Gospel parables, an Orthodox commentary

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Lord Jesus told the parable of the unjust steward just after the parable of the prodigal son, in which God's mercy toward a sinner, how He receives and forgives every truly repentant man. Having told about prodigal son, the Lord then addressed not His Apostles, but His disciples, with the following parable of the unjust steward. The Evangelist Luke has handed down to us the parable of the unjust steward:

"There was a certain rich man, who had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods. And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward. Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. I nake resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. So he called every one of his lord's debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore. And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations" (Luke 16:1-9).

Bishop Theophan the Recluse explains that all who followed Jesus were called his disciples, including the publicans and sinners whom this parable clearly addresses. Lord Jesus said many times that they, too, could become "sons of the Kingdom." And when he was reproached for eating and drinking with publicans, He said: " They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick?For I am not come to call the righteousness, but sinners to repentance" (Matthew 9:12-13). When sinners heard these truly comforting words, they began to follow the Savior in order to learn how they might be saved. The parable also addresses itself to scribes and Pharisees, who reacted by badly: "And the Pharisees also, who were covetous, heard all these things: and they derided him" (Luke 16:14).

Almost everything in the Gospel is understandable, but a few places can cause confusion. One such place is the parable of the unjust steward. Everything in the parable is fairly clear but its conclusion: "And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. And I say unto you, adds Jesus Christ Himself, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations."

One stops in perplexity. Did the lord commend the unjust steward because he deftly swindled him and gained friends for himself at his expense? Does the Lord Himself really propose to His followers that they gain friends for themselves by unjust wealth? Is this possible?

No, of course one should not read the parable this way and Christ's commandment in it. The lord in the parable is God; the steward is man. The Lord cannot commend a man for swindling and tell His disciples to act this same way.

Another interpretation may take into account that in those ancient times a class of people in Judaea, the "Jerusalem princes," excelled in covetousness and usury. They collected surcharges for themselves, which were considered normal, even laudable, and brought great riches to the "princes." Their dishonest commerce provided the Jerusalem princes with palaces, servants, gardens, and so forth. Beside their wealth, one could see destitution. There were more poor than rich. The poor derived their living from the rich. They rented land, gardens, and fields and paid the rent not with money, but with produce. The landlord-princes themselves did not manage their large estates but hired bailiffs or stewards to manage without any oversight by the princes. The hired stewards collected more rent from the tenants than the landlord had set, pocketing everything left over.

And so, how should one rightly understand the concluding words of the parable "And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely [dealt shrewdly, NKJV]; for the children of this world are in their generation wiser [more shrewd, NKJV] than the children of light. And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations?" Some commentators have suggested that the steward did not simply reduce the quantity of the debts on the receipts of the debtors, which would have meant inflicting a great loss on the landlord, but covered this loss out of his own funds. This would have been altogether possible, and even quite appropriate, if there were not a small qualification in the parable itself. "When the steward became convinced that his lord taketh away from him the stewardship, he said to himself, What shall I do? I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed."

If his situation were bad enough that he needed either to labor or to beg, he had no funds of his own, and had wasted the landlord's goods pleasures, without setting anything aside for the landlord or himself. What was the steward's shrewdness? If he himself did not pay, if he did not inflict a loss on the landlord, if merited his praise, and if he gained friends for himself among the landlord's debtors, who then reimbursed the landlord for that sum taken off the record books?

Accounting has its rules. With impunity, the steward raised the prices on the produce sold, paying the landlord the price set by him, and the landlord secretly gave him the arbitrary surcharge he himself had already specified in his contract with the buyers. This unjustly acquired wealth would be his in the future. But he perceives it as his own already. His careful timing in relinquishing this wealth to gain friends for a rainy day, characterize him as a shrewd man.

The debtors did not know that he had subtracted only so much as he had previously added for his own benefit, and they thought that he had risked his position and deceived his landlord out of friendship toward them. The debtors could be grateful to the steward, and could attribute his possible dismissal to the landlord's discovery.

The landlord, however, knew the truth and commended the steward for his shrewdness. The landlord had lost nothing. When formulated this way, the steward really does have merit and some genuine moral worth. He can renounce certain desirable values for future, higher values.

Christ summons us to follow the example of the unjust steward, and to relinquish lower values for future, higher values and not to serve two lords at once. With regret, and irony as regards the children of this world, Christ says that they are shrewder than the children of light because they understand the material values of this world, and can renounce less valuable goods for the more valuable. Often the children of light cannot renounce the world and neglect spiritual values. The children of light can be less shrewd, less reliable for the Kingdom of God (Luke 9:62) than the sons of this world when they think ahead. However, the sons of this world seldom look ahead, so their superiority remains a relative superiority in their generation.

