Monday, July 19, 2010

The Unjust Steward and Indulgences

The Unjust Steward is one of the most troubling of all Christ's parables, as He seems to praise an unjust action.

However, I've thought about it a little in the past, and this parable might actually be one of the strongest supports for the love of sinners in the communion of saints, and specifically the practice of indulgences and, in general, "offering it up" for others. I remembered a post I did about this on a forum long ago, and have drawn most of my ideas from that.

Of course, the usual interpretation is that "He wasn't praising the injustice, just the shrewdness; if even the wicked can be shrewd, how much more should the good." And yet, who but God is good? Make no mistake, we are all the unjust steward.

The steward is a sinner, like all men, whose time has finally come. We have all squandered what we have been given to steward to some degree, and there will be a time when we will be called to account for it, and our stewardship will be terminated inasmuch as we will no longer be able to merit or do anything of satisfactory value. And yet, the lesson is clear, he increases his merit in the eyes of his master by canceling the debt of others. Some church history that I think is salient here:

During the persecutions, those Christians who had fallen away but desired to be restored to the communion of the Church often obtained from the martyrs a memorial (libellus pacis) to be presented to the bishop, that he, in consideration of the martyrs' sufferings, might admit the penitents to absolution, thereby releasing them from the punishment they had incurred. Tertullian refers to this when he says (Ad martyres, c. i, P.L., I, 621): "Which peace some, not having it in the Church, are accustomed to beg from the martyrs in prison; and therefore you should possess and cherish and preserve it in you that so you perchance may be able to grant it to others."
And this was the early manifestation of indulgences.

The steward is being fired finally by the master for wasting his possessions. And for all of us, even the martyrs, death is in some sense a punishment for sin. Yet the steward is right to forgive the debts of others owed to the master inasmuch as, being steward, he still has the power to do so. Perhaps it is not quite so unjust as we might think; apparently his power is recognized as legally binding. Indeed, none of our merits or the satisfactory value of our actions are truly our own. They belong to God, we have merely been given them as talents to steward and invest (to invoke another parable). They are ultimately gifts only of Christ's merit, and we have many times squandered that grace; He has given us the terrible freedom to do so.

And yet, even as we approach death or even just consider our own mortality and sinful nature, we know that we can offer the satisfactory value of our works, though it is really not ours to offer, for others. And the Church as steward of the treasury of the merits of Christ and His Saints, certainly makes liberal use of this to forgive us our debts, in the practice of indulgences. Even generally despicable sinful priests validly absolve other sinners, and such ministry will certainly not be counted against them, no, quite the opposite.

Hence..."Make unto you friends of the mammon of iniquity; that when you shall fail, they may receive you into everlasting dwellings.
" If our time is up (and it is), if we have squandered the opportunities God has given us (and we have)'s best to give away our own satisfactory works to help others, who might then help us. Make unto yourself friends of the mammon of iniquity, that is to say, friends of sin; sinners. Offer what is His, and what you in your own life have squandered (and are being called soon to account for), for them. God will see it and be happy, and those whom we help may then pray for us even if we still have some debt of our own.

I think there is a very close connection between this parable and that of the Unforgiving Servant who was forgiven his own debts only to refuse that to his own debtors; the Unjust Steward, in many ways, represents the exact reverse situation, and gives the positive example of how we should deal with our debt to God for what we have squandered (lest we be tormented until we pay our full due as happened to the Unforgiving Servant).

A modern analogy might be when Bill Clinton issued all those pardons right before he left office. It would be a more perfect analogy if he were leaving office because of an impeachment of course. But still...I think that's the general concept. Also perhaps the actions of Sydney Carton in "A Tale of Two Cities"...who has squandered his life, but decides (through somewhat dishonest means; druggings even) to spend it saving Darnay. And yet it was a far, far better thing that he did than he had ever done...

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