Crafty Virtue: Lessons from the Dishonest Steward

One of Jesus’ most challenging parables is the one about the Dishonest Steward in Luke 16. In that story, a wealthy man is about to dismiss one of his stewards for being dishonest. The steward, wanting to ingratiate himself with those in debt to his master, reduces their debt to the master. The parable ends with the master commending the dishonest steward for acting prudently.

It is important to enter into its context, where the dishonesty of the steward was in the beginning of the story, not the end. Many misunderstand the parable, thinking that the master is rewarding the steward for dishonestly cheating him out of the debts owed. Instead, the steward is being dismissed at the beginning of the story for his graft in overcharging the debtors, something that would have been understood as common to Jesus’ original audience. For example, if Jesus told a similar parable today and began it by describing a dishonest banker, we would naturally assume that his dishonesty was in stealing from the bank. We would not need to be told this. In the original parable, the steward forgoes his cheating profits and has the debtors pay the actual amount they owe.

Because of this, the master commends the steward for being practical.

There are several lessons that one can draw from this story. For this article, I would like to focus only on one idea:

Crafty Virtue.

We usually associate craftiness with some kind of vice or deception. And this is usually the case. When I look back on my own life, it is amazing to me all the times I employed my craftiness towards something that was bad.

When I was a child, my siblings and I wanted to swim in our neighbor’s pool, though we weren’t allowed. So we concocted an elaborate story about how we would go out and swim anyway and tell our parents that we were at a different neighbor’s house running through their sprinklers. It was a brilliant plan until we got caught.

Perhaps you can remember when you were younger and wanted to sneak out of the house to a party, so you concocted an elaborate plan of stories and alibis that would make the most seasoned mystery writer blush with envy.

As a teacher I am sometimes amazed at the lengths some students will go through to cheat on tests. Students sneak answers on their phones, their pencils, their wrists, the backs of their ties, under bracelets, etc. The amount of work applied to dishonest grades sometimes seems more than what would be needed simply to study.

St. Augustine believed that our intelligence was a gift from God, but that this natural gift would be detriment to us if used for a bad end. If your smarts make it easier for you to sin, how does that help you? So he tended to think of craftiness as directed toward a bad end.

But Christ said, “Be as shrewd as serpents and as gentle as doves.” (Matt 10:16)

Some of us are innocent minded and in that beautiful simplicity, virtue comes easily. For them, it is very natural to be as gentle as the doves.

But for many of us, myself included, virtue is a struggle against the weight of my fallen sinfulness. Every day is a struggle, and sometimes one that I lose, to not fall into habitual sins. Above all the grace of God is needed in this fight. More so than anything else is this gift. Without it, all other attempts at virtue will fail.

In addition to God’s grace, I would suggest being crafty about virtue the way we are about vice. Traditionally, we call this using the virtue of prudence, rather than craftiness. But I look to the parable of the dishonest steward and I see in me how quickly I apply my willingness to my other wants. Why not apply it to holiness?

What does this mean in practical terms?

When we are crafty about vice, we plan ahead and remove the obstacles. And yet how often in our pursuit of virtue do we constantly fall because we do not take the same precautions.

For example, in the movie Thanks for Sharing, there is a character that struggles with pornography. So when he goes to a hotel, he has them remove the television so that he no longer has to worry about temptation from that source.

If you struggle with gossip, you can preplan discussion topics that will steer the conversation away from back talking about others.

If you struggle with laziness, plan ahead to when you have free time and make sure you fill it with valuable activity or service. When you make the commitments, it makes it harder to ignore them.

If you struggle with materialism, maybe plan ahead to how much cash you bring with you when you shop.

If you struggle with prayer, maybe find someone will pray with you so that the two of you build up the habit together and can rely on each other to lead the other to time with the Lord.

These are just very rudimentary suggestions. You would have to find, through reflection and prayer where you can apply this craftiness.

So the next time you find your mind twisting with various scenarios as to how you can engage in some vice, ask the Lord to help you use that craftiness to find your way to Him.

Copyright 2017, WL Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

Leave a Reply

next post: God answers prayers

previous post: Keeping ‘Son’days Holy