There’s no way around it.
This week’s Gospel
is an odd little story
that leaves us scratching our heads,
and wondering what’s up.
While travelling on the road to Jerusalem, Jesus tells the Pharisees and disciples the story of a wily steward—
a man who mismanaged or misused his masters accounts,
perhaps for years.
He has now been caught,
and is just about to lose his position.
In the ancient world,
a steward was a highly valued and trusted servant,
sometimes he was a slave or a freedman,
sometimes a relative or reliable friend
who was given great responsibility.
A steward had the authority to manage the estate,
to buy and sell goods,
handle the master’s money,
extend or deny credit,
make or break people.
Money and power and influence
flowed freely through hands of a steward,
and if a little stuck to his palms along the way…
that is just the way of the world,
But this time,
for reasons unknown,
the steward went too far--
skimmed too much.
shorted the wrong supplier,
got too greedy,
extended credit to the wrong person--
perhaps even all of the above.
This time, the jig is up,
and so is his job.
He’s too soft to dig ditches,
too old or too comfortable to find other work.
he creates a plan--
a plan designed to secure him a soft-landing place
when the hammer is dropped.
He discounted debts
without the master’s knowledge or authority.
He reduced the amount owed
in return for the possibility of support in the future.
It was like a Labor Day sale at Macy’s
with low, low prices
and discounts up to 50%.
when the master learned what the steward did,
instead of denouncing him,
or calling for the authorities,
he commended him!
We twist ourselves into pretzels
trying to explain this story away.
“The Steward wasn’t forgiving debt owed to the master, he was removing the EXTRA portion he added that served as his salary or commission.”
“The Steward actually saved his master from shame by erasing the interest payments his master didn’t have the right to charge under the law of Moses.”
“In ancient times, owners sometimes overcharged debtors, so the discounts simply returned the debts to their original amounts.”
but not one of these explanations changes the fact
that no one in this story,
is a hero.
No one in this story is even very likeable.
Everyone in this story is unjust—or would like to be.
even the debtors themselves.
They are all corrupt and dishonest
and looking for a quick way to either become rich,
scam the system,
or back out of something they owe.
But we miss the point
if we think the master in this story
is a stand-in for God.
We miss the point
if we believe they are held up as examples.
We aren’t supposed to aspire to be LIKE them,
We are supposed to learn from them.
The master in this story is not a bit like our own Master.
He is someone who very likely
manipulated the needs of the poor and precarious
to increase his own wealth.
and the goal of the steward,
is to get ahead.
To grow in power and wealth.
To use people.
To use possessions skillfully, effectively, and ruthlessly
to achieve that goal.
And they are very good at it.
They know how to leverage resources and talents
in ways that benefit them.
As Jesus points out,
“The people of this world
are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind
than are the people of the light.”
as “people of the light”
or should be,
just as our Master is different.
as people of the light
should be to use our gifts and talents
freely and openhandedly for God and for each other.
should be to work for justice and mercy.
To serve the poor,
To dry the tears of the broken hearted.
To visit those who are sick and in prison.
To “store up riches in heaven.”
Our talents and money
are vital resources in this mission.
What might our parishes,
and our neighborhoods,
if we were as accomplished,
and as shrewd
in using our resources to achieve our goals
as the steward in this story?
How might our world be transformed
if we were as determined?
Maybe Jesus is teaching us
that believers need to pay attention
to things like money
Not to promote ourselves,
but to raise up others.
Maybe Jesus is teaching us
is that we should be friends,
with people in positions of authority and wealth,
because through our friendships,
we might influence society for the common good.
Maybe Jesus is trying to remind us
that the discipline it takes to manage temporal affairs well
will inevitably spill over
and positively affect the way we manage spiritual affairs.
And it is very clear that Jesus is teaching us
that our hearts cannot be divided.
We cannot serve God and money.
Jesus doesn’t say, “It would be challenging…”
“It may not be possible…”
or love money.
We have to choose.
This message was unwelcome then.
It is equally unwelcome now.
People in the ancient world equated wealth with blessing.
And we are not so different,
Although we claim to reject a connection
between money and blessing,
our actions tell another story.
Watch just about any televangelist with big hair
and a bigger accounting department
preach the Prosperity Gospel to millions of eager acolytes.
Feel the envy that rises up when you are barely treading water
and your 30-year-old roof is leaking,
and the guy across the street just bought his second vacation home.
Browse social media and see pictures of shiny, perfect families,
carefully edited and posed,
standing next to their latest toy,
and read the caption, “So Blessed, Y’all!” and swallow hard.
Why does God’s light seem to shine only on that side of the street?
Why is God continuously blessing others with wealth, and bounty, and comfort,
while I sit in the darkness, alone?
It’s difficult, isn't it?
And that’s exactly why Jesus talked so much
about money and power.
The truth is,
the wealth that we accumulate in this world,
no matter how vast,
no matter how detailed our last will and testament,
no matter how carefully annotated our succession plan,
that wealth will cease to help us the moment we die.
It will be
as if it never was.
But this doesn’t mean that money and power are bad.
On the contrary.
The way we handle money,
the way we view material goods,
the way we manage resources
matters to God.
It matters to others.
It matters to the mission of the Church.
Our bank accounts and talents are simply tools.
Like all tools,
they can be used to build,
Or they can destroy.
Jesus reminds us to be shrewd in using these resources.
they aren’t really ours in the first place—
they originate in God and are lent to us only temporarily.
In the end, they will return to God
Jesus reminds us to amplify what we are given—
to steward our resources with skill and wisdom.
To become trusted in the little things of earth
like money and power,
so that we may be trusted with big things…