Beyond Shrewdness

beyond shrewdness

A reflection on the Gospel passage Luke 16: 1-9, on the parable of the "shrewd steward". How are we to understand what seems to be Jesus' recommendation of cunning to Christians?

With reference to Luke 16: 1-9, which is also the Gospel reading for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C (Luke 16: 1-13).

The Shrewd Steward

And Jesus said to his disciples: "There was a certain rich man who had a steward who was accused of wasting his master's goods. And he called him and said to him, 'How is it that I hear this of you? Give an account of your stewardship, for now you can be my steward no longer.' And the steward said to himself, 'What shall I do, now that my master takes the stewardship from me? To dig I am not able; to beg I would be ashamed. I know what I will do, so that when I am removed from the stewardship, others may receive me into their houses.' Therefore, calling together every one of his master's debtors, he said to the first, 'How much do you owe?' And he said, 'A hundred barrels of oil.' And he said to him, 'Take your bill and sit down quickly and write fifty.' Then he said to another, 'And how much do you owe?' He said, 'A hundred measures of wheat.' He said to him, 'Take your bill and write eighty.' And his master commended the dishonest steward for his shrewdness, for the children of this world are more shrewd with their own kind than are the children of light. And I say to you, use tainted wealth to make you friends so that when it fails, they may receive you into everlasting dwellings."

This Gospel story jars a bit because it sounds as though Jesus is praising something less than admirable. Even after we realise that Jesus is not praising dishonesty, there is still a lingering sense of something out of the ordinary with what Jesus is saying.

Sometimes this parable is called that of the 'dishonest steward'. It might be better to call it the parable of the 'shrewd steward'. And yet, even so, it is a bit surprising to hear Jesus commending shrewdness, or cleverness as being an important value.

But this is not the only time Jesus says says something like this. Remember his advice to be 'wise as serpents but innocent as doves' (Matthew 10:16). 'Wise' is meant in the sense of 'worldly-wise', or shrewd, or cunning.

Shrewdness and Simplicity

Shrewdness contrasts with simplicity. Goodness is most often associated with seeing the good in others. It is innocent and guileless. It does not scheme but is trusting of God's providence. When we say someone is 'calculating' we do not mean it as a compliment. But we say someone is 'an open book' by way of commendation.

In our programs of formation should we have lessons on how to be shrewd and calculating? Even to propose it sounds wrong somehow.

And yet shrewdness is not something bad. It means paying close attention to people and situations as they really are. It does not look through rose-coloured glasses but sees things warts and all. It does not trust in a complacent 'hope for the best' approach but takes due account of the need for personal responsibility.

Just because we believe in providence does not mean sitting back and waiting for God to do everything. In stories about Mother Teresa there are plenty of anecdotes about how tough minded and practical she was. She knew there were obstacles to her work but she trusted God, and meanwhile wouldn't take no for an answer from those she thought could help.

A Second String to One's Bow

And yet, with all of that, there is still a reason why simplicity is more fundamental, and more beautiful, than shrewdness. Simplicity needs no reason. It is simply abiding in the good.

But the complications of a sinful world mean we need a second string to our bow. The trouble is, the more deeply you engage in all that complicated-ness the more you discover that there is no end to it. By a series of seemingly justified steps you can end up where you never wanted to go.

The path of shrewdness and calculation cannot be the main path. It is an alternative route we might have to take but it goes through more moral dangers.

It is more tiresome and wearying. If we spend all our time on that road we start to see life in that way. Instead of first looking to find the goodness in others we look first to see signs they might not be trustworthy. Instead of relying first on God we rely first on ourselves. God becomes our fallback plan.

When Jesus looked at the shrewd steward he saw a man whose mentality had been shaped in that way. He always knew what side his bread was buttered on. So when his fortunes took a downturn – seemingly due to his own shortcomings – he turned to his shrewdness for his solution.

Perhaps he learnt that from his master. After all, there is no sign the master had made provision for him – he was just out of a job. Did he get severance pay? Or a contribution to a retirement plan? Perhaps his calculation was repaying his master in kind. In any case, he took responsibility for his situation. He did not blame anyone but used the means at his disposal to address the situation.

A Kindred Spirit

The fact that the master praised the dishonest steward shows that he was the same type of character, and recognised a kindred spirit. So it is not as though we are supposed to feel sympathy for the master, as if he was an honest man while his steward was not.

There are aspects of the context of the parable that are not spelt out, but we might wonder about them. The 'rich man' had a number of people in debt to him. Indeed we can surmise that this is the source of his wealth. His wealth is not likely to be a recommendation as to his character, considering Jesus' attitude to riches, and rich people, expressed numerous times throughout the Gospels. So when his steward decides to win some favour from the debtors we might wonder whether whether he was cancelling debts that were unjust anyway, or the unjust interest that had been charged on them.

Although that is not the point of this particular parable it can show the steward in a somewhat different light by considering the way life can be more complicated that it seems at first. He might be using his situation to correct some injustice rather than simply defrauding. This would also colour the attitudes of the debtors, making it more likely that they would look favourably on the steward.

Not Just About Shrewdness

Not only that, but if the point of the parable was merely to recommend to the disciples the same kind of astuteness exhibited by the worldly, it could have been told quite differently. For example, it could have gone something like: "Knowing that he was likely to be dismissed, and did not have long before he would lose his position, the steward began to siphon off some money, so that he could leave that district with something to support him once he was out of work."

Alternatively it could have gone: "Knowing he was about to be dismissed, he called in each debtor and told him, 'You owe my master one hundred measures of wheat. But since you have been slow to repay, you now owe 110 measures. However, if you give me the ten measures now I will give you an extra year to pay the full debt. But not telling his master he pocketed the difference for himself."

