We are confronted this weekend with one of the most challenging and difficult to understand sections of the Gospels. Scripture commentators and theologians have struggled to place the passage into the broader context of Luke’s Gospel, as well as in the overall teaching of Jesus. The line between the parable and the moral teaching of Jesus is blurred. As none of the other Gospels present the parable here called “The Dishonest Steward,” we are at a loss to how to place it into context.

The steward is often contrasted to the son in the parable of the Prodigal Son which we heard last week. That these two parables occur close to one another in the Gospel may be coincidental, or Luke may have intended to balance these two, as he often does with parables. If that is the case, then the steward’s plotting and shrewdness makes some sense. Like the prodigal, the steward seems to be imprudent with how he handles the resources he is given. The son goes bankrupt and the steward is dishonest and mismanages his accounts. Each of the two needs to contrive a solution to their immediate problem. The son realizing that living and working conditions at his family estate are better than the pig farm decides to return home. The dishonest steward, realizing that he is about to be fired from his post, devises a scheme to reduce the loans due to his employer. Both men are commended for their decisions.

These parables are also connected to a general theme of the parables and teachings of Jesus heard earlier in Luke’s Gospel, that of humility. The chief steward of a rich man who faces dismissal and, perhaps, even arrest for squandering the man’s wealth, learns a quick dose of humility. Jesus includes a masterful side note in the parable when he has the steward say to himself: “I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg.” The man continues his deceit, though given the customs of the time, he likely reduced the payments by cutting off his own “commission” on the loans. Nonetheless, the steward makes peace with his situation, earns the esteem of those in debt, and the gratitude of his employer.

His position was very important to him. He did what it took to preserve his reputation and position.

The teaching of Jesus that follows this parable provokes some powerful and confusing images. At various points in his teaching, Jesus advises his disciples to be shrewd in their dealings with the world and the goods of the world. Yet, he warns them not to get caught up in the world that they lose their focus as disciples.

The well-known aphorism, “You cannot serve both God and mammon” draws our focus to the deeper life questions. Though often thought of as “money,” the term mammon carries a broader definition. The meaning of the term is probably connected more to the notion of that upon which we rely or have a sense of dependence for living. So the challenge from Jesus is for his disciples to consider what is most important in their lives. On what does one stake their reputation or rely upon for support and comfort. This would be more like another teaching from Jesus: “Where your treasure is, there your heart is also.”

Jesus then challenges his disciples to be aware but also wary of worldly affairs and the trappings that it brings. As with the steward, we see those trappings come with a pitfall. It is only when the worldly prestige is threatened that he recognizes his need to also act with prudence.

We learn that humility then – the recognition of one’s basic humanity, which comes at the expense of one’s sense of ego – is the necessary precursor to coming to grips with what is really important in life.

Jesus calls us to recognize the Kingdom, and our place in that Kingdom, as the focus of our life’s work, while still managing to negotiate the world. This is no easy path to walk.

Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.