Opening the Word: The Gospel's puzzling parable

How difficult is the parable of the dishonest steward, heard in today’s Gospel? “Of all of Jesus’ parables, this is probably the most puzzling. It is certainly the one on which more scholarly ink has been spilled than any other,” writes New Testament scholar Craig L. Blomberg in “Preaching the Parables” (Baker Academic, $24). 

There may be no need for “probably”; in my opinion, this is the most puzzling parable. It has a similar structure to the parable of the unforgiving, or ungrateful, steward (see Mt 18:23-35; Lk 7:41-43). But whereas that parable is straightforward in its message — if you wish to receive forgiveness, you must extend forgiveness — the message of the parable of the dishonest steward is not as clear. 

First, the steward, who has misused his master’s money and so faces the loss of job and status, uses dishonest means in order to open doors for future prospects. He doesn’t admit his guilt, ask for forgiveness or attempt to make matters right. Second, having changed the amounts due on the promissory notes (and thus ingratiating himself to the debtors), the steward is — shockingly — commended by his master. Why? Because he had, Jesus said, acted prudently. 

At this point, many readers might understandably be perplexed. It seems that Jesus not only presented a parable condoning dishonest and self-serving behavior, but had actually praised it! But St. Augustine stated that Jesus “surely did not approve of that cheat of a servant who cheated his master, stole from him and did not make it up from his own pocket.” We must be careful to not miss what Jesus indicated was a key point of the parable: “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” 

And, in fact, St. Augustine writes that the parable is not meant to praise the sins of the steward but to extol him “because he exercised foresight for the future. When even a cheat is praised for his ingenuity, Christians who make no such provision blush.” Put simply, the parable extols shrewdness and ingenuity, and urges Christians to employ them for the sake of the Kingdom. It is very much a commentary on Jesus’ statement, “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves” (Mt 10:16). The virtue of prudence “disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1806). 

Unfortunately, we can sometimes reject such shrewdness and prudence out of a sense of false piety, naivety or fearfulness. Yet the Catechism adds it “is not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation.” As children of the light, we should seek to use every good and moral means available to us to build up the kingdom of God, to proclaim the Gospel and to defend the Catholic faith. Yet, if we are honest, we recognize how timid and unsure we often are, especially in the face of the questions and attacks presented by the children of this world. 

In order to have and to increase prudence, we should keep in mind Jesus’ concluding exhortation: “You cannot serve both God and mammon.” Prudence is “right reason in action,” which means it is rooted in right priorities and the knowledge that we are not of this world, but are children of light and children of God. 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.