Fr. Charles Irvin
Amos 8:4-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-8; Luke 16:1-13
The Gospel passage you’ve just heard is a part of a series of parables dealing with spiritual crises that are generated when we misuse our possessions, when we end up being possessed by our possessions. Last Sunday’s Gospel was about the Prodigal Son who demanded his share of his father’s estate and then went out and squandered it all. Next Sunday’s Gospel will be all about the rich man eating a sumptuous meal at his table while poor Lazarus sat starving at the rich man’s gate. The lesson today involves, as you all know, the devious and clever wicked steward who doctors the accounts of his master’s books in order to win friends, friends who will care for him as he faces his impending firing.
We need to give attention to some background before we unpack the meaning of today’s parable while noting the number of instances when in His parables Jesus uses business practices so familiar to His listeners. In the parable of the talents He used the investment of monies given to servants of a rich man to make His point. The parable of the prodigal son involved the monetary inheritance the son would receive upon his father’s death. Then there was the woman who searched for her lost coin, the story of the merchant who sold everything in order to purchase the pearl of great value, the parables involving fishermen, farmers, lost sheep, and others, all of which involved the business practices of the people of those times.
Today’s parable needs to be understood in the realization that it was against Jewish law to charge interest on loans of money. Instead of bankers, the Jews earned interest by lending out produce instead of money. Here in this particular case the rich man was probably an absentee landlord who loaned olive oil and wheat to his debtors expecting to receive more of each commodity in return than what he loaned, the difference being the equivalent of interest charges on his loans. It was understood that the master’s steward would also earn his commission out of the differential amount, the amount between what was borrowed and the amount of the payback.
Jesus is not commending the steward’s dishonesty. The steward’s dishonesty had been discovered and was obvious to everyone. Jesus didn’t concern himself with the obvious. The prodigal son squandered his money and the steward squandered his master’s property. Both, however, took the necessary steps to secure their futures, just as did the characters presented in similar parables that Jesus used. What Jesus is concerned with is the lack of spiritual foresight on the part of His followers.
The point is that we all ought to be as foresightful and prudent in planning ahead for our spiritual futures as the worldly-wise are in planning ahead for their financial and material futures. Jesus, clearly, is not commending the wicked steward for his deviousness. He was, after all, establishing a conspiracy to defraud the owner of the interest on his loans while at the same time returning the master’s principal amount on his loans, making friends with his mater’s debtors, and securing his own future along the way. But Jesus was presenting His followers with the example of the zealous foresightfulness of the wicked steward and wishing that His own followers would be at least as enterprising in caring for the future of their souls.
And so the immediate question confronting you and me is: How zealous am I in providing for my spiritual future? Do I assume that God is a sort of Sugar Daddy in the Sky who is going to take care of me no matter what I do? Is it my unspoken assumption that what I do or what I don’t do in this life really doesn’t matter in the long run because a loving and infinitely merciful God will provide for me anyway? That insults God.
There is another aspect in today’s Gospel that I want to draw to your attention. That has to do with what we consider to be our possessions. What we have we do not own outright; what we have belongs to God. We only hold what we have in trust; it’s all eventually going back to God, the true owner of all that we think is ours.
Years ago a woman came to my office to tell me that she wanted me to refuse to marry her daughter to a young, prospective groom she was engaged to marry. This mother was dripping in gold jewelry and was used to getting her way by buying it from influential people, people who would do her bidding when it came to controlling her daughter’s life. Well, I refused, telling her that her daughter is the only one who could persuade me not to perform the marriage. The mother went into a whining, tearful pout, and then a rage during which she cried out: “My daughter is my proudest possession!” In no uncertain terms I informed her that her daughter was not her possession and the sooner she came to that realization the quicker she would return to being a mother instead of an owner. That didn’t sit well with her. She went to my bishop and tried to get my bishop to order me not to do the marriage. That didn’t work either. But the woman was evidently used to doing business that way.
We have our children from God, they are His, not ours. We only hold them in trust for a while and then we give them over to Him. And not only our children, all that we haveis really God’s; it’s all eventually going back to Him, even our own life. Those who advocate mercy killing would have us overlook that fact. Abortionists fail to understand or deliberately avoid the truth that a baby is not its mother’s possession. Our American Civil War was fought over the mistaken idea that Black slaves were the property and possessions of their owners. Our lives and all that we have, including even our children are God’s and have been entrusted to us to be cared for so that they might eventually accomplish His purposes, not ours.
The religious understanding of the Pharisees was a very meticulous spiritual bookkeeping exercise. Everyone had to pray, pay, and obey. Anyone who didn’t was considered to be a law-breaker and was cast out. Everything had is price and everyone had their value in that spiritual economy. Jesus had a different understanding of our value in God’s eyes.
What must have scandalized them was the realization that the foresightful steward in today’s parable was being praised by Jesus precisely for his prudent vision of what lay ahead of him, not because he was a cheat but because he was a sinner who dared to hope for redemption.
So, what do you see in your own future, your own spiritual future? Can you accept that fact that you are a sinner, a sinner who can be much like the steward in today’s parable, a sinner who dares to hope, a prodigal son who returns home believing in his father’s love? It’s a question of faith. It’s a question of hope. It’s a question of love. What steps will you take?