In our last talk we mentioned the unjust Steward, and I want to say a few words of introduction, concerning this parable, but preface it by a few remarks. First of all the unjust Steward is a parable concerning Judgement, but it stands out among the parables of Judgement because it is so strange. On the other hand we must put it into its context: it is between the parable of the Prodigal Son and that of the rich man in Hell, between the parable in which we are told of the essence of sin, of its degradation, of the way in which it brings with itself misery, which is not only a pain but also can be a saving pain and the way home, and the way in which we are received by our Father. On the other hand the parable of the rich man underlines the fact that if on earth we have not been attentive to what was given us to understand, was part of our faith, part of the convictions which we openly held, the Old Testament in the case of Dives, then condemnation may come upon us. And between these two, that of the unjust Steward which I will read in full so that the details of which are remembered (See St. Luke chapter 16, 1 to 13).
Before we go into the parable, may I remind you that a parable is never ment to be an exact replica of things talked of, otherwise the things themselves would be sufficient without any parable. The parable is meant to enlightens us about a certain aspect of a situation, it goes thus far, it is not meant to go perhaps all the way with us. The second difficulty of this parable is the translation, there are certain forms of speech which does not help us see clearly the mind of the one who spoke. I think we can divide the parable into two different situations as it were; a shell and a nut inside. The shell is that part which seems to us the more difficult perhaps. The shell tells us that a rich man had a Steward which wasted his good. The Steward being called upon to answer for his stewardship found a way not to get into trouble; and the Lord commended him. The text says the Lord commended the unjust Steward because he had done wisely, with cunning, with skill, for the children of this world are in their way, rather than in that generation, wiser, more sagacious than the children of light.
What the Lord points out in this first situation is the contrast between the skill, the applied intelligence, the effort which people in this world, which is a world of unrighteousness, put into being successful in their ways in contrast with the children of light, the children of the Kingdom which seems to be so far from clearly understanding what is the good which is the way, how they can achieve to be rich in God while the others know so well how to become rich in mammon, and again how difficultly the children of the kingdom manage to find their way in the intricate dangerous situations which are the salvation of their soul, while the people of this world, in their own way, are clever and quick at understanding. I think that this condemnation of the Lord applies to this aspect of the things, not the way in which the wise and unjust Steward manage to get out of trouble.
Now, there is another aspect to this parable; first of all the rich man and God in a way can be identified and this will help us understand some of the features of the parable. At the end of it we are told “if ye have not been faithful in that which is another’s man, who shall give you that which is your own?” This seems to contradict in a strange way the whole story, because the Lord commended the unjust Steward, because he was clever of getting out of trouble but in a rather evil way; and here we are told that if we are not faithful in that which is another’s man, who shall give us that is our own…
We are in principle Stewards, not owners; if we have the spirit of the Gospel we are nothing but stewards. You remember the first Beatitude: Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. If we want to belong to the King of Heaven, if we want to be in such a relatedness to God that He should be our king and that we should belong to that Kingdom which is Heaven in earth and in eternity, then we must learn utter poverty.
What is poverty? Objectively speaking we are utterly poor and in possession of nothing; we were called out of radical absence by a one-sided call from God, we did not existe, and we exist only because we have been willed in existence by God; we have no participation in the primordial event which sets us there, so that our existence is not ours in any way: it is given for better or worse. This existence is not simply presence, we are given not only presence, we are given life and this life is complex and rich; when we look at this life of ours we see that again there is nothing we possess as our own, our body, our intelligence, our heart, all that surround us, all the people that are around us are God given; in no way can we retain them. The snapper minds can waver, flicker and die out from one little vessel that brakes in one’s brain. At moments when we would summon, if we only could, all our sensitiveness, at moments when we wish to respond with all our heart and all our being to someone’s need or call, at times we find that there is nothing in us but a heart of stone, out of which we cannot squeeze anything, and so forth… And the presence and absence of friend, and relatives, and what is dear to us in all ways fall under the same category, so that we possess really nothing. But how can that be a bliss? Because we are told Blessed are, Blissful are those who are poor in spirit. How can this awareness of this utter hopeless lack be a bliss?
Here we find another aspect of the same Beatitude, whatever a person possesses makes him independent, but independence is linked with isolation, it is only when we are dependant that there can be a relationship of care, of concern and of love between the one on whom we depend and ourselves — if the beginning and the end of this poverty in spirit was that we possess nothing indeed — there would be no link of love with the one who is the rich man, God. We do possess these things, we have existence and we have breath, we have a body, we have a soul, we have life feelings, we have intelligence, and it is only if we are aware of the fact that neither can we conjure them out of naught when we need or desire them, or that we can retain them in any way, only then do we realise that everything which we possess, every breath of ours, every movement we can make, every thought we can have, and so on, is a sign of the divine care and of the divine love.
