The extravagance of big-hearted forgiveness

Published on 19 Sep 2019
A person makes a hear gesture with their hands

The parable of the dishonest steward contains an important lesson for us about forgiveness. Peter Gallagher SJ helps us to reflect deeper on the meaning of discipleship shown in this story.

To the steward accused of extravagance, the rich man said: Draw up an account of your stewardship because you are not to be my steward any more (Luke 16.2). Suppose the stewardship in question were our spiritual life and it were to God that we were obliged to give an account. Are there equivalents in our experience of the wastefulness for which the dishonest steward was condemned and of the destitution which he faced?

Wasting possibilities

The taking away of the stewardship is an extreme step. God would be giving up on us if he contemplated such a dismissal. Might there be a wasting of opportunities in our life which could lead to such a catastrophe? We know that until the very end there remains the possibility of repentance and conversion. However, it might that, even though God is consistently willing to welcome us, we are gradually becoming incapable of hearing his invitation. His love is unconditional and inexhaustible, but we might reach a stage at which whatever he does to reach out to us we cannot respond well. Such imperviousness could easily be found in an unbeliever.  But Jesus is alerting us all the time to the way that good and religious people can fall into spiritual difficulties as well. Like a wasteful steward, we might be throwing away our opportunities. It is not that God’s mercy and patience have run out, rather we have rendered ourselves unassailable by divine mercy and love.

Too pessimistic? In Jesus’ story of the rich man and the dishonest steward judgement has already been passed: you are not be my steward any more. Our troubles are, arguably, not so advanced.  The parable prompts us to contemplate the worst and to amend. We hope, naturally, that God’s drawing up of our account will reveal successful cooperation with his grace as well as failures. Woven into our examination of conscience and our repentance is gratitude for all that we have received, including help to do God’s will, above all in the way we treat others. As we give thanks and seek mercy and help from the One who is so close to us, we endure the ‘opening of the books’ with humility and trust. The drawing-up of a preliminary account, however, reveals something to us of what the loving God sees as he judges us. We have been wasteful, but we are not yet in destitution.

As we forgive those who trespass against us

So, what of that sense of being destitute, of having no one to whom to turn which afflicted the steward? There is no suggestion in the parable that the drawing up of accounts would discover anything except the wastefulness of which he stood condemned. We are not led to believe that the dissatisfied employer would find a record of other prudence, speculative enterprise or even charity which might soften his wrath about the extravagance. The judge has made up his mind and nothing can change it. The steward, in this plight, decides that his only hope is in showing forgiveness to others. Here, take your bond; sit down straight away and write… (Luke 16.6). He cancels debts or radically reduces them. We are being urged to do exactly the same. The love of God prompts a new kind of extravagance: big-hearted forgiveness. Opening our account-book, we start cancelling debts or at least reducing them significantly. This is a focused audit on our magnanimity. Today we draw a line through resentment, vengefulness, sulking and unrighteous anger. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Our requiring the one who has offended us to make the first move towards reconciliation is no longer so unbending. If we are to be truly disciples of Christ, then forgiveness of trespasses and debts will now be our good practice. Taught by our master, Jesus, we are learning not to put ourselves first. The rival master is self-interest. We are no longer the servants of our own gain. Rather we are the attentive followers of One who teaches us to put our own advantage to one side in favour of forgiveness. Our generous forbearance and acts of mercy towards the faults of others are genuine riches (Luke 16.11). To go on being unforgiving would be to be truly destitute and to have no hope of finding shelter in the tents of eternity (Luke 16.9).

The astuteness to be praised

We worry a little, do we not, about the dishonesty of the dishonest steward in the parable? The master praised the dishonest steward for his astuteness (Luke 16.8). We may set out to imitate his extravagant forgiveness but there are some niggling doubts about his chicanery. This steward had no right to cancel or reduce debts. The debtors owed goods or money to his master not to him. It was not his place to forgive. Indeed, he had already lost whatever place he had had on account of extravagance and waste. The astuteness which is praised is forgiveness. The parable is not about business ethics. The absolute legality and propriety of the steward’s actions are not under consideration here. Facing destitution, he rescued himself by being forgiving: Jesus urges us to accept his help to do the same.

To such training we submit very willingly. We are disciples of Christ. A preliminary account has revealed that we have wasted opportunities. God has offered much and we have been resistant to him. We are resolved that this first scrutiny will not be the final judgement on our affairs. We would like to be trusted in little things (Luke 16.10) and in great. We would be glad of another chance to exercise our stewardship. Our spiritual life has in fact not yet been taken away from us. We dig into our hearts to find the strength to forgive extravagantly. Without shame we beg for God’s help.

Peter Gallagher SJ