Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit
I don’t know how much each you my reader have thought about this particular parable. In my own home, growing up, I remember it coming up multiple times. It is kind of a strange parable. What is going on here? Is Christ commending dishonesty?
I think that our trouble is that we focus on the dishonesty, rather than the reason for the dishonesty. This steward had the right concept but carried it out in a wrong manner. He was planning for the future.
As we know, multiple times throughout the Scripture, especially in the 2nd Testament, we are instructed to prepare for the second coming of Christ. There is the parable of the 10 virgins, the Olivet discourse, St. Paul’s warning that Jesus will come back as a thief in the night. You can probably think of ones that I haven’t mentioned.
It is important that, in our lives, we prepare ourselves for the future coming of Christ. Are we faithfully pursuing Christ? Do we put sin away from our lives? Are we building practices into our lives, such as Scripture reading, praying, fasting, giving to the poor etc.
Let us take a few moments to focus on giving to the poor. The Church fathers very much see this passage speaking of that. They really focus in on verse nine.
And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.
We have dishonest wealth or unrighteous mammon i.e. the money with which we are entrusted to care for the poor. Throughout the 2nd Testament, I think we’ll find it rarely if at all that money belongs to ourselves. It belongs to the emperor, “Render to Caesar”. It belongs to God and here the understanding of the Fathers is that it belongs to the poor. St. Augustin for instance says,
It is easy of course, to understand that we must give alms and a helping hand to the needy, because Christ receives it in them.1
A gift to the poor, then, is not really a gift but a return of the loan of what Christ has given us. St. John Chrysostom asks what kind of excuse we have if we lock away our wealth from the needy. For in the day of judgement, if we have not given to the needy, we can count on no support from them. There is of course more to salvation than giving to the poor, but it will be counted against us if we refuse.
St. Cyril of Alexandria explains that it is part of our obedience to the law of God to give to the needy. It is following his will. In another light, earthly possessions are at best a temporary method of a better life now. It is expedient that we give them away so that we might receive a better eternal inheritance.
In giving to the poor, the question or excuse often comes up. “What if they are going to spend it on something wrong?” or “What if they are faking being poor?” The instruction of the Scriptures and the Fathers, however, do not allow us these excuses. What if through our judgement of others we miss having compassion on those who need it? Would that not be far worse than giving to the one who has no need? St. Augustin explains this point well.
We can understand that we have to give alms and that we must not pick and choose to whom we give them, because we are unable to sift through people’s hearts. When you give alms to all different types of people, then you will reach a few who deserve them. You are hospitable and you keep your house ready for strangers. Let in the unworthy, in case the worthy might be excluded. You cannot be a judge and sifter of hearts.2
Let us be bold, therefore, to give to all that ask. Let us be known rather for our compassion than our stinginess. There are many ways to be hospitable. All of us can and must be willing to open our houses to those who are in need of a night’s lodging. We have the example of Abraham who entertained angels unaware and the exhortation of St. Paul to be hospitable in like manner.
In our reading from the Prophet of Jeremiah, the people of God had turned away from his law through disobedience and he is weeping over them. This shows us how much of the character of Christ that he had. He had compassion for his people and desired that they would return to God through His discipline.
The law has seemingly brought destruction to the nation of Judah. This does not mean that it is not beautiful and good. It is the means by which we see our transgression and sins as St. Paul explains to us in his epistle to the Romans. It shows us our sickness and our desperate need for the great Physician. Jeremiah is not weeping because the damage is so great that it can’t be repaired, but because it will cause Judah such pain to be restored.
There is restoration for the nation of Judah. In the context of our Gospel reading, if we failed in our provision for the poor, there is still a remedy. God may discipline us to the point that we become generous and hospitable. Let us, therefore, now purpose to care for the poor and strangers. We must make this a practice of our lives.
In our Psalm reading, we read about the destruction of Jerusalem. However, as St. Augustin points out to us, this was written long before the destruction of Jerusalem. Which raises the question which time of destruction is he referring to?
Jerusalem has been physically destroyed three times while Israel and the Jews had possession of it. First by Nebuchadnezzar, second by Antiochus Epiphanes, and third by Titus, it could also be a prophecy of the persecution and martyrs of the church. Jerusalem is a symbol of the church as we read in Galatians.
The weight of the understanding of the church fathers is that it refers to the persecution and martyrdom of believers. St. Augustin lived at the time of the Barbarian incursion upon the Roman empire. He and other believers saw the dead in the streets left unburied. This caused concern for some because how can desecrated and bones strewn by scavengers be brought together in the resurrection?
He explained that the church buries their dead properly because they have respect for them that they will be raised again, but if it happens that they are strewn about, God will bring them back together in the resurrection. God will not allow a single hair to perish from our heads, He will restore us.
In our epistle reading, we see another way that we care for those around us. It is a call for us to pray while the Gospel reading is a call to give physical provision. Notice, that the prayers are not primarily directed toward the church but towards the government. St. John Chrysostom tells us,
The priest serves as the common father, as it were, of all the world. It is proper therefore that he should care for all, even as God, whom he serves cares for all.3
Everyone, in the world, therefore, is under the care of a priest be they believer or unbeliever. We as a church are called to pray for them. First, we were called to provide for them and now we are called to pray for them. This brings two benefits, first it removes any hatred we have toward the unbeliever, because we cannot hate anyone we pray for.
