The Parable of the Dishonest Steward

This past weekend, the Church set before us one of the most mysterious parables Jesus ever told, the Parable of the Dishonest Steward (Lk 16:1-12). It’s the sort of thing that makes homilists all over the world feel their collars tighten and gives them an overwhelming urge to just skip the Gospel and focus on some nice social justice message about helping poor people based on the reading from the prophets. The whole parable is baffling, not least because Jesus (not for the only time in His preaching) seems to love using a sort of whimsical anti-logic that reminds me of nothing so much as Douglas Adams.

Adams, in one of his more wonderful lines, describes the fleet of spacecraft that comes to demolish earth thusly: “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.” It’s a classic sort of sense of humor that the Irish have come to perfect. When I was in Belfast a few years back, my host took me to dinner and, as we were leaving the restaurant, he gestured to a painting of a hunting scene and said, “Have you ever seen an Irish wolfhound?” I peered at the picture of the baying dog and tried to recall if I’d ever encountered the breed before. I was just about to turn to him and say, “No,” when he gestured to the picture again and said, “That is not an Irish wolfhound.” He wore a smile of deep pleasure as he said this.

And I can’t help but suspect that Jesus felt rather pleased with His little parable gag, too. Like the Parable of the Unjust Judge (Lk 18:1-8), Jesus’ Parable of the Dishonest Steward holds up for our inspection a character whom we hesitate to set before our children as a model citizen. After some scandalous behavior by the main characters, each parable is then brought to a close with a curiously odd denouement. In the parable of the Unjust Judge, Jesus tells us that God is just like that Unjust Judge isn’t. The Unjust Judge was a curmudgeonly slugabed who couldn’t be bothered with the widow’s plea. In just exactly not that way, God will vindicate His elect speedily. It’s one of the quirkiest forms of emphasis Jesus uses.

Similarly, in the Parable of the Dishonest Steward, Jesus’ moral appears to be, “Observe the crooked steward: Be just the way he isn’t. Instead of screwing people out of money, instead of being focused on money at all, use money to help the poor so that you can have real treasure in heaven.” It’s an extraordinarily strange (and I think deliberately funny) parable that is, like a lot of peasant humor, played straight-faced to an audience that is not certain whether it’s supposed to laugh.

 

Part of the difficulty, of course, is that we are certain we know all about parables, so when these parable zig where we are certain they are supposed to zag, it throws us for a loop. But the reality is, we don’t really understand parables as well as we are sure we do, because (as the above-mentioned parables make clear) we don’t always think like Jesus (and we especially don’t tend to think that He had a sense of humor or a puckish joy at saying odd things calculated to make us think).

Part of the reason we feel especially self-confident that we know what’s going on with parables is that we have been conditioned to think that Jesus always taught in parables. And part of the reason we assume this is because we suffer from chronic chronological snobbery and the conviction that we are 2,000 years smarter than the supposedly dumb peasants Jesus addressed. So we assume that parables are just a good way of teaching these simple folk deep truths, whereas we can skip the parable and just breeze on to the (we are certain) obvious and now well-worn moral of the parable.

This assumption is, however, dead wrong. For example, we know that Jesus did not always speak in parables. We know this because in the first two books of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ teaching is not parabolic. You may say, “First two books? I thought there was only one Gospel of Matthew!”

Right you are. Just one Gospel. But Matthew is a very subtle literary architect. His Gospel consists of a prologue (the infancy narrative), then five “books,” with each book containing a narrative and discourse section. The narrative section of Book 1 is Matthew 3-4, telling the story of Jesus’ baptism and temptation. The discourse section of Book 1 is the Sermon on the Mount. The narrative section of Book 2 is Matthew 8-9, and the discourse section is Matthew 10.

Why five books? The hint is given by Matthew in 5:1-2: “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them.” Matthew’s point is that Jesus is a Second Moses, going up a second Mountain to deliver the New Law of the New Covenant. Just as Moses’ revelation is delivered via the five books of the Torah, so Jesus’ revelation comes in five books as well.

