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John R. DonahueSeptember 17, 2001

As the bright light of summer yields to the soft hues of autumn, while students settle into school and parish activities move into high gear, Christians often ponder over vacation expenses, tuition bills and the impending cost of new projects. Life in Christ seems to be taken over by calculator and computer. Yet the theme of today’s readings is that our salvation is deeply intertwined with how we engage the goods of this world.

In Chapter 8, as elsewhere in his book, Amos thunders against those practices that exploit the poor peasantry as a result of the expansionist policies of the rich upper classes, who violate sacred religious law to gain more time for dishonest practices that send people into slavery. Yet the story known as “The Unjust Steward,” one of the most enigmatic parables in the Gospels, seems to condone the very kind of skullduggery against which Amos rants. There have been more explanations of this text than the 100 measures of oil owed to the master.

We meet initially the steward (manager) of a wealthy person’s land, a position roughly equivalent to chief operating officer of a large corporation. Some kind of audit revealed that he had been squandering the resources of the estate, and he is called on the carpet to explain himself. Realizing that no defense is possible, and aware that he may be sent to the mines (“dig”) or become a street beggar, he devises a plan. By reducing the debts owed to his master, he hopes to curry favor with the debtors, so they might hire him later. He calls them in one by one for a sit-down. One owes the equivalent of 1,000 barrels of olive oil, which he immediately halves, and another roughly 1,100 bushes of wheat, which he reduces by 20 percent. The parable concludes, to our shock, with the simple statement, “The master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.”

The first readers of this parable found it as shocking and enigmatic as we do today, since Lk. 16:9-13 presents a chain of sayings on wealth that scarcely explain the parable. While praising the shrewdness of the children of this world, Jesus tells his disciples to “make friends with dishonest wealth” and praises actions that are the direct opposite of the manipulating manager: “The person who is trustworthy in small matters will be trustworthy in great things,” and “No one can serve two masters”—which is exactly what the manger has succeeded in doing.

The most common explanation of the parable is a “jesuitical” distinction: that what Jesus praises is not the dishonesty of the manager, but his prudence or shrewdness in a difficult time. Others stress the moral casuistry surrounding Jewish laws against lending money at interest. By letting the manager handle the loan terms the owner can “stay out of the loop,” while benefitting from exorbitant interest rates. When the manager juggles the books, he is simply reducing his own profit, which would have been gained from the loans, and restores to the manager the amount of the initial loan (perhaps with some profit included). Here the manager is an example of a person who, when faced with a critical situation (e.g., the demands of Jesus’ teaching), will sacrifice his or her own gain to respond. A third set of explanations focuses on the parable as an instance of a common folk motif: a roguish but lovable inferior outwits a demanding master.

Such attempts demonstrate the potential for multiple meanings for biblical texts. Too often overlooked is the similarity between the parables of the “Unjust Steward” and the preceding “Prodigal Son.” Both parables portray a person facing a life-threatening situation because the central character has “squandered” resources—the son his father’s, the manager his master’s. Each person so caught utters a soliloquy and evolves a plan to extricate himself, with a rather self-serving motivation. In each case, the hoped-for change of fortune will result in acceptance into a house, and in each case the narrative flow of the parable is determined by the figure of power (father, owner).

Most important, in both cases the plans of the wastrels are not realized but are transcended by the surprising action first of the father and then of the rich man. Both of the people caught in a dilemma think in terms of reestablishing a proper order of justice or obligation, and both receive unexpected acceptance and are rescued from danger by what they receive, not by what they accomplish. This parable might be called “The Foolish Rich Man,” who acts illogically, like the shepherd and the father in Luke 15, and thus evokes a world in which God does not exact punishments and cancels debts even in the midst of human machinations.


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