Then he also said to his disciples, “A rich man had a steward who was reported to him for squandering his property. He summoned him and said, ‘What is this I hear about you? Prepare a full account of your stewardship, because you can no longer be my steward.’ The steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do, now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me? I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do so that, when I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes.’ He called in his master’s debtors one by one. To the first he said, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He replied, ‘One hundred measures of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note. Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.’ Then to another he said, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘One hundred kors of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note; write one for eighty.’ And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently. For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.Luke 16:1-8
This strange parable has stumped preachers and teachers for centuries. Does the Gospel of Jesus Christ commend dishonesty and theft? That was the claim of Julian the Apostate in the fourth century. Pointing out the moral inferiority of Christianity, he led a revival of paganism in the Roman Empire.
The point of the parable is not the dishonesty of the steward in the beginning, but his savvy and shrewdness in the end. The Greek word translated as “prudent” in verse 8, phronimos, is also used in Jesus’ commission to his disciples as they are sent into the world:
Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves.Matthew 10:16
The street smart steward instantly sized up his situation when he was summoned for dismissal. Banking on the good character of his master, he offered no excuses but silently accepted his verdict.
In the narrow window of time he had before turning in his accounting books, the steward met with the master’s debtors one by one. He reduced their debts by halves and quarters by eliminating or decreasing the commission added to the amount owed. In ancient Palestine, stewards were not paid a wage, but profited by adding their own fees to the master’s bills in their care. Debtors did not know how much was owed to the master, and how much was pocketed by the steward. This system allowed for corruption as stewards could collect exorbitant commissions.1
Certifying the consent of the debtors in their own handwriting, the steward returned to the master with the town in celebration. The reputations of both master and steward rose in the eyes of the people as they received praise and honor for their magnanimity. The steward turned a crisis into an opportunity, as entrepreneurs like to say, and forged favorable partnerships to ensure his future employment. The master ends by marveling at the ingenuity of the steward in the face of personal calamity.
Do the “children of light” have a hard time relating to this parable? The “shrewdness” of serpents, an image associated with the serpent in the Garden of Eden, is transformed by the saints into spiritual genius in the acquisition of the kingdom of God.2 Like a financial fox or speculator, the saints stake everything on the guarantee of God’s good character. Even when the chips are down, the holy ones up their ante like Abraham poised to slay his son Isaac, or Daniel thrown into the lion’s den (see Hebrews 11). St. Paul echoes his predecessors: “And I was rescued from the lion’s mouth” (2 Timothy 4:17).
St. Seraphim of Sarov, a Russian saint and spiritual genius of the nineteenth century, noted the numerous allusions to money management in the teachings of Jesus, and concluded that this was one of his main vehicles for conveying the realities of the spiritual life:
“The aim of ordinary worldly people is to acquire or make money; and for the nobility, it is in addition to receive honors, distinctions and other rewards for their services to the government. The acquisition of God’s Spirit is also capital, but grace-giving and eternal, and it is obtained in very similar ways, almost the same ways as monetary, social and temporal capital.
God the Word, the God-Man, our Lord Jesus Christ, compares our life with the market, and the work of our life on earth He calls trading. He says to us all: Trade till I come (Lk. 19:13), buying up every opportunity, because the days are evil (Ephesians 5:16). In other words, make the most of your time getting heavenly blessings through earthly goods. Earthly goods are good works done for Christ’s sake that confer the grace of the All-Holy Spirit, on us.”3
1 The New American Bible (Revised Edition) footnote to this parable offers this insight into ancient Middle Eastern business practices:
The parable of the dishonest steward has to be understood in the light of the Palestinian custom of agents acting on behalf of their masters and the usurious practices common to such agents. The dishonesty of the steward consisted in the squandering of his master’s property (Lk 16:1) and not in any subsequent graft. The master commends the dishonest steward who has forgone his own usurious commission on the business transaction by having the debtors write new notes that reflected only the real amount owed the master (i.e., minus the steward’s profit). The dishonest steward acts in this way in order to ingratiate himself with the debtors because he knows he is being dismissed from his position (Lk 16:3). The parable, then, teaches the prudent use of one’s material goods in light of an imminent crisis.
3 St. Seraphim of Sarov, On the Acquisition of the Holy Spirit.