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The Twenty-fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C

The Parable of the Dishonest Steward 


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...I’d say the primary question most people have about this parable is: “What does Jesus mean when he says ‘make friends for yourself by means of unrighteous mammon [or unrighteous money or stolen money], so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations’?”

What? What is that talking about? And why does the master commend the steward for, you know, his unjust activities? What's going on here? Well, the first clue to understanding this parable is one that I’ve made a point of emphasizing over and over again in these videos. Namely, that when you're listening to a parable of Jesus, if you just think of it as a nice kind of illustration from daily life that helps give you an insight into the kingdom—it's real simple and straightforward—then this parable doesn't make any sense. But if you remember that I told you before, many of Jesus’ parables—most of them—have a twist. In other words, there’s some unexpected element that isn’t in fact commensurate with or analogous to daily ordinary life, and that the twist is usually the key to unlocking the meaning...then you can apply that principle to this parable, and it actually will go a long way toward explaining it. So let’s walk through it together.

The first point to highlight here is the two characters in the parable. One is a rich man, a plousios—means a very wealthy man—and the other character is the steward. And the Greek word for steward here is oikonomos. We get the word “economy” in English from oikonomos. An oikos is a house in Greek, nomos is law, so the oikonomos is the one who runs the law of the household—meaning in this case, the monetary law of the household, the economic law of the household. In other words, he is the overseer of the master’s fiscal matters, his financial matters, his estate. To this day, many many really wealthy people don't manage their own money. They hire someone else to manage their money, and the same thing was true in the first century A.D. If you were extremely wealthy, you would have an oikonomos, a steward, take care of your finances.

So in this case, there is a rich man, he finds out that his steward is wasting his money or wasting his goods. Now, it’s interesting here, the Greek word for wasting, diaskorpizō, is the same word used of the prodigal son in Luke 15, who went off and wasted his father's property. In fact, that's the word that gets translated as “prodigal” in many of the older translations, so that's why—following Fr. Anthony Giambrone, he’s a Catholic Dominican biblical scholar—he calls this the parable of the prodigal steward, because just like you had a prodigal son, here you have a prodigal steward, who's wasting not his father's money, but his master’s money. That kind of sets the terms for the story in the parable. So when the master comes in and he hears about what the steward is doing, he says, “What's this I hear of you? Turn in the account of your stewardship because you can no longer be steward.” So his stewardship, literally his oikonomia,turn in the account of your economy,” because you’re out. Basically, you’re fired, or if you’re in Great Britain, you’re sacked, right? So you get sacked. And the steward said to himself, “What am I going to do? I'm too weak to dig, and I’m too proud to beg” is his basic response. In other words, “I’ve lived a life of luxury, so I’m too weak to go and be a day laborer,” which is what many people would do. They go and just work for the day digging ditches or farming. He said, “I can’t do that, I’m not physically able...and I'm too proud to go out and be among the poor or the destitute,” those who just beg for a living. “So I know what I'm going to do”— this is really important to understand this—what he's going to do is, he summons all of his master's debtors, and he pays off their debts by stealing from his master—by cooking the books, basically.

So he says, “Well, how much?” to the first guy, “How much do you owe my master?” “Well, 100 measures of oil.” So again, think about in ancient economy where a lot of the dealing isn’t in cash but it’s in product, right? So he says, “You owe a hundred measures of oil? Take your bill, sit down, and write 50.” So what did the steward just do? He just basically stole 50 measures of oil from his master, and at the same time paid off the debt of the person and ingratiates himself to the debtor by taking money from his master. Next thing, he calls in another person, “How much do you owe?” “Well, 100 measures of wheat.” “Okay, sit down, take your bill and write out eighty.” So again, he's messing with the books, he's stealing from his master, and he’s making friends in the process. So what is the steward doing? He's basically stealing; he’s committing theft. He’s breaking one of the Commandments, “you shall not steal,” and he’s paying down their debts with his master's money.

Now remember here that the Master’s money—the word for Master in Greek is kyrios—so he’s stealing from the lord, it’s the same word for lord. And so what happens is the lord (in verse 8) or the master—this is where the twist is—instead of calling him in and saying, “You're going to debtors’ prison” or “I’m going to have you flogged” or “I’m going to have you executed,” which any one of those could be a possibility for a very wealthy influential man. Here's the twist in the story: the master calls the dishonest steward in and commended him for his prudence, “for the sons of this world are wiser in their own generation than the sons of light.” Okay, so there's your twist.

