In Praise of Prudence by Rev. Jerome A. Magat
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Luke writes to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.
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 that 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 him 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 the children of light. I tell you, make friends fore 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."
There's a surprise twist in the parable of the dishonest steward who cheats his master of what he is owed by several debtors. One would expect the master to be angry with the dishonest steward, knowing that he had absorbed losses on account of the dishonest steward's attempts to secure friends who may help him once his employment has terminated. Instead, the master commends the dishonest steward for acting prudently. The point of the parable is not to extol those who swindle their bosses. Rather, Jesus uses the parable to teach us the importance of acting prudently in spiritual matters, with the same tenacity that worldly persons apply in temporal affairs.
Prudence is one of the four cardinal virtues (temperance, justice and fortitude are the other three). It is defined as the knowledge of how to act - how to conduct one's life rightly. It is not merely a general grasp or understanding of the right thing to do - it is the practical knowledge of how to act in concrete, individual situations that make up daily life. It not only serves the individual but the common good as well. It can be invoked when considering natural and supernatural questions and scenarios.
In common parlance, prudence is not extolled as a virtue. To call someone a "prude" is a pejorative term. It suggests that the person acting prudently is too conservative or religious or bound by a code of morals. And yet, in the language of virtue, prudence is one of the cardinal or "hinge" virtues upon which many other moral virtues find their roots. The parable implicitly invites us to consider our exercise of the virtue of prudence in developing the calculus of our spiritual growth.
How should we compose this calculus, employing the virtue of prudence? Part of a successful formula for spiritual growth includes a realistic self-knowledge. The dishonest steward comes to this realization in the Gospel when he admits to himself that he is not strong enough to dig and that he is ashamed to beg. Similarly, any person serious about spiritual growth must account for his own skills, gifts, tendencies and limitations.
Having come to terms with these realities, a person attempting to grow in the interior life must humbly acknowledge that God is the source of all of good qualities and that His grace and mercy can help transform negative qualities into opportunities for purification and growth. Prudence serves as the practical guide to actions, in concrete individual situations that capitalizes on opportunities for growth and minimizes occasions for setbacks and sin.
Some people have developed a spiritual plan of life to provide the necessary structure and accountability needed for authentic interior development. It is a personalized plan, developed in prayer that sets up a daily routine for prayer and study of the Faith. Such people can rightfully claim that the amount of attention and resolve given to interior growth is proportionate to the attention they give to temporal affairs. Hence, a healthy and practical balance between the world of God and the world of mammon can be achieved, and that inner life of God shared with a baptized soul can animate a person's conduct in temporal affairs. Again, prudence serves as that practical guide to make spiritual aspirations a reality. In this way, "God is served using the material means at one's disposal and the goods of the world are oriented toward giving glory to God.
The dishonest steward's virtue lies in his craftiness and ingenuity in securing a future for himself, in spite of his dishonest means. God expect us to utilize all of our material gifts in order to prepare ourselves for eternal life with him, using prudence as our guide.
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