Year C: Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Parable of the Dishonest Steward

Luke 16:1-13

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.

“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 take-away from this story is: as the dishonest servant knew his physical and social life was threatened and acted decisively and wisely in order to survive, so the disciples should realize their spiritual life (gospel consciousness) is threatened and act decisively and wisely in order to survive. The first observation in carrying out this teaching is that the dishonest manager is wiser in his area of life than the disciples are in their area of life. (John Shea – The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels)

Discussion Questions:

  1. Jesus uses irony about “prudence” in this story to make a point. Why do you think prudence is such an important virtue?
  2. We are often shrewd in the ways of the world, but we are not shrewd in the ways of the spirit. How are you becoming wiser in developing spiritual survival instincts?
  3. Are you as alert and responsive to when your spirit is threatened as you are when your financial or social position is threatened?
  4. Serving God and Mammon: Does money become a rival with God as the ultimate security in your life? How do you order/integrate these?

Biblical Context

Luke 16:1-13
Sr. Mary M. McGlone CSJ

In this odd parable we hear Jesus, the preacher who eats with sinners, applaud the cleverness of a seeming scoundrel. It can’t be by accident that Luke used the same word for the steward’s activity as he did for the younger son who “squandered” the inheritance he got from his ever-loving father. Neither of them did the right thing with the property that had been entrusted to them. On the other hand, neither of them was accused of actual stealing or even of breaking any law. In addition, the steward, not so unlike the wastrel son, got smarter once he was in trouble. They both figured out how to finagle mercy from someone — be it the forgiving father or the forgiven debtors. Both stories leave the one in authority looking like the chump. Like the merciful father, the master didn’t rebuke or imprison the steward but actually commended him for being smart enough to know how to insure his future. It’s enough to infuriate the righteous! And that was one of Jesus’ favorite sports.

Perhaps it helps to understand the cultural setting for the story. A steward could have been a slave or an employee. In either case, someone with such responsibility would have been close to the master and smart enough to be entrusted with serious obligations. The details of the debts he handled indicate that the master was a landowner with immense holdings, probably leased out with a rent plan based on production rather than cash. The steward’s responsibility was to collect the renters’ debts along with a variable commission. While that allowed some flexibility in the terms, this steward went far beyond the normal bounds in rewriting the contracts.

What did Jesus’ audience hear in the story? They understood the system and the inequalities it supported. There was a rich man and the folks who supplied his wealth by working his land. Then there was the go-between steward, the only one who knew both sides and whose official position was to represent the owner. But when his fortunes changed, so did his focus. Maintaining loyalty to himself before all else, he figured out that helping the little guy would put him in good stead.

What the modern Western culture misses in this storyline is the new position of the master. He’s lost some of his profits — products that cost him no sweat — but his tenants are celebrating the fact that they have a little left over. Sure, he could collect the original sums, but that would cost more in goodwill than it would gain in wheat and oil. So, with a grin-and-bear-it attitude (keep calm and carry on), he congratulated the servant who had proven far cleverer than anyone anticipated.

As far as the steward was concerned, even as his priority was his belly, it eventually led him toward relationships of reciprocity, which have much more Gospel potential than commercial dealings based on the profit motive. Jesus sums up his lesson saying, “Use filthy lucre to make friends because friendship promises a greater rate of return than money can buy. You cannot serve both God and mammon, but money can be put to good use!” Jesus didn’t say the servant was a model disciple, but he was as much on his way toward being so as the prodigal son who had returned home looking for food and shelter. With such small beginnings, God can do the rest.

Surviving Spiritually

John Shea

On the way out of a meeting in a corporate healthcare setting, a man pulled me aside and asked, half in anger and half in jest, ” Do you have anything I can read? This ‘f……….’ materialism is killing my soul.” Often spiritual teachings on the human person distinguish a true and false self. The false self is the ego with its bottomless appetite for pleasures and adventures of physical and social life. The true self is the soul that is grounded in God and in communion with all of creation. The soul is the true self because it does not suffer the collapse that our physical and social dimensions undergo. When we identify with our souls, we are transformed through death. So, from this perspective, it seems incorrect to say our spirit or soul can be killed, especially that it can be seriously threatened by materialism.

