I have to admit that I had some difficulty with this weekend’s Gospel reading. I had to look at a couple of Scripture commentaries to really understand the point that Jesus was trying to make. He tells a parable that is unlike his other parables. And he uses language that is unfamiliar to us today, speaking of the “steward,” the “master’s debtors,” “promissory notes,” “making friends with dishonest wealth” – what does that mean?! – “being welcomed into eternal dwellings,” and not serving “both God and mammon.” This all seem disconcerting but we must remember that a parable is simply a rhetorical device that Jesus used to convey a particular teaching (Navarre, Lk 16:1-15). It was meant to use images and phrases that were familiar to his audience. Even though these are unfamiliar to us today, they still convey a teaching that is valuable for us.
A “steward” is a head servant who handled the business affairs of his master’s estate (Ignatius, Lk 16:1). And this particular steward today has wasted his master’s goods. His master calls him to the carpet, tells him that he has gotten wind of his wastefulness and asks him to prepare an accounting of his management, his stewardship of the master’s property, because he is about to lose his job. The steward figures, “Well, if I have a little bit of time to prepare this account, I may as well use this time to set myself up well for life after employment!” So while he still has charge of his master’s property, he uses it to relieve his master’s debtors and win their friendship so that they will welcome him into their homes once he is broke!
The first debtor owed 100 “measures” of olive oil, which today is equivalent to 800 gallons. So the steward wrote him a promissory note which the debtor could cash in on the master’s estate and receive half-off on his debt! The second debtor owed 100 “kors” of wheat, which today is equivalent to 1000 bushels of wheat. The steward wrote him a promissory note which he could cash in on the master’s estate and receive 20% off of his debt! (Ignatius, Lk 16:6-7) When he finally came before his master to give his accounting, the master commended the steward for his being so astute and clever. He in effect said, “Well played… you’ve still lost your job! But… well played.”
Jesus takes for granted that his audience understands that what the steward did was selfish and unethical (Navarre, Lk 16:1-15). But he still finds the steward’s behavior useful for conveying both an example to follow and a caution to take to heart. In a time of urgency, the steward was well prepared. A few weekends ago, Jesus made this same point about wanting disciples who were well prepared to be his servants when he compared them to a contractor who prepares to build a tower or a king who prepares for battle. The spiritual parallel is that as the steward prepared for life after employment, Christians should take even greater care in preparing for life after death (Ignatius, Lk 16:1-8).
Under pressure, it is amazing what we can accomplish! I can’t tell you how many times in seminary that I started a 5-page paper at 2:30am that was due at 8:30am!! For me, when the train is barreling down the tracks, my mind is a sharp as a steel trap. When the pressure is on, I think clearly, logically, sequentially. You also may be able to call to mind times when you surprised yourself by what you accomplished under pressure. St. Josemaria Escriva, one of my favorite saints, wrote, “When you and I put the same zeal into the affairs of our souls, we will have a living and working faith. And there will be no obstacle that we cannot overcome in our [ministries].” (The Way, 317, in Navarre, Lk 16:1-15)
The steward shows how to expend every effort in making use of our means to prepare for the future. Just as his cleverness won him comfortable living in the “houses” of his master’s debtors, so we are challenged to become friends of the poor by supporting them with our resources so that we will be received into the “eternal dwellings” – the many mansions of our Father’s house in eternal life. (Ignatius, Lk 16:8)
Is not the story of the steward also our story?? We too must realize that the resource we have are not absolutely or only ours – they truly belong to our master. We are his stewards – this is where we get our notion of “stewardship” – we are his head servants entrusted with the care of our Master’s goods and treasures.
The steward’s dilemma is our dilemma! We too will be asked to give an account! We know not when! Do we have his same urgency? Do we prepare for this accounting by urgently giving to the poor, by donating from the treasures entrusted to us? This is a defining question of our salvation! Remember how our Lord characterized the Final Judgment?? Some will be arrayed at his right hand, others at his left. To those on his right he will say, “When I was hungry, you gave me food. When I was thirsty, you gave me drink. When I was naked, you clothed me, etc.” And those on his right will say, “Lord, when did we feed you, give you drink, and clothe you?” He will reply, “Whenever you did these for the least of my brethren – the poor – you did them for me. Come into my Father’s House.” To those on his left he will say, “I was hungry and you gave me no food; thirsty and you gave me no drink; naked and you did not clothe me.” And those on his left will say, “Lord, when did we not feed you, give you drink, and clothe you?” He will reply, “When you did not do these for the least of my brethren – the poor – you did not do them for me. Go away from me, you accursed, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” This is the challenge placed before each one of us today.
This also shows the aspect of caution from the parable. We must take this challenge seriously. We cannot serve both God and “mammon.” “Mammon” is an Aramaic term for “wealth.” The Pharisees have been listening carefully, critically, to everything Jesus has said. In the very next verse after our Gospel passage, Jesus will call them “lovers of money.” They, like the steward, cared only about themselves and their own wealth, the esteem of others, and the temporal comforts of this world.
Whether we have been entrusted with a little or with a lot, we must serve God with what we have and value Him more than our wealth. We must look to him instead of our wealth for our safety and security. We must be “servants of the Lord,” as the Responsorial Psalm said, not servants of our wealth and ourselves. Otherwise we will be regarded as those in the first reading who despised the Lord and his holy days and cheated the poor (Scott Hahn, salvationhistory.com, Homily Helps, 25th Sunday).
We cannot serve both God and mammon, both God and our wealth. We are the stewards in the story but we are also the debtors. All the mammon, all the wealth in the world could not have paid the debt we owe our Master by our sins. So He paid it for us. He “gave himself as a ransom for all,” St. Paul wrote in our second reading. Because he gave to us first, we are enabled and empowered to give in return (ibid).
We can redeem the steward’s story. This is a challenge not only to you, but to me too! I was greatly challenged when this Gospel reminded me that after three months of being here, I am not yet tithing to this parish! So when our bookkeeper comes in on Friday I will rectify that. My challenge to you in return is to notice in the bulletin that I have started included the weekend offering for Holy Trinity and Holy Rosary, as we had done in the past. You’ll notice that Holy Rosary gave about $1200 last weekend while Holy Trinity gave twice that, about $2400. But remember that Holy Trinity is four times their size! I was embarrassed to bring this up, but a priest at the New Pastors Workshop that I went to last week, who was an accountant in his former life, told us that we should be more embarrassed not to bring up something like this! What kind of priest would I be if I was not affirming you, encouraging you, and challenging you to prepare for the accounting that each one of us will have to make? I would have to account for that too!
Again, we can redeem the steward’s story, both of us together, by using well the treasures entrusted to us. By being merciful to the poor, relieving their burdens in a disinterested way. By resting secure in our Father’s House, knowing that we have been trustworthy stewards, able to answer confidently and rightly at our own accounting – a joyful accounting! – an accounting to a Master who, God-willing, will be pleased with us; pleased by our virtue and our love for the poor and for Him.