Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Twenty-Fifth Sunday in OT, C, Prep
September 19, 2004
Amos 8:4-7; 1Tim 2:1-8; Lk 16:1-13
1) This Sunday’s Gospel contains what is probably the most confusing parable in any part of the Gospel. It almost seems as if Jesus is praising a crooked business manager for wily deception. It seems that he who gave us the commandment “Thou shalt not steal” is himself praising someone for violating it, if violating it were in one’s self-interest. What is Jesus doing? In order to answer this question, we first have to understand what was happening in the story and then ask the question what application Jesus is making to us, right here and now.
2) The first thing to resolve is what is happening in the story. A manager is about to get fired because he was squandering the property of his master. His master gave him his pink slip and told him to do an audit of the books prior to his dismissal. So the man called in those who owed his master money or things and reduced their debts considerably. At first glance, this seems like dishonesty, like he is stealing from his boss, but it’s really not. In the ancient world, the way such business was conducted was that the manager would be paid by adding on something to what was owed the master. He’d receive what we call today a commission, but a commission that would be added on to what was borrowed, rather than taken out of the master’s proceeds. So if someone borrowed 50 denarii or 50 barrels of oil, he would have to pay back the 50 to the master and another 10 — or 30 or 50 — to the broker. This unjust steward was probably tacking on way too big of a commission, and, in order to maximize his profits, was probably lending out the master’s property to very bad risks. Hence, when the manager called in those who owed, for example, 100 containers of wheat, and reduced the amount to 80, what he was in effect doing was eliminating most or all of his commission. Therefore, he wasn’t stealing; he was eliminating his own take. Faced with the decision of saving his life by making friends who would take care of him after he was fired or trying to hold out to the end onto the possibility of making money via these commissions, he chose to save his life. His master, and Jesus through the master, calls this prudent and wise.
3) What’s the application to us? It’s actually quite stark and shocking when we see it. EACH OF US IS THAT STEWARD. God has given us tremendous gifts on the basis of which we have made profits, or tried to make profit. He has given us our hands, which we use to work. He has given us our brains, which we use to think. He has given us our lives. With these gifts, we have profited and made a commission — some of us a quite hefty one. But none of these gifts were meant strictly for ourselves and our own profits, but for the building up of our master’s kingdom. Rather than use them for that purpose, Jesus is saying, we have used them to enrich ourselves. Now the master comes and says, we’ve been squandering his property, and our time is coming to an end. We need to prepare an accounting of how we’ve used his gift of life and the talents he’s given us. This will happen at the end of our lives, when our term, our time, is up. Each one of us has misused those gifts every time we’ve used them selfishly, every time we’ve put ourselves first and the Master second or worse, every time we’ve misused those gifts for ends not compatible with his kingdom, and every time we’ve sinned.
4) What can we do about it? Jesus implies that we should do what the steward in the story did: Use the profit we tried to gain selfishly from these gifts and give it to others, to take care of them, so that we might be taken care of in return — so that they may remember us, and then be our supporters and welcome us into, as Jesus says, “eternal homes.” The implication is that if we don’t want to do the right thing simply because it is right, then at least we should do the right thing because it is in our best interest. WE, LIKE THAT STEWARD, ARE FACED WITH THE CHOICE BETWEEN TRYING TO KEEP OUR PROFITS AND SAVING OUR LIVES. We cannot take money or possessions with us as we go. The only thing that fits through the “eye of the needle” (Lk 18:25) are acts of love. If we use whatever God has given us in this world to take care of others, at our judgment and after it, they will be among those in heaven who welcome us into the eternal home of heaven. Jesus will turn to us and tell us that whatever we did for them, he took personally: “Whatever you did for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me” (Mt 25:40). Even if we’re not moved out of love to help someone less fortunate, we should at least do it out of self-interested prudence, because we will have to render an account. We cannot serve both God and money, Jesus says in the Gospel. We have to make a choice, just like the steward in the account. That choice is either to try to serve the money and keep it, or serve God and others and save our lives.
5) The Lord says in today’s Gospel that the “children of this age” are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than “the children of light.” What he was saying is that people who are worldly are often times much more “prudent” than believers when it comes to making choices that concern their survival. Our experience shows how right Jesus is. Businessmen, if they know that a certain practice is losing them them money, they eliminate it. They might try to fix it, but if they can’t, they get rid of it, because they know that in order to survive, they’ve got to cut it, otherwise they’ll end up in bankruptcy. Christians, however, when we know that a certain thing is losing them God’s grace, very seldom act in such a decisive and intelligent way. Even though such a serious sin might send us into eternal bankruptcy, we often don’t get rid of it. Jesus instructs us to act with bottom-line brutality in the sermon on the Mount, but few of us follow this advice: , “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell” (Mt 5:29-30). The failure to cut out sinful behavior from our lives is, for Jesus, simply stupid. Sinning in such a way is cooperating with the devil, and that would be like a businessman’s employing someone whom he knew would steal from him and try to destroy his business.
6) In this story, Jesus is essentially telling us to use our heads, to be smart about our salvation. In the final analysis, that’s all that matters. God, as we hear in the second reading, desires all to be saved. He desires US to be saved. But he who created us without our help will not save us without our help. We must CHOOSE to follow him down the path he trod, down the way of loving and serving God and loving and serving others. Saying “yes” to God means saying “no” whatever is not compatible with God. Saying “yes” to God means using our heads and orienting everything we do toward that meeting with him face-to-face, in which we have to render our account. Unlike in the story, when we meet him face-to-face, we’ll have no time to return and try to fix things. We have to fix them NOW. If we’ve been selfish with our gifts, if we haven’t been putting God first, the time is now to use our heads to do so. If we’ve been trying to compromise with a sin, with something that is obviously wrong but which we’re trying to deny, the time is now to change.
7) The time for our accounting will come — for many of us, sooner than we expect. The Lord calls us always to be ready to render an account. We ask his help so that we might make those choices now, so that the Lord then will praise us for acting shrewdly!