Just How Profound is the Parable of the Dishonest Steward? Lk 16:1-13

I had pre-empted part of my homily this Sunday as I wanted to share a story about a baby I had recently baptized. Oddly, in reflecting “on the run” on the parable in this Sunday’s gospel reading, a light bulb went on inside my head.  Luke’s parables are often ‘double-entendred.’  They can be hard to understand at first glance.  But Luke likes to report very faithfully stories that Matthew and John may have glossed over, or found somewhat ambiguous. In so doing, the Lucan author has preserved for us stories that require considerable reflection.

When we hear stories like the parable of the dishonest steward proclaimed, we can be struck by the irony and the realism of the story. In the first place, why in the world would Jesus extol the virtue of someone who was dishonest, or stole from or extorted others? And why would the master praise the dishonest steward for taking it upon himself to forgive debts owed to the master, without the master’s permission? What exactly is going on here?

I’ve tried to over-simplify this parable and argued that Jesus is simply asking us to forgive in the same way the average person (who may not be a practicing Christian or Jew) would feel compelled to forgive the debts of others when their own survival or fate is at stake. There is, indeed, a certain logic and theological symmetry between forgiving financial debts on the one hand and moral or ethical trespasses on the other.

However, this rationalization does not explain the bizarre comparison between the rather dislikeable steward, who does not appear very repentant, and the rest of us, who (as practicing Christians) are at least hopeful that we would hold ourselves to a higher standard of accountability than the dishonest steward.  Clearly there is a situational nuance that we are over-looking.

As a former banker, I got to thinking about the relevancy of the dishonest steward’s career to the story.  It occurred to me that perhaps it wasn’t so much what the dishonest steward did for a living (acted as a creditor or collection agent on behalf of a landowner), as it was the fact that the dishonest steward may have been a real person.   Perhaps someone came up to Jesus and said to him, “Lord, I am indebted to a dishonest steward, who extorts me and my family and charges excessive interest.”  If, in fact, the steward himself is among the crowd listening to Jesus preach, we may imagine that the steward is simply following the crowd, listening to Jesus, and totally unaware that Jesus may be cognizant of his dishonest life. Given this possibility, we can completely understand the parable.  Jesus directs the parable of the dishonest steward to someone who indeed, extorts others, charges unreasonable interest, and may be on the verge of being held accountable for his dishonesty. Jesus rather prophetically tells the steward, “you are a crook, and you are about to lose your job.”

In this sense, the parable becomes a commentary on both social justice and the need to forgive. At one level, Jesus reminds the one dishonest steward in the crowd that he may, one day, be held accountable for his thievery. On the other hand, he reminds everyone in the crowd that all of us are called to forgive others, especially if we have (perhaps at one time or another) been the source of scandal ourselves, or if we are the ones who cause others to suffer in the first place.

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