In order to appreciate fully the import of today’s gospel text, which gives us the parable of the Unjust Steward, we must remember that parables, unlike allegories, focus on only one element in the comparison. Thus, the lesson to be drawn from this parable is that the followers of Jesus must also act prudently in regard to their own future prospects.
It should also be noted that this steward, though lacking in good management, was probably not as unjust as at first appears. In all likelihood, he was simply subtracting his own substantial commission from the debt owed to his master. This would be similar to the prudence of a small-market baseball team that trades away a good player because he is eligible for free agency and will be lost anyway!
The sayings that follow the parable sharpen its focus by making it clear that what Jesus has in mind is the attitude that his followers must adopt in regard to their earthly possessions, whether they be wealth or personal talents. If one allows these human and temporal things to monopolize one’s attention, there is grave danger that the eternal treasure will be lost.
A distinctive feature of Luke’s gospel is the deep concern he shows for the dangerous situation of wealthy or talented individuals who have become so engrossed in managing their riches that they are fatally distracted from the real purpose of human life. In this situation, they may very well be so distracted that they will discover, only when it is too late, that they have wasted the only ultimately significant opportunity in their lives. This same lesson is found in the situation of a strikingly beautiful person who has never needed to develop a mature and pleasing personality. This is what is meant when we speak of the “curse” of great talent.
This wisdom is also dramatically portrayed in Luke’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31). It is important to notice that this rich man is never presented as one who has acquired his wealth through crime or some other immoral strategy. He ends up in hell simply because he is so preoccupied in managing his wealth that he does not notice that a poor man is starving on his doorstep!
This sensitivity of Luke concerning the danger of earthy possessions derives in part from his observation of the effect of wealth on the inhabitants of his hometown of Antioch. This was a prosperous trading center where the extremes of wealth and poverty were clearly evident. Luke warns, therefore, that possessions can have, in a sense, a drugging effect on their owners. One sees this clearly in Luke’s story of the rich farmer who is worrying about building bigger barns for his bountiful harvest whereas God is calling him to face final judgment (12:16-20).
Luke does not condemn wealth as such. What he does condemn is a preoccupation or obsession with riches that precludes one’s need to place the awareness of others and of their needs at the top of one’s list of responsibilities. When the gospel says that we must choose between God and mammon, it is asking us to declare where we finally put our trust. Wealth and talents can serve God’s purposes, but they must never replace God as the center of our attention in life.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.