September 18, 2022

Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time September 18, 2022


Today’s gospel is a parable which occurs only in St. Luke’s Gospel. At first reading, the parable seems clear and straightforward, but it’s not. It raises all sorts of questions, and at least three major problems.

The first problem is trying to decide where the parable ends, and where the moral lessons begin. The rich man in the parable has been identified as “master” or “Lord,” and Luke elsewhere identifies Jesus himself as “Master” and “Lord.” In the parable, the master commends the dishonest steward for acting prudently. The question is whether this verse is the end of the parable as Jesus told it, or is it the beginning of Luke’s interpretation of the parable? If it is Jesus who approves of the man’s cleverness, then it would seem that Jesus is also approving his immoral behavior.

That leads to the second problem. What exactly did the steward do wrong? Unfortunately, the story is not clear about how the steward mismanaged or squandered his master’s possessions. What is clear is that he got caught out. And so, to make things right, he called in the various people who owed his master money, and asked them to rewrite their contracts for a lesser amount than originally. There are two possibilities here. The first is that the steward continued to squander his master’s goods by writing down the principal amount the debtors owed, thereby cheating his master out of his possessions. The second possibility is that the steward simply forgave the debtors the interest that would legally have been his, while not reducing the principal amount. In either case, the debtors would have been grateful to him.

The third problem is the relationship of the last four verses of the gospel to the parable. These were in all likelihood originally separate sayings of Jesus which Luke has gathered together at this point of the gospel. Do they amount to a loosely joined set of observations, or are they meant to make one or more points about the parable?

Perhaps the best way to decide what the parable is about is to look at it in the context of the gospel as a whole. Last Sunday we heard the parable of the prodigal son, and his waste of material goods. Next Sunday, we will hear the parable about the rich man and Lazarus. So it seems clear that in context, today’s parable, like the other two, is about the proper use of possessions. Looking again at the parable, we already know that the steward has squandered his master’s possessions in some way. The steward’s trouble begins when his master discovers his dishonest ways, and he is called to account. He knows he is going to get fired, not necessarily as a punishment, but simply because his master can’t afford to have him around. This, then, is the crisis. What is he to do? He is not capable of physical labor, and he is too ashamed to beg. It is his ability to respond to the crisis – literally, a visitation of his lord – which is the point of the story, the reason for his master’s admiration of his cleverness, and the example Jesus is setting for his disciples.

One of the lessons of the parable, then, is that the disciples of Jesus (and that includes all of us) should be just as clever as the steward was in our use of possessions. Just as he used possessions to secure a place for himself, so should we. How do we do that?

In today’s first reading, we hear the prophet Amos preaching against the financial practices of the well-to-do in the northern kingdom of Israel, roughly 750 years before Christ. Nothing is more important to these people than the almighty shekel. To make more money, they cheat the people who can least afford it. They engage in every sort of shady business practice. They even put money before God; they can’t wait for the Sabbath to be over, so that they can go back to making even more money. But God has not been blind to all this. God says at the end of the reading, “Never will I forget a thing they have done.” This is decidedly not the prudent way to use possessions, and yet Amos could walk into almost any city in the United States tomorrow, and preach the same sermon.

What is the prudent way, then, to use possessions? One simple way is to give to the poor what we don’t need. The current minimum wage set by the federal government is $7.25 an hour. If a person works 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, he will make a whopping total of just a little over $15,000 a year – before taxes. This year the poverty threshold for a family of four is $27,750. You can do the math: a person working full-time at a minimum-wage job will not make enough to keep his family above the poverty line. Now consider all those who make a quarter of a million, or half a million, or even a million dollars a year. There was even an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal about a young man who recently sold his company for $20 billion. Does that seem equitable? Probably most of us here this morning don’t make millions of dollars a year, but probably not many of us are below the poverty line, either. So what do we do with the money or other possessions that we just flat don’t need? The parable today tells us that the prudent, clever, thing to do is to give them away, so that we can secure a place with God. As the gospel points out, we can serve God, or we can serve possessions. If we choose to serve pos¬ses¬sions, we shouldn’t be too surprised to find out, too late, that those possessions won’t do us one bit of good in hell.

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