Managing Wealth for the Poor
Twenty-Fifth Sunday of the Year (C) | Fr Gregory Pearson examines the parable of the unjust steward and reminds us of the Patristic teaching on the justice we owe to the poor.
Is Jesus praising the unjust steward in today’s Gospel for his dishonesty? That can certainly seem to be the message that comes across on a first reading of the text. At the very least, he seems to convey a certain – one might say ironic – admiration for the cunning of the steward, who, having lost his master’s trust because of his wasteful administration of his master’s affairs, uses a little bit more fraud with his master’s accounts to make himself some friends to look after him once he leaves his post.
It’s clear, though, and doesn’t really need saying, that the steward is not straightforwardly offered to us as an example for imitation. He is described by Our Lord as ‘dishonest’ (v. 8) and is clearly to be numbered among the ‘sons of this world’ with whom Christ contrasts the ‘sons of light’. Nevertheless, it is his example of using money to make friends which Christ explicitly holds out to us (v. 9). So what’s going on?
It’s Jesus’ explanation at the end of today’s passage, combined with the insight from the prophet Amos which the Church offers us for today’s first reading, which allow us to find a way in to the lesson of this parable. In particular, Christ’s question, ‘If you cannot be trusted with what is not yours, who will give you what is your very own?’ should make us stop and think.
Now, we could choose to read this narrowly, and take it that Our Lord is giving us careers advice, or counselling only those who have responsibility for other people’s affairs. Apart from the intrinsic unlikelihood of that, though, one would really expect the advice to be the other way round if it were about showing oneself to be a good estate manager: how do you expect someone to trust you with all their property if it’s seen you can’t manage your own? It’s just not the case, in the ways of this world, that people are trusted to possess property of their own because they prove to manage other people’s property well.
Rather – and this should be clear when Our Lord speaks of using money to make friends who will welcome us into eternal dwellings (v. 9) – it seems clear that the contrast between stewardship and possession is the contrast between this life and the next. As an aside, this is a striking assertion of how freely and fully God gives himself to those he welcomes into his eternal dwellings, that the divine life he gives to the blessed should truly be characterised as possessed by them. In terms of the parable, though, what’s clear is that in this life our situation is akin to that of a steward, entrusted with the management of what is not ours.
This should be obvious when we consider the truth we profess in the Creed of the coming of Christ to judge the living and the dead, when we will have to give an account of our life and the decisions we have made – including decisions about the spending of money and the use of material goods. As the prophet Amos reminds us, too, sinful decisions about wealth are not a ‘victimless crime’, either. To pursue wealth at all costs is to oppress the poor, and is thus a grave injustice. Now to put it bluntly, when we acquire property unjustly, that is called theft. For this reason, many Fathers of the Church, including St Ambrose, St John Chrysostom, St Basil the Great, and St Gregory the Great, say quite straightforwardly that to retain wealth beyond what is sufficient for one’s needs is to steal from the poor, and that the support of the poor from excess wealth is not a work of mercy, but of strict justice.
This, then, is the imitation of the steward which Christ proposes to us in today’s parable: not the imitation of his dishonesty, but of his liberality. For the difference is that, while the steward goes against his master’s interests and deceives him in order to obtain benefit for himself, in our case our master’s will and our own benefit coincide: by God’s unbounded grace, even our dealings with ‘the mammon of unrighteousness’, as the Greek rather more dramatically terms what our translators call ‘money, though it is tainted’, can prepare us to possess that share in the life of heaven to which Christ calls us.