9/22/2013, A Curious Tale Indeed

Amos 8:4-7, I Timothy 2:1-8, Luke 16:1-13

In the Gospel readings for the weeks of September, perhaps you have noticed how Jesus seems to be always in one way or another addressing the Pharisees that hang on the edges of the crowds as he teaches his disciples.  Let me review the pattern that I’ve noticed.

On Sept. 1, we found Jesus dining in the home of one of the leading Pharisees.  While there, he noticed the scramble for the seats of honor.  So he told the parable about the wisdom of taking the lower place at a wedding feast, teaching the lesson that humility is the essence of godly character.  On Sept. 8, with several brief examples of what it means to count the cost of certain projects, Jesus taught the crowds following him that it is necessary to renounce everything in order to be a true disciple.  Last week, Sept. 15, Jesus offered 3 parables to the Pharisees who question his habit of eating with sinners.  The parables point out the difference between their system of social values and what is really important in the Kingdom of God.

This week Jesus continues his teaching about values with a disturbing parable about a dishonest employee of a wealthy man.  When the rich employer discovers that the one he had trusted to manage his money has actually been squandering it, he lets him know that he is about to lose his job.   The manager will now carry the public reputation of dishonesty. He knows that he will not be hired by anyone else. So he decides to set himself up to be in the good graces of the debtors whose accounts he had managed.  He goes to those debtors and changes the amount of their debt to be less than it really is, thereby establishing the hope that these debtors will be grateful and assist him in some way when he is out of a job.  The wealthy employer, even though he has been further robbed by this steward, commends him for his shrewd way of providing for his future. 

Most of Jesus’ parables offer a pretty clear lesson about something people should do in order to be pleasing in God’s eyes.  So this month we have learned that we should be humble.  We should let go of everything that keep us from following Jesus.  We should value all people in terms of their potential for relationship with God.  But what lesson can Jesus be teaching by commending a conniving, dishonest employee? 

None of the parables of Jesus is as baffling to interpret as this story of the dishonest steward.   But it helps to look at the entire context of chapter 16.  By doing this we can see that the intention of the Gospel writer is to address the issue of wealth and power.   At the end of today’s story in verse 13, the disciples are warned that they cannot "serve God and wealth".  The very next verse, however, says this: The Pharisees, who were greedy, heard all this and began to deride Jesus. He said to them, “You justify yourselves in the eyes of mortals, but God reads your hearts. What people think is important, God holds in contempt.”   Then the chapter continues with the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (vv. 19-31), next week’s gospel reading.  In it, a rich man who had ignored the poor in his lifetime finds no compassion available for his state of torment in the afterlife. Clearly this chapter is concerned with how people who have position manage both money and power.

We are Lumen Christi Catholics.  Our call is to be the light of Christ in a universal way.  We are people who want to be faithful to the call of Christ to live Kingdom of God values in this 21st century. What can we learn from this series of Jesus’ teachings about how to be those Kingdom of God citizens? Humility and renunciation and love for the marginalized is pretty clearly on the list of requirements.  Remember: “Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly.”

But it seems that besides teaching his disciples about how to walk as citizens in the Kingdom of God, Jesus was also constantly challenging the Pharisees, the religious leaders of his day.  They linger on the fringes of all the crowds that Jesus addresses.  We see the Pharisees here again today in verses 14 and 15.  With this curiously negative parable is it possible that Jesus wants to point out to the Pharisees that the rich employer represent the world’s system and the dishonest steward represents them?  As leaders of the chosen people, they were keepers of the treasures of God, but they had lost their vision of who God had called them to be.  In the midst of a society controlled by Roman military dominance, they had traded their call to be God's people to become servants of present day security systems. Controlled by the potential to share Roman wealth and the power of their own positions they were reluctant to change the status quo.

Paraphrasing  verse 13, Jesus says, "You can either serve this present age and love its treasures, or you can love God and serve him in this present age. But you cannot do both. One leads to death. The other leads to life."

Lumen Christi, we are invited to consider as one of our Christian citizenship tasks the need to challenge our religious leaders and the institution of wealth and power that holds them captive. We must challenge them to consider how they have sold out on their call to be good stewards of all the resources of the universe.  Yes, we must try to personally follow Jesus’ example of  humility, simplicity of lifestyle and compassionate service to those who are unjustly treated.  We must also live renewal into the Church’s corporate call to manage its wealth and power in service to the Kingdom of God rather than promotion of self-interest.

There is good reason to hope that the faithfulness we are trying to live has new support at the levels of power.  In his recent interview, Pope Francis said, “We should be thinking this church is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.” Adding later, “Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.”

Audacity and courage:  That’s the Jesus way that the Gospel of Luke keeps bringing to our attention.  May audacity and courage become our way of being Lumen Christi.  Amen and amen!

by Sandi DeMaster