Sunday, September 19, 2010

Year C Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Amos 8:4-7; Ps. 113:1-2.4-8; 1 Tim. 2:1-8; Luke 16:1-13

At first glance today’s Gospel might leave you scratching your head in puzzlement trying to figure out the point of Jesus’ parable. It is clear that the steward, around whom the parable revolves, has made a poor job of his stewardship. He is dismissed not because he has stolen from his master, but because he was an inefficient and ineffective manager. In a word, he was incompetent. So, Jesus’ accusation of dishonesty, which comes later in the parable, refers to how the steward went about settling the debts owed the rich man before being dismissed.

Upon firing his steward, the rich man tells him to settle all of the outstanding business, to it put into today’s business language, the steward is ordered to collect all accounts receivable. Worried that once word gets around that he has been fired for being an incompetent steward he will be forced to make his living either as a laborer or be reduced to begging, and reckoning that he was too old to do manual labor and too proud to beg, the steward very shrewdly goes about collecting the debts owed his boss by cutting the debtors very good deals. In the case of the olive oil, the steward cuts the payment in half and in the case of the wheat he only collects eighty percent of what is owed.

The steward’s only motivation for doing this is to ingratiate himself to the other wealthy landowners and merchants in the hope that one of them might be inclined to hire him. By settling his accounts at vastly reduced rates, the steward is looking out for himself and not for the interests of his master. So, while he was not careful when managing his master’s resources, he becomes very industrious, even to the point of cheating his master, when his own future is at stake. In short, he proves himself both shrewd and dishonest. So, while Jesus condemns him for being dishonest, he praises his shrewdness. Now, it is true that the master commends the dismissed steward for prudently settling the accounts and, likely, for settling them so quickly. But it is clear that Jesus sees the steward’s reducing the interests of his master for his own gain as dishonest.


It is important at this juncture to jump back to our first reading from the prophet Amos, which has rightly been called an oracle of condemnation. The prophet is denouncing unscrupulous merchants for their false piety, their avarice, their dishonest business practices, and especially for exploiting the poor. The poor Amos refers to are the landless, those who must purchase life’s necessities, making them wholly dependent on the honesty of those from whom they buy. The judgment of God against those who cheat the poor, especially while acting so righteously, is harsh, indeed. As Christians we deal with all the time. The person who is at Mass every Sunday, but whose life never seems affected, that is, changed by being here, which is why there are such things as the Facebook group- "Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than standing in a garage makes you a car." This is why we are called to participate fully, actively, and consciously in the liturgy, which is our common work.

This goes some way to setting forth what we are to take away from Jesus’ parable: While we are to be honest and upright, even in small matters, we should be as shrewd about our pursuit of godliness as a person in business is about running a successful business. After all being shrewd does not imply being dishonest, it implies being creative, maybe even a little wily, like Jesus, whom we follow. The Lord makes clear where our priority is to be: Your life is either lived for God, or the pursuit of worldly pleasure and gain, but not both.

Every day you get out of bed and live your life with some end, some goal, some purpose in mind. Insofar as this is the case, you put yourself at the service of what you seek to attain or obtain. Therefore, everything you seek should be at the service of obtaining the end for which you were created and redeemed, which is nothing other Jesus Christ, who is your beginning and your end, the Alpha and the Omega (Rev. 1:8). Indeed, "[y]ou cannot serve both God and mammon" (Luke 16:13). Because, as our second reading from 1 Timothy tells us, there is "one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus… who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth," you are to serve him "with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind" (1 Tim. 2:4-5; Luke 10:27). The foremost way you do this is by loving "your neighbor as yourself," serving others for Christ’s sake and for the sake of the Gospel (Luke 10:27). To love another means to love her/his destiny.

In this long body of teaching found in Luke’s Gospel, which we have been making our way through Sunday-by-Sunday, Jesus’ point about serving God and God alone becomes clearer each week. What also becomes clear is that, as a Christian, you are called to serve God nowhere other than where you are: at home, at work, at school, in social settings, wherever you find yourself. It is most often the case that what needs to change is not what you do, but how you do it, which typically presents you with a far greater challenge, which is why what we are gathered here to do is so indispensable for you.

4 comments:

  1. I had a thought, driving home from Mass, that Jesus is the person of the Master in this parable, and we are the stewards.

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  2. An interesting thought, but a scary one at the same time.

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  3. Hi Scott,
    Dcn. Tim from Hartford here. Good stuff! Just a couple of thoughts to share that you might find interesting (or not :-).

    1. Maybe the steward was only marking down his illicit share of the markup, not cheating his master at all (any more). That may be why his master didn't have as much heartburn about him as we would expect!

    2. Maybe the parable isn't really about wealth at all, but about a much more general stance we have towards life itself (the ultimate wealth with which we've all been entrusted), and how we're all going to be held to account some day (has anyone not "squandered" this wealth at some point(s) or another?).

    Perhaps what Jesus commends in the steward has more to do seeing the paradox that in giving back, or perhaps even 'giving away,' he'll receive everything he needs from others. Check out paradox in the other parables, too - "last/first," "lose life to gain it"....

    If you wish to take a look, my own blog's at: http://www.thedeaconbeacon.blogspot.com/

    Pax et bonum,
    Tim

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  4. Thanks for your comments. I certainly don't claim to be the world's best preacher. While I may not be very profound, I am diligent enough not to miss the point entirely. I would respond:

    1. There is no indication that the steward has cheated the rich man prior to his cutting deals with the debtors. The Greek phrase “diaskorpizon ta huparchonta,” translated in the NAB as "for squandering his property” literally means “for scattering his belongings,” a clear indication that the steward is a poor manager
    a. There is no indication that the steward kept 50% of the olive oil, or 20% of the wheat- while one could make a case that a steward, like a tax collector, was compensated by taking a cut, 20% and 50% would be exorbitant. Again, even if one were to read this into the passage (and it would be a reading in- eisegesis), given the exorbitant rates, he would be a thief.
    2) I agree that the parable is not about wealth, I believe that if I make anything clear in my homily, it is that point
    a. This parable has to be seen in the context of Luke’s Gospel (i.e., with the Gospels going back quite a few weeks)
    3) Jesus does not commend the steward, the steward’s master commends the steward.

    Without doubt there is ambiguity in the passage. It seems to me that the ambiguity lies in one sentence: "And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently." It seems quite clear that Jesus does not agree with the master's assessment and that he does not approve of the way the steward settles the debts. This is shown by Jesus referring to the steward as "adikias," meaning, not merely dishonest, but unjust.

    The story is a parable, not an allegory, which, I believe, is necessary in order to understand the passage clearly. In other words, Jesus is not the master, nor is God the Father.

    Scott

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