The steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do, now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me? I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do so that, when I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes.’Luke 16:3-4
The parable Jesus tells today is often a very difficult one to pray with. The text tells us that the master commends the dishonest steward for acting prudently, and that we are to do the same. Yet, the prudence that the steward exercises is difficult, at least for me, to appreciate, as the money with which he is transacting these affairs with others is the master’s and not his own.
That initial personal reaction of mine points to the first level of my own spiritual blindness. As a good capitalist, I make the mistake of believing in the primacy of private property, in the false understanding that anything, so obviously any wealth, is one’s own. Any “talent” in my own life is not “mine.” This is what we hear in the passage from Romans today. “But I have written to you rather boldly in some respects to remind you, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in performing the priestly service of the gospel of God. . . .” (Romans 15:15-16) The lesson to be learned from the dishonest steward is his relationship to that over which he has stewardship, which for each of us is all that we are and have. We have responsibility to the master who has gifted us with all that we are and with all that we have to offer in the master’s name.
The key to the parable, however, lies in the conversion, the transforming of the consciousness, of the steward. It is clear that the steward has been squandering the master’s property and that now the master has called him to account for his stewardship. In the light of this impending accounting and judgment, the steward is faced with the existential question, “What shall I do?” Before we can appreciate the “lesson” of the parable, we must enter into this moment of the steward’s experience. If today the master calls us to account, what are we to do?
The prudence of the steward that the master, Jesus, commends is his response to the spiritual insight he receives at this moment. “I know what I shall do,” the steward exclaims. What he will do is to turn from using the master’s property to enrich himself and rather use his position to alleviate the debt and suffering of others. In short, when faced with the existential reality of his own mortality, the steward converts, that is, turns from self-centeredness to caring for others. This is precisely the experience at the age of 19 that Theodore James Ryken relates, what he calls his conversion from a worldly life to one in service to God. Ryken writes:
At the age of nineteen, after powerfully being put in my place , I turned toward God, fell in love, and put myself in His service…. I became strongly inclined to works of penance and to prayer, avoided the company of worldly companions, (and) read good books which slowly and gradually came more and more into my hands. I finally felt an inclination to a solitary, penitential, and contemplative life.
We have no idea how it was that Ryken was put in his place, but we know well the experience. The steward stood in a position of power over others due to his control of his master’s property. Although it was not his property, he felt powerful and superior due to his control of it. This made others less than he. He was the one to control the lives of those who owed his master, and he felt significant, entitled, and gratified by exercising power over them. Material possession, positions of power, or various experiences of success tend to separate us from other mere mortals, and to give us an inflated sense of ourselves. We become the “big people” amidst the “Lilliputians” around us. Here our attention is on our selves, even in our pretenses of caring for others. How often, when we have authority, do we patronize those whom we are ostensibly caring for?
Life inevitably teaches us, however, that we are no better than anyone else. We are but this small speck of creation in a vast universe. This is what happens when the master calls the steward into account, and it is what happens to Ryken at a relatively young age. For Ryken, as for the steward, this is a conversion, a turning from self-obsession to facing God and God’s judgment. It is the moment of realizing that he is accountable for the gift, the wealth, of his own life. The great and joyful surprise, however, is that the judgment is judgment of, by, and in love. As St. John of the Cross says, “In the evening of life, you will be examined in love.” So, conversion is to turn from the narcissism of self-preoccupation to the love and gratitude for the One who is the source of our own and all life. And this turning toward God and falling in love is always manifest in love of all others, or, as Ryken puts it, to “put myself in God’s service.”
So, the steward, realizing his commonness with all his master’s debtors and so knowing his need of them, no longer behaves out of power, but rather out of love. Reinhold Niebuhr says the the final form of live is forgiveness. And so, the steward forgives the debts of the debtors. This is what the master and Jesus praise.
One of the lines of the gospel that most frequently comes to my mind in daily life is the last verse of today’s gospel (Luke 16:8). “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than the children of light.” Jesus in relating this parable is well aware that the motivation of the steward is “worldly”; that is, the steward forgives these debts so that his master’s debtors will welcome him into their homes when he is poor and homeless. Yet, there is, suggests Jesus, truth and wisdom in this motivation. Sometimes we “children of light” get so “spiritual” that we lose contact with reality. We can develop a kind of spiritual pride that becomes yet another form of self-aggrandizement. “I thank you that I am not like the rest of people.” To be put in our place is to know that we need each other, as much as the steward fears he will come to need his master’s debtors. Oftentimes, at least in my life, I see those who do not, as the world measures it, “have faith,” and yet who live in accord with the truth of Jesus’ teaching far more than I do. I hear people who are “caught up” in the values of this world who come to recognitions that I know only in theory and not through experience. I, at times, feel shame at the generosity, love, and service of those who do not inflate their own significance by proclaiming themselves as ministers of the gospel.
As we know from Ryken’s own life, none of us are converted once and for all; we are not saved in a single irrevocable moment. We must keep turning, keep being converted. From birth to death we suffer the tension of the human condition, the weight of our materiality and the aspiration of our spirit. We are drawn to service and to self-preservation and enhancement. We are called to communion, but also to self-assertive individuality. We are drawn upward by our longing for transcendence and weighted down by our sloth. We are beckoned to greater life by the energy of eros, and pulled downward toward death by the force of thanatos. That draw of eros is a draw to fall in love ever again, with God and with others in service to them.
It seems to me that there is a great significance in Jesus’ offering of the worldly steward as a model for us. We are to allow ourselves to be taught by those who are exemplars of love and service, whether they do so under a banner of “faith” or not. In our current cultural moment as even in the time of Jesus, it well may be “the children of this world” who are lighting the way. As a growing tendency to fear and fundamentalism, and so to self-preoccupation, influences members of the traditional religious groups (“the children of light”), it could be that, through “the grace given them by God,” it is the “children of this world” who are being called to be the “ministers of Christ Jesus” to and for the world.
But as soon as the individual senses himself in society, he feels himself in God, and the instinct of self-perpetuation inflames him with love of God and with charity. He seeks to perpetuate his spirit, that is, to perpetuate the spirit, to unnail God from the Cross, and he only yearns to affix the seal of his spirit on other spirits and to receive their seals on his. He shook off laziness, he shook off spiritual greed.Miguel de Unamuno, Treatise on the Love of God, pp. 53-4
Sloth, they say, is the mother of all vices, and sloth engenders the two vices that are, in turn, the source of all the others.
Sloth is the weight of the matter, inert of itself, within us, and that sloth while telling us that it tries to preserve us through thrift, in reality tries merely to diminish us, to annihilate us.
The human being has either an excess of spirit or one of matter. And here arises once more the problem of maximums and minimums, of how we shall have the most spirit with the least matter, of how much infinity fits in us so as not to fall into the maximum of matter with the minimum of spirit—the human being has either an excess of spirit or one of matter. When he has too much spirit, he spills it out and sheds it all over, and it increases in company of those of others; when he has too much matter and too little spirit from husbanding it, he lets it get lost, and there happens to him what happened to the individual who received a single talent, and he buried it so as not to lose it, and he later remained without it. For one who has will be given more, but the one who has only a little, even this little will be taken away from him.