by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“The children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light…No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon.” Luke 16: 1-13
Today’s readings highlight a view held by biblical writers that being rich can be something of a liability in that wealth can draw those who have it into the pursuit of even more possessions and money. This, not surprisingly, is not a view held by most twenty-first century financial speculators and business people. Added to that is the difficulty I have with the parable of the unscrupulous steward in today’s gospel-reading. It looks as though Jesus, in his telling of the parable, is applauding the head steward’s unethical business practice. So, how do I make sense of the readings of this twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time?
I was more than a little surprised to learn that, in Australia, the thoroughbred horse-racing industry has the second-highest cash turnover of all the industries in the country. And there’s no class distinction when it comes to wagering on horse racing. Book-makers take wagers from rich and poor alike. Nobody’s money is unwelcome. Countless people do their best to get rich quickly through gambling and through speculating on the stock-market. However, the reality is that when one person makes a killing, there are many others who get hurt. So, most of us will have no trouble with the concerns raised by Amos in today’s first reading. He attacks the hucksters of his day who were getting rich at the expense of the poor and needy around them. Unscrupulous traders fitted the prices of their products and business exchanges to the cynical assessments they had of those with whom they dealt: “We can sell worthless wheat at an inflated price. We’ll find a poor man who can’t pay his debts, not even the price of a pair of sandals, and we’ll buy him as a slave” (Amos 8: 6). However, what was even more outrageous to Amos was his awareness of some hypocrites who tried to make greed and religious practice sit comfortably together. While they presented themselves at temple worship services, they were itching to be involved in the business of money-making: “When will the Sabbath be over so that we can start selling again?” (Amos 8:5). In today’s gospel-reading, Jesus, too, challenges attempts to make greed compatible with religion when he says: “You cannot serve both God and money!” (Luke 16: 13).
However, it’s the gospel parable that presents the biggest challenge. And, once again, I suggest that consideration of context is the way into understanding this parable. Chapter 16, from which today’s reading is taken, is roughly the half-way point of Luke’s Gospel, and it is entirely devoted to the use of money and other possessions in the life of anyone who wants to be a disciple of Jesus. Luke has already explained to the community for whom he wrote his Gospel that three essential requirements for being a disciple of Jesus are prayer, repentance (conversion or change of mind and heart as the way into opening oneself to receive the mercy, compassion and love of God) and using money/possessions to assist the poor and needy. Jesus warned against allowing the pursuit of accumulation of wealth sap up one’s life and energy. While the parables of Chapter 15 are all about the mercy and forgiveness of God, implicit in the parable of the unscrupulous steward is the message that it is important not to take God’s mercy and forgiveness for granted. True disciples have to base their actions on prudence and wisdom as evidenced in the behaviour of the shrewd manager in Jesus’ parable.
We now turn to a vital part of the context in which the parable is set. The culture in which Jesus lived and carried out his teaching and preaching was the same culture to which the steward and his master belonged, and it was an honour-shame culture – one in which honour was regarded as more important than wealth. Moreover, in the world of business experienced stewards and managers could make decisions and sign agreements to which their masters were bound to commit themselves. The parable informs us that there were not a few people who were in considerable debt to the master. Moreover, in the telling of the parable, we learn that there were people in the community who were gossiping about how the steward was squandering his master’s wealth. So, the reputations of both steward and master were now at risk. The master is at risk of earning the reputation of a fool who cannot control someone he has employed, a paid worker who is either an incompetent or a swindler. The master is at risk of being labelled as a failed businessman. And the steward risks losing his career as a trustworthy and reliable manager. So, in a single stroke of genius, he rescues two reputations. – his and his master’s.
But it still probably comes as a surprise to many of us that the master concludes by praising the “unjust steward” for his prudence and wisdom. This is where it is important for us to consider Luke’s intention in instructing his community in their use of money. In Luke’s day and at the time that other New Testament writers and teachers were at work, there was a prevailing view that Jesus’ second coming was not far off. So, in Luke’s view, money was to be used with prudence and generosity, especially in helping the poor and needy. There was no point in accumulating money if the end times were at hand. Money was also to be used in furthering the establishment of God’s kingdom – a way of living that treated all as equals, all as children of God; a way of living built on the practice of justice and mercy and compassion. What’s more, the steward’s prudence presented his master as a charitable and generous man. In an honour-shame society, the master would have been delighted at being publicly portrayed as a generous citizen who cared about others and even gave big discounts to those in his debt.
The snippets of wisdom and exhortation that follow the parable might be seen by some as somewhat disjointed. I suggest that every line of this gospel-reading is best viewed as contributing to a message about the wise and prudent resources that are at the disposal of every disciple of Jesus. All the bits are part of a single piece that Luke presents to his community. Money and all our other resources and possessions play a part in the promotion of good. We err when we slip into letting ourselves be controlled by our possessions. When that happens, we surrender the freedom we have as children of a good and loving God who has provided us with the skills and creativity to live our lives securely, justly and with purpose. If the work we do and the assets we accumulate as a result of that work are the benefits of God’s creative action in us, isn’t it reasonable that we consult God on where best to direct the profits?