Rev. Steven G. Oetjen
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index
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."
Like most of Jesus’ parables, the one he tells us today has an unexpected twist. There is a dishonest, crooked steward who squanders his master’s wealth. When he is caught, he seeks to ingratiate himself to his master’s debtors by cheating his master even more. The master’s reaction to this is far from what we would expect. Instead of being angry with the dishonest steward, “the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.”
First of all, we should be clear about what this parable does not mean. Jesus is not telling us that we should be dishonest cheaters like the steward in this parable. To make sure that we don’t misunderstand the Gospel in that way, the church gives us the words of the prophet Amos in today’s first reading. Amos rebukes those who would cheat others out of what is due to them and warns those who deal dishonestly with other people, especially when the poor are harmed as a result. Besides that, after the parable in today’s Gospel, Jesus himself says, “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.” So in this parable, Jesus is certainly not telling us to be dishonest. If we wish to be Christian, there is no room for cheating others out of what is due to them. We must be trustworthy in all things, great and small. If we can’t be trustworthy in small things, why should greater things — the mysteries of our faith, of grace and of our salvation — be entrusted to us?
The dishonest steward is not commended for his dishonesty but rather for his acting “prudently.” There is a certain prudence or practicality in the dishonest steward, and this is what Jesus is illustrating. If even this guy, as shady a character as he is, can be smart about making provisions for himself in this life, then surely we should be just as smart about making provisions for ourselves for eternal life. We may think that with spiritual matters, we ought to have our heads in the clouds. No. We should be very practical about spiritual things. “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” There is a bit of a rebuke here for us. Even unbelievers can be craftier or more practical with earthly things than believers are with regard to eternal life. Why don’t we have the same practical sense with spiritual things?
Whenever we set out for a task or mission, we have to have the goal in mind. If we don’t have a sense of the end or goal, we won’t know how to live our lives. We want to go to heaven (the “eternal habitations” that Our Lord speaks of today). What are we doing to get there? This is what Jesus tells us next: “I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” The wealth of this world will fail us eventually, since it will not last forever. But there is a way to use it so as to reach our goal. We are to use it to “make friends” who will welcome us “into eternal dwellings.”
Like the steward in the parable, we are stewards. Everything we have has been given to us. In a sense, we don’t really own it; God entrusts it to our care. Someday, we too will have to give an account of how we used it. The steward used what he had (the promissory notes) to make friends, people who would treat him well and possibly receive him into their homes. Likewise, we are to use what we have been entrusted with to make friends, that is, to give generously, especially to the poor.
St. Augustine spoke of this as “transferring” our earthly wealth to heaven. It doesn’t last, as long as it is here on earth. When we give it to the poor, however, we store up treasure in heaven. If you love those earthly riches so much that you cling to them here on earth, you will perish with them. But if you “lose” them by giving them away in charity, you don’t really lose them at all. They become true riches, and you make provision for yourself for eternity.