Now the thing to note is this: The Sermon on the Mount in Book 1 and the Missionary Discourse in Book 2 both employ clear language, not parables. It is not until we reach Matthew 13, after Jesus has found the leadership of Israel so hardened against him that they accuse him of being possessed by the “prince of demons” (11:24), that He begins to obscure His message by delivering it in the form of parables. Why?

 

For an answer, we must (as usual with Matthew) look back at the Old Testament. There are two parables in the Old Testament that are most prominent: Jotham’s parable and Nathan’s parable. Jotham is a prophet who tells a parable to King Abimelech in Judges 9. Abimelech was not supposed to be king, but after he killed his 70 brothers, there was nobody left to fill the job. So Jotham told Abimelech a parable about a bramble who was made “king of the trees” after other, worthier trees were passed over for the job. In short, Abimelech is the bramble.

In the same way, in 2 Samuel 12, Nathan told David the parable of the rich man who stole the poor man’s one lamb and offered it to his guests. When David replied, “The man who has done this deserves to die!” Nathan answered, “You are the man!” and spelled out for him his crime of adultery and murder with Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite. Why then are parables told? Because leadership has become corrupt, and corruption has blinded those who say they see and deafened those who say they hear.

That is why Matthew records Jesus citing Isaiah in 13:14-15:

With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says: “You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.”

The original context of this passage was Isaiah’s account of his own call as a prophet, in which the Lord assured the prophet that he would be rejected by his countrymen and that his message would fall on blind eyes and deaf ears. Isaiah would prophesy “until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without men, and the land is utterly desolate, and the LORD removes men far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land” (Is 6:11-12). In other words, God told Isaiah that his prophecies would only result in the hardening of Israel, who did not want to hear what he had to say. And that hardening would result in the judgment of the Assyrian invasion. Now, Jesus warns of the same thing and, paradoxically, makes that warning clear by beginning to veil His message in parables.

This hiddenness of the message is reflected by the fact that there are two collections of sayings in Matthew 13: one in the boat to the crowds, and the other in the house to the disciples. Those locations are not accidental, but are invested by Matthew with a theological significance.

In the case of the boat, there is, of course, a mundane reason for the location: Jesus goes out in the boat to speak to the large crowd on shore, because it’s easier for everyone to hear. Matthew, however, hints at a deeper significance here as well. To the ancient Jewish mind, “the waters” are always symbolic of death and chaos. Boats (for example, Noah’s ark), in contrast, symbolize salvation. Jesus Himself, in Matthew 24, will link salvation (and judgment) with the image of Noah. Peter also will make a clear connection between Noah and the Church’s sacrament of baptism (1 Pet 3:18-22). So Matthew draws our attention to Jesus in the boat as He speaks to “the crowds,” that is, to those who “do not see,” “do not hear,” and “do not understand” (v. 13). As the Church, the new ark of salvation, shall do later, Jesus speaks over the chaos to the world (often portrayed as a chaotic and tossing sea in Scripture) and is not understood, because the world does not want to understand him.

 

The message, then, is “hidden” in a way that is almost a satire on the world’s blindness. For note what the parables have in common: Seed is sown. But where is it? It’s invisible. Does the seed vary in quality? No, it’s the soil that varies in quality. The harvest is poorer or richer not because God is competent some days and bumbling on others, but because His revelation falls on rocks, shallow soil, and good soil (vv. 3-9). In the same way, good wheat is hidden among the weeds (vv. 24-30), mustard seed is hidden by its tininess (vv. 31-32), and leaven (v. 33) is simply invisible, kneaded into the bread as the Church is kneaded into the world. After this, there is a treasure that is (once again) hidden, a pearl (hidden in an oyster), and a net that scoops up every kind of fish, good and bad, and thereby keeps the good fish obscured among the bad fish who will be thrown away (vv. 44-50).