Both these options demonstrate astuteness, but we can surmise that Jesus intended a further lesson about the use of money. The reference is brief and cryptic: "And I say to you, use tainted wealth to make you friends so that when it fails, they may receive you into everlasting dwellings." Why didn't Jesus simply say, "... they may return the favour"? But the reference to "everlasting dwellings" is suggestive of a deeper significance.

We could simply say that it means "turn material wealth into spiritual wealth", but it is worth asking - what is spiritual wealth? And is it only something that we receive in the next life, or can we already turn material wealth into spiritual wealth now? And what is the big problem with material wealth anyhow? In short, it easily leads people to treat others as means to an end, as instruments rather than as friends. And how do friends treat each other?

A Paradox

This is why the parable is set up the way it is. The steward does not simply steal and make a run for it, nor does he advantage himself at the expense of the debtors. His solution involves helping other people. He only indirectly seeks his own good. His direct action makes life easier for his boss' debtors in hopes they will look kindly on him once he is out of work. He has no assurance that they will, but he knows human nature, and knows that not everyone is calculating all the time. People also have another side, one that includes gratitude, friendship, and the simplicity of helping out a friend. After all, once he is out of work he has no more power to help them, but is reliant solely on their goodwill.

So we find that Jesus is teaching two lessons in this parable. Firstly, and more simply, he is commending those who do 'whatever it takes' to seek the Kingdom of God. He uses the worldly-wise steward as an example of someone who acts with resolution and shrewdness to get what he most wants. By contrast, those who claim to seek God are often not so single-mindedly serious about it. They claim to love God, but their actions demonstrate they are not totally serious about it. Jesus wishes his disciples to be as single-minded about seeking God as the steward is about seeking his own welfare.

Yet there is a second lesson. Jesus goes on to say, "Use tainted wealth to make you friends so that when it fails, they may receive you into everlasting dwellings."

He is saying, calculation is a necessary part of this life, but don't use it just to perpetuate that cycle of calculation. Use it to break the cycle.

Use it to win friends. That way you are breaking the cycle of mere shrewdness and opening up a space in which friendship can give you what you need. And friendship is not a calculus of favours. It is freely given, and though it might not have the 'dependability' of a machine, it will give you entry into another world, where money is nothing and friendship is everything.

So paradoxically we see the shrewd steward diverting monetary resources from the 'mechanical economy' of mere exchange into the 'friendship economy' of free giving.

Living with Ambiguity

We are already mired in a world where we often don't have ideal options, and some of the things we have to do indirectly harm others even without our intending it. For example, living in a rich country confers benefits which have in various ways derived from the exploitation of others. We might wish it were otherwise but the system is so big and complex that we cannot even discern clearly the full nature and extent of such unintended exploitation. So it is not a question of getting bogged down with guilt. Nevertheless each of us could be seen in some way as being like the steward. We might be stuck in a situation not necessarily of our own making and needing to take responsibility for it. But we can choose to try and find ways to shift some of the wealth we probably don't deserve from just going round and round in the cycle of calculation, and probable exploitation, and transfer it into a gift.

This begins as literal wealth but is then transformed into spiritual wealth. So worldly wealth can be enlisted to win you a home in an eternal dwelling. 

This is the deeper shrewdness - subverting 'the system' using its own methods by diverting it to a higher purpose.

Importantly, it takes an aspect of social living that works by a kind of 'machine logic' and humanises it. The nexus of relation between people ceases to be a calculus and is freed to become personal.

The shrewd steward, perhaps unintentionally, becomes part of this process, and some of the wealth that had been locked into a system has been freed, and he may perhaps become the beneficiary. Still, that outcome remains open, since it pivots, not on obligation but on gift.

The lesson for us is that, although we can't avoid the complicated-ness of distorted systems, we are not doomed merely to keep replicating them.

The same shrewdness that a dishonest person could use to his own advantage can be used for a different kind of end.

Shrewdness is simply intelligence applied to situations that should not exist, but do. Those who follow the logic of self-interested shrewdness contribute to the unravelling of community. Those who follow the logic of other-centedness can use that same shrewdness to weave the frayed ends of community back together again.

We do this by putting others first and making ourselves vulnerable to whether they will reciprocate. This opens up a space for that which had been improperly 'complicated' to become 're-simplified'.

Recovering Simplicity

Importantly, we do not have to wait till things are perfect to begin this process. We can begin wherever we are and begin taking steps back towards simplicity. Take the case of someone who holds a position of authority which grants too many prerogatives, and centralises too much power. If he decides to freely relinquish some of that power that act - in the first instance - is itself another exercise of that power. Yet it has the effect of freeing up the system to allow more people to participate.

This is similar to the case of someone who has too much wealth. The acquisition of that wealth might not have intended any harm to anyone, but to the extent that it gives one person too much and another not enough it participates in disorder. Yet we cannot wait to change the whole system before taking steps towards a better order. The very act of giving away one's wealth is in its own way an act of power, though a final one. But it is an act that thereby allows others a more just place at the table.

If we return to the case of the shrewd steward, we do not have to attribute such insights to him. But he could have taken two different paths - both motivated by self-interest - one of which perpetuated the cycle and one of which opened a break in the cycle.

Even people who are in important ways morally compromised can move towards the good, sometimes by an underlying instinct for the good that even they don't fully recognise.

Take the example above, of an alternate path, where he decides to impose an even further burden on the debtors but buying them more time. That would be to continue the cycle. Someone might veer away from that kind of possibility because, even though he is not a particularly moral person, nevertheless he recognises a line that he would not be prepared to cross. And so he takes more uncertain path, and despite his usual inclinations decides it is better to rely on the generosity of others rather than continue to 'work the system'.