Today’s liturgy presents us with the parable of the dishonest steward and all of the problems that come with it in trying to interpret it. The Gospel itself seems to highlight our difficulty by following the parable with four rather disconnected sayings, each one of which seems to draw its meaning from a word taken from the parable itself.
One way to overcome the difficulties that this parable presents is to set it alongside the parable that immediately precedes it, a parable that we might have heard just last Sunday; namely, the parable of the Prodigal.
Each parable begins with the same words: “A certain man . . .“ One of these men had a self-centered son and the other had a self-centered steward. Both are accused of “squandering” their respective sources of wealth. Their self-centeredness is revealed in the words they speak to themselves when they realize their predicament. Rather than speaking of their wrong-doing, they try to hatch a plan to get back into their former comfy situation by coming up with a way to secure a safe place to live. The boy tries to get himself back into his father’s house; the steward tries to secure a place in the house of his master’s debtors. The tension within the parables is achieved by the fact that we don’t know at first if these plans will work. Neither plan goes the way that they think it will. The boy is welcomed home before he can get his practiced speech out. The master steps in and commends the steward for his prudence. In both parables, the father and the master have the final word. Both parables are left open ended. We don’t know whether the older son will accept the father’s invitation to celebrate his brother’s return. We also don’t know whether the master takes the steward back into his service.
Once we place the parables next to each other, it becomes rather clear that the parable of the dishonest steward is another parable about God’s mercy and forgiveness. St. Luke, a rather crafty writer, has given us two different images of God: God as Father and God as Master. Jesus frequently talks about His Father, and the disciples often refer to Jesus as the Master. No matter which image fits our own perception of God, the outcome is the same. Neither the father nor the master acts the way most of us would act. Both of them exhibit qualities that we find only in God.
The responsorial psalm for this Sunday bids us sing, “The Lord is kind and merciful.” I fully understand why the Lectionary for Sunday Mass does not read these two parables on the same Sunday. However, one of the difficulties that I frequently encounter when reading the Gospel in short pieces is the loss of the continuity of the narrative. These two parables are offered one right after the other. The parable of the Prodigal is at the end of chapter fifteen and the parable of the dishonest steward opens chapter sixteen. The parable of the Prodigal is addressed to the scribes and Pharisees while the parable of the dishonest steward is addressed to the disciples. Two different audiences are offered alternative ways to look at two different but very much similar self-centered men. A third audience, namely those of us who are listening to the Gospel today, is invited to contemplate where we fit into the narrative. What is our response to the generosity and the gentle mercy that each figure embodies?
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator