Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Tricky Steward (Luke 16:1-9)

Tricksters abound in the scriptures. There is Abraham who lied to Pharaoh about Sarah’s status. There is his grandson Jacob, who impersonated his older brother to con his father into giving him the birthright that was his brother’s due. There is Jael, who lured her people’s persecutor into her tent and murdered him while he slept. There is Judith, who tricked the enemy leader into getting drunk and then cut off his head while he lay in a stupor. Heroes and heroines all, they achieved good, but their means were less than admirable.

Then along comes the tricky steward of Luke 16:1-9. Threatened with dismissal for dishonesty, he summons his master’s debtors, persuades them to rewrite their promissory notes for less than they actually owe, and thus assures himself of a place to go when he is turned out. (One wonders what he thinks they will do for him—take him in as a hanger-on of some kind or offer him a job? He hasn’t exactly commended himself as an honest employee! But this is a parable, not a history, so it need not answer such questions.) To every reader’s astonishment, Jesus commends him for his prudence! He even holds him up as an example: “I tell you, make friends for yourself with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9, NAB).

What kind of advice is this from the One who is the way, the truth and the life? It is, appropriately enough, tricky advice. The Roman Catholic lectionary’s selection of Mass readings for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A, exposes the trick. In the first reading, the prophet Amos rails against the dishonest merchants who swindle the poor out of the little have, caring only for their own profit and not for the ruin of their victims (Amos 8:4-7). Now that sounds more like it! That's what we expect to hear from the Bible! But the dishonest steward of the gospel dupes only his own wealthy master, and not for financial profit but for some guarantee of a tolerable future for himself. He does not take anything: he refuses, in his master’s name, to take the full amount the debtors owe.

Refusing to take is a form of giving. Basically, the steward gives away goods—admittedly, his master’s, not his own—to make friends for the days to come. Indirectly, even the goods are in some sense his own: they would enable his master to pay him his wages, or , less creditably, they would provide him with more property to squander for his own gain, the crime for which his master is planning to fire him. Perhaps we might even think they represent the “extra” he intended to bilk the creditors out of to line his own pocket, but then the master would not have discovered the steward’s trick. In any case, the wealth these goods represent is “dishonest wealth,” as Jesus notes, but it is real wealth nonetheless. And the steward gives it away.

In fact, he follows the familiar gospel advice Jesus gives the person we remember as “the rich young man,” though Luke says nothing about his age: “ sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me" (Luke 18:22, NAB) In other words, give away your wealth, and you will indeed “be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9, NAB). The point, it seems, is not how the steward acquired the wealth, but what he did with it: he gave it away for the sake of a better future.
Parables are characterized by a sting in their tail. The parable of the dishonest steward certainly qualifies, but it’s the second reading of the Mass that adds the real sting. In 1 Timothy 2:6, St. Paul speaks of Christ as one “who gave himself as a ransom for all”. This is the One whom the rich young man—and we-- are to follow. First, says Jesus, give away all you own, for, as we all know, what we think we possess too easily comes to possess us. Then, says Jesus, you are free to come, follow me. But where is he going? To Jerusalem, where he will give away his last and greatest possession, his life, to assure all of us real treasure “in the eternal dwellings.”
And, as always, the final word is spoken from the heart of the mystery of the cross: “Do this in remembrance of me.”
©2007, Abbey of St. Walburga, Virginia Dale CO

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