In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus often tells parables that should leave us as readers bewildered. The parable of the unjust steward or shrewd manager is one of these.
A rich man has a household manager who has control of his master’s property. Rather than treat this property with the respect deserved, the property is squandered.
The rich man learns of this squandering. He comes for the “final” judgment of the steward.
But, this manager of the master’s household is shrewd. He calls in the master’s debtors, decreasing the amount they owe. Perhaps this may seem foolish. Imagine getting a call from a mortgage company, cutting one’s debt in half. This is no way to make a profit. Sure, some may repay their debt more quickly out of gratitude. But will all? The master nonetheless praises the “wicked” steward for his prudent action. How can Jesus affirm this dishonest behavior?
The key to the text is the words spoken by Jesus at the conclusion of the parable. The parable is not ultimately about the shrewdness of the steward. It’s about the prudent preparation required by disciples preparing for the last judgment.
For Jesus, “the children of this world” (Lk. 16:8) have no problem functioning as prudent managers of money. Jesus is taking up a critique found throughout the Old Testament.
Israel often is concerned more about the gross national product than the obligation of the covenant to care for the poor through alms. Amos 8:4-7 presents the trumping of the divine economy by the human economy with prophetic vigor.
Jesus thus urges his disciples to be very prudent managers of their money. The prudent manager is the one who gives alms, storing up treasure in heaven. He takes the wealth that has been given to him and gives it away to the poor, transforming the human economy into the divine economy.
This focus upon giving alms perhaps makes us as Americans uncomfortable. Our income is meant to be something for us, the result of our own hard work.
But, for the Christian this is not the case. Our money is never our own. It is bestowed to us as a gift meant to be offered to the poor. To become a shrewd manager of the household of the world is to bestow the human economy to the poor. And in giving money to the poor, we give it to Christ himself.
St. Augustine makes this point often in his sermons. The hand of the poor is God’s own hand. When we give away the gifts that we have received, we acknowledge our own place in God’s economy as creatures created for love.
For us Christians, the time of judgment is at hand. The kingdom of God is blossoming in our midst. For this reason, it is time to manage our economies, preparing to hand over everything to God.
The poor are therefore not simply those whom we should pity. Instead, their empty hands are the very ones that we must fill. The time of judgment is at hand. Go through our pantries and feed the hungry. Go through our closets and clothe the naked. Go through our schedules and make time to visit the sick, the prisoner, the lonely and the distraught.
For the kingdom of God is at hand. We have to make a decision whether we’ll remain complacent, unjust managers of this household. Or, if we’re shrewd enough to store up treasures in heaven by transforming the human economy of scarcity into God’s own economy of generous love.
Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.