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This Sunday’s Gospel (the 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C) is hard to understand — the parable of the dishonest servant. It tells the story of a man who works as a steward, a kind of chief financial officer, for a rich man.
The steward has squandered the rich man’s property. He is put on notice that he will lose his job over his sins. His last task is to do a final audit showing where the books stand on his way out. Instead of simply doing the audit, the steward uses his last vestiges of power to settle accounts in such a way that he will have friends to fall back on once he is jobless.
There are a few things to keep in mind when judging this story.
First of all, Jesus is telling the story to a particular audience, the Pharisees. The very next line of the Gospel after today’s reading says: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all of this and laughed.” So the story is directed at the Pharisees.
Second, the story is a tall tale and is meant, it would seem, in humor. 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 rich man’s holdings. The story even has a tall tale’s twist: The dishonest steward is praised for his dishonesty.
So what is Jesus saying by sharing this story?
On one level, he is telling the Pharisees that the spiritual resources they hold are enormous, and though they guard them zealously, they are going to be shared with all at a “discount.” We will no longer have to follow the Pharisees’ hard way: Jesus is going to cut deals with us — and allow us to find salvation at a cut rate. Thus the Catechism calls baptism “a shortcut to salvation.”
But what is he telling each of us? There are many lessons here. To name a few:
We, too, are stewards. Everything is the Lord’s, not ours. And what we have access to we should share. That means giving material resources to the poor. It also means giving spiritual resources to all.
But also, when we look at our own salvation, we shouldn’t take it for granted or expect it to come easily. We should imitate the resourcefulness of the steward and use all of our cunning to seek spiritual riches — pray for them, find them and win them. If we worked hard to understand and appreciate God more, our lives would be different.
Last, there is a direct lesson here about money. Notice that the steward, in the end, had the right attitude toward money. He didn’t steal it. He didn’t try to hold onto his lucrative job. He didn’t see money as the purpose of his life. He saw it as a means to give and get charity.
We also need to treat money as a means and not an end. It is our servant; we are not its. “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.”
So enjoy this tall tale of Jesus. Like other tall tales, it focuses on a likeable rogue and is meant to capture our attention with exaggeration. But unlike other tall tales, its message is one we can take to heart, because when you are dealing with God in the flesh, exaggerations suddenly don’t seem so unreal.
The Gregorian Institute is Benedictine College’s initiative to promote Catholic identity in public life by equipping leaders (the Gregorian speech digest), training leaders (the Gregorian Fellows), defending the faith (the Memorare Army for Religious Freedom), and celebrating Catholic identity (the Catholic Hall of Fame).