This Sunday, Use Money Well; Use Grace Better
Great teachers make difficult things simple so that you can understand them right away. But the greatest teachers also give you lessons that you have to sit with and ponder, because the lessons you personally discover sink even more deeply into your soul.
Jesus, the master teacher, does both. In last Sunday’s Gospel, he told us complicated lessons in a simple way in the Parables of the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin and Prodigal Son. But now we get a lesson we have to ponder — the Parable of the Shrewd Steward — for the 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.
You know it is hard to grasp because Jesus has to explain what it means, and he draws several lessons from it, especially a lesson about money and a lesson about our task as disciples.
To grasp what the parable means, let’s start by retelling it in modern terms.
Jesus tells a story about a “steward” who works for a rich master who is engaged in lending money in an agricultural society where his clients pay him in wheat and olive oil. Like ours, that economy was rife with corruption, as the First Reading makes clear, with merchants ready to mess with their measurements and manipulate their scales.
Today you could compare the master to the truly wicked “payday loans” operations that prey on people desperate for money by demanding outrageous interest rates, and you could retell the story this way:
A “payday loans” owner heard that the manager of one of his locations was wasting his money. He exploded in rage during a Zoom meeting: “You’re fired! I’m coming next week to get your final accounts, then you’re out!”
The manager knew he would have a hard time getting another job in town, after cheating so many people and then getting fired for cause. But he simultaneously realized that he was already in maximum trouble and had nothing to lose. So he called his clients in one by one. One worker was paying $75 twice a month to cover just the interest on a $500 loan. He said, “Here. Sign a new agreement that puts your payments toward principal.” He brought in another who had just started paying down a similar loan, and cut her interest in half.
Now, he had a good reputation in town and friends he could rely on. When the owner came in to fire him, he had to admit the manager was smart to handle the situation that way.
Does that make more sense? It does for me.
And once you understand the story, the lesson about money becomes clear.
This manager treated money like it should be treated. Money is supposed to be a means to an end. What end? The good of a community.
His “master,” the boss at the payday loans, treated money in the wrong way. He used the community as a means to the get money for himself.
The manager, in the end, acted morally. He didn’t steal money; if anything, he stopped stealing money. He didn’t try to hold on to his lucrative job. He didn’t see money as the purpose of his life. He saw it as a means to giving and receiving charity.
By canceling out the predatory interest rates, he took a sledgehammer to the idol mammon, or money. He made money his servant, rather than serving it. Better, he forced mammon to serve the common good, which includes his good, but which is ultimately God’s.
Thus, Jesus draws this lesson: “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 both God and mammon.”
But don’t miss the even more important spiritual lesson of the parable.
My retelling of the parable above differs in one major way from Jesus’s. I used an actual story of a “payday loans” company I heard from a lawyer who is fighting these companies. But Jesus told an exaggerated “tall tale.” The amounts of goods in the story are enormous: 900 gallons of olive oil and 100 acres of wheat. These are untold riches, not a typical debt of the time.
This tall tale about money is the last of a number of tall tales about money in Luke, each of which is exaggerated to teach a spiritual lesson.
Remember, Jesus asked who wouldn’t leave 99 sheep alone in order to go after one who is lost. The answer is: Who would? No one would abandon 99% of their wealth to likely ruin in a nearly impossible attempt to recover 1%. Then he asked: What woman wouldn’t spend a day looking for a drachma — a single day’s wage — and then invite her neighbors to celebrate with her? Again, the answer is: no one. The search and celebration would cost more than the money she found! Last, he says, who wouldn’t celebrate a son who disowned the family, took property that didn’t yet rightfully belong to him, and then wasted it in the worst way imaginable? Again: No one would do that.
No one but God. The spiritual lesson in each is that souls are worth far more to God than money is to us. Each soul is worth a herculean effort of mercy to welcome them back into God’s good graces.
Now apply that analogy to the parable of the Shrewd Steward.
Suddenly, the steward in the parable is not a keeper of economic goods, but of spiritual goods.
All of our spiritual goods are actually God’s, and we’re all guilty of squandering them. He gave us time to pray: We spent it on entertainment and idleness. He gave us words of faith to share: We kept them to ourselves. He made us capable of serving others: We found ways to make others serve us instead.
And now we have heard the news from the Gospel that God is coming back and we will be “fired.” He told us the very words he plans to say:
“Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me. … Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.”
Yikes. We are in way more trouble than the steward in the parable. If we are as shrewd as he is, we will scramble to do what we can before it’s too late.
We are “the children of light” and if we want to be “welcomed into eternal dwellings” we had better show ourselves “trustworthy in very small matters” so that we will be trusted “with true wealth.”
After all, look what Jesus himself did for us.
St. Paul in the Second Reading calls Jesus the “one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as ransom for all.”
Jesus is a lender who didn’t just write off our debts; he died paying them for us.
Now, he “wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth,” says St. Paul.
That’s on us. We are God’s stewards and he has entrusted us with his greatest possession: his Son’s life and saving message.
Let’s not let him down.