“The master commended the dishonest steward for his prudence; for the sons of this world are wiser in with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into eternal habitations.” (Luke 16:8-9)
By Kathleen Durham
Who hasn’t done a double take when reading the story of the unjust steward and thought to himself, “Wait, what?” On the surface it seems as if Jesus is exalting the actions of a man that is clearly described as dishonest and commending his example to his disciples. Surely this can’t be the case.
Luckily, there are several indications that suggest that this interpretation is not at all what is being taught here. As we will see, however, this does not necessarily make its teaching any less challenging.
The opening scene is essentially one of judgment. The master has heard reports he obviously believes to be reputable that his steward is mishandling the property under his management and so fires him offhand. Two details stand out: the steward does not defend himself or appeal to mitigating excuses, thereby admitting his own guilt (as well as acknowledging their lack of validity in the eyes of the master) and the master shows the steward mercy that is both undeserved and uncommon. He could have had him imprisoned and forced him to repay the losses. Instead, he simply lets him go.
Ken Bailey argues that this last detail is key to understanding the steward’s subsequent actions. Based on his master’s response, the steward quickly acts in such a way as to stake everything on the master’s already evident mercy. He cannot regain his job, but he might be able to regain security through those debtors he helps. If the steward succeeds, the master will likely deem it worth his while not to bring the steward’s actions to light since he will come out looking good in the eyes of townsfolk; but if the steward fails he will most likely be submitted to an even greater punishment than what he originally deserved.
We know how the story ends, which is precisely the problem most of us have in understanding the story. But Jesus is not exalting the actions of the steward (remember he himself calls them dishonest), rather, he is using a rabinnic principle of “from the light to the heavy” that is found elsewhere in the Gospels and relies on a dynamic of “how much more”. (For example, in the parable of the widow and the unjust judge, the point made was that if she got what she wanted from such an unjust judge, how much more might we with God who is loving and merciful?)
In this light we see that Jesus uses this parable not to teach us to imitate the actions of the unjust steward, but rather imitate his spirit of staking everything on the mercy he has already received from the master. Certain details seem to place us in an analogous situation: like the steward, all that we have comes from the master and is entrusted to our care. Also like the steward, there is a high chance that were we to be called to account for our own stewardship of what has been entrusted to us, we too would be found guilty of mishandling and misappropriation.
Only in this light does Jesus’ cryptic teaching about making friends by means of unrighteous mammon begin to make sense: just as the steward acted in order that people would receive him into their houses (v. 4), we too are called to act so that we will be received into eternal habitations (v. 9), that is heaven, and do so staking all that we have on the mercy of the Master. However, unlike the steward, we are not to do so out of selfish gain. To the contrary, Luke Timothy Johnson notes that ‘in light of Luke’s language elsewhere about laying up treasure in heaven (12:33) there can be no doubt that this saying refers to almsgiving.”
Don’t worry if you didn’t see that one coming. It’s not immediately obvious from our linguistic and cultural perspective, but this is why he uses the term ‘unrighteous mammon’, which is then echoed in the teaching of verse 13 where Mammon (a Semitic idiom for money and possessions) is personified as an idol. The message is clear: we can either be driven by our devotion to mammon—that is, material possessions—which will inevitably fail, or store for ourselves treasures that do not fail in eternal habitations by giving it away to others, and thus befriending them. In neither case are the possessions ever really ours. They are entrusted to our care and our stewardship of them is a mark of our faithfulness to the Master.
In truth, it is that same ‘disciplined self-giving’ of which Logan wrote yesterday that is so vital to our experience of the Father’s love and mercy. Significantly, the Greek word used to described the wasteful actions of both the Prodigal son and those of the steward is the same.
Perhaps it is for this (and other reasons) that one of the three most important forms of penance which the Church commends is almsgiving. Along with fasting and prayer it is the necessary means by which we express our conversion in relation to ourselves, to God, and to others (CCC 1434).
The call to is to live in this spirit every day, but as Logan reminded us, Lent is a time in which this is brought into deeper focus, in order that we might strip away everything that hinders our relationship with God. Let us, therefore, heed the call to live out that ‘disciplined self-giving’ to which he exhorted us, through our possessions and, indeed, our whole life.
Kathleeen Durham is Vice President of Alighieri Press. She also serves as an author, editor and speaker