The parable of the dishonest steward, heard in today’s reading, is arguably the most puzzling and perplexing of all the parables uttered by Jesus. On one hand, it has a similar structure of the parable of the unforgiving steward (Mt 18:23-35), depicting the relationship between people from different social strata: the master, the steward and the debtors. But although the parable of the unforgiving steward is quite direct and clear in its moral message — those who wish to receive forgiveness must also extend forgiveness — the message of the parable of the dishonest steward is not immediately clear. Far from it. And this can be seen in how many different interpretations have been put forward.
One interpretation is Jesus did not intend to praise the steward for his dishonesty, but instead emphasized the need for Christians to think of the future, to act decisively and to live with clarity of purpose. After all, Jesus did say, “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light” (Lk 16:8). The point is that Christians should be shrewd, for there is not conflict between true piety and practical prudence. And this shrewdness should be put to use for the Kingdom, for the challenges of this world demand a complete investment of our efforts and skills.
Another interpretation is that the parable is meant to teach us how different is the authentic justice of the Kingdom of God compared with flawed, human justice. This view parallels the command to love our enemies (Lk 6:27-35) and to not seek retaliation against them.
A third interpretation argues that the steward had actually canceled the profit — a commission of sorts — that was due to him, thus reducing the debts owed. In doing so, the debtors and the master were both pleased, thus putting the steward in a good position with each. As New Testament scholar Craig A. Evans explains, the disciples “should be able to recognize the advantage of giving up a little now so that some day in the future they may receive much more.”
One big question addressed in the passage is simply, “How should the disciple of Christ understand and handle wealth?” The word “mammon” refers to money, but also to all material possessions and property. In this parable, it is almost personified — and understandably so, as material things can certainly replace God in our lives.
This isn’t just about how we treat those who are poor, although Jesus addresses that in many places (see Lk 16:19-31), but also about how we form our priorities. The connection between both is seen in the angry denunciation of the prophet Amos, who condemns the rich who “trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land!” Those who care only about their wealth will eventually, in some way, be tempted to misuse their power in order to gain even more possessions.
“You cannot serve God and mammon.” This statement by Jesus is not perplexing or difficult to interpret. The early Christian writer Tertullian put it very well: “Nothing that is God’s is obtainable by money.” Salvation certainly cannot be bought or earned. It is a gift, as St. Paul wrote to Timothy, granted through God’s mercy and the unique mediation of “the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as ransom for all.” We can have only one master, and so we must choose who we will serve.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.