The Con-man and the Harlot

[  This week’s Gospel text includes the parable of the dishonest steward. Luke16:1-13.
See  ]

I love the story of the dishonest steward. Only God could not only forgive but commend such a scoundrel. (I’m always relieved by the Gospel’s all-encompassing mercy!) In this week’s web-meditation on The Edge of the Enclosure I cited the story of Pelagia the Harlot as a kind of parallel. We don’t know what happens to the shrewd steward, but we know what happens to Pelagia.

During a meeting of clergy, Pelagia rides by on a donkey, adorned with pearls and gold, young men and women dancing by her side. Bishop Nonnus, transfixed by her beauty, follows her with his eyes until she is well out of sight, the other clergy averting their eyes, of course. But Nonnus demands, “Did you not SEE her great beauty?”  The clergy, embarrassed, say nothing. Of course they think he’s crazy. If only we, who say we love God, cared for our souls as this woman cares for her hair and pearls!

Saint Pelagia and Courtesans, Bishop Nonnus praying, 14th century, Richard de Montbaston and colleagues

Pelagia must have noticed Nonnus. She shows up in church and hears him preach. She sends a note saying she’d like to be baptized, and she’d like Bishop Nonnus to instruct her. He responds, explaining the impossibility of the situation. In the case of a harlot, the instructor has to guarantee she won’t go back to her life of sin and he can’t make that promise. And, obviously, she’s too beautiful for him to manage. But she insists that unless HE instructs her, she won’t submit to baptism and the damnation of her soul will be on his conscience.  Talk about shrewd!  So he agrees.

Pelagia gives away her fortune to her servants. After her baptism she disappears. Her new friends and companions weep with grief. But not Bishop Nonnus, who’s missing his cloak.

Years later, Deacon James, the narrator of this story, decides to undertake a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He asks Bishop Nonnus what he should see.  Bishop Nonnus tells him that it would be of great profit to visit the holy hermit Pelagius who lives in a hut on the Mount of Olives.  Deacon James visits the hermit, who, he realizes in retrospect, must have recognized him, because the hermit withdrew quickly from the window into the shadows of his cell when James approached. The conversation was so enlightening, that the deacon decides to visit the hermit one more time before leaving the Holy Land.

But as he approaches, he sees a commotion. The hermit has died. People from all over mourn this holy man. Upon the washing and anointing however – the mourners find the body of a woman!   The once beautiful Pelagia the Harlot.

Now I wonder about the dishonest steward. What happens after his master commends him for his shrewdness? Maybe the master decided not only to keep his friends close but his enemies closer. Perhaps they became great friends and feast side by side at a great table with other sinners and scoundrels. To which we are all invited, of course.


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