“And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.” The dishonest steward in the parable in today’s Gospel may have been called “prudent,” but I think most of us might choose a different word to describe his behavior; like enterprising, sneaky, or even sly. However, he certainly was not truthful, so how could Jesus hold this, dare we say swindler, up as an example for His followers?
To understand today’s Gospel reading we must keep in mind that the modern bookkeeping systems that we have today were unknown in Jesus’ day. A steward was a person who managed the day to day affairs of a wealthy person, which included keeping record of the owner’s possessions. He was suppose to make money for his employer by loaning people some of his employer’s goods and to get something more in return. The main way that the steward would earn his money would be to add a commission onto the bill. If the steward was dishonest he would also demand a kickback from his suppliers and customers, or charge too much of a commission.
Have you ever been on a cruise? As you know, I was just on one, and the waiters/waitresses, room stewards, and crew were just so wonderful. They quickly learned to anticipate what I liked, and they were always willing to get whatever you might want, and always with a smile. One thing that I learned on this past cruise was that in addition to their room & board, they might only be paid $50/month. That’s for working 6 days/week and 16-hour days. Of course their real income is not from their salary, it is from the gratuities that they receive. If they started to ask for more than the standard gratuity rate, they would be like the dishonest steward in today’s parable.
The wealthy owner in today’s parable probably became aware that his steward was acting dishonestly, which would have also effected his good-name since the steward acted in his name. He lets the dishonest steward know that he is going to be fired. The steward knows that he needs to do something to secure his future, so he shows mercy to his master’s debtors by changing their promissory notes, hoping that they would remember his kindness when he finds himself in need. Now do not misunderstand the steward’s motive. He did not suddenly have a conversion to honesty. He is a child of the world, and is motivated by purely selfish reasons.
So what is praiseworthy of the steward’s dishonest behavior? Why does Jesus hold him up as an example? Obviously the man’s dishonesty is not praiseworthy. What Jesus notes as praiseworthy is the man’s prudence; he recognized that his situation demanded a decision. If he hesitates, he is ruined.
Jesus tells this parable to shake people out of their complacency. Through His preaching, Jesus has shown people a new way of living life. He has proclaimed the Kingdom of God, and Jesus is confronting His listeners with the need to decide: for Him, or against Him. To postpone this decision is to continue to live one’s life with an attitude of “business as usual,” as if nothing has happened since encountering Jesus. This postponement is in fact deciding AGAINST Jesus, and such a decision is disastrous.
Christ Jesus continues to confront us in the same way. What difference has our encounter with Jesus made in our lives? He is asking us, right now, to make the same decision: Are we for Him, or against Him? It is easy to think that our presence here today at Mass shows that we have already made that decision, and that we are FOR Jesus Christ. However, today’s first reading from the Prophet Amos warns that the decision Jesus demands of us is not complete when we have been to Mass on Sunday.
Amos the prophet was address people who were a lot like many Catholics today. They were very aware of their religious obligations, and they were careful to fulfill them, but after they had fulfilled their religious obligations they considered the rest of their lives their own, to live pretty much however they pleased. Once the Sabbath was over, they were back to business as usual, and this often meant cheating the poor and the gullible if they could get away with it. The prophet Amos condemns these outwardly religious but deeply dishonest people; “The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob; Never will I forget a thing they have done.”
The reading from the Prophet Amos is a stern warning against an over-spiritualized, superficial religion, that puts going to church into a separate compartment from what we do the rest of the week. Our second reading from St. Paul’s letter to Timothy extends this lesson. His command “that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgiving be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority,” seems rather routine for us today. We need to keep in mind that at the time St. Paul wrote to Timothy the Christian Faith could not be practiced in the open. Many of the first Christians were of the lowest classes of society, and were oppressed, yet St. Paul tells them to pray for all in authority, “that we lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity.” Our prayers must be for Christians and non-Christians, friends and foes.
The message that these three readings share is that the Good News confronts us with the need to make a decision. We are either for Jesus or we are against Him. Simply going to church on Holy Days of Obligations is not enough. If our decision to be FOR Jesus Christ makes no difference in how we live our lives Monday through Saturday, then all the Masses, prayers and almsgiving is in vain. It is all a mockery that cries out to heaven for vengeance. Jesus wants our undivided hearts.
In high school I read a truly amazing book, which was also turned into an excellent movie starring Gregory Peck, called To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. The story takes place in a small town in Alabama in the 1930s. Remember, this was long before the civil rights movement, so there was still a lot of racism and separation of blacks and whites. The story centers on Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck. Atticus is a lawyer, and a widower with two school-age children. The county judge assigns Atticus the unpopular task of defending Tom Robinson, a black man who has been falsely accused of crimes against a white woman. The whole town thinks it is terrible that an upstanding white citizen like Atticus Finch would defend a black man accused of such terrible crimes. Atticus is threatened, and both he and his children suffer because of his decision to defend Tom. Near the end of the book Atticus gives a profound reason for doing what he is convinced is the right thing regardless of the risks. He says, “I can’t live one way in town and another way in my home.” Atticus Finch had an undivided heart which was the secret to his integrity, strength of soul, and peace of mind.
Are we convinced that following Jesus, living according to His will, is the right thing? If so we should live our Christian Faith 24/7. Jesus wants us to have an undivided heart so that we too can have strength of soul and peace of mind. He tells us that we can only serve one master, and we must decide who it will be, God or mammon.
If you are thinking that this sounds like a pretty tall order, you are right. It is difficult to make a total decision for Jesus Christ. Often it is difficult to know what He is asking us to do, and often it is even harder to do it.
That is why Jesus gives us the Mass. By listening to the guiding light of Sacred Scripture, and by being strengthened by the power of His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, Jesus enlightens and strengthens us before sending us back to our everyday lives. It is outside the church walls that our decision to live completely for Jesus Christ is put to the test. It is in our everyday life that we encounter Jesus afresh; in the people and circumstances of our lives. It is there, in those everyday moments and circumstances that we are called to live with undivided hearts.
[I am grateful to Fr. John Jay Hughes, Proclaiming the Good News: Homilies for the ‘C’ Cycle, Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc, 1985, pp.223-226, from which I used the main themes for this homily.]