The significance of “dishonest wealth:” On Luke 16:1-13

1. Luke 16: 1-13, from the Catholic Study Bible (“The New American Bible,” published by Oxford University Press) –

Then he also said to his disciples, “A rich man had a steward who was reported to him for squandering his property. He summoned him and said, “What is this I hear about you? Prepare a full account of your stewardship, because you can no longer be my steward.” The steward said to himself, “What shall I do, now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me? I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do so that, when I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes.” He called in his master’s debtors one by one. To the first he said, “How much do you owe my master?” He replied, “One hundred measures of olive oil.” He said to him, “Here is your promissory note. Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.” Then to another he said, “And you, how much do you owe?” He replied, “One hundred kors of wheat.” He said to him, “Here is your promissory note; write one for eighty.” And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.

“For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones. If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth? If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours? No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”

2. The note underneath the parable says that we must understand the passage this way: stewards would routinely ask for more than their masters originally did. On that reading, all the steward is doing is reducing the amount due to the original cost and forgoing his take.

The trouble I have with that reading is that it seems to eliminate the full significance of friendship with “dishonest wealth.” What the servant did was throw away his dishonest wealth to keep his job. It failed him, he has a more permanent place now. But was “dishonest wealth” only the issue of the servants’ behavior?

3. Luke includes a story about an incompetent servant at 19: 11-27. A man about to become king goes off to another country. He leaves servants behind with his money to trade in the country he will return to. One of them fails to make any money as he simply kept it secure. That servant is given no portion of rule; he is asked why he couldn’t have put the money in the bank. Now the same nobleman who becomes king was opposed by some citizens. After returning and chiding the servant, he declares that those who opposed him need to be slain.

I am going to work with this assumption: we need to take incompetence or carelessness as opposed to outright vice seriously as at least a metaphorical problem in the passage from Luke 16.  The implication of the later passage seems to be that whatever the nobleman/king represents, it is fundamental to the good, so fundamental that neglect or hatred of it is fatal.

4. Let’s say the steward from the first passage was simply incompetent. His master may have been “demanding” (cf. Luke 19: 20-22). The debtors could not possibly have made good on their payments and it was the steward’s job to know this. If that is the case, then a too-strict honesty is unjust. Moreover, the standards of human justice – wealth is purely a means, in a way symbolic of all conventionality – are real and need to be addressed by us before we even think about what is higher. The “dishonest wealth” is the debtors getting away with less, the servant keeping his job, the master being pleased with getting something instead of nothing. “Dishonest wealth” is good for all; the problem was the master’s initial requests being turned into a system that produced nothing.

What does it mean to love wealth too much? It might mean to devote oneself to artifice for no other reason that it seems powerful. It more than likely means fear and worship of God because of His power, not because of what He stands for. These considerations take us to a place most theists do not want to go: haven’t we dismissed the good as absolute? We have: it looks entirely relative here. The spirit of the law is taking us far from law itself. Shouldn’t we insist on complete honesty? What happens when we weaken the law’s call to obedience? Aren’t we just deciding arbitrarily what God stands for?

5. The Bible ultimately responds to that by showing God acting in time with purpose. Instead of a rational account, we get a revealed order where we can trust our moral judgments made with the right spirit will work out. Trust in Providence, aka the Holy Spirit, becomes the key to the enterprise. The “incompetence” of servants, bridesmaids, bad party guests in the Gospels is carelessness, a lack of trying, a lack of taking risks, a lack of mercy. One can’t take the law and make it reasonable or take one’s own reason and make it the law. There’s some kind of “openness” which is, thematically, God and man working together. The law is pointing at what is right. And you’ve got your judgment.

Which, of course, threatens the problems we’ve mentioned above. Xenophon notes that attending to corruption is not vice (corruption is vice), but virtue. There may only be virtue because there is vice, good because there is evil. Keeping people obedient to the law and focused on what is right is a too delicate balance. Strict obedience is a good thing in many, many cases. The servant’s fear prompted him to be more merciful.

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