25th Sunday in Ordinary Time – My Bottom Line

SCRIPTURES & ART: Are you as interested in your eternal spiritual welfare as some people are on their temporal material welfare?

Marinus van Reymerswaele, “The Parable of the Unjust Steward,” ca. 1540
Marinus van Reymerswaele, “The Parable of the Unjust Steward,” ca. 1540 (photo: Public Domain)

Today’s Gospel is a difficult one to understand and to preach about. A superficial reading might suggest that Jesus is endorsing dishonesty. The hero of the parable, after all, is a crook. He’s a dishonest steward who exposes his manager to losses, and yet gets praised for it. What’s going on?

Jesus tells his disciples a parable. Remember that parables are intended to affirm a main point, not necessarily to be followed in all their details.

The parable is about a steward, a property manager whose employer discovers has been “squandering his property.” He calls in the steward and gives him termination notice.

The steward is in a quandary. He’s got a good thing going and hardly wants to give up his sinecure “to dig” or “to beg.” He decides he needs to do some networking, to win friends and influence people “so that, when I am removed from my stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes.” 

So, in concert with his employer’s debtors, the unjust steward devalues the debts. The man who owes 100 measures of olive oil gets a 50% discount. The man owing 100 kors of wheat gets 20% knocked off. (Note that 100 kors of wheat would have been about 625 bushels. On the Chicago Commodities Market in mid-July, that would be worth almost $5,000, though obviously today’s prices are not those of Jesus’s time.)

The steward’s networking brings his employer’s debtors into one vast conspiracy to defraud the employer. On top of that, the sheer scope of the fraud is, in a strange way, protective. Because each conspirator needs the others to keep their mouths shout for everybody to come out safely, this mutually reinforcing blackmail might just make it work. We have a saying in Polish: złodziej siedzi na złodzieja, “a thief sits atop a thief.”

But there’s no honor among thieves. 

Somehow his employer found out. Perhaps an audit revealed the discrepancies. Perhaps one of the co-conspirators spilled the beans. Or perhaps he caught his dishonest manager in flagrante. What’s surprising, though, is that “the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.”

Right …

Sure, he was defrauded. But perhaps he was also impressed by the steps the dishonest manager took to protect his situation. With his sinecure disappearing, he needed to guarantee his welfare and, without asking whether the end justified the means and having already defrauded his boss, he simply carried through to his own advantage.

Jesus is not applauding dishonesty. He even concludes the Gospel with a number of maxims in support of scrupulous honesty. If you can’t trust somebody in small things, you can’t in big things. If you can’t trust someone with ill-gotten gains, what will he do with “true wealth?” Jesus boils it down to a simple statement: You can’t serve God and money. We know how seductive the latter can be, since we speak of the “Almighty” Buck.

Yet Jesus applauded that dishonest steward. What’s the point?

Sometimes we notice the single-minded determination that people involved in wrongdoing have in pursuit of their goals. Whether it be money or power or sex, nothing and nobody is going to get in their way. They’re willing to walk over people to achieve their ends. 

Jesus does not approve walking over people or letting nothing get in one’s way in pursuit of the wrong goals in life. But he asks: does anybody show the same single-minded determination when it comes to the right things in life, the things of God?

Jesus reminded us two weeks ago that he should be our priority and that nothing — not family, not relatives, not self — should get in the way. Today’s parable paradoxically makes the same point in a backhanded way: are we as relentless in the things of God, things that are good for us, in the same way that people who pursue the things of the world, things that can be bad for them, go after them unabatingly? 

The First Reading also makes the same point, albeit with mentioning dishonesty done under cover of religion. Amos was the prophet of social justice. In his day, the wealthy of Israel defrauded the poor when it came to land and its produce. They, of course, honored the religious customs of Israel, which is why Amos mentions “the new moon” and “the Sabbath” — not as times to reset one’s self morally but as enforced periods that interfered with their everyday defrauding of people. He specifically mentions adulteration of weights and measures. That “the lowly” can be bought for silver can be read as a foretelling of the buying of Jesus for 30 pieces of that metal. To buy the poor for “a pair of sandals” is to get their labor for nothing. That’s why, in the Bible, four sins “cry to heaven for vengeance” — murder, sodomy, abuse of the widow and orphan and defrauding the laborer of his just wages.

Today’s Gospel was illustrated around 1540 by the Netherlandish Renaissance painter, Marinus van Reymerswaele (c. 1490-c. 1546). Reymerswaele seemed fixated on money and the sin of avarice: Biblical tax collectors, moneychangers and their wives and the call of St. Matthew the Tax Collector are constant and repetitive themes in his painting. The Dishonest Steward obviously also has a money angle, though he did not repeat this particular subject as often. Van Reymerswaele’s “Parable of the Unjust Steward” is owned by the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria, though not currently on exhibit. Compare it to a similar treatment in Warsaw.

The Vienna commentary explains the painting in terms of two events. In the foreground, according to the commentary, is the steward, accustomed to the good life (look at the damask of his clothes). He has just been told by his master in the hat that he’s fired. Behind them are all the signed contracts and bills, filed with impressive seals. Both master and steward are clearly used to a comfortable lifestyle, even if they are dressed like merchants of 16th-century Holland rather than first century Israel. In the background, over the steward’s shoulder, we see the subsequent adulteration of contracts. The man in whitish-gray is bent over, busily reducing his debt. The man in red tips his cap, either in acknowledgement of the contract he’s getting to alter or giving back already altered. The next debtor’s waiting his turn.

I’ll defer to the art experts, who insist that figure in the foreground is the dishonest manager, who wears the same clothes in the background as he conspires with his master’s debtors. But he seems to me to bear some resemblance to Jesus. The Vienna commentator suggests that his finger is raised in allusion to Christ’s statement, “you cannot serve both God and man,” contrasting his posture to the employer’s, whose pointing at his desk, money, and ledger. But the steward is also serving temporal goods: security if not money. So is his finger instead raised in the posture of “aha, I have an idea?” (In the Warsaw painting, there’s no raised finger but rather a facial expression, “so if I did X …”)

In this economic parable, let’s ask what’s the bottom line: am I as interested in my eternal spiritual welfare as some people are on their temporal material welfare?