dost thou praise the vessel, because it hath something from Him, and blame the fountain? Do not give alms out of usury and increase… (St. Augustine, Sermon LXIII, 2)
Since everything in creation has been created by God, it is good. And since we are not the source of our own being, everything we have- yes, including money- comes from God and is to be used for his glory and for his purpose. St. Augustine sees in the story of Zacchaeus a parallel illustration of the principle of the parable, for Zacchaeus had accumulated wealth by dishonest means, yet after his conversion used it to repay four-fold what he had taken.
In this sense, that which is an occasion for evil (or was even obtained by evil means) becomes a chance for good to be done, and is in fact transformed into good through a good act and use of mammon:
So then, ye who have anything from evil sources, do good therewith. Ye who have not, wish not to acquire by evil means. Be thou good thyself, who doest good with what is evilly acquired: and when with this evil thou beginnest to do any good, do not remain evil thyself. Thy money is being converted to good, and dost thou thyself continue evil? (St. Augustine, Sermon LXIII, 3)
This is all well and good for those who have a change of heart. But what of those who come about their wealth honestly? Is the possession of mammon in the final analysis an occasion for sin?
St. Augustine’s answer is no:
But the other sort are called riches by iniquity. Thou dost possess these riches. I blame it not: an inheritance has come to thee, thy father was rich, and he left it to thee. Or thou hast honestly acquired them: thou hast a house full of the fruit of just labour; I blame it not. (St. Augustine, Sermon LXIII, 4)
It is, however, important to note his caveat, which brings the meaning of the parable into focus. To be sure, the good use of mammon can transform it into good. However, even there one can find a lurking danger, for we can begin to subtly think that the good use of riches can somehow be a substitute for true riches:
Yet even thus do not call them riches. For if thou dost call them riches, thou wilt love them: and if thou love them, thou wilt perish with them. Lose, that thou be not lost: give, that thou mayest gain: sow, that thou mayest reap. Call not these riches, for “the true” they are not. They are full of poverty, and liable ever to accidents. What sort of riches are those, for whose sake thou art afraid of the robber, for whose sake thou art afraid of thine own servant, lest he should kill thee, and take them away, and fly? If they were true riches, they would give thee security. (St. Augustine, Sermon LXIII, 4-5)
True riches, of course, are far beyond worldly mammon, and are those unto which Jesus calls us. The use we are to make of mammon is to help us into true riches, and the means of that is to use mammon for the purpose of love, the goal of charity. St. Augustine recalls the parable of the sheep and the goats and notices that it is the doing of good unto the least of these that is the condition for entering into the eternal kingdom, and he perceives this are coinciding with Jesus’ statement that one should use the riches of iniquity to makes friends (i.e., the least of these) who will then welcome one into eternal dwellings:
But who are they that shall have everlasting habitations, but the Saints of God? And who are they who are to be received by them into everlasting habitations, but they who serve their need, and minister cheerfully to their necessities? Accordingly let us remember, that in the last judgment the Lord will say to those who shall stand on His right hand, “I was an hungred, and ye gave Me meat;” and the rest which ye know. And upon their enquiring when they had afforded these good offices to Him, He answered, “When ye did it to one of the least of Mine, ye did it unto Me.” These least are they who receive into everlasting habitations. (St. Augustine, Sermon LXIII, 1)
In this understanding both Jesus and St. Augustine may be alluding to a passage in Tobit about the redemptive nature of charity:
Give alms from your possessions. Do not turn your face away from any of the poor, so that God’s face will not be turned away from you. Give in proportion to what you own. If you have great wealth, give alms out of your abundance; if you have but little, do not be afraid to give alms even of that little. You will be storing up a goodly treasure for yourself against the day of adversity. For almsgiving delivers from death and keeps one from entering into Darkness. (Tobit 4:7-10)
It is by using worldly wealth well that one is delivered from death, for, as Jesus states, the one who can be entrusted with little can be entrusted with much. The point of that statement would seem to be that since spiritual riches are far greater than mammon, if one can be trusted with mammon, if one can keep one’s heart pure and use what is often turned to evil for good, then and only then can one be ready for what is truly riches. Conversely, to misuse mammon and to make an idol of it renders one unfit for true riches, and in this manner the way in which we use money is actually a means by which we are tested and refined and prepared for more.
It is thus no wonder that St. Paul declares the love of money to be the root of many evils. For if the proper and godly use of it can bring us to heaven, the love of it and inordinate attachment to it can lead us into hell. No man, Jesus, says, can serve two masters; he will love one and hate the other.
And thus the commendation of the steward’s prudence finally is brought to bear. When it came down to it he managed to face the crisis of his life and use mammon as a means to secure his temporal future. Each of us is face with a crisis that involves the potential for heavenly dwellings; are we willing to use everything that God has given us as a means to obtain it? In the service of God it can be tempting to stand off from the world, but everything God has made is good and is given to us as a gift to be received and to be given back in love and charity.
As long as we live we cannot escape the riches of inquiry, but we can make a right use of them and transform the riches of inquiry into true riches of righteousness. But to do so requires that we be not only the innocent doves, but also the clever serpents, allowing prudence to work its leaven in us as the virtue it is. For in the exercise of prudence and the right use of mammon we cease to serve it as master and serve the one who his Master of us all