25th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Sept. 19, 2004
Luke 16: 1-13
Ursulines, Willow Dr., New Rochelle
It was the deacons’ turn to preach this week at Holy Cross. Here’s a homily from the archives, very lightly touched up.
“The master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently” (Luke 16: 8).
We read today one of Jesus’ more difficult parables. Even the word master, or lord, in that verse is ambiguous. Does it refer to the steward’s master who has called him to account, or to Jesus hinting at an interpretation? There’s no way to be sure.
The situation Jesus speaks of would be well known in his audience—in this case, his disciples. Palestine had many great landowners who were absentee lords. They left managers in charge of individual estates, like the steward in this instance, while they dwelt in one of the cities or on another of their estates.
The steward is being dismissed for “squandering” his master’s property (16:1). That’s the same word used in the previous parable to tell us what the younger son did with his inheritance (15:13). In itself, this doesn’t suggest criminal behavior or dishonesty as much as carelessness, perhaps incompetence, perhaps overspending, perhaps living it up on his master’s income. It’s not bad enuf that he should be charged with a crime like embezzlement; Jesus does tell a couple of parables where jail is involved. It’s not even urgent enuf that the steward should be thrown out on his ear. He’s been given notice.
This is a crisis for a man of position; and the steward of a great estate is a man of position. He’s not capable of hard manual labor, which would be demeaning after he’s been in management. You don’t expect Michael Eisner to ride a sanitation truck in L.A. after he leaves Disney. Even more shameful would be to sit at the town gate begging for alms, like the blind man on the outskirts of Jericho (18:35). Everyone would laugh at him, a big shot brought down.
So the steward comes up with a plan. His master has debtors, and as the property manager he’s probably the one who arranged the loans to these well-to-do neighbors who found themselves pinched for cash to pay their taxes or buy seed back at planting time or equipment for the olive oil. Or, if they’re tenants on the great estate, he handled the leases.
The sums of produce are huge: the oil of about 150 trees, the wheat of about 100 acres. These gentlemen aren’t the poor of the land. They’re doing all right. They’re in a position to have managers of their own—to give our unfortunate steward a place to land when he’s cut loose.
So he’ll put them into his debt by reducing what they owe to his master. Most commentators are of the opinion that he’s removing his own cut—his commission, if you will—when he alters the contracts. If they were really hard pressed when they borrowed, he may have driven them to a hard bargain, so that now he has room to ease up without hurting his master. That doesn’t explain why the steward is called “dishonest” (16:8). But perhaps we probe too far when we try to dissect everything.
Whoever it is that commends “the dishonest steward,” either his master or our Lord, commends his prudence, his foresight. He has come to a personal crisis, and he’s devised a workable plan to deal with it.
What’s Jesus’ point? The parable is addressed to his disciples. Were the parable in a different context, say the end of the next chapter where he speaks of the crisis of the coming of the Son of Man, we would say the point is that all of us must render an account of our stewardship, and we need a good plan for that day. The parable might be a summons to conversion.
But in the context where Luke has put the parable, the concern seems to be wealth, what one does with the material goods entrusted to him. Bear in mind that whatever is given to a person is given in stewardship: “The Lord God took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it” (Gen 2:15). The series of short sayings immediately following the parable speak to that issue. The worldly-wise, like the steward, know how to use their material assets, their positions, their influence, to take care of themselves, to advance their interests, to cover their rear ends if need be. They may even be expert at cheating, stealing, and abusing their fellows for their own aggrandizement, like those denounced by Amos (8:4-7), the Michael Milkens, Enrons, World Coms, and Bernie Madoffs of the ancient world.
Christians also need a certain wisdom in using material goods, using them to protect their own interests, secure their long-term objective. “Make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth”—literally, “the mammon of iniquity”—“so that when it fails”—as all material goods must—“you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (16:9). Wealth, influence, all worldly advantages must someday fail. If we have used them prudently to make true friends, then a place will be ready for us in the kingdom of God, the Lord’s eternal dwelling.
How does a disciple of Jesus use “dishonest wealth,” untrustworthy wealth, to make the right kind of friends, to prepare for himself an eternal dwelling? “No servant can serve 2 masters” (16:13), so the disciple must 1st of all direct wealth and its associated benefits toward his true Master and not toward himself, much less toward wealth for its own sake, like a miser. William Barclay suggests that one could use wealth with an eye to eternity:
The Rabbis had a saying, “The rich help the poor in this world, but the poor help the rich in the world to come.” [St.] Ambrose, commenting on the rich fool who built bigger barns to store his goods, said, “The bosoms of the poor, the houses of widows, the mouths of children are the barns which last forever.” It was a Jewish belief that charity given to poor people would stand to a man’s credit in the world to come. A man’s true wealth would consist not in what he kept, but in what he gave away.
An earlier episode in Luke’s gospel gives us a parable in action conforming to this theme. A centurion, a pagan, sends to Jesus a message asking him to cure his dying slave. His couriers are the Jewish elders of the town, who intercede for him: “He deserves to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation and he built our synagog for us” (Luke 7:2-10). The centurion used his wealth to make worthy friends who then stood by him before the Lord.
The Centurion & Jesus
2d, the disciple must use his wealth and authority in a manner that serves his master—as of course the steward in the parable failed to do, and so was dismissed. The disciple must be “trustworthy with dishonest wealth” (16:11).
For us religious, who of course have no fortunes at our disposal, let’s distinguish between the individual and the community. The individual religious with her vow of poverty puts herself and her worldly goods, such as they may be, at the disposal of the community and of the kingdom. She’s frugal. She doesn’t horde. She shares. She accounts to the superior.
The superior—meaning one with financial responsibility—uses the common goods carefully, and not just for the community but for also the needy—a few verses on comes the parable of Dives and Lazarus—and for the apostolic work. Competent people are appointed or hired to manage property and programs. The community’s assets are taken care of, maintained, stretched—buildings, vehicles, appliances, utilities, church goods, etc., lest we “squander [the Master’s] property.” What’s necessary is provided. What’s luxurious is avoided, lest we “squander [the Master’s] property.”
All disciples of the Lord Jesus must live in this world, as complex as it is. If we’re apostolic religious we have to deal with the world—with the educational bureaucracy, business people, lawyers, contractors, mechanics. As aging religious, we also have to deal with the medical world and the world of Social Security. We can’t run from all that and be prudent stewards. We have to handle goods responsibly and not carelessly. But we can deal with the world in such a manner that our eyes are ever on “true wealth” (16:11), on our relationship with Jesus our Lord.