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.