Holy Shrewdness, 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C), September 22, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
September 22, 2013
Amos 8:4-7, 1Tim 2:1-8, Lk 16:1-13

To listen to an audio of today’s homily, please click here: 

Isn’t the Seventh Commandment Still Valid?

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 appears that he who gave us the commandment “Thou shalt not steal” is himself praising someone for violating it, if violating it is in one’s self-interest. What message is Jesus trying to communicate? In order to answer this question, we first have to understand what was happening in the story and then ask what application Jesus is making to us, here and now.

Commissions in the ancient world

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 boss 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 employer 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 a percentage 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, whatever the broker thought he could get. 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.

We are those dishonest stewards

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 families and friends, our education, our lives, and so many other blessings. With these gifts, we have profited and made a manifold commission. But none of these gifts is meant strictly for ourselves and our own profits, but for building up of our Master’s kingdom. Rather than use them for that purpose, however, Jesus is saying that many of us have used them to enrich ourselves. Now the master comes and says that we’ve been squandering his property, and our time is coming to an end, that 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 of stewardship is up. We’ve misused those gifts each time we’ve used them selfishly, each time we’ve put ourselves first and the Master second or lower, each time we’ve employed them for ends not compatible with his kingdom.

What can we do about this misuse as we face our own reckoning? 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, if we don’t want to love others because we’re Christian or we have  good heart, then at least we should do it because it is in our eternal best interest. Either we care for the poor, as Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput says, or we go to hell. Like the steward in the parable, we are faced with the choice between trying to keep our profits and trying to save 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).

Are you wiser than a second grader? 

Yesterday I had a very powerful illustration of the type of wisdom Jesus is calling us all to in the Gospel. My seven-year old nephew Dominic won the $500 jackpot at the Booster Club drawing on Friday night. When I called him yesterday morning to give him the good news, he was understandably very excited. When I asked him what he was planning to do with the money, I was expecting him to say what good kids normally say when they get money, either that he was planning to spend it very specifically on something or that he was planning to put it in the bank. His response floored me. “I think, Uncle Roger, I would like to give 500 people $1 each!” His plan was to give it all away. It reminded me of an episode I had forgotten that happened in August. He came down here to Fall River for the convalidation (blessing) of the marriage of my Aunt and Uncle. After the wedding, we went out to one of the local restaurants to celebrate. During the lunch, my Aunt and Uncle came around the table and gave each of their great nieces and nephews $10 to thank them for being part, essentially, of their wedding parties. My other nieces and nephews all politely thanked my Aunt and Uncle for their generosity and burrowed the money away. After Dominic received their gift and thanked them, he turned to me as they were walking away and tried to give me the money. My brother, his dad, says that he’s always trying to give money he gets away. At the tender age of 7, he already recognizes something that Jesus is stressing in the Parable, that his whole life and what he has, are meant to be gifts for others. I’ve been asking myself since yesterday if I’m as wise as my 7 year old nephew, who is richer in the currency that matters most, I suspect, than many of Bill Gates’ kids and grandkids.

Avoiding spiritual bankruptcy

Jesus says in today’s Gospel that the “children of this age” are shrewder in dealing with their own generation than “the children of light.” What he was saying is that people who are worldly are often much more “prudent” than believers when it comes to making choices that concern their survival. Our experience shows how right Jesus is. Successful businessmen and women will work very hard improve their companies and maximize their profits; we’re called to work even harder to improve our soul and eternal portfolio. Business owners, if they know that a certain practice is losing them money, try to fix it right away. If they can’t, they eliminate it. They know that in order to survive, they’ve got to cut their losses, otherwise they’ll end up in chapter 11.

Christians, however, when we know that a certain thing is losing us God’s grace, 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.

In this story, Jesus is essentially telling us to use our heads, to be smart about our salvation. In the final analysis, that’s the bottom of the bottom line. 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. Jesus’ words today are like a top notch group of business consultants who come in to analyze a failing business, find out where the inefficiencies are and design a business plan not only to save the company but make it thrive; but the key is not just in the information, in knowing what needs to be done, but in having the wisdom, courage and resolve to implement that plan. Unlike in the parable, when we meet him face-to-face, we’ll have no time to return to 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. Now is the time for us to be as shrewd about storing up for ourselves heavenly wealth as Donald Trump and Warren Buffet are to increase their billions here on earth. We cannot serve both God and mammon. We’re called to choose between storing up treasure in this world, or using everything we have in this world to store up treasure in the next. We cannot have both. I repeat: we cannot have both, just as the steward in the parable couldn’t try to keep all his commissions and win the favor of those who owed him.

