He also said to His disciples: "There was a certain rich man who had a steward, and an accusation was brought to him that the man was wasting his goods. So he called him and said to him, 'What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.' Then the steward said within himself, 'What shall I do? For my master is taking the stewardship away from me. I cannot dig; I am ashamed to beg. I have resolved what to do, that when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.' So he called every one of his master's debtors to him, and said to the first, 'How much do you owe my master?' And he said, 'A hundred measures of oil.' So he said to him, 'Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.' Then he said to another, 'And how much do you owe?' So he said, 'A hundred measures of wheat.' And he said to him, 'Take your bill, and write eighty.' So the master commended the unjust steward because he had dealt shrewdly. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light. And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home."
- Luke 16:1-9
In yesterday's reading, we read the parable of the Prodigal Son. First we read again that Jesus was criticized for dining with tax collectors and sinners. In the previous reading, Jesus responded by telling the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. He said, "I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance." In yesterday's reading, He added the parable of the Prodigal Son: "A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.' So he divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself, he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger. I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants." ' And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinner against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his servants, 'Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' And they began to be merry. Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, 'Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.' But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. So he answered and said to his father, 'Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.' And he said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.' "
He also said to His disciples: "There was a certain rich man who had a steward, and an accusation was brought to him that the man was wasting his goods. So he called him and said to him, 'What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.' " My study bible notes that a steward here is "a manager of a wealthy man's household and property. He is called to give an account because he is being dismissed, as his master no longer trusts him." Here the focus or facet of perspective shifts in the parables; here He's speaking directly to His disciples, those who will become stewards of the Church. On another level, we can see this steward as an image of someone wasting and scattering the talents and capacities entrusted to them by God. In this, there's a parallel with the prodigal.
"Then the steward said within himself, 'What shall I do? For my master is taking the stewardship away from me. I cannot dig; I am ashamed to beg. I have resolved what to do, that when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.' So he called every one of his master's debtors to him, and said to the first, 'How much do you owe my master?' And he said, 'A hundred measures of oil.' So he said to him, 'Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.'" These measures are Greek and Hebrew units that my study bible says were about eight or nine gallons each. In the word "debt" we have a symbolic parallel for sin; in the exchange for less we have forgiveness. It is a practice of mercy.
Then he said to another, 'And how much do you owe?' So he said, 'A hundred measures of wheat.' And he said to him, 'Take your bill, and write eighty.' " This measure is the equivalent of ten or twelve bushels each. Whether or not we understand the sums, we know we are dealing with significant amounts of property. Again the forgiveness of debt and the practice of mercy; the bill for what is owed is reduced.
"So the master commended the unjust steward because he had dealt shrewdly. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light." My study bible says here: "The steward is unjust in his actions, which are not condoned, but his shrewdness is praised. This is meant as a lesson for the sons of light, the Christian believers, who ought to be as shrewd about their pursuit of godliness as unbelievers are about their businesses." In fact, in the practice of mercy rather than exacting and painstaking justice, the steward may return more to his master than otherwise. But there is more to this than "return" -- in keeping with the stories of what was lost having been found, and the return of sinners, the forgiveness assures a continued relationship and not a severance.
"And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home." My study bible says, "The reference to unrighteous mammon is a warning about the dangers of money, which can corrupt. The right use of wealth is to make friends among the poor and needy by sharing it with them. At death, these poor friends will be the first to welcome their benefactor into the eternal Kingdom." I'd like to add, also, that in the Greek one gets the sense that what actually fails is not "you" (the unjust steward) but rather Jesus is saying that at the end of the age, when "mammon" fails, one may be received into an everlasting home. The exchange which really seems to be at work here is one sense of exacting debt for one in which mercy may be practiced, and that is in keeping with the original criticism which Jesus is answering: that He dines with tax collectors and sinners.
Many times in the Gospels we look to the readings that teach us that love and mercy trump over everything else. A kind of penurious or stingy watching over every penny is not something that Jesus or the Gospels ever seem to support. Most notably and powerfully perhaps this becomes clear in the story of the woman who anointed Christ with expensive oil, and Judas who criticized her. In the context of the stories responding to criticism of Jesus dining with sinners, we see exemplified the practice of mercy in the context of the tremendous love of God for all the flock; the effort for a single lost sheep, for a single lost coin, and the joy of the father in the return of his recklessly extravagant, foolish, prodigal younger son. Here the unjust steward may be operating according to rules that apply to the time when mammon has failed, where it may be our relatedness that is cause for more rejoicing then merely exacting standards such as are "on the books." Luke's gospel powerfully gives us a recipe for more than exacting justice and rules, one that throws in the importance of love and mercy in all our reckonings. Without it, where would we be? How better could we know God's justice and God's love for ourselves? As stewards of the Church, the disciples will need to keep this in mind; the question here really is one of priorities. What becomes most important? In the context of looking to the future, beyond mammon and "this generation," we always hope for the restoration of all -- of each one -- but we take all action in that hope, regardless of what is owed right now. We note that justice is not thrown out here in the story, but God's justice is leavened with mercy.