Therefore, if we have a problem with a neighbour, a government official or some random person on the street, let us pray for them. God will remove our hatred or dislike for them as we pray for them. We are in the midst of an election campaign and emotions can run high especially as we interact with those who don’t have the correct political viewpoint, like us. We must pray for them and as we pray God will give us compassion for them. Let us have the attitude that Clement of Alexandria had. He desired more to win the person to Christ than to win the argument.
The fathers have different understandings of what exactly supplications, prayers and intercessions are, but they are agreed that thanksgivings are gratitude for blessings received from God. The overall thrust of understanding is that prayer is to be made for the government. This is still practised weekly in the Anglican and Orthodox churches and is in our liturgy as well.
This understanding that prayer is to be made for the government and that it is effective was used in Origen’s defence to Celsus. (Celsus was a second century philosopher and opponent of Christianity.) Celsus was maintaining that if the Christians really supported the emperor, they should join the army when he called upon them to do so. Origen’s response was that the Christian is far more effective against the enemies of the empire by putting on the armour of God and praying for the emperor, than if he were to become a soldier and kill as many of the enemy that he could.
As a Christian we are called to pray for the good of the country that we reside in. The fathers also address the objection that you probably have heard many times. I know that I have. “What if the government is corrupt” or even worse “What if the government is persecuting us?”
St. Augustin tells us that the thought of overlooking the instruction of this passage to pray for our authorities should not even be imagined. Our obedience to God is not dependent upon the conduct of others. Even when governments persecute, they are also still doing good for their land.
They are upholding law and order and punishing evildoers. They are transgressing in one area, but they are still God’s tool. We can be confident that God will deal with their transgression. He says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” It is not our responsibility. Whether he brings them to repentance, or it doesn’t get sorted out to the final judgement, He will look after it. Our duty is to pray. To quote a man that I spent a lot of time studying growing up, “Duty is ours, consequences are God’s.”
Praying for the government that is kind of distant. We for the most part don’t have interaction with our government. For us it is usually a list of names that we don’t have interaction with.
The fathers bring this a little more tangible for us. They instruct us to pray for the unsaved which is the will of God for the passage goes on to say that God wills, or it is God’s will that all will be saved. The fathers, however, strongly warn and that we ought to fear praying against anyone. This is against the nature of God and his will. He has compassion, he desires all to be saved. To pray against anyone, is to pray against the will of God. Something, that I am sorry to say, I practised at one time. But you don’t need to make the same mistake.
God desires that everyone to be saved has been misconstrued from early church history up until the present that everyone will be saved. However, God has left us with the choice, and will not override our free choice. St. Ambrose has summed it up well,
He is certainly good to all, because he is the Saviour of all, especially the faithful. And so the Lord Jesus came that he might save what was lost; he came, indeed, to take away the sin of the world to heal our wounds. But not all desire the remedy, and may avoid it…. He heals those who are willing and does not compel the unwilling.4
We, like God are to care for the world. He sends sun and rain on both unjust and just. We are to have compassion and love towards all around us, be they believer or unbeliever.
We must make the care for the poor a top priority, as we see the poor in front of us at the grocery store or the street corner asking for help. Let us offer some form of assistance. St. Augustin tells us it is better to help those who don’t deserve than risk not helping those who do. Let us be people who care for the poor.
We are to pray, daily if we can, for our government. As we go into this election campaign, let us endeavour to listen to other points of view with patience, looking for an opportunity to win others to Christ. We must pray that all unbelievers will come to the knowledge of Christ. We can begin with the names of the ones that we know to get into the practice of praying for all. Let us pray for our government even if policies and laws are passed to our personal detriment. Let us be people of prayer.
We must have compassion, like Jeremiah, on those who are under the discipline of God, knowing that he will restore them. If we are under such discipline, let us be quick to repent and be restored to fellowship with God.
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,
~ Fr. Matthew
Mironov, Andreĭ (Andreĭ Nikolaevich), 1975-. Parable of the Unjust Steward, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57060 [retrieved September 24, 2019]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%D0%9F%D1%80%D0%B8%D1%82%D1%87%D0%B0_%D0%BE_%D0%BD%D0%B5%D0%B2%D0%B5%D1%80%D0%BD%D0%BE%D0%BC_%D1%83%D0%BF%D1%80%D0%B0%D0%B2%D0%B8%D1%82%D0%B5%D0%BB%D0%B5._%D0%9A%D0%B0%D1%80%D1%82%D0%B8%D0%BD%D0%B0_XXI_%D0%B2%D0%B5%D0%BA%D0%B0..jpg
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1606-1669. Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55695 [retrieved September 24, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_-_Jeremia_treurend_over_de_verwoesting_van_Jeruzalem_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.
1 Thomas C. Oden and Arthur A. Just Jr., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament III (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 255
2 Thomas C. Oden and Arthur A. Just Jr., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament III (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 255
3 Thomas C. Oden and Peter J. Gorday, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament IX (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 152
4 Thomas C. Oden and Peter J. Gorday, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament IX (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 155-156