Scripture Readings: Book of the Prophet Amos 8:4-7; First Letter of Saint Paul to Timothy 2:1-8; Gospel According to Saint Luke 16:1-13
Can bad example be a good lesson? Can we benefit from the misdeeds of others? What about people who expend so much energy and money on business, recreation and pleasure? Is that a good model? In a sense, the answer to all these questions is a resounding: yes! That is what Jesus is teaching in the parable about the dishonest steward or manager, regarding his clearly “worldly,” but clever actions, to save his hide (to put it politely), thereby demonstrating a type of zeal that should actually characterize the followers of Jesus.
Let’s look at the parable more closely.
The characters in this Sunday’s parable are not proposed as models whose precise behavior we should imitate. Other parables of Jesus, though, do hold up exemplary behavior. Think of the Good Samaritan who acts so wonderfully, the publican in the temple who knows his place as a sinner, the father of the prodigal son (last Sunday’s parable), and the prodigal son himself who repents of his wrongdoing. They all give example of ways to act which should be imitated by all.
But a dishonest steward or manager? Yes, even he becomes a model, because by his clever actions in time of crisis, while not noble, nonetheless show a decisiveness that is in sharp contrast to many “sons and daughters of light,” who are complacent, negligent and lukewarm in their spiritual journeys. So, in a sense, Jesus points out a “bad example” as in fact an example of a way of acting with insight, persistence and total dedication.
In the parable the manager of the property of a wealthy man faces destitution because of his imminent dismissal. In this crisis, the manager acts with foresight and resolution, ensuring a secure future. He responds with cleverness to his circumstances and so in a sense is a “prudent” man. His prudent and decisive action is the key idea of the parable. Put in the form of a question: what shall be the response of the people who hear Jesus (ourselves included) to the situation in which they find themselves, namely, the coming of Jesus at death and at the end of time? The situation demands a decision and no one can escape it, though many try to.
Once again, the dishonest manager, when accused of misdoing, acts with insight after sizing up his imminent situation of dismissal and making for the last time the best use of his powers as manager of the property.
The action of the manager, in altering documents of loan so that debtors owe less on their loans, may in fact only be a lessening of the dishonest manager’s commission on loans being repaid to the owner. In any case, the deed gains for the manager friends, who are grateful for the reduction in debts owed to the property owner.
Jesus commends such “worldly prudence,” we might call it, of the dishonest manager who was faced with a crisis. Keep in mind the origin of that word, crisis, that is, a decisive moment or turning point when a choice must be made. The way of acting of people of this world becomes a model of foresight in clinging, not to worldly ways, but to God’s ways, each and every day.
Another lesson from the Gospel this Sunday is that followers of Christ are never to make “things,” including money, a god, but use it for doing good, and of course survival, but not opulence. The reminder that “the best things in life aren’t things,” and that, “you can’t take it with you,” must be borne in mind and never lost sight of.
Living simply and uprightly is the way of the Lord’s disciples. In fact, the monastic movement in the early Church was one such application of the Christian ideal to the contemporary reality of drifting away from and earlier ardent adherence to Christ.
In this Sunday’s parable, using the image of wealth and stewardship, Jesus calls upon us to reflect on a “wealth” of an entirely different nature than a monetary one. We are to focus on a type of stewardship with which we have been entrusted in this life, that is, care for the gifts given us by God. On our trustworthiness with “that which is another’s,” namely God’s, depends whether or not God will entrust to our care heavenly riches, and especially our “final inheritance,” or as Jesus call it, “that which is your own.”
Of course, no one can gain heavenly riches for us, other than Christ, who died on the Cross for us and rose from the dead for us, and so we must work for it by doing God’s will, in conjunction with the rest of humanity, and within our faith community. At the same time, it is all a free gift from God, a gift we are free to accept or reject. “Be among those who willingly and eagerly accept God’s gifts,” Jesus is telling us. And never forget, as the song has it, “the best things in life are free!
Today we hear a fundamental question, which is: to whom shall we dedicate ourselves without reservation? In the Gospel today, “mammon” or wealth is personified, considered as an opponent of God claim to our allegiance. The root meaning of the word “mammon” is along the lines of something on which we depend or in which we put our trust. Perhaps the “god” most likely to lead us to idolatry is material possessions.
The call to a radical decision for God, and a Christian use of material possessions, should remain living words for us, shaping our lives and informing all our decisions.
A blessed week to all!
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB