Sunday, September 22, 2013

Homily for 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Homily for the
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sept. 22, 2013
Luke 16: 1-13
Christian Brothers, Iona College, N.R.

“A rich man had a steward who was reported to him for squandering his property” (Luke 16: 1).

Parable of the Unjust Steward, by Jan Luyken
Our gospel this evening follows immediately after the parable of the lost sons, which was the last part of the long form of last Sunday’s gospel.  Luke may have placed this parable, usually called that of the dishonest or unjust steward, here because of a word link, the word squander.  In the preceding parable the younger son squandered his inheritance and became destitute.  In today’s parable, the steward has squandered his master’s property and is about to be dismissed from service.  In both cases the character’s faced with a crisis that demands a decision, a course of action.

What’s a steward?  These men appear several times in the gospels, in parables and at the wedding in Cana, for instance.  They “were officials who supervised the affairs of royal and wealthy households.”  They had broad authority over the servants, “ran the finances, supervised the preparation of the meals for the family, and in general served as a major-domo.”[1]

It seems that the master in this case is an absentee landowner, a common situation in 1st-century Palestine and one to which Jesus alludes in at least one other parable (Matt 21:33-46).  He’s not observing his steward in person but receives reports, eventually, about his management.

The steward isn’t accused of criminal behavior.  He’s not stealing from his employer, for example.  His reaction to his dismissal shows that he hasn’t stashed a fortune away in Switzerland; he doesn’t have anything set aside but must immediately figure out how he’s going to survive.

Rather, he’s accused of “squandering” his master’s property.  That could mean merely poor management, imprudence, bad decisions, waste, such as happens at times in the financial markets, the corporate world, and government.  Or it could mean that he’s been living the high life in the owner’s absence, feasting and partying overmuch, spending frivolously on landscaping and décor for the estate.

So he’s fired.  Now what?  He’s been in management and isn’t at all prepared to become a common laborer:  “I’m not strong enuf to dig.”  When they get laid off, Wall Street types don’t become construction or sanitation workers.  He could beg, which was very common in the ancient world; but in small-town life, like Mayberry, everyone knows everyone else and everyone else’s business, so this man’s being reduced to begging would be intensely embarrassing:  “I’m ashamed to beg” (16:3).

As we heard, he comes up with a plan that will ingratiate him with his master’s tenants—farmers who rent land from this rich landowner and pay their rent in the form of part of the crops they raise, wheat and olive oil.

The commentators don’t agree about the honesty of what the steward does, whether he’s reducing the landowner’s legitimate rental income, eliminating an indirect interest charge that could be considered usury and thus against the Law of Moses, or cutting his own legitimate commission for arranging the contracts in the first place.  While Jesus calls him “that dishonest steward” (16:8), implying some shady dealing, the landowner doesn’t seem to be upset, implying that he hasn’t been cheated by the new contractual arrangements.  It’s a puzzle that we probably can’t resolve definitively.

The word translated as “dishonest” in the present translation has also been rendered often as “unjust” and once as “knavish” (Knox).  St. Jerome’s Latin would translate it as “wicked.”  The Greek word, αδικίας, means literally, “lacking righteousness” or “lacking justice.”  Perhaps that’s to be understood in the light of the comparison offered in the following verse:  “the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation [their own kind of people]…” (16:9).  This man is a child of this world and not of the kingdom of God; he hasn’t been made just by repentance and discipleship; he’s a friend of “dishonest wealth” rather than of God—that’s why he’s αδικίας, and that’s why he acts the way he does with his employer’s property.  Each time “dishonest” comes up in Jesus’ commentary on his parable (16:9-13), the Greek word is either αδικίας or its relative άδικος.

So what’s the point the parable is making?  It doesn’t lie in the particular details that make it so true to 1st-century Palestinian life and thus so appealing to Jesus’ audience and somewhat mystifying to us, but in the overall situation and the steward’s action.

The steward is suddenly and perhaps unexpectedly thrust into a personal crisis.  His world is threatened.  He assesses the situation, contrives a plan, and acts decisively to deal with his crisis.  This is what the landowner commends:  decisive action to deal with crisis.  And it’s what Jesus observes:  “The children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

For the child of light is supposed to perceive a crisis in his or her life too.  Jesus’ public ministry is introduced by the preaching of John the Baptist, denouncing wickedness, threatening hellfire, telling people to “produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance”; and people ask him, “What then should we do?” (Luke 3:7-10).  John announces a crisis, a time of decision, and places upon each person the duty of responding in such a way as to be saved from “the ax that even now lies at the root of the trees” (3:9).  Just a couple of weeks ago we heard Jesus warning his disciples that they must love him more than anyone else, even their families, and they must “calculate the cost to see” whether they have what it takes to be a citizen of God’s kingdom, even to the renunciation of “all their possessions” (Luke 14:25-33)—no friendship with “dishonest wealth allowed.” 
Like the characters in The Lord of the Rings, you must make up your mind whom you’ll stand with; like Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, you must decide whether you’ll surrender to the Dark Side (or be a child of the light [16:8]).

If Jesus confronts us with a crisis—repent of your sins, turn from all your forms of αδικίας, and surrender yourself completely to the demands of God’s kingdom; or remain a child of this world and its values, its attitudes, its manner of behaving--then we can’t choose both:  “no servant can serve two masters” (16:13).  We have to choose whom we’ll serve, and act decisively, like the steward in the parable.

            [1] Walter Duckat, Beggar to King:  All the Occupations of Biblical Times (Garden City: Doubleday, 1968), pp. 244-245.

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