Over the centuries, the parable of the clever but dishonest steward has caused much debate. Doesn’t Jesus seem to be praising the man for cheating? “Good for you. You did a clever thing in discounting your master’s debts so that those tenants you bailed out would owe you a favor.” How do we understand Jesus here, especially when a few sentences later he enjoins us to “be honest in both great and small things?”
One interpretation is that the discount the steward gave was the commission he would have earned, and he was just subtracting it from the debtors’ totals. But that’s a bit of a stretch. Might this parable also be read as another instance of Jesus focusing on the good; i.e., sporadically this steward cut a corner too many, but in the overall was a good man. Jesus’ first instinct is to look for the grace in a person.
Through the prophet Amos, Yahweh warns, “Hear this (and tremble), you who cheat the poor, who treat them like they are commodities to be bought and sold, who take advantage of their low station to hoodwink them.” (Amos 8:6) The psalms give echo, “Praise the Lord, who lifts up the poor.” (Ps 113)
Toward which side do I lean? In making a judgment about those on the bottom of the economic ladder, do my feelings tilt more toward suspicion or towards sympathy? Indeed, there are reasons for both stances.
Some think that poor people take advantage, that those on public assistance are sponging off the country and are too lazy to work (granting exceptions of course). Others have a different, more sympathetic view. Those in poverty are to be helped. If given a break, most would rise out of their condition. This is the class in society that deserves most attention. Rather than viewing them as shiftless, we should be looking for the good in them (granted some take advantage of the system).
We know St. Vincent’s leaning. Living in a time of war and the severe poverty that goes with it, he focused on those struggling folks at the bottom of the ladder. And he did this in part because he had been struck with those many passages in the Scriptures where God favors the poor and neglected, certainly Amos and the psalmist, “Praise The Lord who lifts up the poor.” Still weightier were Jesus’ own predispositions. He takes extra notice of the beggars and the lepers and the widows. He claims his calling is one who has been “sent to preach the Good News to the poor.” He self-identifies with the downtrodden, “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters you are doing to me.” Or in a paraphrase, “I live in everyone but in a special way in the needy. I’m close to those who struggle along to make it from one day to the next.”
If you asked Vincent about God’s leanings, the poor as predominantly scheming or the poor as largely worthy, he would insist on the second. Jesus would certainly give this interpretation as seen in his assessment of the clever steward. He did something questionable but there’s more to him than that. Vincent and most especially Jesus view the world through that lens.
Rationalization? It’s hard to bypass the inclinations of the saints and especially Jesus who show this clear leaning toward the down and out. God loves everyone, but God’s gaze shines particularly on the poor.
The Father’s heart encompasses everyone but holds a special place for the impoverished. “Praise our God who lifts up the poor.”