Yesterday I offered a reflection at the Church of St. Thomas More in St. Paul on the parable in Luke’s Gospel often referred to as the parable of the dishonest steward. It is a challenging parable; one commentator wrote that “the seeming incongruity of a story that praises a scoundrel has been an embarrassment to the Church at least since Julian the Apostate used the parable to assert the inferiority of the Christian faith and its founder.”
I don’t think we can make sense of this parable without understanding the context in which Jesus was speaking. There were two classes of people in Jesus’ time (and therefore in the crowd listening to him): the very rich and the very poor. And the poor were always at the mercy of both the rich landlords who demanded the lion’s share of their crops and the Roman government who exacted exorbitant taxes from them at every turn.
I suggested in my reflection that one possibility is that this parable is Jesus’ way of highlighting the gross dishonesty of a system that cheated and robbed the poor daily., as well as pointing to the harsh reality that it is a struggle to be honest in a system that itself is excessively unjust and dishonest.
I offered a few examples in our own time: It is wrong – actually illegal – for a parent to give a false address in order to get her child into a good school. But if the alternative is a local school that can’t provide a decent education, is it so difficult to understand the parent’s behavior.
It is wrong – illegal – for someone to enter the country without documentation – but how do we expect someone fleeing from persecution in their countries to behave?
It is wrong – illegal – to sell loose cigarettes on the street – but if that is the only way to get a few dollars to buy something for one’s family to eat, can we really be unsympathetic. (I think of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family.)
Jesus’ comments in this passage about dishonest wealth is clearly directed, not to the poor, but to those who are wealthy, suggested by the fact that the steward in the story received no monetary gain from his dishonesty.
You have to admit, as my examples above suggest, that the society in which Jesus lived is not very different from our own, a system that makes it easy for the rich to get richer and extraordinarily difficult for the poor to achieve economic stability. In that sense, the parable invites us to reflect on how our own economic systems make it difficult for some people to live fully within the law, and perhaps even makes living an ethical life difficult (if not impossible) for some people. It also asks us to examine to what extent we are complicit in the operation of that system.
Update: You can listen to the entirety of my reflection here.