This week’s Gospel parable, commonly known as the Parable of the Unjust Steward, is unique to Luke and one of the most puzzling passages in the New Testament. There is no consensus among Biblical scholars as to just how it should be interpreted.
To save his own skin, a manager under suspicion fraudulently changes the amounts owed to his master in the hope that he can call in a few favours after he is fired. The problem of interpretation arises from the fact that Jesus appears to commend, even to praise, the manager’s dishonesty – “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes”. This sits especially ill with the second Old Testament lesson for this week in which the prophet Amos denounces the unscrupulous pursuit of wealth.
The story in itself is troublesome, but the difficulty of understanding what Jesus means by telling it is increased in what follows. How does the broader lesson– “You cannot serve God and wealth” (or in traditional language, God and Mammon) -- flow from the parable that precedes it?
Here is one way of looking at this difficult passage. People often think that they can be worldly wise while remaining true to a noble purpose. They suppose that, with enough determination, they can successfully use material means to spiritual ends. Jesus warns us against this easy assumption. Worldly wisdom has a dynamic of its own, one requiring us to follow a path that, sometimes without our noticing, quickly becomes a downward spiral. The dishonest steward's actions are dictated by precisely the same desire for material advantage that motivates his master, a fact that the master himself is forced to acknowledge. So pursuing material benefits energetically and effectively in order, say, to feed the hungry, will in likelihood lead us to embrace purposes and values deeply at odds with spiritual well-being. Business methods and Christian discipleship usually give competing directions about how best to act and live.
This difficult truth does not necessarily carry the implication that only self-imposed poverty is spiritually safe. As St Paul says elsewhere, it is not money, but the love of money, that is the root of evil, and the poor no less than the rich can love money. What it does imply, though, is that a time may come when we face a choice between love of God and love of Mammon -- only to find that, unwittingly, the decision between them is one we have already made.
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