Many Catholics misunderstand our Lord’s parables. We fall into a saccharine piety, thinking of them as fables, nice down-to-earth stories that teach religious lessons. This, by the way, accounts for a great deal of bad preaching. Suffering this superficial view of the parables, many priests think they can imitate the Master. Thus the banal personal stories or movie and cultural references that supposedly illustrate divine truths but in fact only empty them of significance.
In fact, Jesus’ parables always have more depth than a first – or second or third – reading reveals. Far from being merely homespun wisdom, they often contain a twist or a shock to upend conventional thinking.
Particularly in Saint Luke’s Gospel our Lord gives us some puzzling parables. Thus far in the Sunday reading of Luke, we have heard about a hated foreigner who was better than Israel’s finest (Lk 10), cynical social advice on how to get ahead (Lk 14), and a shepherd with poor accounting skills (Lk 15). We will later hear about the unjust judge and the pious publican (Lk 18). The incongruity of these stories is meant stun us, precisely so that we will pay better attention to our Lord’s teaching.
Which brings us to today’s parable, quaintly known as that of the “Unjust Steward.” (Lk 16:1-13) Reported for cheating his master, this steward makes provision for his eventual dismissal by further defrauding him. Then the master commends him! This is absurd, of course, and we should not nod in pious agreement with the master’s praise. The story is meant to shock, not edify. And it does so that we will sit up and appreciate a truth that contradicts worldly wisdom. Namely, the practicality of faith.
Now, conventional thinking has it that faith is impractical. It focuses on heavenly things, so worldly realities (time, money, etc.) must not be of any concern. Since the faithful look to heaven, they must have their heads in the clouds. It is just this error that our Lord targets in His summary of the parable (which also serves as a rebuke): “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” Put differently, The faithful should be as practical in striving for heavenly glory as the unfaithful are for worldly comfort.
The steward is a scoundrel, plain and simple. But he at least serves as a good example of practicality. Our Lord uses the word prudent to describe him. He does not mean the virtue of that name but a worldly prudence or shrewdness. Conversely, our prudence in seeking the things that are above might be termed a holy shrewdness. The unjust but shrewd steward knows three things that can help us be more practical: he will be judged, he will need housing, and he will need the means to secure it.
First, judgment. The steward knew that judgment was coming. So also the day will come when each of us will hear the same words: “Prepare a full account of your stewardship.” The goods we have are not our own but the Lord’s. We are mere stewards. At our judgment we will have to show whether and how we cared for what He entrusted to us. Awareness of that day enables us to know how to act, as it did the steward. If such a wicked man could take worldly judgment seriously, shouldn’t the children of God have a similarly serious view of eternal judgment?
Second, the final goal. No project, mission, or venture can succeed without a clear final goal. Such clarity of purpose is the most practical thing in the world. So it is that the unjust steward knew where he wanted to be after judgment. (Well, he knew where he didn’t want to be. . .at least that’s a beginning!) He had a singularity of purpose and coordinated his efforts to achieve that end.
Even more so the children of God – for whom heaven is not a desire but a rightful inheritance – should have that same clarity of purpose. Elsewhere our Lord says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.” (Mt 6:33) We typically seek worldly ends, however, without (we hope) losing heaven when we should seek “eternal habitations” at the cost of everything else.
Thus our Lord warns us, “No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” He would not say this except that we try to do just that, serve God and mammon. . .heaven and the world.
Finally, the means. Once a goal is established, then we need the means to achieve it. If I want to run a marathon, I will establish a strict regimen: exercise, diet, etc., to achieve that end. The unjust steward, louse though he was, at least understood this: having an end in mind, although necessary, is insufficient. We must also choose the means to that end.
If the steward knew how to use his worldly resources to guarantee his safe future, certainly we should do the same for ours. The proper use of wealth — be it material goods, personal talents, or time — is for spiritual good, for sanctification here and hereafter. Charitable giving benefits not only those who receive it, but also those who give. By such giving we grow in charity; we learn to detach from this world and attach to the next.
So also with the time allotted to us: it is for His glory and our salvation. There is no such thing as “Me time.” All use of our time, even our relaxation, should be with Him and for Him.
So let’s not hear this parable with a mistaken piety that misses the point. Rather, may we receive the full shock of its message and learn the practical ways of faith, even from an unjust steward.
*Image: Parable of the Unjust Steward by Marinus Van Reymerswaele, c. 1540 [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna]