This is a bit of a weird parable. What exactly of the steward’s behaviour is being praised? Also, what does it means: if you cannot be trusted with what is not yours, how will you be trusted with what is your own? Let’s park that.
Apparently tax collectors and stewards got their bad name from profiting from their jobs. Tax collectors would take more than they were entitled to. Likewise, it seems the steward in this parable perhaps boosted the debts owed to his master, and took the cream off the top.
And so when he reduces the debts owed to his master, it is a bit of creative accounting. He is reducing the extra that was not owed in the first place. He’s cancelling his profit. He therefore looks like he is doing the debtors a favour, and this appearance probably gets amplified when he gets fired. The debtors might assume that he has paid the price for looking after them.
But still what is the lesson? Clearly, not the initial fraud.
Well, this set of circumstances reminds me of a visit to Centrelink. A friend of mine had been caught by one of those silly government schemes when they hand out money with poorly stated conditions. My friend was from another country. He had asked numerous times whether he was entitled to it. He had been assured he was. He had taken the money, spent it and then been told he had to hand it back. He went down to the office numerous times to sort it out and could get nowhere. We had written a number of clear letters setting everything out and providing copies of correspondence but again got very curt letters back. So, I decided to attend with him to see if we could sort it out.
I had just been ordained a deacon so I went down dressed as a cleric, and I don’t think I was ready for the reaction to a 6 foot 8 deacon. The person behind the desk was clearly flustered by my appearance. I had said nothing. The meeting had not even started but he was very nervous. I have no idea if he was even religious. Anyway, I tried to put him at ease by smiling and cracking jokes and trying to explain as gently as possible why we were there.
Anyway, after a while, everything eased up. They guy seemed to become extra nice simply because, I assume, I did not live up to whatever awful expectations he had of me. And because I was nice we seemed to become almost best friends. It was a case of someone assuming the worst, getting the average and seeming to come out way ahead as a result. Everything worked out, but I walked away feeling a bit like a dishonest steward. We seemed to have taken advantage of this poor person’s misperception or poor expectations. As I said, he seemed to assume the worst, we gave him the average and he thought he was way ahead, and so he went out of his way to help us.
I think there are perhaps then two lessons from the dishonest steward. First, people do not always know what they are entitled to. When we treat others as we would like to be treated, we think it is normal, but for many people, this is a surprise, because many people do not expect this. Therefore loving our neighbour can be the most basic form of evangelisation. Perhaps one thing Jesus is saying is that doing basic justice is doing more than we realise.
Also, perhaps this is part of what Jesus means when he says, if you cannot be trusted with what is not yours. When we deal with others, the situation is not our own. It is love of God and love of neighbour. The Christian understands each situation is determined by someone else, God or our neighbour. In this sense, our lives are not our own. So, when it comes to justice, when it comes to what is not our own, when it pertains to the right treatment of others, can we be trusted?
This leads onto the second thing: the question of what is our own. I have mentioned previously one of my golden rules about reading parables: look for the paradox. Perhaps my other golden rule when reading parables is to ask: how does the life of Christ illuminate this parable? For example, with the parable of the Good Samaritan, the fathers of the church always saw Jesus as the Good Samaritan helping beaten humanity. Likewise, in the parable of the prodigal son, it is pretty easy to see Jesus as the better version of both the older brother and the younger brother. He stays with the Father but is welcoming. He also is in the place of the younger brother but without sin.
So, how does Jesus help us read this parable?
One way is to see Jesus as the good steward cancelling our debts. Except he is not cancelling the surplus, he is cancelling the whole thing. He is not getting fired, he is giving up his life. This is who he is. This is the very life of Jesus.
And this I think is the clue to what exactly is our own. We become ourselves to the extent we give ourselves away, like Christ. Our eternal destiny, our future home is precisely our adoption into the life of Christ. God gives us this life, but God gives it for us to give it away. Like children buying their parents Christmas parents with the parents’ money, we receive what is our own by giving away what is not ours. We become ourselves by giving away what is God’s.
This Mass then, when during the offertory we give our lives away, let us pray that in fact, as occurs during the Eucharistic prayer, we might in fact offer God’s Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, back to the Father, for the life of the world.