In the Gospel reading for Sunday (Luke 16:1-13), Jesus tells a parable about a dishonest steward whose master is about to turn him out to the streets. In order to make sure that he doesn’t become homeless, he approaches several people who owe produce to his master. The steward foregoes what he would have charged extra (to pocket for himself) and rewrites the promissory notes to reflect that the people really owe.
Now here is where we can have difficulty with the parable. Jesus says, “And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.” Does this mean that Jesus is praising dishonesty? If we look at the corresponding footnote in most editions of the New American Bible, we see that the answer is no. The dishonest steward still stole from the master. What is commended is acting prudently.
For me, there are three lessons in our Gospel reading. And I think it is helpful to begin with the last lesson. Jesus says: “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.” We cannot serve both God and material wealth. To make sure that we know Jesus is not promoting dishonesty, the Church has accompanied this Gospel reading with our first reading from the prophet Amos (8:4-7): “Hear this, you who trample on the poor and needy and destroy the poor of the land! … The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Never will I forget a thing they have done!”
Jesus is promoting acting prudently and, I think, ingeniously: “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” Think of how ingenious, and persistent, whether they are honest or dishonest, some people are in trying to get your money, either through paying for something, or through a scam. We are called to be just as ingenious and persistent and “street smart” in spreading the Gospel and helping others in need. And so we see people using technology and social media for good. We see others finding new ways to help people get the necessities of life and helping them get a start in some measure of being able to provide for themselves. That to me is the first lesson: to be just as prudent and ingenious in sharing the Good News as others are in making a lot of money.
The second lesson has to do with a proper perspective with regards to material wealth. Wealth is a means and not an end. Some people do use it as a means for acquiring power and dominance. But we are to use wealth for the sake of helping others and giving a concrete expression of our faith. But if we get caught up in having a lot of money, i.e., “dishonest wealth,” our perspective gets skewed, and we can wind up being “dishonest” with ourselves and lose sight of what’s really important.
I think there are people in history, and perhaps even now, who delude themselves into thinking, “It’s okay to pollute this river. It’s okay to underpay our workers, and disregard safety. It’s okay if our products are unsafe. As long as we make money.” Now, that may be an extreme. But it is also tempting to think, “The system works for me. I’ve got mine. What I do doesn’t really have consequences for anyone else. I got mine.” We’re being dishonest with ourselves.
When Jesus says, “The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones. If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth?” If we don’t have a proper perspective on material wealth, and think only in terms of what we can get, how can we understand the really important things, such as love and sacrifice? How can we understand the mercy and generosity of God? How can we understand the sacredness of creation? How can we understand the Cross?
Money is a tool that if we are prudent, we can use for the sake of the Gospel. May we be honest stewards with all the tools God gives us.
Fr. Phil Paxton, C.P., is the local superior of the Passionist Community in Birmingham, Alabama.