Today is Ash Wednesday. It’s a little late to say happy new year, but I’ll say so anyway, because this is my first blog post this year. There have been lots of “firsts” lately. Anyhow, if you’re reading this, you know it’s also a first for a new blog site. Please say a quick Ave Maria for spiritual fruit from this latest online endeavor. Here we go.
Do you recall the Gospel back on September 22nd? If I told you that Luke 16:1-13 was the Gospel, and that it was the one about the “dishonest steward” who was getting fired for squandering his master’s goods, it might ring a bell. You recall how the dishonest steward – right before his was “canned” – made a last ditch effort to feather a potential nest or two when he became jobless and homeless. He presumed upon some more of his master’s goods, and give them away to the master’s debtors!
Perhaps you can recount some explanations of the parable, a comment or two from the homily you heard, etc. Perhaps you heard a sermon about the morals of stealing (or, NOT stealing). Most likely – if you heard any in depth commentary of this Gospel – you heard some kind of explanation attempting to elucidate that most uncanny of details, that the master of the parable (or Jesus himself as the giver of the parable) ends up praising the “dishonest steward” for that last-mentioned action! If you are fuzzy on the details of this conundrum let us just hit pause’ and take the words of the Gospel as our starting point.
We pick it up at the point where the steward was told to “turn in the company books,” because it is to be his last day on the job. At this point the steward schemes…
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 the steward said, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘One hundred kors of wheat.’ The steward said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note; write one for eighty.’
The literal name given to this steward is the “unrighteous steward,” and we wholeheartedly agree with that description. It seems that after years of “squandering the master’s goods” he is so rotten as to levy a final insult against the master, “stealing” more of his goods to butter up new potential landlords. But then, lo and behold, this “dishonest steward” ends up being the hero of the parable.
And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.
He gets commended! What on earth are we to make of this?
First, there is great insight in the common scriptural commentaries. Many will explain that a parable is a limited analogy. It is clear and acceptable that Jesus could commend one aspect of a character’s behavior, without endorsing the other aspects. The master commends the steward’s prudence, not his honesty or altruism or humility. Further, it is certainly the prerogative of Jesus, that he can make such a comparison: scoundrels can be more prudent, more shrewd, more quick thinking than altruists. They can size-up a situation and reason out their most advantageous course of action while we, the “good people,” are still sitting dumb and yet-oblivious to important and objective circumstances that pertain to our moral duties. This is all true.
But, if I may be allowed some creative license, I wish to retell the parable with some selected embellishment. Once I do so, I think some more pertinent lessons may be opened up for our consideration.
A rich man had a steward who was reported to him for squandering his property.
This is not just an ordinary rich man; this man is insanely rich! He has companies upon companies, branches upon branches, and assets upon assets. The company managers (stewards) have certainly “made it”! Managers gain commissions on net profits. A manager, in fact, keeps 50% of the net surplus for any year that’s in the black. The “rich man” of the parable is insanely rich, and the manager (the steward) is also quite rich.
In our example however, the manager has let this get to his head. He has lost touch with some basic realities. While he can afford three vacation homes, he has decided to buy six. The parties have multiplied in proportion to his ego. His credit usage is growing so much it is always claiming his next paycheck. The line between employed life and private life is becoming quite blurry. The company under his management, all of a sudden, becomes an acceptable resource to tap for his lifestyle. Company parties grow exponentially in expenses. Many privileges that employees take with company goods grow more and more expansive. If the choices of the manager are not necessarily illegal, as in outright theft, they have certainly become immoral. The manager has started to squander his master’s goods. But hey, there are so many goods to squander, the insanely rich master won’t notice. And if he notices, he won’t really care. So goes the rationalization of the unjust steward.
