Sermon on the eighth Sunday after Pentecost

“There was a certain rich man who had a steward: and the same was accused unto him, that he had wasted his goods.”

To understand this parable of the unjust steward, certainly one of the most difficult of the parables, I turn for help to one of the Fathers of the Church, St Gaudentius. St Gaudentius was a bishop in Italy in the fourth century, and a friend of St Ambrose, and he commented on this passage of the gospel in a letter to another friend who had asked him what we should make of it.

St Gaudentius gives what we might call a “cosmic” interpretation of this parable: that is, he understands it to be a description of the relations between God, and the devil, and mankind. The rich man, who owns all the property, stands for almighty God. God owns all things, visible and invisible, since He created them all out of nothing. He is also rich in another sense; rich in mercy, as St Paul says.

The steward, on the other hand, according to St Gaudentius, represents the devil. This might seem surprising. The devil, after all, rebelled against the Most High from the beginning, so how can the devil be described under the image of the steward of the rich man? The answer to this is that, although the devil rebelled against God, and wants to frustrate God’s plans as much as he can, nevertheless, God makes use of him. If a skilful composer can make use of even the most unpromising musical instrument to produce some special effect for a symphony which he is writing, so God, in His wisdom, can make use even of a creature such as the devil who is fixed in hostility towards Him. Not even the devil is allowed to be completely useless in God’s creation.

And so, after the devil had fallen, God nevertheless let him have a certain power in regard to the world and to mankind, as a steward has a certain power in his master’s estate. The devil was allowed, in the first place, to test our first parents, Adam and Eve. That was certainly a large grant of power. After the fall of Man, that permission to tempt the human race was renewed. No doubt, the devil was never allowed by God to do as much as he wanted, but nevertheless he was given a lot of scope. So, for example, he induced the generation after the flood to build the tower of Babel. Later on, among the chosen people, he tempted the high priest Aaron to give way to the people’s demands for a visible god to worship, and thus the golden calf was made. Later still, he tempted King Solomon to go to excess in taking foreign wives, until Solomon fell from wisdom into folly, and began to worship idols.

All this God permitted, so that mankind might have experience of temptation, and so that, resisting it courageously by the grace of God, they might grow in virtue until finally they had merited an eternal reward.

Yet the devil, in his envy of the heavenly reward available to us, went beyond all bounds in his malice toward the human race. So, the parable says that the rich man, who signifies God, called the steward to him because the steward had been recklessly wasting the rich man’s goods. The devil had induced countless human beings not only to sin against God’s commandments, but also to embrace the most monstrous and shameful religions. He had been devastating mankind, one of the most precious of God’s possessions. The devil had filled men’s imaginations with unclean images, and filled their hearts with terror of unknown forces. Before Christ came into the world, almost the whole world was filled with such horrible, pagan religions.

Therefore, God the Blessed Trinity resolved, according to our human way of speaking, to withdraw from the devil the power which he had held up to this point. The rich man says to his steward: “Now thou canst be steward no longer.” By means of the incarnation of the Son of God, the devil was going to lose his power to dominate mankind by the multitude of the pagan cults which he had devised. And so, our Lord, on the eve of His Passion, says: “Now shall the prince of the world be cast out.” As we know, by the preaching of the apostles and their disciples, the devil was cast out from the hearts of great numbers of people by baptism, until the reign of paganism was broken on earth.

What does the devil do next? According to the parable, he says to himself: “What shall I do, because my lord taketh away from me the stewardship? To dig I am not able, to beg I am ashamed.” St Gaudentius, commenting on this, says:

“Since the devil will not work what is good, and he is ashamed to ask for mercy as a penitent, he thinks within himself how he may still have power over the debtors of his Lord (that is, over those involved in the debt of sin), not only by open persecution, but also, under a guise of benevolence, by deceiving them with smooth words.”*

In other words, after his reign had been broken by our Lord’s death on the cross, the enemy adopts a new strategy to oppress us. He seeks now not so much to terrorise human beings by pagan religions, as to deceive them under a guise of kindness, by lessening the requirements of the Christian religion.

How does this work? The parable says that the deposed steward makes two suggestions to his lord’s debtors, while he still has some time left. He tells the first man that he does not need to pay the hundred barrels of oil which he owes; it will be enough if he pays fifty. He tells the other man that he does not need to pay the hundred measures of wheat which he owes; it will be enough if he pays eighty. How can we make sense of this?

We need to notice how the Scriptures use these images of oil and wheat. Oil is often used in the Scripture as an image for divine charity. Remember how the five prudent virgins took oil with them to keep their lamps lit, while the five foolish virgins did not. The prudent ones had hearts burning with divine charity, and so they were able to go to meet the Bridegroom, and be led by him into the marriage feast, while those without oil — without charity — had to remain outside. Wheat, on the other hand, as St Gaudentius says, is a symbol for faith in Christ. Our Lord compared Himself to a grain of wheat cast into the ground, and to the living bread that gives life to the world. What wheat is for our bodies, so faith in Christ is for our souls.

The devil, it seems to me, acts like the cunning steward. He tries to persuade people that they do not need to keep both precepts of charity, both love of God and love of neighbour. This is like the steward saying that the debtor will be safe if he renders only half the oil. Whenever someone says that we can go to heaven if we do some good works to our neighbours, or if we show him some kindness, even if we do not keep all the commandments of God, we are being told that we can get away with paying only half the oil.

But even more than this, the devil seeks to corrupt true faith in Christ. Often, he does not try to change much of the faith — only twenty measures of wheat out of a hundred — since otherwise it would be too obvious. But even to change one article of the creed is enough for his purposes, since anyone who obstinately disbelieves even one of the dogmas of the Church loses the virtue of faith, and with it, his hope of heaven.

But finally, you might say, “If this is how to interpret the parable, how is it that the lord of the estate praises the steward at the end of the parable?” For God surely does not praise the devil! No, but He says to us, “If the devil is so ingenious in pursuing his evil goals, will you not think carefully how to achieve your good ones? And if he pursues his ends by offering false indulgence, will you not pursue yours by showing true mercy to those who sinned against Me, by praying and even doing penance for their souls?”

* Patrologia Latina 20: 977-78.