Sep 21, 2013

25th Sunday: How much do I owe?

"The children of this world are more prudent . . . than are the children of light."

Am 8:4-7
1 Tm 2:1-8
Lk 16:1-13

Our Gospel this Sunday is one of the most complex and disturbing of all Jesus' parables but I think is also one of the most clever. Maybe a lesson from life is helpful to understand Jesus’ words.

As children, my father would often remind us: “I was raised in the school of hard knocks!”  We heard his axiom often enough that we would sarcastically finish the phrase for him when he would begin to speak.

When older, wiser, and more mature, we realized that my father, as so many of his generation in the 1920’s – 40’s, did indeed have to make many sacrifices and endure the “hard knocks” of the depression and the Second World War in order to make it. That experience formed them to be practical, realistic, no nonsense and careful with money. Even my Dad’s approach to religion was more pragmatic but at the same time very sincere.  Over time, he became clever in business yet at the same time faithful to God. Life often teaches us more than can be learned in any classroom. 

As life experience does, the parables of Jesus sometimes comfort us but other times they confuse us or may even shock us into serious reflection.  Our three parables last week, for example, from Luke 15 were comforting: the lost sheep, the coin of great price, and the ever inspiring story of the wayward son and the merciful father.

However, this Sunday we find an image from the Gospel that indeed may cause us to do a double take. The images are realistic. We can imagine such self-serving behavior as was found in the steward.  But it takes a turn:  Did Jesus really say: “. . . make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth?” (Lk 16: 9). The story speaks of a wily steward who cleverly turns the tables to his own benefit. He deliberately reduces the amount owed to his master from his master’s debtors in order to gain a benefit to himself rather than to his master who just fired him due to his own dishonesty.  To our surprise, the master commends him for “acting prudently!”

The fired steward, through his act of debt reduction, favored the debtors who now owe him a good turn. In that way, though fired by his master, he still has certain benefactors who owe him a good.  On face value, very shrewd. The steward is popular with the debtors as they thought he was speaking on behalf of a merciful master and the master, though he will now come up short on his own debts, wins the esteem of his debtors due to what they perceived as his generosity. Honor is everything. Clever.   

Jesus points out that, “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. I tell you make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”  (Lk 16: 8-9).  In other words, learn a lesson from the shrewdness of even the self-serving steward.  Use such skill and ingenuity in pursuing true wealth and value as “children of light.” Jesus implies that money isn’t everything.  It can be used for the good and should not be simply stacked up and hidden away for one’s own selfish purposes but to bring benefit to others. Yet, never at the cost of distracting us from the greater benefit that God offers us. Wealth should be a means to a higher good and not an end in itself.   

In the case of the spiritual life, the wealth which God offers, its value is more than anything the world can give. Then, in our spiritual life of prayer, good works, participation in the sacramental life of the Church, regular gathering with the community in worship, generosity and good stewardship of material wealth for the works of faith, personal sacrifices and humble service to others in Christ’s name, we find the true master whom we serve.

Our Eucharist reminds us of God’s generosity with us. How in Jesus’ own death and resurrection, whatever we owed to God is reduced and even more is possible to be wiped out through his mercy and forgiveness.  What he asks of us in return is that we be wise and faithful disciples.
O God, who founded all the commands of your sacred Law
upon love of you and of our neighbor,
grant that, by keeping your precepts,
we may merit to attain eternal life.

(Roman Missal: Collect for this Sunday)