The Parable of the Dishonest Steward

Scripture includes some of the clearest and most impenetrably obscure texts in the world. At the “clear” end of the spectrum, Amos rages in prophetic fury against “you who trample the needy and destroy the poor of the land” and against those who “buy the lowly man for silver, and the poor man for a pair of sandals.” With an outrage animating every social reformer and radical from Charles Dickens to Dorothy Day, Amos assures the arrogant who think their power is a shield against consequences that “The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Never will I forget a thing they have done.”

It is not hard to see in this the seeds of what would come much later when Karl Marx cribbed from the Judeo-Christian tradition this outrage over the evils of the wealthy and this passionate exaltation of the Little Guy to create the great and deadly heresy of Communism. All great heresies are founded on great truths, Communism among them. But Communism, like all great heresies, takes those few truths and uses them as a weapon to attack the rest of the Catholic faith. In this case, what Communism did was exalt the Little Guy while insisting the Little Guy was simply a cog in the great economic machine of History (since there is no God to give him dignity). It likewise taught that the Rich were intrinsically the enemy and that the engine of human existence was not love but class conflict.

Given this, there was no way that Communism could get past Amos’ rage to Amos’ hope. It became mired in the all-too-earthly sins of envy and anger which produced the most murderous dehumanizing system in history, vastly more murderous and dehumanizing than even Hitler’s horrific Reich. In “defending the oppressed”, Communists became the new Oppressors. The passion for justice among young Marxists a century ago became the cynical, murderous and ultimately hopeless Machiavellian hell of aging Soviet bureaucrats who oversaw the purges, gulags, and engineered famines of Stalin and his legacy. They ended as the “Dead Souls” of Gogol’s novel. They could only see this world, not the next one. They lacked spiritual farsightedness.

It is to this farsightedness that Jesus calls us in today’s mysterious gospel. Like jaded Communist bureaucrats in the politburo who had once been men with souls, the cynical, dishonest manager has few noble aspirations. He doesn’t want to lose his job. So he cooks the books and saves his bacon. Jesus does not commend him for cooking the books any more than he commends Communists for atheism, but he does commend him for not just sitting there while his life burned down around him. He also, in a curious backhanded and rabbinic way, commends him for his instincts, if not his methods. Something like Oskar Schindler, the Nazi arms merchant who improbably saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust while remaining the less-than-savory character he always was, the dishonest manager is a scoundrel who has the good sense to know that God loves those who love the poor. So he does the right thing. Jesus’ point is not “Be a cynical weasel and save your skin” but that “‘The otherworldly’ should be at least as proactive about saving their souls as this worldly guy was about saving his skin.” It’s an odd lesson, yet one which is true to life. In every scoundrel there is often hidden something very right, while in every saint, there is always hidden the possibility of a carelessness about God that could cost him heaven.


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