Why would the master commend the dishonest steward, and what does he mean when he says he acted prudently? Well, two things. First, notice when Luke calls the steward dishonest that gives you the clue here to the fact that what he just did, by changing the bills of the debtors, was theft, right? He did something wrong—morally wrong, unjust. Adikia is the Greek. So I just bring that up because sometimes people kind of miss that. They think maybe, “Oh, he’s just being really nice,” he's adjusting the tabs, or he's forgiving certain people’s debts. No, no, no. He's not forgetting their debts; he doesn’t have the authority to do that. He's just the oikonomos; he doesn't have the right to pay off their debts with his master’s. Well, he's stealing from him, so he's an unjust steward. So why does the master commend him for being prudent? Well, the greek word there is phronimōs, which is actually a virtue in the Wisdom of Solomon. It’s one of the four virtues—you know, prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude. So he’s depicting him, he’s calling him unjust in the story—Luke is calling him unjust—but the master is saying that he’s prudent.

Well, what’s the explanation? Jesus gives you the answer. He says, “The sons of this world are wiser than the sons of light.” Now what does that mean? Okay, in order to understand this explanation, you have to know a little bit—surprise, surprise—about first-century Judaism. Are you surprised at this point? No, probably not. It’s interesting...the expression “this world” is one that we’ve come across before, the difference between “this world” and “the world to come.” So in Judaism, there was this idea of two worlds or two creations—the old creation and the new creation. The old creation is called “this world,” HaOlam HaZeh, and then the new creation is called “the world to come,” or HaOlam HaBa, the one that is coming. And the idea was, was that the old world was fallen; it was a realm of sin—you know, this world that we live in—but that one day it’d be replaced by a new world, a new creation, which would be full of light and peace and justice and everlasting life. Isaiah describes this at the end of his book of prophecy. So what Jesus is doing is he’s talking about these two different kinds of people, two different groups of people. “The sons of this world” are the ones who belong to this fallen world, or this sinful world. “The sons of light” are those who are destined to dwell in the new creation, or the “world to come.” And what’s fascinating about this is we actually know this from the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Until the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the 1940s, this imagery of sons of light and sons of darkness—or sons of this world and sons of light—was only present in the Gospels. We have it here in the Gospel of Luke, in one brief passage, and then in the Gospel of John 12:36. Jesus actually talks about the sons of light and the sons of darkness. Well, those expressions aren’t anywhere in the Old Testament. But when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the late 1940s, lo and behold, many of the scrolls speak about the sons of light or the sons of darkness, or the sons of wickedness...this imagery of belonging to—you know—two different categories of people, the good and the bad, the good and the wicked, the sons of light and the sons of darkness. So this is a standard Jewish category for the good and the evil, or those who belong to this world of sin and those who are destined to live in the new world, the new creation. So what Jesus is doing here is he’s making a point by saying that this steward, who’s obviously a son of this world, who belongs to this world, who’s in love with the money and the things of this world, is actually thinking ahead. He’s more prudent than some of the sons of light are, because he’s basically taking from his master in order to secure his own future. He’s making sure that once he loses his status as steward, he’s going to have friends who will welcome him into their homes, so that he’s not poor and he’s not destitute.

Okay, so with that in mind, then, now we come to the point at the end of the parable. Jesus now does something even more unexpected, this is like the second twist: he gives us the nimshal. And remember I’ve said before, the nimshal is a Hebrew word for the explanation for the parable, or we might call it the upshot, or the point. It’s some kind of exhortation or explanation at the end that kind of gives you the clue to the meaning of the whole. In this case, it’s the most puzzling of his nimshals because he says, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails, they may receive you into eternal habitation.” Okay, so there’s your application. So essentially what Jesus is saying there is, make friends for yourselves by means of stolen money. That’s what “unrighteous mammon” means. So mammon, if you recall, is the Aramaic word for money. Unrighteous mammon would be stolen money—in other words, money that was gotten in some kind of underhanded way, like the dishonest steward. So Jesus is saying to his disciples, “Make friends for yourselves by means of stolen money, so that when the money runs out, they're going to receive you into eternal habitations.”

Now literally, the Greek here is eternal skēnē, or eternal tents, or eternal tabernacles. Now if you know anything about Judaism, you’ll know that the Feast of Tabernacles, or Feast of Booths was one of those festivals where they would set up tents around Jerusalem. They would dwell in the tents. It was both an echo of the exodus from Egypt and a foretaste of the new creation, a foretaste of the HaOlam HaBa, the world to come— when everyone would dwell in tents in the presence of the Lord and they would feast on wine and have great banquets and kind of celebrate the resurrection of the dead and everlasting life.

