Parables, Puzzlement, and Prudence

On the Readings for Sunday, September 22nd

• Am 8:4-7
• Ps 113:1-2, 4-6, 7-8
• 1 Tm 2:1-8
• Lk 16:1-13

How difficult is the parable of the dishonest steward, heard in today’s Gospel reading? “Of all of Jesus’ parables,” writes New Testament scholar Dr. Craig L. Blomberg in Preaching the Parables (Baker Academic, 2004), “this is probably the most puzzling. It is certainly the one on which more scholarly ink has been spilled than any other.”

There may be no need for “probably”; in my opinion, this is the most puzzling of the parables. The parable has a similar structure to the parable of the unforgiving, or ungrateful, steward (Matt 18:23-35; Lk. 7:41-43), with three levels of social status: the master, the steward, and the debtors. But whereas the parable of the unforgiving steward is straightforward in its moral message—if you wish to receive forgiveness, you must extend forgiveness—the moral and message of the parable of the dishonest steward is not immediately clear.

First, the steward, who has misused his master’s money and so faces the loss of job and status, uses dishonest means in order to open doors for future prospects. He doesn’t admit his guilt, ask for forgiveness, or attempt to make matters right. Secondly, having changed the amounts due on the promissory notes (and thus ingratiating himself to the debtors), the steward is—shockingly—commended by his master. Why? Because he had, Jesus said, acted prudently.

At this point, many readers might understandably move from being puzzled to being perplexed. It seems that Jesus not only presented a parable condoning dishonest and self-serving behavior, but had actually praised it! But St. Augustine, in preaching upon this parable, stated that Jesus “surely did not approve of that cheat of a servant who cheated his master, stole from him and did not make it up from his own pocket.” So why, he asked, “did the Lord put this before us”? We must be careful to not miss what Jesus indicated was a key point of the parable: “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

And, in fact, Augustine writes that the parable is not meant to praise the sins of the steward but to extol him “because he exercised foresight for the future. When even a cheat is praised for his ingenuity, Christians who make no such provision blush.” Put simply, the parable extols shrewdness and ingenuity, and urges Christians to employ them for the sake of the Kingdom. It is very much a commentary on Jesus’ statement, “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves” (Matt. 10:16). The Greek word denotes the virtue of prudence, that virtue which “disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1806).

Unfortunately, we can sometimes reject such shrewdness and prudence out of a sense of false piety, naivety, or fearfulness. Yet the Catechism, in speaking of prudence, says it “is not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation.” As children of the light, we should seek to use every good and moral means available to us to build up the Kingdom of God, to proclaim the Gospel, and to defend the Catholic Faith. Yet, if we are honest, we recognize how timid and unsure we often are, especially in the face of the questions and attacks presented by the children of this world. “Instead of being as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves,” Blomberg rightly states, “we become as wicked as serpents and as dumb as doves!”

In order to have and to increase prudence, we should always keep in mind Jesus’ concluding exhortation: “No servant can serve two masters.” Prudence is “right reason in action,” which means it is rooted in right priorities and the knowledge that we are not of this world, but are children of light and children of God.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the September 19, 2010, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Carl E. Olson 1217 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.