Strait up

The parable of the unjust steward, in Luke 16 and today’s (Old) Mass, presents “difficulties” to the interpreters, we learn. One giggles when one reads that. Jesus is commending a shyster who, about to lose his job, cuts deals with his boss’s debtors. He still has the legal power to write off debt, but won’t have it for long. He uses it to make good friends, for his own future.

Now, Jesus is assuming an audience intelligent enough to grasp that he would not be preaching dishonesty in business. He is also showing a side of Himself that tends to be downplayed: His sense of humour. More, I would say: He is acknowledging, hardly for the first time in the Gospels, that sin is actually quite common. He knows how the world works. The parable gets its colour from its plausibility. Jesus seems almost to be relishing the cleverness of this unjust steward; and by telling us he cuts one bill to 50 percent, another to 80, winking at the craft. This is a guy who deals within deals: a genuine “wheeler” dealer.

The good, experienced priest in the Confessional will never be caught by surprise. He’s heard it all. He is even aware that whited sepulchres are capable of hypocrisy. He’s guessed that the unmarried aren’t necessarily virgins; and that those who chafe under the rest of the Church’s various “unmerciful” moral commands, are not aggrieved because they are obeying. That there are crooked timbers in business, too, will not come to him as a revelation.

Pretensions of innocence often make me giggle. They do not, however, present me — or anyone else with half a brain, I should hope — with intellectual “difficulties.”

Now, the point is, today’s shyster has “prudence” in a very worldly way. He is looking out for his own future when, unemployed, he will need a few rich friends; having rejected the alternatives of hard labour, or begging in the streets. Not only sharp in business practice, but accustomed to wasting other people’s money, we might say that this steward meets the criteria for “shrewd as a serpent.” He falls, however, somewhere short of “harmless as a dove.”

Perhaps, Our Lord is suggesting, we should be as shrewd, or more, but to a different purpose: the business of assuring our own future in Heaven, where they do not need a knock-down on barrels of oil, or even quarters of wheat.

“No servant can serve two masters.” We have got that far by verse 13.

En route, we have been told that faithful in small, is faithful in large; that faithless in large, is faithless in small. Elsewhere this is expounded further, so that from many angles we can gradually perceive something in common with respect to the good, the true, the beautiful. They are indivisible. Truly, there is no way around strait dealing.

Ah, “mercy”: it strikes me that the same principle applies to other servants of the Master. I’m thinking here not of commodity traders, but — hypothetically — of priests and bishops. Suppose, for sake of argument, that they made it a practice to write off the debts owing to their own Master. Suppose, say, they decided to forgive what He in His Justice had not so decided, merely to win friends and influence people. This would certainly help their standing in the world. But I wonder if it would improve their standing in Heaven?