Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Prudent Steward

An earlier translation of today’s Gospel [Luke 16:1-13], that my generation grew up with, had the about-to-be unemployed steward say to himself: To dig I am not able; to beg I am ashamed. The fact that I can recite that line and that some of you at least can also remember it says something about the difference between a memorable line and a forgettable one.

Well, we’re not here today to talk about the merits of comparative translations! Whatever words we put into the steward’s mouth when we translate him into English, his plight remains the same; and in this time of recession we may be even more sympathetic to his situation then we might otherwise be. We do not know exactly how the steward mismanaged his employer’s property, or even whether the accusation was true. Either way, the steward knows he’s going to lose his job. Rather than wasting energy trying to defend himself in a probably pointless effort to save his job, the steward looks ahead to the future. Building on the business relationship he already has with his master’s debtors, he cleverly ingratiates himself with them, networking with them for their short-term interest, in effect putting them in his debt, thus hopefully furthering his own long-term interest. And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.

Presumably, his master still intended to fire him. So whatever he had done to lose his job in the first place was not being commended. Even so, the master recognized his steward’s cleverness in crisis and praised him for that. Maybe, he was wishing the steward had shown as much initiative and ingenuity in managing his employer’s affairs as showed in providing for himself!

Jesus too holds the steward up as a model – not necessarily for his failures as a manager, in other words, for whatever got him fired in the first place, but for his initiative and ingenuity in providing for his future. Jesus wants us to appreciate just how important it is to have proper priorities and a plan of action to get there. If we are serious about the kingdom of God, then we have to be as focused on getting there as the steward was on his future survival; and, like him, we too have to learn and employ the necessary means available to us.

The actual details of the parable are somewhat unclear. It is just a parable, after all. It is possible, for example, that what the steward was actually doing in reducing his master’s debtors’ obligations was simply foregoing his own share – his commission. If that is the case, then the lesson is even more pointed. To get where we want to go, we have to ready and willing sometimes to sacrifice short-term benefit for long-term fulfillment. If that is true even in worldly matters then how much more true must it be when it comes to the kingdom of God?

In the process, Jesus is also reminding us how part of getting from here to there, essential to the process of attaining the kingdom that is supposed to be our ultimate priority is making best use of the opportunities presented to us in the here and now. We are already citizens of God’s kingdom, and the new reality of God’s kingdom has already begun to take shape in our world in our life together as his Church. But it is precisely in our world that this is happening. And it is precisely this world in which we are now living that makes certain serious claims upon us.

An example of what this means is found in St. Paul’s instructions to Timothy in today’s 2nd reading [1 Timothy 2:1-8]: 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.

At a crucial juncture in the Church’s 1st century, Saint Paul highlighted the connection between what we would nowadays call the secular with the spiritual – forever forcing us to do the same. Of course, the experience of life itself forces us to do the same. In the words of one famous early Christian writer from Roman North Africa: When the Empire is shaken, all of its parts are shaken also, hence even though we stand outside its tumults, we are caught in its misfortunes [Tertullian, Apology, 31] . Not much has changed since then, has it? He too promoted prayer for Emperors, their ministers, for the condition of the world, for peace everywhere, and for the delaying of the end [39]. And so too must we! If a fully human life requires taking seriously the world we live in, then even our prayer and worship must actually acknowledge this.

Throughout Christian history, there have been repeated examples of individuals, movements, and sects, which have undervalued and tried to avoid the complexities of economic life, social institutions, and political obligations.

Yet, even if my involvement in earthly life – in my family, my work, my country – even if all that is ultimately temporary and transitory, still that remains where I am right now, where I am living, growing, developing, for better or for worse, into the particular person I will remain for all eternity.

In the Old Testament, when God allowed his Chosen People to be driven into exile in a foreign land, he gave them this parting advice through his prophet Jeremiah: Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses to dwell in; plant gardens, and eat their fruits. … Promote the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you; pray for it to the Lord, for upon its welfare depends your own [29:4-7].

What Jeremiah calls the welfare of the city – prosperity, peace, personal and collective security, and some relative degree of justice – such are the purposes of economic activity, social relationships, and political obligations. We cannot accomplish any of those purposes by being just passive spectators in the story of life, living as if life were like a short ferry boat ride, and not even noticing or caring how the boat is being steered and whether or not all the passengers are adequately equipped with life jackets. On the contrary, economic activity, social relationships, and political community are serious business that make serious demands upon us both short-term and long-term.

In today’s threatening and dangerous world, we are, if anything being challenged even more, to take seriously the world in which we live and what makes it work, stepping beyond our purely private space in order to be accountable for and to one another. Then, and only then, may we hope to lead what Saint Paul calls a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity.

Homily at Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, September 19, 2010

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