Lest you think I have embellished a little too much to describe this steward, we first point to the historical precedents of prime ministers of kingdoms, and stewards of great households. The figure of “50% commission on all profits” is indeed a reality in some historical settings. And that Jesus intended us to imagine an “insanely rich” master is evident by other parables. But let us also recall the analogy that is at work here. The real master we are talking about is God. The “master’s goods” of which we are talking about are the opportunities we have in this life, opportunities to gain eternal life. And by saying the steward/manager had such a wide range of freedoms, to profit in an ethical manner or to dissipate into such unethical vices, we are not stretching the meaning too far. It was indeed so much money that the only way a steward could squander it all was if he was trying to outdo the master, the king, the Lord himself!
Let us now consider that fateful day when the manager gets his wake up call to reality.
The master 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.’
Someone in the company must have had a conscience. A report has made it all the way up to the insanely rich master. If half of such a report is true, the manager is going to get canned. And indeed, when the manager gets called up to the master’s office, he is told that he is certainly being fired. He has so-many hours to bring forward such-and-such materials in his managerial possession, and then he is done-for!
For some reason this master does not fire him “on the spot.” For some reason this master allows him some opportunity to “report” on the mess he has created. The books need to be turned over soon, and he will be out looking for another job, no good references in hand. There is just a little time before he feels the weight of his sins.
Here he starts to “size-up the situation and reason-out his most advantageous course of action.” Here he quickly realizes that he happens, by some fortunate quirk of procedure or providence, still to hold executive powers. Of the many company employees who may even know that this job termination is coming, most don’t even know when it will be effective. Of the many other smaller companies with whom he did business, none of them will know that he is about to be jobless and searching for new employment. His most advantageous course of action, he reasons, is to make a few phone calls that afternoon and renegotiate some contracts. If he can put some things in motion, grant some discounts and rebates, and get a few documents signed he can use his last day of authority to make a few “friends.” If he does it quick enough, no one will be able to undo the “generosity” he has put in motion, even after the new manager is named as his replacement.
Imagine the unprecedented surprise when Joe Smith from Othercompany, Co. gets a call, from the manager of the big shot company, to hear that a few chance discounts and rebates are being offered! It just needs a quick acknowledgement this afternoon and it will be processed in a day. The managers of some companies sometimes do nice things like this, out of appreciation for doing business, but not THIS manager from THIS company. Never before has he ever made a bargain so profitable for “the other guy,” let alone so desirable. It’s such an unexpected boon for Othercompany, Co. that the managers might even be happy to consider an entry level position for some guy who, one month previously, had been the big shot manger at the big shot company. There are no more vacation homes or big parties in this manger’s future, but he’ll likely have a job, enough to get a small place and slowly pay off his debts; and he might even make some real friends at Othercompany, Co..
So ends my rendition of the Lord’s parable of the “unrighteous steward.” I admit that the steward had been immoral. But I myself imagine everything he did was in fact legal. And, even if he had outright stolen from his company in the past, I don’t think the parable dictates that we call it “stealing” when he lessons the debts of the men who owed one hundred measures of olive oil and one hundred kors of wheat. Knavish? Possibly. Self serving? Certainly. Theft? Here is precisely where the material analogy breaks down, and it becomes all the more enlightening for our spiritual lives. Somehow it seems the company owner, who had been wronged so many times, approved of the discounts and rebates. At least he approved of the idea, even if the circumstances were wrong. The manager’s last act of “irresponsibly” can in fact be painted (as Jesus hinted) as near to a unique kind of responsibility, because the issue is precisely that of mere material goods in the face of human relationships. Jesus himself explains the meaning of the parable by his direct admonitions about mammon and unrighteous money! But, before opening up the rich scriptural theme (pun intended), let me add my own testimony.
You see, I am the unrighteous steward of the parable.
