Homily: The Clever Steward

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The Twenty-fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
Amos 8:4-7
Psalm 113:1-2, 4-6, 7-8
1 Timothy 2:1-8
Luke 16:1-13

There are a million stories, in fiction and reality, of people coming up with clever schemes to get rich, or to guard their possessions, or to provide for themselves when the stuff hits the fan.

Our Gospel reading today is our third weekend in a row that Jesus gives us a difficult parable. This time, not just difficult to apply, but even difficult to understand. The great scripture scholars of past and present have struggled with the parable in today’s Gospel. Often in the parables of Jesus, God is symbolized by the Father, or by the Master. And here, the Master commends, (compliments) his dishonest steward for his clever scheme. Are we supposed to steal and cheat, like worldly people? Is that what Jesus is teaching us in this reading?

Well…No. But if not, then what’s the lesson God has given us today? It is actually pretty clever. And we can put it together when we consider the other readings. The lesson is, God takes particular care of the poor, and we must take particular care of the poor, on God’s behalf. Christ is the head, and if we are members of the body, we have to commit to what the head instructs us to do.

Let’s put off the gospel for a moment. First, we’ll look at the first reading. “Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land! ‘When will the new moon be over,’ you ask, ‘that we may sell our grain, and the sabbath, that we may display the wheat? We will diminish the ephah, add to the shekel, and fix our scales for cheating…” And the ending is very important: “The LORD has sworn…: Never will I forget a thing they have done!” Amos was the earliest of the biblical prophets to write his own message. At the time, the northern kingdom was enjoying great prosperity, but there were sharp contrasts between rich and poor, and many instances of injustice: the spirit of true religious devotion was difficult to find. Amos condemns the social injustice and the insincerity of religious worship.

It’s a good thing those times are past, right? When was the last call you received to renew your car warranty? How many calls were received from people pretending to be from the IRS? How many hackers are there, and new online scams? Oh, those evil people out there, right? When will the new moon be over,’ you ask, ‘that we may sell our grain; and the sabbath, that we may display the wheat?When will the Mass be over, so we can get ahead of the others, out of the parking lot? How many people sit in the church while Mass is going on, but they’re on their phone, or reading the bulletin, or daydreaming of something else, and not really present to the Mass? Or how many should be here and aren’t, because they don’t honor their holy obligation to attend Mass? “The LORD has sworn…: Never will I forget a thing they have done!” First, we have to be his people, then we have to be filled with him in mind and heart, then we have to live that way …especially when it comes to being generous and being holy.

Our Psalm echoes God’s care for the poor… Praise the Lord who lifts up the poor!” “He raises up the lowly from the dust; from the dunghill he lifts up the poor to seat them with princes…” How does he do that? Through us; by our listening to the prophets, by focusing our lives on God and his instructions to care for the poor, by having integrity and not sinning, especially against the poor and vulnerable.

St. Paul says in our second reading, “First of all, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.” We pray for, and we help, not just our own people, but the whole world, from our leaders, to our homeless. We follow God’s will by our prayers for them, and our actions to help them, teach them, encourage them, provide for them. This is what our intercessions (the “Prayers of the Faithful”) are directed toward. We pray for civil leaders to protect the natural rights of religion, and of the faithful, and to seek the common good, which is both the collective good of the many, and the individual good of each person.

So now we’re back to the gospel reading. So the master commends the dishonest steward for his prudence. He’s impressed with the plan the steward carried out to make use of his resources to accomplish his goal. That’s what the master is commending. Not the dishonesty, or the theft. The steward was using the master’s money to pay off his clients, and making friends, who are now in debt to himself. It was all done with the master’s money. And that’s the key to the parable.

The gospel isn’t telling us to become friends of dishonest wealth. It says to use dishonest wealth to make friends. And dishonest wealth, or untrue wealth, is the resources of this world, stuff that isn’t eternal and really important, in order to serve the higher, eternal purposes.

There is an interesting concept in our tradition, that goes back to our Jewish roots, that the poor that we serve with love and generosity are our heavenly treasure. And they in turn will intercede for us at our judgment. We don’t do this with an attitude of exploiting the poor with selfish intent, to buy our salvation. It is out of love for them. And they then, in love and gratitude, help us.

Now connect that with the idea of stewardship, rather than ownership. We don’t own our money or possessions. They all belong to God. It’s all his wealth, and we are merely entrusted with using it for God’s purposes. The material things, the wealth of this world, which are technically from God, are what is being called “dishonest wealth,” wealth that is not the true wealth of heaven. And the moral of the parable is to spread that everywhere. One might say, to be prodigal with it—spending it with wild carelessness—on the poor—on those who most need help. And thus the dishonest wealth at our disposal is converted from dishonest wealth (wealth that doesn’t last), into true wealth. And thus we benefit by then having our friends who can help us later, when we’re at judgment, and the poor we have helped say to the master, “this is a good person, my friend, who was generous and loving toward me when I was poor and needed help. And now I intercede on their behalf, when they need help.” That’s what our stewardship of the master’s wealth is for. To use our master’s temporal wealth as he would—with generosity. So by our trustworthiness in the small matters of temporal wealth, which is God’s, we show ourselves to be trustworthy with the true wealth, which is our salvation.

The things of this world, dishonest wealth, are meant to be tools, instruments for us. The same is true of our time: we can use it on things that don’t matter as much (hobbies, extra money, sports), over the things that truly matter, like our life in God. The Mass is how God continually purifies us to be his people. We also have daily mass, for those who are able to do so (and if you are able, you are encouraged to do so!) But without the Mass, we allow the sins and errors of this world to attack our minds and hearts unchallenged. They grow in us like an infection. Mass is the life-saving antivirus to the sinful influence of the world. You cannot be the servant of both God and the world. Only one gives eternal life.

And so Paul ends our second reading, “It is my wish, then, that in every place people should pray, lifting up holy hands…

Let us put first things first: the worship of God, and the care of our neighbor, especially those in need. That we might not have hands that are made unholy by sin, greed, and disorder; but hands that are employed in holy works of mercy, that we may be good stewards of all that is entrusted to our care, as God’s holy people.

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