Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) is noted for his paintings of peasant farmers and can be categorized as part of the Realism Art Movement. One of his most famous paintings is of The Angelus.
While Van Gogh was envisioning a series of copies of Millet's works, it is arguable that The First Steps had a special significance to him at the time because of the upcoming birth of his nephew to his brother Theo and sister-in-law Johanna.
Van Gogh painted The First Steps when he admitted himself voluntarily to the Saint Paul-de-Mausole Asylum in Saint-Rémy, in 1889, partly because of his lack of models during his confinement.
When Van Gogh completed his version of Millet's work he sent this and the other painted copies of Millet to Theo in Paris.
First Steps remains one of Van Gogh's most admired works. The intimate family scene has a universal appeal, and the harmonious colour scheme would be typical of Van Gogh's final paintings. The subject of Millet's original copy may have spoken to Vincent on several levels: A passionate admiration for the great master Jean-François Millet; the delight at the prospect of the impending birth of his brother's son; and perhaps, a sense of regret for a family life that Vincent had long hoped for, but never attained.
“I should very much like to see Millet reproductions in the schools. I think there are children who would become painters if only they saw such good things.” (Letter 607, Saint-Rémy, 19 September 1889).
1 “He also said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a steward, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his goods. 2 And he called him and said to him, 'What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward’. 3 And the steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the stewardship away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do, so that people may receive me into their houses when I am put out of the stewardship’. 5 So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil’. And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty’. 7 Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat’. He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty’. 8 The master commended the dishonest steward for his shrewdness; for the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations. 10 ‘He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and he who is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own? 13 No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money’”.
This Gospel reading is found between the group of Parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, the Prodigal Son on the one side, and the narrative about Lazarus, the poor man denied scraps from the rich man’s table, on the other. The latter Parable narrates how when the rich man died, he begged for Lazarus to tend to him and to be able to warn his family to repent. Here we can find references about the value of every person, about forgiveness and repentance, and about paying attention to the teaching of the Prophets.
However, while the first three Parables illustrate the infinite love the Father has for his people, the story of Lazarus is more of a moral tale and a warning.
The Parable of The Lazy Steward lies somewhere between the two. It is difficult to understand what exactly Jesus was trying to teach.
Use your wealth wisely
The Parable describes a lazy steward who squandered his master’s money and was called to present his accounts and explain his actions before dismissal. Reality hit the steward who realised he was not cut out for manual labour and too proud to beg. Therefore, he hatched a plan to help himself. In the process of doing so, he helped others: He met with his master’s debtors and told them to down-grade the amounts they owed. He hoped that in doing this he would make friends with them and this would help him.
His master was impressed by these actions. Scripture calls him “a dishonest steward” but the master praises his astuteness.
Jesus goes on to clarify that those who have it should use their worldly wealth (for this you might also read position, power or influence), to win friends for yourself, so that will be your security when ‘money is a thing of the past and you may be received into an eternal home’.
This is an interesting command: It does not address the stewards’ failure to work for his pay, nor the manipulation of more of his master’s income effectively cutting it more so the steward will have advocates. What Jesus focuses on is that the steward helped the debtors reduce their debts. An act of kindness to the debtors, but surely a further hurt and insult to his Master. However, the master is not angry; in fact he praises his astuteness.
How many ‘bosses’ can you think of today who would take this stance? Maybe that is one of the messages in the story: The Master referred to here is different and will look for the good in us, the positive outcome from our actions, even if our motive is not genuine.
Small steps can bring about change
In Art Specialist Patrick van-der Vorst’s reflection on this Parable he says “The steward is starting to make small changes in his behaviour like a child learning to walk, reaching out towards the master, trying to at least recover some losses”.
Our spiritual journey is also one of small steps. Although not always straight forward, we can move closer to God. There is a Chinese proverb that says: “Even the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step!”
This is not the only Gospel in which Jesus shows his understanding of the power, influence and importance of money, but his message is the same: “Control the money! Do not be controlled by it! Put it to good use!”
Issues of Trust
From another perspective, this could be an issue of trust: The master did not trust the steward who was enslaved to him. Slaves were so mistrusted they could not serve as a witness in court. If no one believes you and mistrusts you, it can condition you to not want to try to command trust.
In this story, the predictable happens with the untrustworthy servant, but to the surprise of the master, he sees the change in behaviour by the steward as astuteness and praises his slave’s approach.
Jesus is very clear about his views on trust: “If you cannot be trusted in little, you cannot be trusted with bigger things”. “If you cannot look after what is not your own, who will give you anything for yourself”.
So, why is this seemingly at odds with the previous teaching of Jesus? He sides with the steward in his dishonest method of procuring wealth for his master claiming it as a model for “child of light” This fits with the Jesus we come to know through the Gospel of Luke who is sympathetic to sinners and tax collectors.
Finally, Jesus in the passage asserts that a slave can only serve one master at a time, or the slave will end up hating one and loving the other. This is not straightforward, because all who are enslaved have to submit to the slave driver and this might leave little room for complete commitment to God.
For example, think of a young family trying to work to pay the mortgage and look after young children and often aging parents too, there are at least four slave drivers in this scenario: The boss at work, the mortgage company, the children and the dependent parents. Where might there be a solution or guidance out of these pressures?
Perhaps the message of Jesus in this Gospel is the familiar one: Come to the Lord as if a child, honest, open, trying to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, keep our gaze on the Father. If you fall down, get back up again better than before the fall. “Jesus is close to the broken-hearted”.
“By contrition we are made clean; By compassion ready;
And by genuine longing for God, worthy.
It is by means of these three that souls can attain heaven.
By these medicines every soul shall be healed.
Though healed the soul’s wounds are still seen by God,
Not as wounds but as honourable scars”.
Julian of Norwich
“Have mercy on me, O God according to your loving-kindness;
In your great compassion blot out my offenses.
Wash me through and through form my wickedness,
And cleanse me from my sin.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit;
A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
* We can find a new approach to money by making money serve God’s purposes, and
not control us.
* Can we change our perception of slave drivers? For example, dependents can be
appreciated as an embodiment of Christ on earth. We can serve Christ while we serve
* Honesty is fundamental to the path of holiness.
* The demands of our faith may seem overwhelming. To face those demands, we need
to start by taking small steps, like a child.
 Luke 16: 9: “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings”.  https://christian.art/daily-gospel-reading/luke-16-1-8-2021/ Luke 16: 8-9: “The master commended the dishonest steward for his prudence; for the sons of this world are wiser in their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations”. Luke 5: 30-32; 7: 34: “And the Pharisees and their scribes murmured against his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’ And Jesus answered them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’”.