In the 1993 film version of “The Three Musketeers”, based on the famous book by Alexandre Dumas, we find a most memorable quote. Having just disbanded the king’s musketeers, the evil Cardinal Richelieu stands on the balcony of the musketeer’s headquarters and makes a mockery of the musketeer’s motto by saying “All for one. And more for me.”
This quote came to mind as I reflected on the Gospel passage today. It describes our present age to a T – we have become a “more-for-me society”. In fact, our whole economic system is based on greed. Sorry, I need to be politically correct here – our whole economic system is based on the profit motive!!! The parable of the steward is meant to make us realise that nothing in this world really belongs to us at all and that nothing in this world can save us.
For modern readers, it can be quite a shock when they read today’s parable. This parable is, in fact, one of the most difficult of all the parables to interpret. How could Jesus be praising a scoundrel? But there is a way of reading today’s text that reveals a deeper logic as well as giving a vital message to all believers. The secret is to delve into the deeper meanings hidden in the Greek original.
Beginning with the cultural context of the parable, we can see that it is about a large estate where a rich man entrusted the affairs of his estate to a steward. In the Greek text, the word used for “steward” is “oikonómos”. A steward was generally a freedman – i.e. a slave who had been released from forced, legal servitude. The word is also used by Saint Paul when he describes those belonging to the ordained ministry as “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (hypēretas Christou kai oikonomous mystēriōn Theou) 1 Cor 4:1. Wow! As a priest, I also need to examine my life in the context of today’s Gospel!!
The “rich man” in the Gospel text is translated from the Greek word “plousios”, which indeed means a rich man, or someone abounding in material resources. However, the root of the word means “abundance”. This insight is vital when interpreting the parable, as it refers to the Father who is not rich in material resources, but “from his fullness (pléróma - meaning abundance) we have all received, grace upon grace” John 1:16.
The steward is told to give an account of his stewardship as he has been accused of squandering his master’s property. The Greek text here is very insightful. The word used is not “denounced” as in the Jerusalem Bible translation, but “accused” – “dieblēthē” in Greek, from the word “diaballó” meaning to bring charges (usually with hostile intent). The word implies malice, even if the thing being said is true. It is interesting here that the word used is related to the word for the Devil “diábolos”. Saint Augustine said that it is the devil saying to God “the steward is my property, not yours!” Powerful insight! What will the Father do to save him?
We cannot deny, however, that the steward is called unrighteous and that he is also held up as some kind of an example. But just how is he unrighteous and exactly what aspect of his character or action is presented for imitation?
The steward has not handed over the master’s books yet and so he still has authority over the land renters. He will now “sweeten” their annual rent contracts. The renters are not aware that the steward is being dismissed. They presume that the steward has discussed their situation with his master and convinced him to give them more favourable rates.
When the master discovers the steward’s strategy, he has to face a genuine dilemma. If he rescinds the steward’s new contracts, which he is legally entitled to do, he will alienate the entire village and the renters who have been celebrating their master’s generosity! If he keeps silent, accepting the praise that is being showered upon him, he allows the steward to get away with the scheme. The master makes his decision. He has to hand it to the steward. His clever action has not only put the rascal in good favour with the renters, but it has also brought to the landowner an honour which he would be foolish to try to undo.
The steward knew that his master was a generous person, otherwise he would not have taken such a risk – after all, he wasn’t put in jail at the beginning (which the master could have done!). And here we have the hinge on which the whole parable turns. Jesus is not praising the steward’s dishonesty, but the ability of the steward to recognise the generosity of his master, to see what was coming, and to use what he had at the time to obtain something far greater: self-preservation.
This is significant. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom. Loss of God and eternal damnation are realities (unfortunately not spoken about so often today) and therefore it is wise to seek a way to avoid these things. But this then raises another question. How could God accept you into heaven if your only motive is fear of hell? Isn’t that rather low? Not at all! Love stoops to conquer. Hell is not only a place of punishment for the sins we have committed – it is sin brought to consummation. Heaven is not just a reward for being good – it is goodness consummated.
Fear of hell is not a base motive. As long as the roaring lion is about, looking for someone to devour, it is much wiser to be afraid than to have a false sense of security. Even the “low” motive of fear of hell for salvation will be accepted by God, if that is the best we can muster. God’s arms are open wide to embrace all prodigals. All is fair in love and war – and life is both.
God is a God of judgement and mercy. Because of the steward’s evil behaviour, his unrighteous deeds are discovered. This represents the coming kingdom of God and the judgement that is associated with it. At the end of time, when the accuser will try to accuse us before God (by revealing our sins), our only option will be to entrust everything to the unfailing mercy of our generous master. Despair of God’s love because we are sinners is further from the truth and a deeper sin than even presumption or pride because in his nature God is more essentially love and mercy than justice and punishment. Therefore, to despair of his love is even worse than presumption against his justice.
The clever scoundrel (the steward) in the Gospel text was wise enough to place his total trust in the quality of mercy experienced at the beginning of the parable. That trust was vindicated. If only all believers had that same kind of wisdom.