The master praised the wicked household manager because he acted cleverly. Indeed the children of this age are more clever towards their own generation than are the children of light.
Luke 16: 8
Today’s parable of the wicked but clever steward, one that is exclusive to Luke’s gospel, is quite difficult to follow. Although its morals, that being wise and prudent in the use of this world’s goods reflects wisdom in the use of the “goods” of the Kingdom and that the value of earthly goods is much less than that of spiritual goods, are clear enough, there are details of the parable itself that are confusing. The manager is termed wicked and yet praised. This appears a contradiction to us. Yet, perhaps the very contradiction can lead us into a deeper appreciation of our own conflicted human nature.
Many commentators suggest that what the master of the parable and then Jesus are praising in the manager is not the morality of his actions but rather his prudence and cleverness in dealing with a crisis — albeit a crisis of his own making. It is easy to lose one’s head in a crisis. The household manager of the parable, however does not do so. He cleverly uses the money at hand (whether it is his own customary fee or his master’s money is unclear) to establish relationships that will afford him security when he is unemployed. How do we respond in our own moments of crisis?
Those who attempt to live reflective lives are consistently amazed, and often discouraged, by the experience of recognizing that similar crises seem to reoccur throughout their lives. We are called and attempt to live as children of light, but we discover that the obstacles to living in the light are deeply entrenched in us and persistently create recurring crises in our lives. Our selfishness and lack of consideration, even if it has been stilled for some time, eventually always seems to reassert itself at some point, creating yet another crisis in our work and relational lives. Sigmund Freud called this psychic phenomenon “repetition compulsion.” A simplified definition of this is that our unconscious keeps doing the same thing over again in an attempt (inevitably futile) to finally “get it right.” But we need not merely live out constant repetition. Our human and spiritual potential for formation allows us an alternative. We can become students or disciples of our crises, and, little by little, learn more prudent (or in the word of today’s gospel “clever”) ways to dealing with them.
Adrian van Kaam calls these crisis moments in our lives “crises of transcendence.” That is, they are challenges to us to undertake the task of reformation of those deeply embedded deformative dispositions that are obstacles to our living “in the light”. When reality confronts us with the results of our sinfulness, we can humbly give ourselves over to a possibility of reformation and transformation of the core dispositions of our hearts. Put simply, it is because the children of this world and the children of light are both sinful that we can learn from the cleverness of the wicked manager.
At the height of the Second World War, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a defense and critique of liberal democracy as reflected through the distinctions and similarities of the children of light and the children of this world.
According to the scripture, “the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.” This observation fits the modern situation. Our democratic civilization has been built, not by children of darkness but by foolish children of light. It has been under attach by the children of darkness, by the moral cynics, who declare that a strong nation need acknowledge no law beyond its strength. It has come close to complete disaster under this attack, not because it accepted the same creed as the cynics, but because it underestimated the power of self-interest, both individual and collective, in modern society. The children of light have not been as wise as the children of darkness.
The children of darkness are evil because they know no law beyond the self. They are wise, though evil, because they understand the power of self-interest. The children of light are virtuous because they have some conception of a higher law than their own will. They are usually foolish because they do not know the power of self-will. They underestimate the peril of anarchy in both the national and the international community. Modern democratic civilization is, in short, sentimental rather than cynical. It has an easy solution for the problem of anarchy and chaos on both the national and international level of community, because of its fatuous and superficial view of the human person. It does not know that the same person who is ostensibly devoted to the “common good” may have desires and ambitions, hopes and fears, which set him/her at variance with his/her neighbor.
It must be understood that the children of light are foolish not merely because they underestimate the power of self-interest among the children of darkness. They underestimate this power among themselves. . . . Moral cynicism had a provisional advantage over moral sentimentality. Its advantage lay not merely in its own lack of moral scruples but also in its shrewd assessment of the power of self-interest, individual and national, among the children of light, despite their moral protestations.
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, 1944