The Parables of Christ, Part IV: Parable of the Unjust Steward

The Parables of Christ, Part IV: Parable of the Unjust Stewardby Fr. James B. Buckley, FSSP
From the March 2011 Newsletter

The Gospel for the eighth Sunday after Pentecost is taken from Saint Luke 16:1-9 and contains the parable of the Unjust Steward: (1) “And He said also to his disciples: There was a certain rich man who had a steward: and this man was accused unto him, that he was wasting his goods. (2) And he called him, and said to him: What is this I hear of you? Give an account of your  stewardship: for now you can be steward no longer. (3) And the steward said within himself: What shall I do, since my lord is taking from me my stewardship? To dig I am not able; to beg I am ashamed. (4) I know what I will do, that when I am removed from my stewardship they may receive me into their houses. (5) Calling therefore together every one of his lord’s debtors, he said to the first: How much do you owe my lord? (6) But he said: A hundred barrels of oil. And he said to him: Take your bond and sit down quickly and write fifty. (7) Then he said to another: And how much do you owe? And he said a hundred quarters of wheat. He said to him: Take your bond and write eighty. (8) And the lord commended the unjust steward forasmuch as he had done wisely: for the children of this world are wiser in their own generation than the children of light. (9) And I say to you: Make for yourselves friends of the mammon of iniquity; that when it comes to an end, they may receive you into everlasting dwellings.”

The chief difficulty the modern reader finds with the realism of this parable is that the steward after being told of his dismissal is still allowed to exercise his office. Father Leopold Fonck, S.J., a great scriptural scholar, maintains, however, that in Palestine during Our Lord’s public ministry some time would elapse before a discharged steward would surrender his office to a successor.

A more serious difficulty, Fonck observes, concerns the debtors’ bonds which, he surmises, represent the rents on the tenants’ farms. He writes: “For, if the steward, as was usual amongst Oriental officials, in previous years had exacted from the farmers or with their aid, from the peasants, much larger sums of money than he transmitted to his master, he, now, without resorting to any very clumsy or conspicuous fraud upon his master, could make a considerable reduction in the charges of the peasants.” On this supposition it is not difficult to see why the unjust steward expected to be rewarded by the tenant farmers after his master dismissed him.

The master praises the unjust steward not for his dishonesty but for his sagacity. Using the remaining time of his employment with cunning, he was able to provide for his future.

To discover this parable’s meaning one can follow the advice of Tertullian who wrote that one will find no parable which was not either explained by Christ or illumined by a commentary of an evangelist. “For the children of this world are wiser in their own generation than the children of light” is a comment emphasizing the necessity of prudence. The unjust steward represents the “children of this world” because he lives his life estranged from God. He, however, acts more wisely to secure his temporal good in this passing world than do those enlightened by the truth of Christ to attain their eternal good. Since prudence is the virtue which directs man’s actions to their goal, Christ is exhorting His disciples not to be outdone by the cunning of the wicked but to pursue those virtuous acts which will lead to their everlasting happiness.

Money is called the mammon of iniquity because it can be gained by sinful means and used for sinful purposes. The implication of verse 9 is that Christ’s faithful should use their legitimate wealth to aid the needy. By so doing they will exercise prudence because these virtuous actions are the means to the eternal life of heaven where Christ and all His saints will receive them in everlasting mansions. This detail contrasts sharply with the knavery of the unjust steward who used sinful means to be received by his beneficiaries into earthly dwellings which will pass away.

March 5, 2011