Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Gospel of Luke 16: 1-13
The good news today is bad news.
For about five seasons I was a faithful follower of “Mad Men.” Though the scripts were well-written, it took only a single episode for me to realize that there was not a single redeeming character in the story. No one ever learned from their mistakes and each character kept making the same mistake over and over. But sin is fascinating to watch. Each week each character sank deeper and deeper into a bottomless pit of moral indifference. And so, after five seasons I just lost interest. In the end I became bored by characters whose concerns were all totally self-centered.
Today’s Gospel features two unredeemed characters. The rich man master is not admirable. He thrives in a system of injustice that preys on poor people. He is a businessman in a world in which the custom is to exact 100% interest on the cost of goods he sells. This system was quite common in Jesus’ time.
The steward is not admirable. We are told in the beginning that he squanders the rich man’s property. The steward, however, is clever. He knows that as a result of having been caught he will lose his job and have to fend for himself. So he goes to his master’s debtors and rewrites their debts effectively slashing the 100% interest from what they owe the master. Of course, this further harms the master because he makes no profit. He will receive the return of the debt owed to him but he will make no profit.
The master applauds the steward’s cleverness. He commends him for his prudence. But the English word prudence does not express the meaning of the word well. The Greek word is phronimos, an adverb describing practical action aimed at accomplishing some particular end. The steward knows how to look out for himself.
Is Jesus suggesting we admire the steward? I think not. The children of this world, he says, are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. In Luke’s Gospel ‘world’ is the world of evil. ‘Light’ is that world begun by Jesus. Trustworthiness, Jesus says, is the great virtue. The steward is not trustworthy with the dishonest wealth of the master. So who would trust the steward with true wealth?
True wealth is not found in the business dealings of the master. It’s not found in our own worldly business dealings. Neither is it found in our malicious or devious dealings with one another at any level. No. True wealth does not exist in our manipulative business dealings or in our manipulative personal relationships. If we are not trustworthy with the belongings of another – and perhaps ‘belongings’ refers to a person’s integrity, joy, sorrow, talent, etc. – then who will give us what rightly belongs to us?
Jesus then gets very direct. We can’t serve both God and mammon, that is, we can’t serve both God and money or material wealth. Christians cannot serve false wealth.
In a way, you could say that Luke sticks it to us today. In the Gospel for the feast of St. Matthew, Jesus chides the Pharisees when he selects Matthew as one of his followers by saying, “Go and learn the meaning of the words, I desire mercy, not sacrifice. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”
The master in today’s Gospel is a righteous man by virtue of his wealth. The steward is a sinner. But unlike Matthew, the sinner who responded to the call of Jesus, neither the master nor the steward are capable of recognizing their sinfulness. Each is righteous by virtue of his own self-interest.
Pope Francis has reiterated over and over during the short term of his papacy the importance of mercy, and the importance of being concerned with the needs of others.
So today’s Gospel is bad news for us if we think we are superior to anyone else because we have the money, or because we have the privileged position, or the good looks, or because we are holier, or smarter, or a better athlete or whatever. In the beautiful interview Pope Francis gave this past week, he was asked who he is. I am a sinner, was his reply. As he reflected further he completed the response, “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.”
Are you and I masters, stewards, or sinners?