16 November 2017

The Crisis Parable of the Shrewd Steward: "What Should I do?"

Awhile back I wrote that the evangelical counsels apply to all the baptized, though not in the same way. For instance religious men and women make vows of religious poverty and religious obedience while other Christians are responsible for a praxis of poverty and obedience appropriate to their state of life. Those not in the religious or consecrated state must live simply and attentively as befits a disciple of Christ but must also take on all those responsibilities the laity is expected to assume whether those of raising a family, building and running a business, participating in public office, etc etc. Especially they  must learn to handle material wealth of all sorts appropriately. The parable in last Friday's Gospel reiterates this lesson in the same language as we hear in the affirmation that we must be gentle as doves and shrewd as serpents. Because of the unlikeable nature of the characters in the story and a tendency to treat this as an analogy we might miss this fact.

The parable of the prodigal (and prudent) steward (sometimes called the dishonest steward) is known as one of the most difficult and "off-putting" parables in the entire corpus. Scholars note that more ink has been penned in regard to this parable than most all others. The situation it describes is seemingly straightforward. A property manager is accused of being prodigal with the wealth of his Master. He is found out and told by his Master that he will be sacked. Upon looking at his prospects he realizes that since he is too weak to work as a manual laborer ("too weak to dig") and too proud to beg he needs to do something to secure his future. In a culture where one who is done a favor by another is strictly indebted to the other to return the favor, the manager goes to each of the Master's client villages and has them cut the amount they owe the Master by a substantial degree. To the one owing  100 measures of wheat he has them cut it to 80. To the one owing 900 gal of oil he has them cut it to 450 gal. To his own prodigality it seems he has now added inciting to forgery and fraud. And yet, is this really the way things stand?

A few things we should pay attention to before we leap to judgments: First, the amounts "owed" have likely had a degree of interest added up front to skirt the legal prohibition against usury. Thus, if a village owed 83 measures of wheat and the Master wanted to gain 20% interest he (and his manager or steward) would have written the contract for @100 (99.6) measures and no interest in order to "honor" the Torah. Thus it may be (and a number of commentators assert) that the manager is only cutting off the interest on the principal. Secondly though, we need to understand that the steward (manager) has complete authority to act in the name of the Master, and that means that whatever he does is valid --- including cutting the amounts owed. (The furtiveness of his action belies this in this parable but it remains "the way things were" when one acted in the name of another.) Thirdly, while he has been accused of "scattering" the Master's property, there is nothing he does which makes him guilty of illegality from the get go. Structurally this parable mirrors Luke's parable of the merciful Father or prodigal Son; he is prodigal at first but no more or less. Fourthly, while we may not like to hear that God is like the Master or Jesus like the steward, we need to remember that the parable is not an allegory. Instead it is an analogy and compares at only one point, namely, what shrewdness the children of this world have and how like them the Children of Light should be but using the values of the Kingdom of God to guide and inspire!

Once these things have been considered and once we pay attention to the fact that the Master never applauds the steward's dishonesty but rather his shrewdness or prudence we may have a better sense of how the parable instructs us. If we look very carefully we must see that the Master may lose nothing because he regains a prudent steward with an "in" with the tenants or client villages. It is unclear he actually loses any of the principle (goods) owed him (commentators disagree on the matter). The steward has the same kind of "come-to-Jesus" moment the prodigal Son does. It is not a wholehearted conversion experience any more than is that of the prodigal Son, but he seeks to secure himself in a humbling way and may improve his lot with the Master as well. We simply don't know this but given the Master's praise for the steward's shrewdness it is a possibility. Finally the tenant farmers benefit by having a large amount of the property owed forgiven them. If the steward is taken back by the Master they are also unlikely to have to pay on the favor done them. In other words everyone wins!

If we Christians use a similar shrewdness but as driven or motivated and informed by the principles of the Gospel and Reign of God, we will be doing well indeed! We are told to be gentle as doves and clever as serpents in other texts. Here we are reminded to use our wealth prudently and to make friends of others so that we might have heavenly friends. In this regard I admit I am always stunned to see folks depend upon financial managers, go to school for MBA's, and so forth even while they tend to embrace a theology or approach moral theology and prayer in a way which is no more sophisticated than a grade school education allows. But in light of this "crisis parable" the steward's question, "What should I do?" must also be our own. Our Christian lives are meant to respond to this very same decision or "krisis (κρισις)" and reveal an even greater shrewdness in regard to possessions and the way we structure our world which is rooted in and reflects the reign of God. It is one of the primary ways the baptized Christian without a public vow of religious poverty is attentive to the evangelical counsel of "poverty".