Sunday reflection: Luke 16:1–13

This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 16:1–13:

Jesus said to his disciples,

“A rich man had a steward who was reported to him for squandering his property. He summoned him and said, ‘What is this I hear about you? Prepare a full account of your stewardship, because you can no longer be my steward.’ The steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do, now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me? I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do so that, when I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes.’ He called in his master’s debtors one by one. To the first he said, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He replied, ‘One hundred measures of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note. Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.’ Then to another the steward said, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘One hundred kors of wheat.’ The steward said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note; write one for eighty.’ And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.

“For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones. If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth? If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours? 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.”

My wife and I had the opportunity to spend the weekend with our granddaughters, which seems more challenging as they get older. There aren’t many ways that Grandma and Grandpa can remain cool, or at least we worry about that. One activity that we have shared over the last few years with the older granddaughter — who just started high school, for cryin’ out loud — has been packing food for Feed My Starving Children. Yesterday we took the youngest one for the first time to join us, and she loved it, although it took a little time for her to find her groove. She kept calling out “Vitamins! Veggies! Soy! Rice!” along with her big sister as we filled the Manna packs for shipment around the world. In 90 minutes, the group packed the equivalent of 23,000 meals, or enough to feed 63 children for a year.

Now, it’s safe to say that we treasure our time with our granddaughters, and that time with them is a premium as they grow older. Yet serving the less fortunate turns out to be a blessing, a really good bonding experience that now both girls share with us. Most of you reading this already know this — you do your own service to those less fortunate, through donations or active participation, and so this is a truth that hardly needs explaining.  There is joy in doing good work, especially that which provides the basic needs of others, but too often we get caught up in our own situations to remember that.

Today’s readings instruct us about the love the Lord has for all His children, but especially the poor, and the responsibility we all have to lift them up. In Amos 8:4-7, the prophet warns those who pray for good conditions for their own commerce while they “trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land!” Rather than use their wealth to lift up the poor, these people instead treat them like commodities to be bought and sold, never understanding their inherent dignity as children of God. They refuse to give away “even the refuse of the wheat” lest they fail to exploit every resource to pad their own wealth. “Never will I forget a thing they have done,” the Lord tells Amos.

Paul also discusses this in our second reading from Timothy, only more obliquely. He prays for everyone, including “for kings and for all in authority,” so that all may live in tranquility, devotion, and dignity. The systems which produce that matter less to Paul than the result, but in this Paul is specific that true equality of dignity is the end goal. He foresees an end to poverty and injustice and true freedom to worship the Lord in full.

All of this leads us to the puzzling parable which Jesus gives as an instruction to His disciples in today’s Gospel. We are most familiar with its final passage — “You cannot serve both God and mammon” — and that teaching is straightforward enough, especially with the first reading of Amos as context. The prophet warned those who focused so much on their own wealth that they forgot their brothers and sisters, and not just forgot them, but exploited them to keep them in poverty rather than use their resources to ease it. That’s a devotion to mammon that goes beyond the experience of most of us, who struggle to discern the proper balance between self and others when it comes to wealth.

But what did Jesus mean with the parable itself? In the literal sense, it appears that Jesus is praising dishonesty. When the steward realizes that he’s about to lose his position and face abject poverty himself, he goes to his master’s debtors and starts making arrangements that make his master less wealthy in order to curry favor with the rest of the community — a good way to make them indebted to the steward in case he needs to rely on them after getting fired. The master then praises the steward for his cleverness.

Theologians have grappled with the contradictions of this passage for centuries, and in no way do I consider myself equal to their aptitude. One interpretation that seems relevant relies on the fact that Jesus delivered this parable to the disciples directly rather than the crowds. One can see a parallel between the Pharisees and their treatment of the Israelites in this passage, and this could be a warning to the disciples that they should take care not to follow that example but be merciful with each other instead — for their own sakes.

To me, though, this parable speaks to exactly that struggle for discernment with money and wealth for those who don’t quite qualify for the condemnation in our first passage from Amos. Most of us don’t go out of our way to “buy the lowly for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals,” even if sometimes we orient ourselves in that direction with self-absorption. Our lack of care for those who are less fortunate is more incremental, less from deliberate malice and more from either indifference or simply a lack of attention.

This parable calls us to reconsider our relationship with wealth in this world, and to reconsider our relationships with each other. Wealth in this world is meaningless in eternity, but what we do with it isn’t. The Lord created this world with abundance for all, and poverty is a failure of ours to ensure that the abundance sustains and grows. We are too focused on the wealth at times, and not enough on the universal dignity. It doesn’t take that much effort to rethink our place and our good fortune, as the steward discovered when he stopped his dissolute ways and began to serve his community rather than himself.

He might not have done it for all the right reasons, but the dissolute steward finally realized that there was a very thin line separating his own self-conception of dignity and the ranks of the poor. The steward’s efforts were an incremental step back from his previously selfish and dissolute ways. The more he steps away from his attachments, the more he will understand the proper relationship between himself and the Lord, and the less attached he will become to material pursuits — “mammon.” That is the process to which Jesus calls us, because otherwise, we surrender our own dignity to mammon rather than trust it with the Lord.

Can we do better in stepping outside of our own lives to help raise the dignity of others? For most of us — and certainly for me — the answer is yes. Putting the Manna packs together feeds the poor, but it also fed our own souls to step out of that self-love for 90 minutes or so, remembering all of our blessings, the two most precious of whom were happily chanting “Vitamins! Veggies! Soy! Rice!” right along with us. Not only will that food give children elsewhere a chance for life and dignity, it also gave all of us the fulfillment of true dignity of being children of God. Mammon ain’t got nothing on that.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.