Learning Good Stewardship from a Dishonest Steward, 25th Sunday (C), September 18, 2016

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
September 18, 2016
Amos 8:4-7, Ps 113, 1Tim 2:1-8, Lk 16:1-13


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


The following text guided today’s homily: 

This Sunday’s Gospel contains what is probably the most confusing parable in any part of the Gospel, what’s popularly called the Parable of the Dishonest Steward, something that can get some people to wonder whether Truth incarnate is praising a crooked business manager for deception, whether he who gave us the commandment “Thou shalt not steal” is himself praising someone for violating it. But Jesus is doing no such thing. But in order to grasp what Jesus was and was not saying and what the crucial lesson is for us, we first need to understand something about the way loans were done in the ancient world.

In the Parable, a manager is about to get sacked because he was squandering the property of his business owner. 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 mostly tenant farmers who owed his employer money or items and reduced their debts considerably. At first glance, this seems like dishonesty, like he was allowing these debtors to steal from his boss, but it wasn’t. In the ancient world, the way loans were conducted was that the manager or broker would be paid by adding on something to what was borrowed, rather than a percentage taken out of the master’s proceeds. For example, 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 dishonest steward was probably tacking on way too big of a commission, and, in order to maximize his profits, was probably, like Fannie and Freddie in our own times, lending out the master’s property to very bad risks, allowing people on the Master’s fields who were going to waste it rather than produce. Hence, when the manager called in those who owed, for example, 100 containers of wheat, and reduced the amount to 80, what he was almost assuredly doing was eliminating most or all of his commission. Therefore, he wasn’t really allowing them to steal from the owner; 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 in the Parable — calls this prudent and wise.

What’s the application to us? Jesus wants us to learn good stewardship from this dishonest steward! God has given each of us and those we serve tremendous gifts on the basis of which we have made “profits,” or tried to do good and well in the world. 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 have we been using those gifts fundamentally to build up our kingdom or to build up the Master’s? If we have been living selfishly until now, if we’ve been squandering his gifts on the things of this world, Jesus gives us this parable in order to help us to see that our time is coming to an end and that we need to prepare an accounting. He wants us, like the steward in the Gospel, to start to sacrifice our commissions, our possessions, our time, for others 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. 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. This is something those of us who live by the vow of poverty or the promise of simplicity of life are called to show the world: the option to trade mammon for the pearl of great price, to let go of earthly thousands, or millions or billions and store up treasure in heaven. By our eschatological living, we give witness to the fact that all earthly mammon will eventually turn out to be no more valuable than monopoly money, but while it’s still active currency, he wants us to spend it to build up his kingdom. He wants us to remember always that the poor and needy are our eternal money exchangers, who take earthly currency and turn it into something moths can’t eat, rust corrode, or the IRS can’t confiscate in inheritance taxes. Through this Parable, Jesus, who calls us to be as pure as doves but as wise as serpents, wants us to be as prudent in the spiritual realm as greedy businessmen are in the material realm. If we use whatever God has given us in this world to love and 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).

Jesus says immediately after today’s parable in one of the lessons he wants us to draw from the dishonest steward 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. 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. We 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 knows will 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. 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. That’s what Jesus is proposing to us today, with urgency. 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 — whether they’re great or small — if we haven’t been putting God first, if we have been neglecting those left in ditches on the side of the road, 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 billionaires are to increase their fortunes here on earth. We, and those we’re laying down our lives to serve, cannot serve both God and mammon. We cannot worship God and the Golden Calf. We cannot be led by the Spirit and at the same time materialistic consumers. We and they cannot be sons and daughters of the eternal Father and seek the inheritance offered by the prince of the world. Just as the steward in the parable couldn’t try to keep all his commissions and win the favor of those who owed him, so we and everyone must choose between storing up treasure and pleasure in this world, or using everything we have in this world to store up eternal treasure and happiness in the next. This is a choice the Rich Young Man was presented by Jesus and sadly refused to take. Today Jesus out of love offers all of us Catholics the same deal urging us to seize it and obtain the pearl of great price.

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. And St. Paul in today’s second reading is calling us to offer up “supplications, prayers, petitions and thanksgivings … for everyone, for kinds and all those in authority,” so that they may help us “lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity.” We’re praying for them first to learn, then to teach, and finally to create the conditions so that all of us can learn how to use the material blessings God has given us for the good of others, for mothers terrified about the future for their children born and unborn, for seniors wondering whether they’ll have enough to survive, for the poor not knowing where their next meal will come from, for immigrants seeking respite from poverty, natural disasters or armed conflict, and so any others. So much of our culture, as Pope Francis has repeatedly pointed out, worships mammon rather than God, and today we’re called to pray for everyone, beginning with ourselves, that our culture may be transformed so that we may use whatever we have in this world to love and serve our neighbor, our brothers and sisters, and glorify God.

The time for our accounting, Jesus says today, will come — for some of us, sooner than we expect. 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. Our fidelity to Mass, in which we encounter daily Christ’s fidelity to us, is meant to overflow into all parts of life and make it Eucharistic. 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!

The readings for today’s Mass 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.

Alleluia CF. 2 COR 8:9

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Though our Lord Jesus Christ was rich, he became poor,
so that by his poverty you might become rich.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel 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.”