25th Sunday of the Year – September 22, 1974 – CNR
This Sunday and the next, the Gospel-readings concern the use of wealth, today in the parable of the unscrupulous servant, next week in that of Lazarus and the rich man. Each of them is prepared by a reading from the Book of Amos, the Old Testament’s fiercest condemnation of unjustly gained and carelessly wasted wealth and power.
The week which these two sets of readings bracket has been designated a Week of Fast for World Hunger, so that it seems appropriate to devote a little time and attention at least to what has become the chief moral question of our time.
Today’s parable must surely be a scandal for a country which has almost made a religion out of prosperity and in which one is supposed to get very upset at low-level dishonesty, while winking at it in those of a certain wealth and power–unless, of course, they are vulgar and blatant in their greed. That a “devious employee” should be praised threatens to upset the whole system. One suspects that the early Church may have felt some uneasiness about the parable, too; for it seems that two explanations were attached to the parable itself. One would see in the steward an example of intelligent use of money: “Make friends for yourselves through your use of this world’s gifts.” The other would condemn him as untrustworthy: “If you cannot be trusted with elusive wealth, who will trust you with lasting.” It is fairly obvious that neither explanation interprets the parable.
Originally, the parable may have arisen out of an actual event–someone told Jesus of a man who had acted as he describes in the parable. And Jesus uses the report to drive home to his hearers the urgency of their situation to a careless and indolent crowd. That man had the good sense to act quickly and decisively when he was placed in danger–“The worldly take more initiative than the otherworldly when it comes to dealing with their own kind.” What are you doing? Jesus demands of his hearers. You are not even aware of the crisis under which you stand. Wake up! Do something! Understood in this way, the story becomes a “parable of the crisis,” an urgent demand that they read the “signs of the times,” and act accordingly, before it is too late to act.
That demand should not be blunted because of the passage of time since Jesus or by our familiarity with his words. Jesus was introducing something new, God’s new grace, and it demands of us what it demanded of his actual hearers–to decide for or against Jesus, to live the new life he opens or the old life, to decide whom we would serve, for “no servant can serve two masters.”
If there is a certain point in remembering that this demand falls upon all, rich and poor alike, there are times when it is very important to see that it falls especially hard upon the rich and comfortable. In no other gospel is it so clearly stated that riches stand in the way of discipleship as in Luke’s Gospel. At its beginning Mary sings an exultant hymn of joy to the God who has looked upon her in her poverty, who puts down the mighty and raises the lowly, who fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, not only are the poor blessed, the rich are cursed: “Woe to you who are rich, you have received your comfort. Woe to you who are full, you shall hunger, Woe to you who laugh now, you shall mourn and weep.” The rich man who lets Lazarus starve to death just outside the gate of his home earns an everlasting torment. And Luke states in strongest terms the call of Jesus to discipleship: “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me….How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God!”
Texts like these are not heard comfortably in the richest nation in the world, by the generation which is the first and the last to enjoy our standard of living. There are many grounds on which an appeal to change that standard might be based: a simple calculation of the finite resources of the planet, the threat of a revolution of the wretched, an appeal to our common humanity. But what should strike home to us today is that by the Gospel’s standards, jealous clutching of wealth and power and careless comfort–whether in an individual or in a nation–is not life but death and closes us off from God’s reign. The call of Jesus is still an urgent call: Decide! Choose life!
The problem of the disparity between rich and poor in the world is immense, and it would be foolish to think it can be solved by one person or even by a single group. But we can do what we can do. We can willingly do with less, eat less well, or at least more discriminately; we can be alert to the issues, especially in an election year, and demand of candidates an active concern for world-hunger; we can work, especially within our own families and communities, to establish and spread a saner standard of values; as the Church, we can become in various ways an advocate of the poor and powerless.
If any of this makes us uncomfortable, makes us long for more pleasant topics of conversation, or of preaching, let us follow that feeling out, and ask whether it has anything to do with camels and needles’ eyes, with Lazarus and the rich man, and even with an unscrupulous servant who knew when his crisis had come and acted, swiftly and effectively.
25TH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR – SEPTEMBER 20, 1992 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
Parables are supposed to make us think. The remarkable thing about Jesus’ parables is that across two thousand years, in quite different social and cultural settings, they still can stop us short, make us look again at the familiar, call into question the taken-for-granted. We had an example last week, when we naturally sympathized with the protest of the older son, unable to comprehend his father’s generosity and forgiveness to his wastrel son, and were left, at the end of the parable, to answer ourselves the question whether the older son joins the celebration of his brother’s return.
Today’s Gospel can also make us wonder. An absentee landowner hears of mismanagement of his property and prepares to fire his manager. This clever man immediately sets about securing his future by going to the owner’s debtors and severely cutting their debts so that he can perhaps benefit from their gratitude in the future. It was very clever–and very dishonest. And we wonder what it is doing in the Gospel. Certainly it is not the sort of thing that would make Jesus’ message more attractive to a capitalist society. This parable also makes us think.
What is the point of it? The scholars disagree. Some say that the owner’s astonishing forgiveness and even praise for the manager’s cleverness is meant to offer an example of the contrast the Gospel represents: a forgiveness is required of Jesus’ disciples that makes no sense by normal standards, somewhat like the forgiveness of the father of the prodigal son. Other scholars see the point in the words of Jesus: “The worldly take more initiative than the other-worldly when it comes to dealing with their own kind.” The manager faced a crisis, and whether dishonestly or not, he knew how to act decisively: that is what Jesus wants from his hearers in view of the crisis that Jesus’ message of the coming of the Kingdom of God was announcing. Why don’t we take the need for decisive action as seriously as this dishonest manager did?
Both interpretations have their plausibility, and each of them poses a challenge to us. But St. Luke in placing the parable at this point in his Gospel also draws us beyond it to a consideration of what we are to do with our worldly goods. The manager’s actions then seem to be an illustration of the injunctions that follow: that we should recognize that worldly goods and authority are given us in order to make use of them for others. God and money (mammon, wealth) are placed in sharp contrast: “You cannot serve both God and wealth.” If you have been given wealth and power, it is so that you can share them with others, make use of them to make friends in the Kingdom of God.
Here the challenge becomes that of our deciding where genuine wealth is to be found. Perhaps here is where the Gospel poses the greatest challenges to certain assumptions of a capitalist society. Historically, the engine of capitalist economies has been what has been called “possessive individualism,” an enlightened self-interest, the pursuit of private wealth. It is the individual, his rights and property, which comes first; advantages for society, indeed society itself, tend to come second. The pronoun that plays the most important role is the first person singular: “I, me”–in contrast to, in competition with, “you” or “they.” It is the first person plural–we–that is problematic. St. John Chrysostom spoke of those cold words: “mine” and “yours,” and called his people to remember that it is “we” that ought to be primary, the “we” that recognizes that God has made us all together as a community, that if things are given to us individually, it is so that they can be shared with others within that community. He is here echoing the words of Jesus today when he says that the test of what we would do with spiritual wealth is what we do with worldly wealth.
This requires of us a certain distance from what is often taken for granted in our society: that we not conceive of our selves, of our success, by isolating ourselves from others, but by recognizing our individual selves as members of a community, in relationship with others, so that wealth is not private achievement or possession, measured by reference only to me and mine, but a trust fund given in order to be shared, so that wealth is measured now by the use to which it was put, by reference to an us and an ours.
It is a lesson that is often hard to learn, precisely because we do tend to build our sense of success on our individual accomplishments and possessions. Parables make us stop and think when they present contrasts. This Gospel today does that.