So, when Jesus is talking here about eternal habitations, that’s the clue to you that he’s not talking about earthly wealth, when he says, “make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon.” He’s not talking about making friends in an earthly way for earthly gain and earthly goods, like the parable of the steward. The whole parable is eschatalogical—it’s pointing forward to the final judgment, it’s pointing forward to the end of time. And somehow, he’s trying to counsel his disciples to pay off—watch this—pay off other people’s debts with the Lord’s money, with the Master’s money, with wealth that doesn’t really belong to them, so that when their money runs out, those people will welcome you into these eternal tabernacles, or eternal tents, some kind of heavenly dwelling place.

Okay. So that’s the point of the parable. Now, before we go on, what often happens here is, I think people get confused because they move straight into the next verses, assuming that it’s actually part of this parable. But I don’t think that’s the case—I’ll get there in just a second. I think, as usually is the case, the nimshal is the ending of the parable. It kind of gives you the point, gives you the explanation. So I want to make sure we try to explain what we just read with this explanation in mind, before we move to the next verses. So in this case, what is Jesus talking about? Well, think about it for just a minute. Think about the imagery that he’s using here—the images of debt, the imagery of wealth, the imagery of the lord, the master, and also this imagery of eternal habitations — using wealth to secure yourself a place in the kingdom of God. We’ve seen this before in the Gospel of Luke, haven’t we? If you go back, for example, to Luke chapter 12, you’ll recall Jesus talked about selling your possessions (in Luke 12:33): “give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” And then again in Luke 12:21, he says, “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

So we’ve encountered this idea before in Jesus’ teaching about spiritual wealth, or about putting down payments down now for your eternal reward. And in particular, in Luke chapter 12, if you recall, what was he referring to? He was talking about almsgiving. What he was saying is, if you sell your possessions now and give to the poor, what you’re going to do is build up treasure in heaven. And so, a number of scholars have actually suggested that when Jesus is talking in verse 9, what Jesus is talking about here, is again, the theme of using almsgiving to pay down your debts to God, to pay down other people’s debts as well, so that they will welcome you into eternal habitations, they will welcome you into the heavenly kingdom of God. And the logic behind that is, it’s simple, but it’s actually profound: everything we actually possess in this world doesn’t really belong to us. We’re basically all stewards of the one true Master, God, who is the Lord of heaven and earth. So everything we have, in a sense, doesn’t belong to us. We’re doing deals, we’re managing things with someone else’s money. And so what Jesus is saying here is, use that unrighteous mammon, that money that doesn’t really belong to you, and give it away! Be prodigal with it. Waste it on other people and give it to them and use it to pay down their debts, and what they will do is, they will reward you in the age to come.

We’ve seen this before where Jesus says in parables, you know, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind—people who can’t pay you back — and you will be rewarded at the resurrection of the just.

This is what St. Augustine said:

Why did the Lord Jesus Christ present this parable to us? He surely did not approve of that cheat of a servant who cheated his master, stole from him, and did not make it up from his own pocket.

Pause. Notice, Augustine understands the economic injustice involved in the parable. He recognizes that this steward is stealing from his master and cooking the books. Augustine continues:

On top of that, he also did some extra pilfering. He caused his master further loss, in order to prepare a little nest of quiet and security for himself after he lost his job. Why did the Lord set this before us? It is not because that servant cheated but because he exercised foresight for the future. When even a cheat is praised for ingenuity, Christians who make no such provision blush. I mean, this is what he added, ‘Behold, the children of this age are more prudent than the children of light.” They perpetrate frauds in order to secure their future. In what life, after all, did that steward insure himself like that? What one was he going to quit when he bowed to his master’s decision? He was insuring himself for a life that was going to end. Would you not insure yourself for eternal life?

That’s the point. So notice that what Augustine saying here is, that the servant’s not being commended for his wickedness, he’s being commended for his foresight. And what Jesus is saying is that if people in this world go to extreme measures to think about providing for themselves for the future, even so much as to steal, then how much more should Christians—should disciples of Jesus—go to extreme measures to prepare for and to ensure for our eternal inheritance, for our eternal life, for our being welcomed into eternal habitations into the kingdom of heaven?

And let’s face it, think about how much time people today—including Christians—spend thinking about their retirement plans and their 401ks and putting away money for the future, and savings and all kinds of things, investments. It is a very popular, very common, in the west at least, for Christians to put down lots of money down in investments for the future. Okay, fine...what kind of spiritual investments have you made? What monies have you put into your spiritual bank account? How much have you thought about your spiritual future, and what are you doing with your spiritual wealth that’s been entrusted to you? That’s what the parable is all about. And so this imagery of the unjust steward is a really striking and memorable way of getting us to wake up and to start thinking prudently, and to not let the “sons of this world” be smarter about their earthly future than we as disciples of Jesus are smart about our heavenly future...

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