In the parable Christ offers us today, a dishonest steward is praised. Is Jesus encouraging us to be dishonest also? But when our Lord is asked what must be done to inherit eternal life, one of the commandments he cites is “You shall not steal” (Luke 18:20). Moreover, to emphasize just how much effort we must exert to stay on the straight and honest path, Jesus warns us with this hyperbole: “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off” (Matthew 5:30).
In our Gospel today, Christ tells us, “Make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth.” Is Jesus giving us blanket permission to cheat and engage in corrupt practices as long as we use our dishonest gains to help others? But in Mark 10:19, our Lord also states, “You shall not defraud.” And in Matthew 7:18, when he teaches that a rotten tree cannot bear good fruit, I think we can extend this and say, “The end does not justify the means.”
How then can we make sense of the puzzling statements in our passage today?
“The master commended that dishonest steward….”While our parable today has applications in our daily life, we cannot just project it to everyday experience element for element. Instead, we must look for the main points of the story. For example, in common corporate practice, when an employee is suspected of malversing funds, he or she is put in preventive suspension while an investigation takes place. This is done so that the employee cannot doctor books or alter accounts and cover his or her tracks. This also limits the possibility of the employee stealing even more money. In our parable today, the master does nothing to protect his interests. The steward is even given the chance to improve his situation and assure himself of a good future. While this is not what we expect to happen in daily life, it is what we can expect in the Kingdom of God. One point of the parable seems to be that in the Kingdom of God, we will always be given second, third, and fourth chances as well as opportunities to better ourselves.
Recall the parable of the prodigal son last week. Once he realized that he would be better off as a hired servant in his father’s house, he returned with exactly this proposal. But the father gave him another chance, accepted him again as a son – even if as a son, he would have had access to the father’s wealth and possibly squander it again. (An interesting note: The prodigal son squandered his father’s wealth; the charge against the dishonest steward was also about squandering his master’s property.)
To avoid being misled, we must also read parables carefully. The dishonest steward was not commended for being dishonest; the dishonest steward was commended for acting prudently. How did the steward act prudently? First, once confronted with his sin, he did not waste time denying it. No excuses – he acted right away to address his situation. This is prudence.
What did the steward do? “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.’” Surely, that debtor will help the steward in the future. The steward acted prudently again by using his master’s wealth to cement his relationships.
One might ask, “But isn’t he squandering his master’s wealth again? Isn’t he misusing the master’s property?” Though the master knows what the steward has done, he does not angry. In fact, he praises the steward. You will never see this happening in daily life, but this is how things go in the Kingdom of God. We are not talking about the assets of a company here but the riches of God. Again, do not project the parable element for element to daily experience; instead see the point. And the point seems to be that we should use God’s property – and everything is God’s property – to build relationships.
Recall again the story of the prodigal son. The father did not ask for his money back. In fact, the father spent more money for the son in holding a feast and slaughtering the fattened calf. The father was happy to do all this because wealth is meant to enrich relationships.
“Make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth….”One key to understanding this passage is what follows two verses later: “If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth?” Jesus seems to differentiating between two kinds of wealth here. “True wealth” we can interpret as the wealth of heaven. The other type of wealth must be the wealth of earth. But how does Jesus describe it? He characterizes it as “dishonest.”
Is all earthly wealth dishonest? But there is wealth earned here on earth that is gained through legitimate means, through one’s hard work, through one’s talents and sacrifices. How could that be dishonest?
I think that “dishonest” here should be taken not as illegal or criminal but as deceptive. And all earthly wealth can be deceptive. It can deceive us into thinking that we are strong, that we need nothing else, and that we are self-sufficient. It can deceive us into locking ourselves in our own small circles and getting trapped in just our own lives. Jesus reminds us what this deceptive wealth is to be used for – to make friends. Again, the point of wealth is to build relationships.
Whether you have millions stashed in the bank or are just breaking even, how are you using your dishonest wealth? Just for your needs and wants? Just for yourself? Or do you build relationships?