But the kingdom that is hidden from the world is not hidden from the disciples. As Jesus says to His disciples, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given” (v. 11). And so Matthew tells us Jesus “left the crowds and went into the house” where He proceeds to explain the parables. In other words, it is only within the Church that the mystery of Christ can be fully understood. As G. K. Chesterton put it in The Everlasting Man, Jesus is the riddle and the Church is the answer. The Church is the leaven of the world making it holy. The Church is a net pulling in both good and bad fish, a field growing both wheat and weeds. But whatever chaotic waves of history the boat must ride, the King of the kingdom remains enthroned forever, yet Himself hidden — in the bread of the Eucharist and in the least of these where He appears to us in the faces of the poor.

That is why the Parable of the Dishonest Steward brings us forcibly back to the vision of the use of “dishonest mammon” for the sake of making eternal friends. The master of the steward has enough common sense to realize that, crook though he was, the dishonest steward at least knew the moral of the parable of the sheep and the goats: that if you hope to come to a happy ending when (not if) your luck in this world runs out, then you should do your best to get in good with the ones with whom the Judge will consult when He is deliberating His verdict about you on That Day: the hungry, thirsty, sick, naked, and imprisoned. If you come with tip-top recommendations from the upper-crust citizens of hell, but don’t have the least of these to put in a good word for you, then Heaven help you, brother, because the hope of your salvation is hidden indeed.

Mark P. Shea

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Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

  • Elaine T

    A lot of food for thought, there.

    I want to pass on something I read from Kenneth Bailey about this particular parable. Of course, the parables are rich and pointing out one meaning doesn’t mean there aren’t multiple layers of meaning within each parable. But this was the first interpretation that really struck me as making sense of it. So… Bailey has years of experience in Israel and environs. His interpretations are partially based on the cultures he experiences in the villages, ok? as well as Scriptural texts in local languages that aren’t usually sources for English translations. His discussion runs for 30 pages which I can;t reproduce here, but what hit me hard was this: In a backhanded way the actions of the steward are a compliment to the master. The steward knew the master was generous and merciful. He risked everything on this aspect of his master. He won. Because the master was indeed generous and merciful, he chose to pay the full price for his steward’s salvation.

  • Kevin Codd

    Beautifully written

  • Jake Frost

    I, like many, have always wondered about this parable. One reading I’ve heard is this: the master is God, the dishonest wealth is . . . basically everything of this world, in that it’s not ours, we don’t own it. “Our” time, “our” money, “our” life, it’s really all God’s and he’s entrusted it to us for a time. We’re His stewards. We can’t take any of it with us, and we will be called to account for our stewardship. All these things, that don’t belong to us, we should be using in the service of God — including in helping others. When we do that, we are only giving away something that doesn’t belong to us anyway — just as the dishonest wealth didn’t belong to the dishonest steward, he was giving away what wasn’t his anyway. Doing that, Jesus tells us we’re acting prudently — as opposed to simply squandering the master’s property to no purpose or using it for only our own selves. I guess that’s similar to Mark’s reading, but slightly differently. Is there an error in the interpretation recounted here? And has anyone else heard other interpretations? It’s definitely a challenging passage — like many parts of Scripture!

  • Mary

    Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Man Born to Be King has a nice retelling of it, where the master’s final words are, “You’re a thorough-going scoundrel — but I’ve got to admire your thoroughness.”

  • Peter

    Thank for that, Elaine. Like you, I took was struck by this as a potential “mercy parable”. Upon first hearing it, I thought, “I have absolutely no idea what this means.” And it was frustrating and made me anxious.

    But when I looked again and thought some about the strange reality that the master praises the dishonest steward, I began to consider more not the obvious transgression of the steward, but rather his seeming turn toward the mercy of the master.

    If the message of Divine Mercy is true–and I think it is–then this parable is, in a way, a revelation of that truth from the Gospels. Mercy is indeed God’s greatest attribute and nothing pleases Him more than our trust in Him, our abandonment to His goodness. Such a gesture on our part outweighs even our terrible “dishonesty”, however that may rear its head in our sins.

