Sept. 19, 2010 —Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Summary. Jesus tells a parable about a man who mismanages his employer’s property and who alters the books so he’ll be supported after his firing. Jesus points out that worldly people are more successful at dishonest dealings than those whose lives are centered on spiritual concerns. He then goes on to point out that people’s characters are revealed in the way they handle small matters as well as great matters, which leads him to his most important point in this Gospel: No one can have two “masters,” topics of ultimate concern. You have to choose whether God, or yourself, symbolized by your wealth, is going to be the center of your life.
The parable of the Dishonest Steward as found in Luke 16 is a real shocker! How can Jesus be telling a story that praises dishonesty? After all, the dishonest steward seems to land on both feet, even though he had been squandering the master’s property, the very property he was responsible for.
Although that’s what we pick up from a quick reading, that’s not the real lesson. This parable really works only when we spend some time to read through it a second time to see what Jesus really said.
Let’s begin by asking ourselves a question: Is stating a fact the same as recommending a course of action? No. And Jesus states some facts about human behavior in this Gospel passage, some of which are commendable and some of which are not.
The key is that the master of the property commends the dishonest steward, not because he has been a good steward, for he has not been, but because the master recognizes he’s been slick enough to ensure his own survival even though he’s been fired. The dishonest steward acted prudently for his own welfare, not for the welfare of his former employer.
And then Jesus makes a general statement, “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” In other words, those who are focused on getting ahead without regard to the means they use are going to be more successful with dishonest business practices than those who, being trustworthy themselves, trust everyone to act with equal honesty.
Jesus then goes on to make additional general statements about human nature and behavior. First, “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.” Your basic character is consistent. The person who thinks dishonesty in small things is okay because “I’m honest with large sums of money, or about always telling the truth about important issues” is lying to himself. When the opportunity is there and the desire or need is great enough, he’ll be dishonest in a big matter if he has a dishonest character.
Jesus’ second general statement deals with spiritual wealth, something most of us seldom even think of. “If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth?” In other words, what we do with this world’s goods affects our state in eternal life. Why would God entrust “true wealth” (heavenly joys) to us if we’ve misused the goods he’s entrusted to us in this life by cheating others and stealing from them? We cannot separate this life and eternal life. We are the same person in both, and what we do here forms our character, making it fit or unfit for heaven.
The last general principle, and the most important, comes at the end. “No servant can serve two masters…. You cannot serve both God and mammon.” While we humans can have loyalty to a number of things in some degree, we cannot have ultimate loyalty to more than one. If serving God is our goal, we cannot serve mammon with equal devotion. And what is mammon? It comes from an Aramaic word meaning “riches” or “wealth.”
Does that mean all wealth, all earthly riches, are wrong? Not at all. Properly used, this world’s goods can be an actual means of grace to glorify God and serve others. But serving wealth, making it the center and purpose of one’s life, is incompatible with serving God, according to the teaching of Jesus.
What place does serving God hold in your life? What place in your life is held by the service of mammon?