Fr. Charles Irvin
Diocese of Lansing
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The Gospel passage you’ve just heard is a part of a series of parables dealing with spiritual crises that are generated when we misuse our possessions, when we end up being possessed by our possessions. Last Sunday’s Gospel was about the Prodigal Son who demanded his share of his father’s estate and then went out and squandered it all. Next Sunday’s Gospel will be all about the rich man eating a sumptuous meal at his table while poor Lazarus sat starving at the rich man’s gate. The lesson today involves, as you all know, the devious and clever wicked steward who doctors the accounts of his master’s books in order to win friends, friends who will care for him after he faces his impending firing.
We need to give attention to some background before we unpack the meaning of today’s parable while noting the number of instances when in His parables Jesus uses business practices so familiar to His listeners. In the parable of the talents He used the investment of monies given to servants of a rich man to make His point. The parable of the prodigal son involved the monetary inheritance the son would receive upon his father’s death. Then there was the woman who searched for her lost coin, the story of the merchant who sold everything in order to purchase the pearl of great value, the parables involving fishermen, farmers, lost sheep, and others, all of which involved the business practices of the people of those times.
Today’s parable needs to be understood with the realization that it was against Jewish law to charge interest on loans of money. Instead of bankers, the Jews earned interest by lending out produce instead of money. Here in this particular case the rich man was probably an absentee landlord who loaned olive oil and wheat to his debtors expecting to receive more of each commodity in return than what he had loaned them, the difference being the equivalent of interest charges on his loans. It was understood that the master’s steward would also earn his commission out of the differential amount, the amount between what was borrowed and the amount of the payback.
The religious understanding of the Pharisees was a very meticulous spiritual bookkeeping exercise. Everyone had to pray, pay, and obey. Anyone who didn’t was considered to be a law-breaker and was cast out. Everything had is price and everyone had their value in that spiritual economy. Jesus had a different understanding of our value in God’s eyes.
What must have scandalized the Pharisees was the realization that the foresightful steward in today’s parable was being praised by Jesus precisely for his prudent vision of what lay ahead of him, not because he was a cheat but because he was a sinner who dared to hope for redemption.
Jesus is not commending the steward’s dishonesty. The steward’s dishonesty had been discovered and was obvious to everyone. Jesus didn’t concern himself with the obvious. The prodigal son squandered his money and the steward squandered his master’s property. Both, however, took the necessary steps to secure their futures, just as did the characters presented in similar parables that Jesus used. What Jesus is concerned with is the lack of spiritual foresight on the part of His followers.
The point Jesus making is that we all ought to be as foresightful and prudent in planning ahead for our spiritual futures as the worldly-wise are in planning ahead for their financial and material futures. Jesus, clearly, is not commending the wicked steward for his deviousness. He was, after all, establishing a conspiracy to defraud the owner of the interest on his loans while at the same time returning the master’s principal amount on his loans, making friends with his mater’s debtors, and securing his own future along the way. Jesus was presenting His followers with the example of the zealous foresightfulness of the wicked steward and wishing that His own followers would be at least as enterprising in caring for the future of their souls.
And so the immediate question confronting you and me is: How zealous are we in providing for our spiritual futures? Do we assume that God is a sort of Sugar Daddy in the Sky who is going to take care of us no matter what we do? Is it my unspoken assumption that what I do or what I don’t do in this life really doesn’t matter in the long run because a loving and infinitely merciful God will provide for me anyway? That insults God.
Many charitable and service organizations have Mission Statements. Most parishes have them. Successful businesses all have Business Plans. People who work in them, executives and worker alike, from time to time need to examine what they’re doing in the light of those plans and statements in order to keep focused and not devote their energies and divert them from their goals.
The world we live in is filled with distractions, distractions that come to us in all of our electronic devices both visual and audial. At times we get so busy that we wonder what we are accomplishing and where we are going. There are consequences that flow from our decisions and there are consequences that flow from our non-decisions and neglect. When you stop and think about it, not to decide is in itself a decision, a neglectful decision that can have bad consequences for us. This is particularly so when it comes to our spiritual lives.
So, what do you see in your own future, your own spiritual future? Can you accept that fact that you are a sinner, a sinner who can be much like the steward in today’s parable, a sinner who dares to hope, a prodigal son who returns home believing in his father’s love? It’s a question of faith. It’s a question of hope. It’s a question of love. What steps are we taking to provide for our spiritual futures?
So today let me suggest that making a retreat may be more important than you think. It may be that a retreat isn’t something that is simply a nice thing to do. It may be a very necessary thing to do. Time alone with God is essential if we are to spend eternity with God forever in heaven?
We all have a destiny, a destiny God has given us. God didn’t give you and me a life to be lived only until we die. God gave us a life that He wants to share with us for all eternity, an eternal life to be lived in love, in a love relationship between you and Him. That, it seems to me, is the point for today’s parable and why Jesus was commending this foresightful steward to our attention.