Seeking the solace of a cup of tea as I began to write this column, I took the first tea bag I could find, and it happened to be the sort of gift the People of God bestow upon their clergy when the ordinary is not good enough. It was “a green tea and herbal infusion” with this written on the packet: “High in the Kunlun Mountains of China, monks spend days chanting and meditating in hopes of reaching complete enlightenment. Periodically they stop for a cup of tea quite like this.” I am drinking it even as I write, and it is probably the most ecumenical act I shall commit all year.
Those in the crowd to whom Jesus told the parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1-12) were whole worlds away from the monks of Kunlun. They must have included clever merchants to elicit from the Master this language about shrewd bookkeeping, for He always spoke in images crafted to hit home. They were numbered among the Lord’s “disciples” and had been assured in the previous three parables of the Divine Love. Here they are warned not to take for granted that which the Divine Mercy has granted. They are to bask in the love of God, which shines on them only that they might also shine it toward others. Edith Wharton used an Edwardian image when she said that the two ways to shed light are to be the candle or the mirror that reflects the candle. This parable is about how to be the mirror, and that means using all the brains and resources available.
A steward—that is, a businessman in some executive position—had been caught by the equivalent of the SEC. Perplexed when the “rich man”—that is, the head of the firm—demands to see the accounts, the steward acknowledges like any career bureaucrat or academic that he is not strong enough to dig and yet he is ashamed to beg. He arranges with each of his clients to fix their invoices so that they will take care of him when he gets fired. He must have been swindling them all along, and his habit of deceit is now raised to an art.
Here is Tom Sawyer getting someone else to paint the fence. Here is the crafty politician signing pardons on his last day in office. So Tom gets the fence painted and the politician lives in prosperous retirement playing golf with his jet-set ex-cons. “Where now are the leaders of the nations?… The way of knowledge is something they have not known…. The sons of Hagar in search of worldly wisdom, the merchants of Midian and Tema, the tale- spinners and philosophers, none of them have found the way to wisdom” (Baruch 3:16, 23).
These are not Christ’s models of discipleship, for their mammon is the “mammon of unrighteousness,” but their shrewdness, not to be confused with slickness, is a model of, well, shrewdness itself. Pascal was shrewd in his calculations of eternity, and Jesus said that serpentine shrewdness should accompany dove-like innocence along the path to the Peaceable Kingdom where the lion lies down with the lamb.
Mammon is unrighteous because industry is a mixed bag of idealism and compromise. One can hardly invest in any market without investing indirectly in corruption, but General Booth said that no money is too dirty for the Lord to clean. The unjust steward hears no praise for his dishonesty. He is praised for his cleverness, which here means foresight. The heart’s longing for heaven, or what bloated theological tracts call the “eschatological consciousness of the human person,” makes saints the most useful citizens on earth. The vision of glory, and the detection of it in each soul, is what makes the young care for aging parents with love and sacrifice, see the retarded child as a gift, and even die on the battlefield for noble causes. It has built the treasures of the Church, and lack of it in our days has despoiled those treasures.
Archbishop Hugo of Rouen told Bishop Thierry of Amiens of the great cathedral builders: “They admit no one into their Company unless he has been to confession….” The Church is the shrewdest of all institutions and has outlived all others because she is born of an unearthly innocence. This needs the balance of Clement and Augustine and Bonaventure, or else the consort of shrewdness and innocence twists into a corruption of malice and naiveté. The Church is the world’s practical monitor, and she speaks through solemn priests opening heavenly gates and not hysterical eunuchs guarding a forbidden city. Should she abandon her gifts of theological system, she would utter romance without reason and sentiment without love.