August 28, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news today from Luke 16:9-13.
“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 God and mammon.”
The New American Bible uses the subtitle “Application of the Parable” for these verses. Here are verses 1-8 which was the daily reading for November 4, 2011 when I wrote my reflection.
Then he also 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 he said, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘One hundred kors of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note; write one for eighty.’ And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.
I wrote then, “What in the world is this all about? How can deceit be commended?” I went on to quote something from Barclay that was not much help. Then I wrote, “I’m stumped.” That may be the only time in two years that I couldn’t figure out what Jesus was trying to tell me. I should have gone on to read the next verses and I don’t understand why they weren’t included in the daily reading. That also was at a time that I had not acquired many of the commentaries that I refer to now.
It helps me to keep in mind that Jesus at this moment was teaching his disciples, those to whom he would entrust his mission. The steward whom the master has trusted has mismanaged the master’s assets, the produce of his olive groves and grain fields. Luke Timothy Johnson in The Gospel of Luke points out the Luke used the same term for “squandering” as he did in the parable of the prodigal son to emphasize that the misuse of what has been given into our care precipitated the crisis and requires a decision. How to salvage what has gone awry because of our own misdeeds, our own foolishness, when we are called to account? How often have I asked myself, “What am I going to do now that I’ve screwed things up so badly? How can I save myself?” The steward formulated a plan. He salvaged at least part of what was owed to his master at the same time cultivating a sense of gratitude among the debtors so that they would have compassion for him when he was turned out of his master’s household. The master was pleased that his steward had been enterprising and perhaps for treating the debtors generously. Contrast that with the story of another steward who treated the debtors very badly and in turn was punished by his master.
The children of light are the members of Luke’s community. Johnson writes, “The point of the analogy is made even clearer: the people of ‘this age’ are more clever with respect to their own crises that are the children of light with regard to the crisis facing them, namely the visitation of God’s prophet and its demands for repentance.” The children of the light should be as prudent as the steward. They should disperse their gifts from God to their debtors and so secure a place for themselves in God’s kingdom — laying up treasure in heaven as Luke wrote earlier. Or as Barclay suggests, “That means that, if only the Christian was as eager and ingenious in is attempt to attain goodness as the man of the world is in his attempts to attain money and comfort, he would be a much better man. If only men would give as much attention to the things which concern their souls as they do the things which concern their business, they would be much better men. In verse 9 the lesson is that material possessions should be used to cement the friendships wherein the real and permanent value of life lies….Possessions are not in themselves a sin, but they are a great responsibility, and the man who uses them to help his friends has gone far to discharge that responsibility.”
The sayings that follow are explained by Johnson, “Each of the sayings has a contrast between something lesser and greater….[T]he lesser refers to possessions, the greater to the disposition of the self before God….[R]eliability or wickedness in their use indicates reliability or wickedness in the response to God….The sayings are obscure and even paradoxical….What does emerge is that the disposition of possessions, while in some fashion exterior to the self, less important than the self, and perhaps even to some degree unworthy of the self, is nevertheless regarded by Luke as of critical importance for expressing the disposition of the self. The final saying shows the profound seriousness with which Luke regards this symbolic use of possessions. ‘Mammon’ in 16:13 is personified as an idol, the service of whom is the rejection of God. If giving away possessions in almsgiving secure a place with God, the worship of possessions and a clinging to them as ultimate means separation from God.”
Barclay paraphrases Jesus, “He says, ‘Upon earth you are in charge of things which are not really yours. You cannot take them with you when you die. They are only lent to you. You are only a steward over them. They cannot, in the nature of things, be permanently yours. On the other hand, in heaven you will get what is really and eternally yours. And what you get in heaven depends on how you use the things of earth. What you will be given as your very own will depend on how you use the things of which you are only steward.'”
Barclay reminds me, “God is the most exclusive of masters. We either belong to him totally or not at all.” That is certainly made loud and clear all through the Hebrew Testament. Marcus Borg in Jesus adds, “‘Mammon’ does mean wealth, but more broadly refers to the material basis of life. Thus it refers not only to the wealthy, but to all for whom wealth is a central concern. Jesus saw mammon, wealth, as a slavemaster that prevents centering in God.” Lastly, John Shea in The Relentless Widow sums it up this way, “We must be careful not to let money become a rival with God. aIt has a relative power to provide security, but it seductively parades as an ultimate safety. Its real purpose is the facilitate community. How to use it correctly is a test case for spiritual development. This development is not a path of opposing the spiritual (greater) to the material (lesser). Rather, it is how greater and lesser are integrated with one another. In order to get this integration right, it is necessary to adopt a hierarchical ranking where God is supreme. The first and capstone commandment is the key. ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.'”
I hope you’ve had patience with me. There’s a lot to puzzle over and think about in these words of Jesus, but I think I get it now with the help of a lot of others more schooled than me.