Getting shaken out of our dishonesty

This parable is Jesus’ way to shake us out of our complacency. Sometimes Catholics can think that by the fact that they come to Sunday Mass, pray each day, and don’t outright break the letter of the commandments, that everything must be fine in their relationship with the Lord.  Our first reading warns us, however, that the decision Jesus demands goes beyond weekly worship and the minimum moral obligations. The people whom the prophet Amos was addressing knew all their religious obligations and were careful to observe them. They kept the Sabbath, they paid their tithes, and said their prayers. But after they had done all of these things, they thought they were on their own and were able to live the rest of their lives just as they pleased. They couldn’t wait for the Sabbath to end so that they could continue their immoral practices, like cheating the poor, during the rest of the week. As Amos describes, they were fixing their scales and measures to rip people off. They were taking advantage of those temporarily unable to pay their debts, like a ruthless money-lender who forecloses a mortgage after a single missed payment, so that he can buy the property himself at a fraction of its true worth. They were bartering the poor into indentured servitude simply because the poor needed sandals. Amos’ condemnation of these outwardly religious but deeply dishonest people is unforgettable: “The Lord has sworn … Never will I forget a thing they have done!” Whatever we do to the least of our brothers and sisters, we do to Him. He wants us to remember always that the poor and needy are our eternal bankers. If we wish our material goods to help us to pass the final accounting, then we must shrewdly use them to help others now.

Little things

The time for our accounting will come — for some of us, sooner than we expect, perhaps even today. The Lord calls us urgently and always to be ready to render an account by living lives consistent with self-giving love rather than self-centered selfishness. If we’re faithful in these small things, we will be faithful in big things. In this Year of Faith, it’s key for us to focus on our fidelity in small and big things both.

One of the “little things” Jesus describes is money. He calls it “dishonest wealth,” not because it was gained in an illicit way, but because it’s not true wealth, it’s not really there. Materials possessions are, in the final analysis, nothing more than monopoly money that we cannot take with us when we grow. He tells us to make friends for us with it by giving it away. If we can’t use this monopoly money to do good to others, then we’re probably not going to use even the far bigger gifts God has given us in order to serve and love others either.

How do we grow in this capacity to live by Jesus’ words today? We do so, first, through our prayer in which we allow the Lord to guide us to be good stewards; second by a regular spiritual audit, such as examining our conscience each night and coming frequently to the debt forgiveness we call the Sacrament of Confession; and third, it’s through praying and living the Mass in a holy way. Here at Mass we learn from Jesus himself how to put God above material things and how to make our lives a commentary on the words of consecration, sacrificing ourselves for others. Today we ask the Lord whom we are about to receive help us to imitate his own wisdom and way of life, so that, when it comes time for us to render an account of all the blessings he has given us, he may praise us eternally for acting shrewdly!

Todays Readings were: 

Reading 1
AM 8:4-7

Hear this, you who trample upon the needy
and destroy the poor of the land!
“When will the new moon be over,” you ask,
“that we may sell our grain,
and the sabbath, that we may display the wheat?
We will diminish the ephah,
add to the shekel,
and fix our scales for cheating!
We will buy the lowly for silver,
and the poor for a pair of sandals;
even the refuse of the wheat we will sell!”
The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Never will I forget a thing they have done!

Responsorial Psalm
PS 113:1-2, 4-6, 7-8

R. (cf. 1a, 7b) Praise the Lord who lifts up the poor.
R. Alleluia.
Praise, you servants of the LORD,
praise the name of the LORD.
Blessed be the name of the LORD
both now and forever.
R. Praise the Lord who lifts up the poor.
R. Alleluia.
High above all nations is the LORD;
above the heavens is his glory.
Who is like the LORD, our God, who is enthroned on high
and looks upon the heavens and the earth below?
R. Praise the Lord who lifts up the poor.
R. Alleluia.
He raises up the lowly from the dust;
from the dunghill he lifts up the poor
to seat them with princes,
with the princes of his own people.
R. Praise the Lord who lifts up the poor.
R. Alleluia.

Reading 2
1 TM 2:1-8

First of all, I ask that supplications, prayers,
petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone,
for kings and for all in authority,
that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life
in all devotion and dignity. 
This is good and pleasing to God our savior,
who wills everyone to be saved
and to come to knowledge of the truth.
For there is one God.
There is also one mediator between God and men,
the man Christ Jesus,
who gave himself as ransom for all.
This was the testimony at the proper time. 
For this I was appointed preacher and apostle
— I am speaking the truth, I am not lying —,
teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

It is my wish, then, that in every place the men should pray,
lifting up holy hands, without anger or argument.

LK 16:1-13

Jesus said to his disciples,
“A rich man had a steward
who was reported to him for squandering his property. 
He summoned him and said,
‘What is this I hear about you? 
Prepare a full account of your stewardship,
because you can no longer be my steward.’
The steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do,
now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me? 
I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg. 
I know what I shall do so that,
when I am removed from the stewardship,
they may welcome me into their homes.’
He called in his master’s debtors one by one. 
To the first he said,
‘How much do you owe my master?’
He replied, ‘One hundred measures of olive oil.’
He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note. 
Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.’
Then to another the steward said, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’
He replied, ‘One hundred kors of wheat.’
The steward said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note;
write one for eighty.’
And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.
“For the children of this world
are more prudent in dealing with their own generation
than are the children of light. 
I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth,
so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
The person who is trustworthy in very small matters
is also trustworthy in great ones;
and the person who is dishonest in very small matters
is also dishonest in great ones. 
If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth,
who will trust you with true wealth? 
If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another,
who will give you what is yours? 
No servant can serve two masters. 
He will either hate one and love the other,
or be devoted to one and despise the other. 
You cannot serve both God and mammon.”