This story about the “dishonest steward” follows immediately after St. Luke’s telling of the Prodigal Son in which the young man wastes wealth and opportunity, but comes to his senses, returns home and is restored to the family. The dishonest steward is one who wastes his position and opportunity, comes to his senses and works to restore his future from his pending dismissal. Did Luke intentionally put these two stories back-to-back? Hard to know. I will tell you that the parable of the dishonest steward is one of the most debated parables among scripture scholars. So, if you are hoping that I will unravel the wisdom and mystery of this parable for you … well, that would be a long wait for a train don’t come. But I will give it a go.
The prodigal son parable is a little easier for us to deal with, at least as far as seeing God in the character of the father, and seeing ourselves in one of the brothers (or maybe a little bit of both at times). But what about the parable of the dishonest steward? Where is God in this parable? Is God portrayed as the rich man? Maybe, but that seems a stretch to my mind. I don’t think anyone would assign God to the role of the steward or any of the debtors. How about ourselves – where are we in the parable? That is one of the things about parables. We are supposed to be able to enter the parable in order to plumb its wisdom. Does anyone connect to one of the characters? If you are the dishonest steward, maybe I’ll see you in Confession. If you are a rich person, please see me after Mass.
I do know this: we are all supposed to be one of the children of light who are meant to struggle with this parable and why the dishonest steward would be commended by the rich man.
I can tell you that in Jesus’ day the steward of a large agricultural operation had the full faith and backing of the owner to operate the business. It was also understood he was to garner a profit even as he was allowed to earn a commission… and make a side deal or two. A steward was a combination chief operating office and commodity trader. That can be seen when his “squandering” comes to light – by the way, the same “squandering” word is used of the prodigal son.
The prodigal son gets a chance to make things right, at least has some degree of conversion and contrition, and so returns home. The owner gives the steward a chance to settle accounts before his dismissal. The optimistic side of me wonders if there is some degree of conversion and contrition. For example, as he rewrites the promissory notes, what is he doing? Is he simply currying favor for his next job? Maybe he is taking out the unjust profits and excessive commissions – just the thing that the prophet Amos decries in the first reading. Maybe our once-dishonest steward has seen at least a glimmer of the light and is changing his life…. or maybe he is just making the best out of a bad situation.
I can tell you this, there are three things that the steward does:
- sees the world as it is and works within that context. He does not go down the rabbit hole wishing the world worked in some other manner. (the prodigal son finally came to his senses in a similar way). He can dig ditches or he can shape a different future.
- He takes action, working within the world-as-it-is, to change his circumstances. (so, too the prodigal son). He did not stew in his wailing and bemoaning his fate. There is something no-nonsense and utterly practical about his choices. He is making the needed changes.
- He forgives… and here is where it is different. The steward is doing what the older brother of the prodigal son could not. Forgiveness opens the gates of the future for the steward. In a way, just as Jesus “converted” the cross from a sign of torture to one of hope and promise, the steward converts his prior dishonesty into a moment of grace.
OK, maybe I am just an optimist, but I lean to the interpretation where the steward, like the prodigal son, has had a moment of conversion; has come to his senses. He uses the dishonest part of the wealth to restore what justice he can, and then places himself at the mercy of what comes next. What remains is honest wealth, and a heart now open to true riches.
It is not just parables of prodigal sons and dishonest stewards. It is the real story of the tax collector Matthew at his post, unjustly levying commissions and taxes on the people. Jesus chose him, he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Matthew, a sinner, took action and followed. The prodigal son, the dishonest steward, and St. Matthew – all decided to take a different path in the world-as-it-is. All took action. All entered into the realm of forgiveness – into the realm of grace and hope. All serving one master, trusting in the mercy of God, and letting the unknown future unfold.
And then there is us… Here is what I believe – what I hope. We all have been brought to moments of conversion – moments we are too aware we are the prodigal son, dishonest steward, we are Matthew. And sometimes those moments pass without change. But those moments come again, again, and again because the Lord is ever calling. It is just as the second reading tells us, God desires that all be saved (1 Tim 2:4). When that moment comes, here is a short list of responses from today’s readings:
- see the world as it is
- take action
If we can do that, what is prodigal in our lives, what is dishonest in our lives, those things we desperately clutch, they will begin to fall away. What will be left is honest, holy, and of God. What is left is true wealth and with that “You will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9)