We have an apparent contradiction between the Epistle and the Gospel today. St. Paul lays down the rule that if we live according to the flesh we shall die, but if by the spirit, we mortify the deeds of the flesh, we shall live. The Holy Ghost will assist us in this, so that we can live as worthy children of God. But in the Gospel, Our Lord holds up for our imitation a man clearly living according to the flesh: A steward losing his job because of fraud and embezzlement and then further defrauding his master when he gets caught in order to be treated well by his masters’ debtors. In addition to all this lying and thievery, we have the additional vices of pride and sloth. The man was too proud to beg and too slothful to do manual work.
Speaking of the rich man in the parable, who stands in the place of Christ, the Gospel says that “the lord commended the unjust steward for as much as he had done wisely.” Why on earth should we imitate this man?
Some background will help us to understand.
The Characters. The master was a rich land owner who make his riches by renting out his estates to be farmed. The farmers paid their rent by giving the master a portion of the produce his land yielded. The steward played a pivotal role between the two. He oversaw the day-to-day operations of these farms for the master. It was his job to negotiate contracts — the “bills” we read about here — with the farmers. The whole affair could be quite involved. Sometimes even the farmers were wealthy men themselves who sublet the farms out to poorer farmers. Overseeing the business end of this operation, the steward had tremendous power over his master’s property. The master depended on him to get the income that was his due. It was not uncommon that these stewards were crooks. On the one hand, they exacted unjust rents from the farmers. On the other, they gave their masters less than their due. Cheating on both ends, they made themselves rich. The steward in today’s parable was accused of this kind of thing. According to one scholar, the working of Saint Luke’s Greek implies that he was not only accused, but “justly accused,” and his future actions show that he was guilty. He could have been in partnership with the wealthier farmers in all of this so that the real losers were the master and the poor farmers who worked the land.
Prodigal, not Repentant. Having probably squandered his ill-gotten goods on bad living, like the prodigal son, but not repenting like the prodigal son, he is not the type to attempt an honest living by manual labor (the “digging” he mentions was the most menial of such manual jobs). He is too proud to beg. So, he decides to live off the farmers themselves by making them his debtors.
Additional Crime. After he gets caught, the steward continues in his injustice. He hasn’t yet lost his office. Certain legalities must come to pass first. Leases, bonds, and other legal paperwork has to be done first before his office is transferred to another. In the meantime, still acting with the authority of his office, he has his master’s renters bring in their contracts, which he and they begin to rewrite. In the two examples we have here, the master is defrauded of about 425 gallons of oil and 200 bushels of wheat, neither of which is a meager portion.
Why the praise? When the master finds out, he praises him. Why? Because, being a man of the world, he admired the steward’s worldly prudence and cunning, even though he himself had been wronged by it. This is much the same as we may marvel at the the cleverness, prudence, and industry of highly skilled bank robbers, even while we condemn the immorality of the act.
The Lesson. Our Lord — or possibly St. Luke — makes an observation based on the parable, giving us something of the key to interpreting it: “for the children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light.” Then he concludes with a command: “And I say to you: Make unto you friends of the mammon of iniquity, that when you shall fail, they may receive you into everlasting dwellings.”
Here is how Saint Augustine distilled from the pollution of this man’s crimes the pure vintage of heavenly Wisdom: “If this steward provides for himself so ingeniously on earth from the yearly produce, we ought to be much more ingenious with respect to eternal life, so that we are solicitous about the merits whereby we may obtain it.”
So, how do we “make friends of the mammon of iniquity”? Saint Gregory the great answers that we do so when we give alms: “We ought to consider that we do not so much give alms to the needy as offer gifts to patrons who will receive us into everlasting dwellings.”
We do so also when we use the goods of this world well. Using for a supernatural and virtuous motive what God puts at your disposal, whether it be money, food, clothing, shelter, etc., you are making friends with all Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity, with Our Lady, and with the other saints. It harkens back to the parable of the talents. We’ve been given certain material gifts and God says to us: “trade till I come.” At death, there will be a reckoning. If we have used the things of this world wisely, we will hear “well done, good and faithful servant.” Otherwise, we will be told: “thou wicked servant.”
One question remains to be answered. How are the children of this world wiser?
First, they are prudent in using the things of this world for their present gain. We are imprudent in using the things of this world for our eternal gain. By failing to exercise temperance in our use of everything from food to marriage, we show that we are imprudent.
They are true to their principles. We are not. In saying that we are living for eternity and barely giving a thought to the supernatural realities which surround us, we show that we are liars. At least they only claim to want what the world has to offer, we claim much more.
They use the proper means to get the proper end. This is a basic building block of truth: proportion your means to your ends. Figure out what it is you want; figure out what you need to get it; then do it. We want heaven, but we live for this life. We say we firmly resolve not to offend God, but we don’t take the means to stop. We make acts of faith, hope, and charity with our lips, but in our hearts and by our actions, we are governed by pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth.
In short, we act like they do, but profess to be members of Christ’s Mystical Body. Remember, if you live according to the flesh you shall die, but if, by the spirit you mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live. This is the recipe to be wiser than the children of this world.