The Gospel text today is rather puzzling. It is about the dishonest steward who when he faced dismissal marked down the debts owed to his master by various of his debtors. He did this in order that once he was made redundant these men would be obligated to help him. When the master finds out about his actions, he unexpectedly praises the steward for his dishonesty.
By telling this parable me might be left with the idea that Jesus too is condoning the actions of this dishonest steward. But we know that this cannot be; Jesus would never approve of dishonesty or double-dealing. Actually, when we take a closer look at the text, we see that Jesus draws a conclusion from the story. He says, ‘The children of this world are more astute in dealing with their own kind than are the children of light.’ By this we understand that Jesus is contrasting the actions of the children of this world, namely the pagans, with those of the children of light, who are obviously the Christians.
Jesus does not want us to be like the pagans but he wants us to be just as astute as they are; but in our case to be astute in relation to those things which will ensure that we reach heaven. As we have so often noted, Jesus wants us to acquire the virtues because it is our practice of the virtues that will enable us to gain entry into his Kingdom. So, what we need to do is to put as much energy into acquiring these virtues as the pagans put in to aggrandising themselves and gaining worldly advantage.
St Luke follows up this parable with a few sayings of Jesus which he thinks fit in with the theme of this chapter of his Gospel which is the relationship between the Christian and the material world. The first of these sayings is this: ‘Use money, tainted as it is, to win you friends, and thus make sure that when it fails you, they will welcome you into the tents of eternity.’ Here it is clear Jesus is speaking about the poor. He is telling us to use our money not to find worldly advantage but rather spiritual advantage. We know that one of the essential tenets of the Gospel is that the poor have a privileged place in his Kingdom; so, therefore, using our money to help them will have the effect of enabling us to enter the Kingdom more easily.
Every Christian should be sensitive to the needs of the poor. Of course, it is very difficult to know who the real poor are. I remember talking to a fellow who was selling the magazine for the homeless called the ‘Big Issue’, I asked him about his life and it turned out he wasn’t homeless at all and indeed I was astonished when he told me he was saving up to buy himself a boat!
Recently, I was approaching Westminster Cathedral when a couple of young women, who were sprawled on the pavement in Victoria Street drinking rather strong beer, started shouting at me. Because I was a priest, they thought that I ought to be giving them money. They called me a hypocrite when actually just the week before we had taken up a collection here in the Church to raise about £400 for the homeless centre run by the Sisters of Charity just around the corner to where they were sitting. If they were really homeless then they would have been grateful for this. But these people were clearly spongers and probably not poor at all. They were perfectly capable of working but yet would rather beg for money to pay for booze than earn a proper living.
The real poor are hidden; they have their pride and would never beg. Rather they prefer to struggle along doing their best to raise their children and living a poor but honest life. These are the ones we really need to be helping. But it is not easy; we need to establish a relationship with them, we need to become friends so that we can support them and help them out in thoroughly practical ways. This is how we show our commitment to the Christian faith. This is how we put into practice the teaching of Jesus.
Another of these sayings on this topic that St Luke has collected is this: ‘No servant can be the slave of two masters: he will either hate the first and love the second, or treat the first with respect and the second with scorn.’ The two masters are, of course, a self-seeking materialistic form of life or a spiritual and heavenly form of life. In short, paganism or Christianity; the Devil or Jesus. We cannot be beholden to both; we have to choose: materialism or faith, Jesus or the Devil.
A lot of us are tempted to sit on the fence and try to avoid making this choice. We may like to feel religious but we also like to own many material possessions. We say our prayers but we are also in thrall to fashion or to materialism, we want the latest gadget, we find ourselves thinking that acquiring more and more makes us better and better people. We start to measure our worth in terms of money in the bank or in the size of our house. Now there is nothing wrong with success, nothing wrong with living a comfortable life; the problem arises when these things become an end in themselves. The problem arises when we find ourselves ignoring the spiritual aspect of life in favour of these far more worldly concerns.
What Jesus is telling us is that we need to make a decisive choice in life. We need to definitively choose between the world and the spirit. Yes, have material things, seek success in work, live a comfortable life. But be cautious of these things. Understand well that they are not an end in themselves. Realise that the things of the spirit need to be given priority. Make more room for prayer; attend to the needs of the poor; do your best to life an honourable life; put more energy into acquiring the virtues than you put in to increasing your income. This is how to live the Christian life.
As Jesus says, ‘You cannot be the slave of two masters.’ So, choose your master. Make your choice and stick to it. Be astute in those things which will gain you a place in heaven. Pray to God, frequent the sacraments, attend to the poor, love your neighbour. Do these things and you will find favour with God. Do these things and you will ensure your eternal destiny.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket