THIS SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: LUKE 16: 1-13
25th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
USCCB LINK TO ALL THREE READING
Jesus said to his disciples,
“A rich man had a steward
who was reported to him for squandering his property.
He summoned him and said,
‘What is this I hear about you?
Prepare a full account of your stewardship,
because you can no longer be my steward.’
The steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do,
now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me?
I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg.
I know what I shall do so that,
when I am removed from the stewardship,
they may welcome me into their homes.’
He called in his master’s debtors one by one.
To the first he said,
‘How much do you owe my master?’
He replied, ‘One hundred measures of olive oil.’
He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note.
Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.’
Then to another the steward said, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’
He replied, ‘One hundred kors of wheat.’
The steward said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note;
write one for eighty.’
And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.
“For the children of this world
are more prudent in dealing with their own generation
than are the children of light.
I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth,
so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
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 you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another,
who will give you what is yours?
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.”
I am back after a two-day hiatus from the blog. Yesterday after a morning physical and an afternoon of breaking back into a regular, office based, therapeutic practice, this one with Catholic Charities, I honestly had nothing in the tank for the Café. I had a fine first day at the clinic—all my patients kept their appointments, and punctually—and the administrator fixed me up with a coffee maker. Now you can’t beat that. So I am looking forward to my next weeks and months. I was rather hoping for a “simple Gospel text” for next Sunday, but as you know by now, every sentence of the Bible is a challenge. So how much wheat is 100 kors?
At first glance this gospel is almost scandalous, with its central figure being an executive manager of a very large estate who conducted all the financial issues of his master and then cheated the master on the way out the door. The close and trusted relationship between master and manager was not an uncommon arrangement. There are several twists to this relationship here that Father Robert Karris observes in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary 1990 (p. 707ff). The master of a major profitable family business was also an absentee landlord who did not enjoy universal esteem among the people as a whole, for reasons we will see shortly.
At first it is unclear why, in this case, the master would turn against his manager (or “steward” in the older translations). No reason is given by Jesus, though it is important to remember that in Luke’s Gospel Jesus does not have much good to say about the rich. Joel Green reminds us that in Luke 6:24 Jesus pronounces misfortune upon the rich, and is equally critical in several other sites in this Gospel (p. 590). Jesus was well aware of how many of the rich acquired their wealth, namely through interest from money lending—long forbidden in Jewish tradition but apparently tolerated, even embraced, by entrepreneurs in Jesus’ day.
The problem with lending at the time of this Gospel was its arbitrary nature and lack of policing. Suppose that you were seeking $200,000 to buy a house. The master would lend the money, but he would calculate the interest, sometimes as much as two or three times the value of the original loan. Clearly, in Luke’s mind this was an unethical and immoral practice, since the actual contract for the loan rolled together the original amount and the projected interest amount, and this new number was also the figure on the official paperwork. The document for the $200,000 house might then read as a loan of $600,000, to use a contemporary example.
This is an important consideration for interpreting this Gospel text. The manager is not portrayed as a paragon of courage (‘to dig I am unable, to beg I am ashamed”) but he does come upon a plan of action that resonates with St. Luke’s portrait of Jesus: he would strike a blow for traditional Jewish justice, albeit his motives were mixed, to say the least. He allows his masters’ debtors to rewrite their contracts and subtract the exorbitant interest. The olive oil borrower gets a 50% rebate, the wheat man 20%. A kor of wheat, by the way, is the equivalent of 230 liters, next time you are baking.
The reaction of the master of the estate, upon learning of his manager’s largesse, has confused generations of readers (“he commended the manager for acting prudently”) but in truth there is something of con man’s respect for a better con by his opponent. The master cannot help but be impressed at how his manager—on the verge of losing everything—managed to endear himself to enough affluent borrowers to insure his own status and belonging in society.
Jesus’ commentary of the situation follows the master’s commendation of the manager’s deeds, beginning with “for the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than the children of light.” The phrase “this world” is often contrasted with the “next world” and the final arrival of the Kingdom of God. The fact that Jesus, too, can recognize a con, and then contrast it favorably to the unimaginative conduct of the children of the light, is a testimony to the energy and verve of the faithless of this world, for whom riches represent the greatest achievement. (Green, p. 594)
When Jesus exhorts his followers to “make friends with dishonest wealth,” he is not instructing full-hearted participation in games with the “children of this age.” In the context of earlier readings on previous Sundays, Jesus in fact exhorts all to sell everything for the poor and follow him. But he seems to understand, too, that money connections were the glue of contemporary social life. Jesus’ followers are missionaries of the kingdom, and if they are to make converts, they must indeed mix with the poor and the rich. The critical difference is that they must not profit from their dealings in the way of the master and the manager described above, so that when the sands of time runs out on the children of this age, both they and their disciple witnesses can share the delights of the heavenly banquet.