In Praise of Prudence

There's a surprise twist in the parable of the dishonest steward who cheats his master of what he is owed by several debtors. One would expect the master to be angry with the dishonest steward, knowing that he had absorbed losses on account of the dishonest steward's attempts to secure friends who may help him once his employment has terminated. Instead, the master commends the dishonest steward for acting prudently. The point of the parable is not to extol those who swindle their bosses. Rather, Jesus uses the parable to teach us the importance of acting prudently in spiritual matters, with the same tenacity that worldly persons apply in temporal affairs.

Prudence is one of the four cardinal virtues (temperance, justice and fortitude are the other three). It is defined as the knowledge of how to act — how to conduct one's life rightly. It is not merely a general grasp or understanding of the right thing to do — it is the practical knowledge of how to act in concrete, individual situations that make up daily life. It not only serves the individual but the common good as well. It can be invoked when considering natural and supernatural questions and scenarios.

In common parlance, prudence is not extolled as a virtue. To call someone a "prude" is a pejorative term. It suggests that the person acting prudently is too conservative or religious or bound by a code of morals. And yet, in the language of virtue, prudence is one of the cardinal or "hinge" virtues upon which many other moral virtues find their roots. The parable implicitly invites us to consider our exercise of the virtue of prudence in developing the calculus of our spiritual growth.

How should we compose this calculus, employing the virtue of prudence? Part of a successful formula for spiritual growth includes a realistic self-knowledge. The dishonest steward comes to this realization in the Gospel when he admits to himself that that he is not strong enough to dig and that he is ashamed to beg. Similarly, any person serious about spiritual growth must account for his own skills, gifts, tendencies and limitations.

 Having come to terms with these realities, a person attempting to grow in the interior life must humbly acknowledge that God is the source of all good qualities and that His grace and mercy can help transform negative qualities into opportunities for purification and growth. Prudence serves as the practical guide to action in concrete, individual situations that capitalizes on opportunities for growth and minimizes occasions for setbacks and sin.

Some people have developed a spiritual plan of life to provide the necessary structure and accountability needed for authentic interior development. It is a personalized plan, developed in prayer that sets up a daily routine for prayer and study of the Faith. Such people can rightfully claim that the amount of attention and resolve given to interior growth is proportionate to the attention they give to temporal affairs. Hence, a healthy and practical balance between the world of God and the world of mammon can be achieved, and that inner life of God shared with a baptized soul can animate a person's conduct in temporal affairs. Again, prudence serves as that practical guide to make spiritual aspirations a reality. In this way, God is served using the material means at one's disposal and the goods of the world are oriented toward giving glory to God.

The dishonest steward's virtue lies in his craftiness and ingenuity in securing a future for himself, in spite of his dishonest means. God expects us to utilize all of our material gifts in order to prepare ourselves for eternal life with Him, using prudence as our guide.

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  • Guest


    Great article Father Magat. In addition I would like to add that on a web site run by Scott Hahn, I think it is called St. Pauls or something there is a feature that has the Sunday readings and explanations of them.


    In this particular reading it seems that Hahn and others think that the steward was heaping on some more usuary or interest on these debts and when he reduced them he was reducing his unwarranted share of the goods and that is why the master didn't get as upset as I thought he should.


    I wonder what you think of that. Was it what some stewards commonly did in those days as those that run the website think?


    Your brother in Christ,


    AndyP/Doria2     Yonkers,  NY



  • Guest

    Thank you Father.

    Doria2, my priest homily indicated that stewards did add to the debt as Hahn suggests.

    Also, In Conversation With God indicates that Jesus was using irony in having the master extoll to steward's virtue to emphasize that follows of God should be at least as zealous on behalf of God as they are on behalf of mammon.

    This article added to both my priest's homily and In Conver…..

    Thanks for being a vehicle of grace.

  • Guest

    This parable has always struck me as a call to "forgive those who trespass against us."

    Everyone one of us is a steward.

    God is the Master.

    At some point, we all realize that we are missing the mark and coming up short on being good, honest stewards — we're holding grudges, judging people instead of loving them and so on.

    We also realize there's going to be an accounting by the Master.

    So we are to go about and forgive, even in a poor imitation of the Master's forgiveness, our debtors.

    When someone sins against us, they're really sinning against God, the Master. So it is only in imitation of God our Father and by His grace that we can forgive, even in our limited way, those who have sinned against us (and God). 

    Jesus happily (and shockingly) tells us that God will be pleased by such efforts.

    Because we are imitating Him who can perfectly forgive our sins as well as those of others.

    We can be poor stewards and still be considered good sons and daughters by a loving Father.

    Thanks be to God!

  • Guest

    I had read Scott Hahn’s interpretation of this parable a few days ago, and then my parish insert bulletin suggested the same interpretation. I was grateful for the insight, because this has always been a difficult parable for me to understand.

  • Guest

    Ditto!  Thanks, all, for sharing the alternate interpretation of this parable.  When my Associate Pastor gave the same homily on Sun., I had to wonder if he had some "backup" for this interpretation, or if he was just laying out some personal idea.  Now, I know.  Thanks, again.