The parable of the unjust steward: sermon on the eighth Sunday after Pentecost

“What shall I do, because my lord taketh away from me the stewardship?”

This parable of the unjust steward sets before us, it seems to me, the relations that exist between God, the devil, and mankind. The rich man in the parable is an image for God Himself. He is called rich because everything belongs to Him. As it says in the psalm, “The Lord’s is the earth, and its fullness.” God is also “rich in mercy”, as St Paul says. 

Now, the rich man in the parable has a steward. And we can see this steward as an image for the devil. This might sound surprising. Isn’t the devil the enemy of God? Yes, he tries to be: but God makes use of him. Since God is almighty, He can make even the activities of the devil to serve His own divine providence. After all, why does God allow the devil to tempt us? It’s so that we can have the opportunity to resist him, and grow in virtue. In this way, the devil unwittingly serves the kingdom of God, and this is why Jesus can compare him to the rich man’s steward.

Where then do we come into this parable? We are the rich man’s goods. God treasures us: as one of the psalms says, we are like “the apple of his eye”. 

So, what does the parable say about the relation between these three? “There was a certain rich man who had a steward, and the same was accused unto him, that he had wasted his goods.” How did the devil waste the goods of almighty God? God had allowed the devil to test us, but the devil tried to seize mankind for his own. After all, what is idolatry? Idolatry, witchcraft, black magic, call it what you will — it is all just a way for the devil to try to get for himself the worship that is due to God alone. And before Christ came, almost the whole of mankind was caught fast in idolatry of one kind or another; not even the better sort of pagans could get free of it. The devil had taken charge of the estate.

And so, seeing this, almighty God resolved (to speak in a human way) that the devil would no longer have such power over mankind. It is as if He said to him, “Now thou canst be steward no longer.” This is what Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Blessed Trinity, came to earth to accomplish: He came to break the reign of the evil one over mankind. This is what He Himself told the Jews on the last day of His public ministry: “Now is the prince of this world cast out.”

And it happened. Very soon after the resurrection, the apostles went to preach to the nations, and wherever they went, people turned away from idols to serve the true God. Quite soon, all the pagan shrines and temples that had stood for centuries were deserted, and the pagan priests themselves were coming to believe in Christ and be baptised. It seemed to be the happy ending to history.

But although the devil’s reign had been overthrown, he wasn’t yet ready to give up. Like the steward in the parable, now that he could no longer rule openly over his master’s goods, he determined to do something more subtle. He resolved to corrupt his master’s debtors. 

“Then calling together everyone of his lord’s debtors, he said to the first: How much dost thou owe my lord? But he said: a hundred barrels of oil. And he said to him: take thy bill and sit down quickly, and write fifty.”

What is going on here? The steward is conniving with the debtors to defraud the lord and, in this way, making for himself new friends, of a kind. What it signifies is how the evil one tries to corrupt Christians. We are debtors too, as St Paul tells us today: “Therefore, brethren, we are debtors”, though “not to the flesh”. We are debtors, because we owe it to God to try to live according to the Spirit: this means believing the faith that the Holy Spirit has revealed to us, and following the commandments that He has given us. But the devil hates it when we do that, because he knows that it is the way to Heaven. 

So, what does he do? Like the crafty steward, he tries to make us pay only a portion of what is due, and he tells us that that will be enough. “You don’t need to keep all the commandments; don’t be a fanatic; it’s enough if you keep some of them. You don’t need to believe everything in the Scriptures, just some of the more important things.” It’s just what the steward does with the wheat and the oil. “Give the lord only some of what you owe to him, not everything.”

In other words, having been defeated in one way, the devil tries to revenge himself in another. Ever since idolatry has been defeated, or driven underground, he has tried to replace it with heresy. Every heresy means giving to God only part of what is due to Him: for example, believing that Jesus is true man but not true God, or true God and not true man. 

And what is the moral of this story? It is as surprising as the parable itself. “The lord commended the unjust steward, forasmuch as he had done wisely.” Does God praise the devil? No: but He wants us to learn a lesson even from him. If the devil has been so alert to his own interests, we should not be asleep to ours. In particular, “make unto you friends of the mammon of iniquity”. In other words, don’t use your money for this life only, because you’ll soon have to leave this life behind. Use it instead to please God and His saints, “that when you shall fail, they may receive you into everlasting dwellings”.