God or Self: A Matter of Priorities
Jesus is the Master-Storyteller. While drawing heavily from the experience of his contemporaries and of his own particular cultural, religious, social and economic milieu, he invariably pushes his audience beyond “the sensory” and “the rational” and into that “beyond” and “within” which he called the Kingdom for each of us. Through the parables, Jesus challenges his hearers and us to look at reality from the perspective of God and of our relationship with God through each other. Jesus’ parables certainly raise many questions but offer very few solutions, and even less immediate answers. We are left to grapple with the clear but unspoken message, confronting the questions and seeking our own personal lived response to the open message.
However, just because Jesus’ parables draw on the experience of both storyteller and listener or reader, they are heavily culturally dependent, and consequently, if we overlook the context of the passage or the setting of the incident at hand, we can easily fall into some childish, literal and fundamentalist understanding of the Word of God. This is certainly the case of this week’s gospel, where the parable of the dishonest steward appears to be one the most puzzling and enigmatic of all. In an attempt to save his own skin and secure his own future, the “astute steward” has no hesitation in turning into the “dishonest and treacherous one”. It sounds as if the message is one of commendation rather than condemnation of dishonesty, on the grounds of clever manipulation and misappropriation of funds. If Jesus is trying to tell us that God is the master who is calling us to account on our stewardship, how can this God “praise the dishonest steward for his astuteness” when the main character has no hesitation in cheating the landowner who has trusted him with his goods?
If we are to capture the message of the parable, we need then to look at it through the cultural lenses of Jesus’ contemporaries for whom it was unlawful to exact interest on a loan. Given this strict prohibition, a rich person would try to circumvent the law by demanding a return in goods far superior to the value of the loan itself. By underwriting the real amount of goods owed to the rich landowner, this early Robin Hood would no doubt have endeared himself to the debtors, but he also deliberately risked exposing the fraud of his rich master, who, however, would certainly be wary of denouncing the misdemeanour of his manager, as that would in turn publicize his own fraudulent dealings.
While addressing the administrator as “dishonest steward’, at a superficial level, it would seem that Jesus approves of this accepted business practice, as he tells us that “the master praised the dishonest steward for his astuteness”. But Jesus is not about passing moral judgment on the ethics of business transactions, and only later on in this same passage he refers to the use of money within the economy of life and salvation. In this particular incident, Jesus is addressing the rich and powerful, challenging them to look at their own behaviour, particularly when it comes to dealing with earthly goods and the personal relationships that such dealings call into question. Significantly, the next verse of this passage of Luke’s Gospel reads, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God'” – (Lk 16:14-15). Jesus is not about commending injustice, but rather challenging us to look at our own behaviour, our relationships, and at the place of God in our scale of values. Although it may have appeared that the dishonest steward was benefiting the poor, in reality, he was totally and exclusively focused on himself and on his own wellbeing. It was not the welfare of the poor that concerned him, and he was even less interested in righting the injustice of his master. He came first on all counts, and his astuteness and enterprise were wholly directed at himself, at satisfying his own needs and ensuring his future. He himself admits that much when he is not prepared to dig or to beg, and Jesus’ final comment points precisely to the need to examine the intentions directing or justifying one’s behaviour: the children of this world are more astute in dealing with their own kind than are the children of light.
In those words lies the challenge of faith Jesus put to his contemporaries and puts to us today, as we read and listen to the story. The silent questions behind and “beyond” the parable relate to the place of God in our life and in our claim to faith. In our scale of values, where does God fit? In our diverse activities, who and what come first? Is our concern for others motivated by a sense of justice and human promotion energized by our God, or are we so focused on our own self-advancement and personal benefit that the others become pawns and stepping stones to achieve what we want at whatever cost? Are we as clever and as intense in reaching out to others and at living our relationship with God as we are in self-seeking and self-satisfaction? In this country, we like to think of ourselves as “the lucky country” and/or “the clever country” thanks to the availability of resources and possibilities that life offers us. How do we deal with such abundance? Are we hoarders and exploiters who exclude “the others”, or does our cleverness urge us to reach out to “those others” in sharing the good gifts of the earth, in condemning and in redressing injustice, and in fostering equality, friendship and security for all? Finally, when it comes to our dealings with God, where do we stand in terms of thankfulness, giftedness and clever availability?
These are not idle questions but, in so far as they impinge on the life and values of so many others as well as our own, they become “questions of faith and belief” projecting us well “beyond” our small personal world, as well as deep “within” our own self. Enlightened by the Word and strengthened by the Spirit, may we have the courage to look within ourselves, the wisdom to see beyond ourselves, and the faith-energy to reach out to others outside of ourselves through the gifts and possibilities lavished on us!
Fr Peter Varengo SDB