Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in what is another man’s, who will give you what is your own?
This is probably the most confusing passage of a parable with many seeming twists and turns of logic. Up to this point Jesus seems to be equating “being faithful in unrighteous mammon” with “make friends with debtors.” All along that seems to accord with the logic. We have been concluding that the “heavenly meaning” here is that we should trade the mammon rules of “tit for tat” (the rules of economic scarcity) for the rules of “be generous to debtors,” or, we should be liberal with God’s grace in all areas of life, from money and hospitality to forgiveness and patience and everything in between.
But then Jesus says the words of our passage for today. We scratch our head wondering where the unfaithfulness or faithfulness was in the parable. Was the steward unfaithful because he squandered the rich man’s goods? Or was he faithful because he made friends with debtors? He seems unfaithful because that seems to be the whole point of the parable as an earthly story. But he seems faithful because Jesus commends him and gives his behavior positive heavenly meaning.
Clearly Jesus says, “[M]ake friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home. He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much.” Here, the “make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon” parallels being “faithful in what is least.” If we follow that flow or meaning, and Jesus goes on to say – “Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in what is another man’s, who will give you what is your own?” – then He seems say that the shrewd steward was being faithful by running around and cancelling debts. But in the mind of the rich man, did that really make the steward faithful?
Perhaps there’s some exegetical detail eluding us. Maybe the steward was faithful by getting the debts paid off in situations where otherwise they never would have paid debt. Maybe that “cut” he was giving them was previously the cut he took in his wasting of his master’s goods. Maybe his behavior made the rich man look generous and good, which is certainly a good and faithful thing.
Whatever the case, Jesus uses the parable to lay down the principle that Christians befriending debtors and alleviating their debt corresponds to them being granted “true riches,” the riches of heaven. That’s actually a wonderful concept to contemplate, because how many of us are placing ourselves in the parable as the steward, thinking what we ought to be doing? But how many of in fact are very much the debtors? And Jesus lays down the “heavenly rule” that true riches must be used for debt relief.
Perhaps, then, the parable is about ministers? This brings us back to our first fly-by interpretation, that the steward is the apostles or ministers in general. They should seek out debtors and be generous with debt relief. As Jesus told them, “Freely you have received, freely give.” Don’t hold back, He says, when it comes to little mammon things, and most certainly not when it comes to “true riches.” (The confusing part of this interpretation is it suggests apostles and ministers will be judged by the poor and debtors. It’s not a bad thought, but it’s hard to find corresponding passages that support that interpretation.)
At a minimum, I think we can at least conclude with this point: Jesus teaches it is the faithful use of His riches to use them for the relief of debtors. He wants His people to be that sort of steward with His grace. This fits what St. Peter wrote, referenced before but worth repeating, “And above all things have fervent love for one another, for ‘love will cover a multitude of sins.’ Be hospitable to one another without grumbling. As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.”