It still is unclear why the Lord is speaking to the disciples not just about riches and materials goods, but specifically about unjust riches? Perhaps the word "unjust" does not mean unjustly acquired or stolen riches so much as unauthentic riches. In general, all our wealth is fragile, unstable, illusory, temporal, and insignificant in eternity.

Riches are foreign to man. They are temporarily his only when entrusted to him by God, as to the steward, not for him to use for himself. Riches from God belong to all mankind as well, and a rich man must consider the commonwealth before himself. His neighbors may become intercessors for him in heaven. By the prayers of these grateful neighbors he may be received into everlasting habitations.

In his commentary on the parable of the unrighteous steward, Bishop Theophan the Recluse writes: "Fix in your mind beforehand that in the parables it is not necessary to impart a meaning to every feature, but to hold to only the main thought of the parable, which is almost always indicated by the Lord Himself. For example, the Lord calls Himself 'a thief' only in the sense that He will come unexpectedly and unnoticed. All the other features that distinguish a thief should not be taken into account. So also in this parable, the Lord had in mind to indicate only one feature, namely, how the unjust steward, having heard that dismissal awaits him, did not stand about gaping, but at once got down to business and provided for himself for the future. The application is such," continues Hierarch Theophanes: "We, knowing for sure that deprivation of the kingdom awaits us, pay no heed: We live as we live, as if no misfortune whatsoever awaits us. The Lord also expressed such a thought when he said: 'The children of this world are wiser than the children of light.'"

Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow explains the meaning of the words, "Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness" in the following manner: "The Syrians had an idol, which they called Mammon and superstitiously venerated as the protector of wealth. From this, the same name, mammon, was transferred to wealth itself. Of course, the Lord, used the word mammon, in which the notion of wealth is united with the notion of idolatry; and one may suppose no other reason for this than that He wanted not simply to signify wealth, but wealth gathered with a passion, possessed with a passion, made into an idol of the heart. In this manner, the meaning of the whole expression, mammon of unrighteousness, is defined. This means wealth that is made unrighteous and depraved through passion for it; for, in the sacred tongue, unrighteousness can signify vice in general, just as righteousness can signify virtue in general. What, therefore, does the instruction, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness, mean? It means: Turn wealth, which through passion easily becomes for us the mammon of unrighteousness, the substance of vice, an idol, into a good acquisition by doing good to the poor, and obtain in them spiritual friends and intercessors for you. As for those rich who not only are not free of the unrighteousness of passion for wealth, but also are burdened by the unrighteousness of it's abuse - in vain do they seek for an easy means of covering their unrighteousness in the parable of the unrighteous steward. But if they want true guidance that applies properly to them, then they will find it in the story of Zacchaeus."

Let us follow Metropolitan Philaret's advice. Let us recall Zacchaeus. Christ desired to abide in the house of Zacchaeus the Publican, the chief of the tax collectors, a kind of minister of finance. Almost everyone looked on him with contempt. Christ's entry into his house regenerated Zacchaeus and resurrected in him the very best qualities of the soul. Zacchaeus, in the hearing of everyone, solemnly promised Christ God: "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold" (Luke 19:8). In other words, Zacchaeus promised to give to the poor half of those goods that he acquired by honest means. Everything that was acquired in an unrighteous manner he will duly return, and he will even add from the wealth that remains to him in order to return fourfold to those offended by him.

Touched by God's grace, Zacchaeus, like the steward of the parable, showed shrewdness toward correcting his serious errors and sins. Here we Christians, too, must act resourcefully regarding works of mercy and life in general. If we have offended anyone - let us ask forgiveness. If we have dishonestly appropriated someone else's goods - let us return them. And only then will God accept our sacrifice to Him, according to the Lord's words: "Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift" (Matthew 5:23-24).

"Millions came and went." Earthly wealth is temporary. It is better to share it with our poor brothers and sisters and to gain friends before God. Helping them, we help God. "He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much," says the Lord; and further: "If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man's, who shall give you that which is your own?" (Luke 16:10-12). These words of Christ show that good faith and bad faith depend on conscience. He who is unfaithful in earthly goods, and cannot manage them for the salvation of his soul cannot be entrusted (Matthew 7:6) with possession of such higher wealth as the grace-filled gifts of the Holy Spirit that lead to life eternal. And what is "that which is another man's"? That which is earthly; but our fatherland and wealth are in heaven.

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