Understanding the dishonest steward
The Gospel for this past Sunday, Sept. 22, is somewhat baffling because the moral meaning behind Jesus’s parable isn’t necessarily made clear to us right away. In the parable, a steward has been cheating his master and is found out. Before he is fired, however, the steward is called to give an account of his actions. Not knowing what he’ll do without a job, the steward goes to his master’s debtors and arranges for them to pay less than what they previously owed. By this act of forgiveness, the steward hopes to ingratiate himself to his master’s debtors, making them more likely to help him out if he finds himself unemployed. The master learns of his steward’s action, but instead of condemning the steward, he commends him for being so practical. Why in the world is a person like the steward the “hero” of the story?
There are at least two possible schools of thought regarding the interpretation of this parable. The first school presents the steward in a negative light, asserting that the lightening of the debtors’ debts is a further example of the steward’s cheating ways and an attempt to manipulate the debtors for future use. Why would Jesus tell a story like this? Following the parable of the Unrighteous Steward, Jesus says, “The children of the world are more prudent with their own generation than are the children of the light.” This is a reprimand to His followers for not living up to the spirit of mercy that God intends for them. Even the worldly, at the very least, will show mercy and prudence out of self-interest, Jesus is saying. However, we are called to go beyond that.
A second interpretation of the Gospel is more redeeming for the steward, as it takes into account the Palestinian custom of agents acting on behalf of their masters, and the usurious practices they often employed. Similar to how Biblical tax collectors collected more money than was actually owed in order to skim off larger commissions for themselves, the “unrighteous” steward, as the parable titles him, had probably charged his master’s debtors higher fees than necessary in order to make extra profit. When read in this way, Jesus’s parable is recognizing the wisdom of the steward’s choice to give up this chance for a bit of temporary wealth in order to make a more lasting investment in friendships that could help him out later. According to this interpretation, the lessening of the debts isn’t an act of cunning, but of calculated generosity. The master is still getting everything he was owed, but the debtors are relieved of the steward’s previous thievery.
Regardless of which version is correct, the message at the heart of the story remains the same. The debts forgiven were not forgiven out of the goodness of the steward’s contrite heart, but out of desperation. Jesus is calling us to rise above only having a change of heart when it’s suddenly helpful for us in a practical sense; He is calling for deeper and more spiritual roots, and for purer motives when we help our neighbor.