  • Elenka

    So that’s what that was about. Thanks!smilies/smiley.gif

  • M. Love

    Our pastor (a commendably orthodox priest) claimed in his homily on Sunday that the dishonest steward was only remitting the amount of his “commission”; that is, the fraudulent surcharge that he had piled on top of the genuine debt owed his master. So in the end, his master did receive the full amount of what he was owed.

    While our pastor’s interpretation does make the parable a lot simpler, I have to wonder if this was indeed Jesus’ intended interpretation. While pondering this parable on the weekend, I came to much the same (tentative) conclusion as Mr. Shea: Jesus is making a deadpan joke, with the steward’s desperate maneuvering played for chuckles, and the master’s wholly unexpected commendation as the punchline. It’s by no means an obvious joke, and it certainly forces the audience to work to understand the moral, but I do like the image of Christ, with a twinkle in his eye, telling his baffled disciples to make friends for themselves with dishonest wealth.

    And of course, they went and put this puzzling, counterintuitive, easily misinterpreted parable in the Gospel. Why? because that’s what he said.

  • HannahG

    Thanks for this, there is much food for thought.

    I’ve always seen it as being also about intercessory prayer so it’s kind of like what you’re saying about having the poor on our side.

    I think we’re being told to be spiritually creative. Why pray alone when we can ask the saints and each other pray for us? Actually my spirituality is based on this type of doing lots of easy things (such as praying novenas and using sacramentals).

  • Jake Frost

    I’ve heard the “it was the steward’s commission” explanation before — but that left me wondering why he’s called a dishonest steward? It would be totally honest in that situation. The steward may have still been wasteful with his Master’s property, but that would be the “Inefficient Steward” or the “Lazy Steward”, not the dishonest steward.

  • Kelly

    This parable has always confused me, and I appreciate your take on it. Thanks!

  • Jake Frost

    I have some hesitation with the “Jesus was joking” interpretation only because it seems to suggest that Jesus didn’t mean what He said — and it seems you have to be careful if you’re approaching Scripture that way.

  • Brian English

    Over at the adw.org site, Msgr. Charles Pope has a mediation on this parable that is very enlightening.

  • Maureen

    Why would you think that jokes only consist of not meaning what you say?

    There are plenty of times in the Gospels when Jesus is funny. Even in the OT, God has some fun with people at times. Fathers are the ones who make the most jokes.

  • ron

    Jesus is not telling us to be unlike the steward: he’s telling us just the opposite–to be as shrewd as the steward when dealing with the world. Too often the children of the light are too naive and prone to be outwitted. Be need to be as clever as the children of darkness to adequately oppose evil. This doesn’t mean doing anything evil ourselves, it simply means using our wits to achieve our purpose, not allowing our own naivete to undermine our goals.

  • ron

    The steward cuts what’s owed to his master. In a similar way, we need to cut back on our purist expectations and do what’s practical to achieve our goals and not just what seems the right thing to do for the moment. We need to think about the consequences of our actions–and whether they result in what we want to achieve or whether they are counter-productive.

    One example: recently the Catholic bishops backed Stupak’s anti-abortion amendment regarding the Health Care bill. Had they not backed him, the bill would have died in the House and the abortion proponents soundly defeated. But they were naive concerning politics and did not realize how the Senate might disregard the Stupak amendment. Thus they were self-defeating. Had they been shrewder, they would have rejectec the Stupak amendment–even though it might seem as if they were rejecting something good. In fact they were helping the opposition. We need to be much shrewder than we are in dealing with the world.

  • Carl

    Our Lord wants us to apply at least the same ingenuity and effort that we put into our worldly affairs into our eternal life. When we apply this same worldly zeal into our souls we have a living and working faith.