Yet I think most people would understand the outburst, “This f…… materialism is killing my soul. It means that I am so immersed in thinking about the material and social dimensions of life that I can find no time to open my mind to the spiritual. This loss can be quite painful. One of Rachel Remen’s patients, a gifted cancer surgeon, told her, “I can barely make myself get out of bed most mornings. I hear the same complaints day after day, I see the same diseases over and over again. I just don’t care anymore. I need a new life” (Rachel Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings [New York: Riverhead Books, 2000] 116). This is an advanced case of ennui. He is still plodding along, doing work, and sitting up and taking nourishment. But zest for his work has disappeared. He is no longer in conscious contact with his soul.

This surgeon might think that if he changes his circumstances, the new life he needs will be available to him. He might be right, for sometimes changing the outer world can help. If he retires or reduces his surgery schedule or takes three months off, his ennui may recede. But often the old maxim holds true: wherever you go, there you are. He will carry with him his mental conditioning wherever he goes. He has learned a way of life that screens out spirit. The result is he has to keep on going without what spirit provides—pleasure, passion, purpose. Everything goes on according to its own inertia, and this experience is so powerful we give it credit for killing our spirit.

This gospel story and its subsequent reflections think this is where we need help. We are not shrewd at keeping the spirit alive. Our much vaunted ability to spring into action when threatened does not transfer to the spiritual level. A recent New Yorker cartoon showed two men in a dungeon without windows or doors. They are manacled to the wall by their wrists, ankles, and neck. Both have long beards; they have obviously been there awhile. One is leaning over to the other and whispering “Now here’s my plan.” But when we are chained to a life that no longer gives us pleasure, passion, or purpose, we have trouble saying, ‘Now here’s my plan.” We are not skilled in spiritual survival.

There are some hints in this gospel passage that might help. Picture what a life without spirit is like. A sharp evaluation of options is always a good motivator. If we savor the monotony and boredom of living without spirit, it will stimulate us to seek out interest and excitement. The manager’s excruciating contemplation of his inability to beg and dig puts his mind in high gear to find another way. As one person said, “The more I thought about it, the more I became determined not to live an unlived life.” A commitment to live spiritually is the first step to finding a way to live spiritually.

Make friends with people who are not only spiritually surviving but also spiritually thriving. Some people are the right people to hang around. Their Tightness consists in their receptivity to our spirit and their eagerness to share their spirits. A community of spiritually serious people can identify the threats to spirit more quickly and support our individual efforts to ward off those threats. Our friends often see the warning signs before we do. They also often know the remedy before we do. Spiritually surviving often means keeping the right company and heeding what they have to say.

Invest attention in what you enjoy are good at. Although our spirit is imaged as an inner resource, its drive is to move outside and enliven what we are doing. Therefore, we should seek out what we become intensely curious about it. It is not enough to self-indulgently do what we like, for any activity has the potential of deadening spirit. We must take up a “first time” attitude. This is the first time I have ever seen her; the first time I have ever given a talk; the first time I have ever attended a meeting, in this way we will maximize attention, notice new features of our situations, and act in a way that is more aligned way that is aligned with what is happening. When we invest attention, our spirit flows into what we are doing and returns to us with more spirit. Spirit is the reality that when it is given away, there is more of it. Paradoxically, spending spirit is the best way to enhance spirit.

A while back, my doctor sat me down for a serious chat, Jack he said, “think of yourself as a car. What you don’t want to happen is to lose a bumper here and a headlight there as you go along the road of life. What you want to do—sometime in the future—is to pull up to a stop sign and,” he paused, “er . . . disassemble.” I got the idea, but I was not quite sure I could execute.

If a spiritual doctor would volunteer the same advice, it might sound like, “Jack, what you don’t want to do is lose your zest for life rid keep on going as if nothing were missing, making more and more out of the material and social dimensions as if they could do it for you on their own. What you want to do is to learn how to become alert to what threatens spirit and to act effectively to guard spirit from dissipation. And if you do lose spirit, stop and don’t go on until you find it. I get the idea, but I am not quite sure I can execute.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.