Choice and self-deception: Sunday reflection

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.”

For today, I present Confession Time. Forgive me readers, for I have sinned — I went to Mass last night instead of today and listened to our priest’s homily on this mystifying parable before writing my reflection. In this case, I truly needed all the help I could get.

On the surface and in its literal presentation, this parable makes little sense. Jesus tells the story of a dishonest servant who has been caught dissipating his master’s property. Rather than repent, the steward decides to dissipate the master’s property even further by ingratiating those who owe the master by cheating him to their benefit. That way, when the master throws him out, he will have earned credit with these other businessmen and might live without doing honest work. The steward falsely draws down their debt and makes the master poorer as a result. And yet, when the master finds out, he commends the steward for his prudence.

Needless to say, the literal moral of the story — cheat big — isn’t exactly what one would expect to hear from Jesus Christ. One might think that the master’s initial beef with the steward was that he wasn’t dishonest enough. If one takes this literally and without the instruction that Jesus provides immediately afterward, it seems completely contradictory to Jesus’ entire mission.

The key to unlocking this parable isn’t the steward; it’s the master. In Jesus’ parables, the master is used to represent the Lord. We see this most clearly in the parable of the prodigal son from last week’s Mass readings, but also in parables more structurally similar to this one. In Luke 12, for instance, Jesus talks about the necessity to prepare for the master’s return from a wedding banquet at any hour, a clear reference to the Lord. In Luke 17, Jesus taught about the master and his commands to slaves being carried out as not being sufficient to overcome the need for humility, and in both Matthew and Luke we hear the parable of the talents, in which Jesus teaches that the master expects his stewards to use the gifts he has given them to increase his estate. Those who do are commended as “good and faithful servants,” while those who do not are consigned to the outer darkness.

The steward in this parable is anything but “good and faithful.” In fact, he’s rotten and duplicitous, even more so after his master catches him at it. So why does the master praise him? It’s because the steward is serving the wrong master. Unlike in Jesus’ other parables, this master doesn’t represent the Lord — it represents the material world, the priorities of fallen man, and perhaps even Satan himself. The steward gets rewarded for his fealty to avarice and corruption because that’s precisely what he serves.

One has to wonder whether Jesus told this parable with a smile on his face, knowing that his disciples already had a sense of the rhythm of His parables. They would have expected that the master represented the Lord at the beginning of this tale, as do we all. The final line in the parable must have been quite a gotcha for them, as it is clearly meant for us.

This device causes confusion, perhaps even more so in its day, but Jesus makes clear what the parable means immediately afterward. People will adhere to whatever they put in their hearts. If they choose the material world over God, that will come out in ways both great and small over time. If they choose the Lord over the material world and sin, they will prove themselves over time in that as well. The choice to serve mammon becomes increasingly difficult to reverse; the more we follow that idol, the more corrupt we become, and the more we corrupt those around us. After all, we don’t know if the master’s debtors were corrupt before the steward went out to protect himself, but we certainly know that they were corrupt in their dealings with the servant — willing to cheat this master when it served them.

We hear the same lesson from Amos in our first reading. Not long before the Northern Kingdom is destroyed, the prophet warns the Israelites that their cheating in small ways is leading them toward destruction. They have taken the Lord’s proscriptions, meant to protect the poor and needy, and have manipulated them for their own financial greed. “Never will I forget a thing they have done!” the Lord tells them through Amos. They have proven themselves unworthy in small things, and that has led them to openly defy the Lord on the larger things.

This parable reminds us that choosing the right master is the key to salvation. Choosing poorly locks us into a series of escalating corruptions from which we will find it difficult to extricate ourselves. Even in his crisis, the steward had a choice: he could go out and earn an honest living (or rely on the charity of good people), or he could increase his corruption to maintain himself. Jesus offers us forgiveness for our sins if we truly repent at any time, but the more we serve mammon, the less we are capable of hearing and believing that promise.

We have to choose not just between God and mammon, but between truth and deception. In the end, the latter becomes self-deception, to the point where we convince ourselves that the choice is no longer possible. And that’s the greatest self-deception of all.

The front-page image is a detail from “Jesus Christ and the Rich Young Ruler,” Heinrich Hoffman, 1889. On display at Riverside Church in New York. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“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.