    It

  • Carl
  • Jake Frost

    Brian, thanks for directing us to the analysis by Monseignor Charles Pope. I read it, and it’s really great. For others who are interested, here’s the link:

    http://blog.adw.org/2010/09/you-must-faithful-in-a-few-things-to-be-ruler-over-many-things-a-meditation-on-the-gospel-of-the-25th-sunday-of-the-year/

  • ED

    I read a commentary on this Gospel some years ago and it eliminates the confusion by resorting to the original greek. The word dishonest or unrighteous is an adjective in the english translation but the original greek calls him the steward of unrighteousness (genitive case)…which could mean that he was a steward that dealt among the unrighteous without necessarily calling him unrighteous himself. There are a couple of clues that any good detective would consider 1) the steward was accused only of misdeeds ….the master acted upon the accusation of another without proof it would seem 2) the steward admits he is in a bind…not strong enough to dig, too proud to beg…but if he is such a shrewd man where is the nest egg? shouldnt he have expected that he might be caught and prepared for a rainy day. This discussion can be read in full in a book called the Revelation of the Son of Man by Brother Anthony. Very very interesting. By the way Br. Anthony is a Hebrew and Greek Catholic Bible Scholar. At the very least it is a mistranslation to call him the Dishonest Steward…The best english can do is call it him the steward of unrighteousness.

  • Larry

    I’ll have to take a look for Br. Anthony’s book; on the face of it, it would seem that Wallace (who wrote the well-respected “Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics”) might disagree. Although “unrighteous” is certainly in the genitive case, Wallace argues that the reference in 16:10 (unrighteous mammon) is an attributive genitive. In other words, it doesn’t mean “mammon of unrighteousness”, but rather, that unrighteousness is an intrinsic characteristic of mammon. The same construction is used in in 16:8, in reference to the steward himself.

    I would assert, then, that the reference to the steward isn’t that is the steward to the unrighteous, but rather, than unrighteousness is characteristic of him.

    I agree that the Greek leads to a clearer understanding of the text — but that understanding, based on a proper understanding of the “make friends with dishonest wealth” verse, is that the steward shorted himself with respect to his commission, in order to ensure future employment. In the same way, then, we’re supposed to apply this example to our spiritual life, so that we are as shrewd in our cultivation of our eternal life as the steward was in his cultivation of his secular career.

    No jokes; no winks; no hidden messages. Just a clear message whose meaning is obscured by the differences between Koine Greek and 21st century American English…

  • Larry

    Ed,

    Is Brother Anthony “Levi Khamor”? That’s the only reference I can find to that title…

    Thanks!

  • Elaine T

    I hauled out my copy of Bailey’s book (_Poet & Peasant_), which goes into this parable in detail. He trashes the commision idea. There’a a lot more backing up his take, but this summarizes it: “Finally, according to Jewish law, if an agent buys for less or sells for more than the price specified by the principal (the landowner in this parable) the extra profits belong to the principal, not the agent.” The agent being in this case, the steward. “[the commission] suggestion is inappropriate to the cultural elements in the parable.” Apparently the steward was simply cutting the seasonal rent down.

    This makes more sense to me than that he’s dropping his commission, because it would make people more likely to like him and help him afterward, then just cutting down his usorious commission that they didn’t like paying in the first place. But giving them a better seasonal rent, is changing something legitimate, to something better for them.

    Bailey’s point (one of them) is that the steward can do this because the Master didn’t fire him publicly, and he’s counting on the master’s demonstrated mercy to backup his new arrangements with the debtors.

  • ED

    Larry you are right. I’d forgotten the pseudonym used by Br.Anthony. He deals with the attributive if I recall. In any case, without knowing the author’s intent its tough to say. “No prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.” Ain’t it a bear being Catholic?

  • Marthe L

    It could be that all of the interpretations suggested here are correct. More precisely, that the interpretation that has meaning for one particular person is appropriate for that person in the context of his or her own life and the result of his or her personal reflexion. And combining several such interpretations here is very interesting and useful, leading the readers to think for themselves and decide what has the most meaning in the present circumstances of his or her life – and maybe even come to totally different conclusions that we could all learn from too. I can imagine all the people who have offered their comments here as sitting together during a Bible study… Thanks to the Lord for making such exchanges possible between almost total strangers in various parts of the continent, through the Internet! And thank you everyone for this enlightening discussion.

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