Yes, I mean this. I am the guy Jesus was describing. The Lord is my master. The great resources, of the “company” to which I have been named manager, are the very corporal elements of my existence. He gave me two arms, two legs, and a whole working body. Inventories and inventories, of warehouse after warehouse, cannot compare with the whole universe of treasures that God bestowed upon me by bringing me into existence. The rays of sun and the drops of water that have passed over me are too expensive to put a price tag on. Let me use the scientific lingo of material creation, and you will still see it is all an immeasurable gift. What great inventor created the hydrogen bond? What great engineer decided that photons would be a good addition to the material universe? What mad scientist decided that some material being should be controlled by a near-divine intellect and will? The master of the parable signifies God Himself. If you get my point, you may get my analogy. There is nothing more knavish, more lowdown and self-serving, near even to theft, as the fact of sinning against so great a Benefactor, with the very arms and legs and body that He bestowed upon me. I am the dishonest steward. No value of materials goods, such as those squandered by the steward in the parable, can match the value of the goods I might squander by a single mortal sin.
With this thought I revisit the morals of the parable. The approach that takes only the most simple of moral lessons would say, in reference to my rendition, “the steward should not have given away discounts and rebates in the name of the company. He should have buttered up the management of Othercompany, Co. by using the money and property that was already his.” To this I reply, that the steward had nothing left to use. You can argue that the steward should just have done nothing. But, when the steward is me, I must do something! There is a phrase of Saint Paul that describes this state: “there is none who is righteous, no not one.” And for myself, there is no righteousness by which I might please God, except that which was given to me by God in the first place.
If the way I squander the master’s goods is by my sins, and I have further committed those sins by the use of the very body that the master gave me, how can I make up any of it? Am I to find some arms and legs, created by someone other than God, which I can take as my own, and by which I can go and start living a better life? In short, as I try to turn my life around from any and all past sins, it is true that I might squander even more of the master’s goods. And my main point here is that I have no other goods to use.
None of the best means of “turning my life around” are efficient. But with the insanely rich master of this parable, we might happily observe that he really doesn’t have an absolute need for efficiency. Indeed, in the end we might find that he himself greatly delights in certain kinds of squandering. At least God delights in a certain kind of squandering, that kind which is an inefficient-yet-selfless wasting for the sake of the poor: almsgiving.
Make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. If… you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth [i.e. material goods and stuff money can buy], who will trust you with true wealth? [i.e. eternal life?] If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another [i.e. all things I enjoy on this earth really belong to God], who will give you what is yours? [The righteous fulfillment of my soul!]
Jesus calls the materials goods of this life, money and mammon, “dishonest wealth” because, at each moment, they lie to the person who possesses them. They promise to give more happiness than they can deliver. By this parable we know that Jesus is recommending almsgiving. The promises of material possessions will let us down, but the spiritual effects of giving away our material possessions will not let us down. Almsgiving is not the only means by which a person can turn their life around. But really it is one of the easiest.
I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg.
There are those rare souls who make a whole life offering of genuine love to God by denying the body in acts of penance (liken to the work of digging). There are souls almost as rare who can pay back their debts to God by an entire life of uninterrupted prayer (liken it to the life of begging). Like the unjust steward I am neither of these two. And so I give alms. I call in the master’s debtors whenever I interact with my fellow sinners. I squander some of the masters good on them when I give them something of tangible value (money, food, drink, clothing).
Make friends for yourself with dishonest wealth.
None of the paths are easy. But the path by which we give away some of the “stuff” that we hardly worked for, and that we are about to lose control of anyway, is one of the easiest. And it is all the better because God approves of it.
In my version of the parable, you can imagine the fired manger walking out of his office, boxes in hand, after his termination is effected. And he gets a note handed to him, from the insanely rich master. It is a kind of commendation, but written with lots of tough love, stating, “Have you gained some friends by doing some honest business for a change? I’m glad you’ve started to learn your lesson. By the way… you’re still fired. Good luck.”
In my own life, I stand as the manager between his notice of termination and his last hour on the job. Though I have squandered many of the master’s goods, by some fortunate quirk of procedure or providence, I still hold executive powers. There are still materials goods of this earth that I can manage, even though they belong to the master. I still have the arms and legs that God gave me. I need to start using them the way he wants me to use them.