So that to be poor is a blessedness because if we were rich in our own rights we would be connected by no love with the God who is the Giver; we would only have been given and left alone, and this is what we find in a slightly different way in the parable of the Prodigal Son: he takes to himself all that he would have possessed if he had stayed with his father, and he walks away from him and there he grows poor in a quite different way; he grows poor because gradually all he possesses is lost to him, because he has severed connections with the source of love and the source of richness. God gives us these things but as long as we have not cut ourselves of from Him, they are an endless flow of things good and things sad because they are a gift. I remind you of something I have already mentioned, of the fact that richness does not consist only in what we possess and poverty does not consist only in being dispossessed, but in our attitude to the things which are ours or not ours. St John Chrysostom says that poverty does not consist in not having, but in greedily wishing for what we do not possess. So that someone may be extremely rich and feel utterly poor because there is one thing he wishes for and the rest does not matter.
In the same line of thought there is a passage in a book from Martin Buber in which he speaks of a man who lives in extreme misery and dereliction and yet thanks God for all the gifts and benefits he has. On being accused of hypocrisy, he answers “I am not a hypocrite, God looked at me and thought to Himself, to save his soul, this man needs thirst and hunger, cold and dereliction, and this He has given me in abundance and this is why I thank Him every day”. So that one can be both poor and rich whether one possesses or whether one does not possesses, but this is just the point: how do we possess?
There is another passage in the same Gospel of St. Luke in which we are told with what difficulty shall one who trusts in his richness enter the Kingdom of God. This is just the difference between ownership and stewardship. The owner imagines that he possesses, in reality no one possesses a thing, but the owner imagines that he has in his possession those things which for a while are in his hands. Those who are of the Kingdom may have them in their hands in the same way, the only difference is the way in which those things stick to their hands or not, and the problem of the rich man is that the richer we are in one thing, the poorer we are in another way. I think I have told several of you of a Persian story of a man who had gone on a journey and who came back stripped almost to the skin and his friends were asking him, but how is that you having everything to fight come to that state. And his answer was: How could I fight? I had no hand free: I had a pistol in one hand and a dagger in the other! Well, this sounds a quite stupid story, it is not as stupid as that; because this is most of the time the condition in which we are: we cannot use our hands because they are already engaged into something else; in general terms, whatever I close my fist on is my possession, but what I do not notice is that because I have a farthing in my closed fist I have lost a hand; and if I am rich enough to possess two farthings and hold them in two hands, I possess no hands at all. And this way of being rich is a rather miserable way yet we do not notice it, so that in all possible ways we try to be rich while at every step we become poorer and poorer.
Stewardship is just that: not possessing things, handling them but not holding them and in that respect a Steward may let flow through his hands much greater richness than a rich person and he is free from this richness although he has all the benefit of possessing them. Now in this story we find a man who has got a crafty, a cunning Steward. This one tried to become an owner while remaining seemingly a Steward, and he got into trouble. How is it then that we are told: if ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon who will commit to you the true richness?
I think that here we must move on from the rich man of the parable to the rich one who is at the background of the parable, to God. God is in possession of all things, He is the owner as it were, but the relationship He wishes to have with each of us is that of a Steward who is merciful and who in his own way scatters his master’s goods, not for his own benefit, not in the way in which the Prodigal Son did but in another way. And here the centre of the Parable becomes strangely adequate. What the Lord expects us to do is to be in a way unjust Stewards, because He wants us to make all our life an act of charity with regard to everyone who comes our way. But this act of charity we can do only with what is our master’s and Lord’s because we possess nothing. So that this centre of the parable becomes more realistic and more directly true. Yes, we are Stewards as long as we try to appropriate to ourselves the goods of our Master, we are the kind of unjust Steward who deserves to be dismissed, condemned, thrown out. But inasmuch as we use our master’s goods in order to do acts of mercy, we are commendable to this strange master we serve, because He is unlike the ordinary masters who also want to engrange, to possess, to make things come their way. He is that master who gives freely all that He possesses and also that He is, and if we want to be faithful to that master — not to the master of the parable, but to the master whom we serve, to the Lord who is ours, we are called upon to be faithful in a very curious way, by being the kind of Steward who distributes, who gives, if you want who scatters the goods of his master in acts of love, in acts of charity. Then the mammon of unrighteousness, that is all the richness which can come our way, physical, material, or intellectual, emotional, spiritual, all that will be given away by us to people who are in need, to people who are debtors of our master, to help them redeem themselves. Here there is a tension between this aspect of things and the parable of the Ten Virgins.
And so we are called by our master to be Stewards, to be wise, that is true to our stewardship by not appropriating any thing to ourselves but we are also called to be the Steward of our master, not of any rich man; but of a master who wishes everyone to profit by his immense richness. By doing this we will be faithful in what belongs to the other men and we may perhaps be counted worthy to be given that which is ours; by doing this we may also be faithful in earthly riches and deserve the true riches, in doing this we will be faithful in that which is least and be entrusted with that which is much, but also as verse IX says in the process we will have made ourselves friends, people who will have been treated with mercy and love and when we will come unto judgement that will be able to receive us in their mansions; in their everlasting habitations because we will have been people who will have manifested love divine in our human lives. This is the introduction I wanted to make concerning this parable.