Generous Stewards — 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time—Year C

Of all of Jesus’ parables, today’s is among the most peculiar: “Hey disciples, listen to my story about a dishonest steward who successfully swindles his boss. You can learn from him!” Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus says, “You shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud… Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.” So what lesson does Jesus want us to learn from this antihero?

Well, we have a lot in common with that fellow. We are in a similar situation. Our Creator God, the sustainer of the universe, is like the rich man, to whom by right belongs everything in the heavens and the earth. We are his stewards, the managers of his possessions, who each must present an account of our stewardship once our positions here on earth are taken away from us. Knowing this day of reckoning approaches, what shall we do? We have often squandered what has been entrusted to us. We are too weak to dig ourselves from the grave of death. And we are too proud, for if we lived fully in the truth, about who God is and who we are, we would not sin. Jesus urges us to follow the dishonest steward’s example, to be very generous, so that after this life, when we are removed from our present stewardship, we may live happily together with friends forever.

The dishonest steward calls in his master’s debtors individually. To the first he says, “How much do you owe my master?” That man replies, “100 measures (that is, 800 or 900 gallons) of olive oil.” He says to him, “Here’s your bill. Sit down and quickly write one for 50 (measures.)” Then the steward says to another, “And you, how much do you owe?” He replies, “100 kors (that is, 10 or 12 hundred bushels) of wheat.” The steward says to him, “Here’s your debt note; write one for 80 (kors.)”

Elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel, the forgiving of sins is likened to the forgiving of debts. Every sin creates a debt because it is depriving another of what is rightfully owed to them. Stealing deprives others of property, lying deprives them of the truth, and rudeness deprives them of the respect and kindness they deserve. Sin forms a debt, first and foremost with God, but also towards the people we trespass against. Luke’s version of the Our Father says, “Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us.”

Some have suggested that the steward in today’s parable was simply forgiving the portion of his master’s accounts which was his own rightful commission as steward. If we are prudent, we will quickly take the present opportunity to forgive our debtors the share of debts they owe us by forgiving the sins they have sinned against us. For we have it on Jesus’ word, “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.” Forgiveness means loving those who have wronged you, it means, at the very least, praying for them. The person you have a hard time praying for is who you need to pray for.

This lesson about forgiveness is true, but I am not convinced that the steward here was an upright servant merely forgoing his fair share. His urging that the debtors “quickly” write new invoices suggests that he and they are doing something that they don’t want to be discovered. Jesus himself called him dishonest, and the varied commissions of 50% off of the olive oil while getting a 20% commission from the wheat are strange. More likely, this steward is covering the tracks of his embezzlement. If the steward had given every debtor the same write-off, say, a 50% markdown for everyone, the master could have easily undone the scheme by doubling all the figures back. But because of these varying percentages (20% here, 50% there) the deed cannot be reversed, and even the master cannot help but to admire the steward’s cunning craftiness.

Forgiveness is always timely, but this parable is really about being generous with the material possessions God has entrusted to your care. Jesus ends today’s gospel declaring, “You cannot serve both God and mammon.” That is to say, you cannot love God and riches. Like a servant with two masters, or an employee with two bosses, you will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. A person who is trustworthy in small things will be trustworthy in great ones; and a person who is dishonest in small things will be dishonest in great ones. If we are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, with these passing things on earth, how can we be entrusted with the true wealth of Heaven where everyone loves their neighbor as themselves?

When I consider that we’re arguably living in the all-time wealthiest country in the world, living in the greatest technological comfort of any stage of human history, I wonder if I am being generous enough with the possessions given to me. This question concerns me. I think about these powerful words of St. Basil the Great, from a 4th century homily he preached:

When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor. Thus, the more there are whom you could help, the more there are whom you are wronging.” St. Basil delivers this gut punch to his hearers who always say, “I have nothing to give. I am only a poor man”: “A poor man you certainly are, and destitute of all real riches; you are poor in love, generosity, faith in God and hope for eternal happiness. Give to a hungry man,” St. Basil urges, “and what you give becomes yours, and indeed it returns to you with interest. As the sower profits from wheat that falls onto the ground, so will you profit greatly in the world to come from the bread that you place before a hungry man.” St. Basil notes, “You are going to leave your money behind you here whether you wish to or not. On the other hand, you will take with you to the Lord the honor that you have won through good works. In the presence of the universal judge, all the people will surround you, acclaim you as a public benefactor, and tell of your generosity and kindness.”

This Sunday is our parish Fall Festival. I invite you to come, to enjoy it, and to generously support it. I am not ashamed to ask you to give generously to our parish because I believe in the great importance and the great goodness of what we do here. But supporting the work of Christ in our parish is not the end of our calling to generous stewardship in this wide world of needs, both spiritual and material. Give like a saint so that someday you may hear the Lord declare to you, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come share your master’s joy.”

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