25th Sunday Year C – Lectio divina on Lk 16,1-13
The fact that Jesus proposed the dishonest behaviour of an unfaithful administrator as an example to be followed by his disciples, does not fit in well with the image we have of Jesus. There is little to be learnt from a man who squanders the goods entrusted to him and then, before giving an account of his administration, makes arrangements for his future by impoverishing his master. He used his master’s money to earn for himself the good will of his master’s debtors. Writing off other people’s debts is an easy way to make friends. It is understandable that a person as shrewd as this is not very likeable. Deep down, we might even envy his way of acting. However, we would find it hard to praise him publicly and we would hardly propose him as a model to be followed. What exactly was Jesus trying to teach his disciples?
At that time: 1 Jesus also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a steward, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his goods. 2 And he called him and said to him, `What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.’ 3 And the steward said to himself, `What shall I do, since my master is taking the stewardship away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do, so that people may receive me into their houses when I am put out of the stewardship.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, `How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He said, `A hundred measures of oil.’ And he said to him, `Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ 7 Then he said to another, `And how much do you owe?’ He said, `A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, `Take your bill, and write eighty.’ 8 The master commended the dishonest steward for his prudence; for the sons of this world are wiser in their own generation than the sons of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations. 10 “He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and he who is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? 13 No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
I. Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it
This teaching of Jesus is directed only to the disciples. There are two parts to it: the parable of the unjust steward (Lk 16,1-8) and a comment that applies to the lives of the people who are listening to the parable (Lk 16,9-13).
The parable expressly praises the shrewdness of the corrupt steward. At the very least, it leaves us puzzled and surprised. There is not much to admire or praise in someone who falsifies the accounts in order to secure a better future for himself! When we look closely at the story, we see that Jesus does not commend dishonesty, but the promptness and shrewdness with which the steward reacted when he was faced with the inevitable prospect of being dismissed. The steward acted no differently than he had always acted, dissipating his master’s property. Jesus did not approve the man’s dishonest behaviour, but the speed and shrewdness with which he faced the disaster that was about to befall him. What Jesus praises is not the steward’s shameful and unjust actions, but his prompt reaction and inventiveness in finding a solution to his problem. Jesus concludes the story with a pessimistic comment which gives us reason to think: the children of this world are wiser than the children of light. They know how to use what they have at hand – even if it is not their own – to make friends and secure their future.
Jesus continues his teaching with some comments that do not seem to fit very well together and do nothing to make the message easier to understand. They actually move away gradually from the central message of the story. Unlike the unjust steward, the disciples have to be trustworthy, managing the little they have. They will not be trusted and will not receive larger gifts, if they are not faithful in little things. Even more surprisingly, to receive what is due to them – what belongs to them – they have to show that they are honest with things that do not belong to them.
Jesus concludes the lesson by going away beyond the theme of the parable. It is not just a question of administering someone else’s resources justly or unjustly, but there is irreconcilable opposition between resources – either my own or somebody else’s – and God. It is one thing to administer goods honestly. It is quite another thing to allow oneself to be managed by God. Just as a servant cannot have more than one master, so disciples cannot serve anyone but God. Even if only in passing, Jesus deems it necessary to point out our capacity for deceit and the way money can enslave us, because it can come between us and God. The best goods are the worst enemy of the supreme Good.
II. Meditation: apply what the text says to life
This parable surprises us, only is we forget Jesus’ basic intention. He does not praise the dealings of the unjust steward, nor his deceit and wastefulness. In fact, by giving away for the last time what was not his own, he simply confirmed what he had been doing all along, and proved that he deserved his punishment. The cleverness of the unjust steward did not consist in keeping somebody else’s goods for himself. He was unfaithful to the end, but farseeing! He did all he could to make friends who would help him in his time of misfortune. However, there is something in his behaviour that we Christians could learn from! If people are too ensnared in material things, they need to be reminded of their responsibilities. Christians need to give an account of what they have received and they should learn from the cleverness of the unjust steward how to get by. It is not just about what we have. Life is about administering what belongs to Someone else. The steward is not praised for his repeated dishonesty with goods that were not his own, but for the way he prepared for the future, precisely because he saw that it was uncertain and under threat. The first thing Jesus wants to teach us is that we are all administering what is not our own, what we did not produce and what does not belong to us. We are administrators, not masters, of what we have at our disposal. We should therefore consider what we have as a loan, and feel obliged to render an account for it. When we stop feeling that we are owners of what we have, we can begin to feel grateful for it. In this life we are administrators of what belongs to Someone else, and that Someone else is, in fact, the Supreme Good from whom all good things come.
However – and this should give us reason to think seriously – to earn the Lord’s praise, a faithful administrator should be able to look to the future in good time and with imagination. He or she should know how to risk what they have in their hands at present in order to secure the future that is not in their hands. Jesus demands cleverness and clarity of thought from his disciples. The children of light should not fall asleep just because they are administering well the goods they have received from the Lord. Jesus does not want his servants to be unfaithful or dishonest. In the parable the unfaithful servant is condemned, even if he is also praised. Jesus expects discernment, boldness, ability and foresight. Honesty alone is not enough. To be children of light, astuteness is also needed!
The commentary on the parable (Lk 16,9-13) helps us to understand it, even if the interpretation changes a bit. Anyone who is not capable of administering goods that will not last will not be deemed worthy to receive lasting goods. God has no intention of giving greater goods to people who prove incapable of managing the smaller things they already have. It is not a question of administering well or badly, but of being capable of administering small things. God plans to give more to those who are able to administer the little they have. God promises to give us goods of our own, only if we are able to administer his goods, be they big or small. When we have little at our disposition, it is comforting to know that, if we administer well the little we have, we can be sure that God will give us everything he has promised us.
The fact that Jesus once dared to propose as a model to his disciples someone who was dishonest in his administration, does not fit in well with our image of Jesus. There is not much to be learnt from a man who squandered the goods entrusted to him, and then, before giving an account of his administration, secured his personal future by stealing from his master. He used his master’s money to buy the good will of his master’s debtors. Writing off other people’s debts is a sure way to make them your friends.
It is understandable that we might admire someone as shrewd as that. We might even envy his behaviour secretly, but we would never dare to praise him in public. nor would we ever propose him as an example for others to follow. But this is precisely what Jesus did! He must have found something good in what this “son of this world” had done. Obviously, Jesus did not praise the irresponsibility of the administrator in wasting his master’s goods. Even less did he praise him for his shameless behaviour when he realized he was about to be dismissed and halved the debts owed to his master in order to ingratiate himself with the debtors. The unfaithful steward is an example to the children of light for his astuteness. He prepared for his misfortune by earning for himself the gratitude of his master’s debtors. Previously he had administered other people’s money badly with no thought to his own future. Now when he was about to find himself homeless and jobless, he could at least count on the hospitality of the people whose debts he had written off, debts that were owed to his master. His previous poor administration had won him no friends. Instead of trying to correct his mistakes, he decided to use his position to benefit people from whom he hoped to benefit later. This steward was not very faithful, but he was not completely stupid! He made friends with money that was not his own. Jesus proposed him as an example for the disciples because he was clever enough to secure his future even though he had no money of his own, but he made friends that he could turn to in his need. Certainly, Jesus did not want his disciples to imitate the man’s unscrupulous dishonesty but rather his cleverness in looking for a solution to his disastrous situation, and the speed with which he implemented his plan. He was dishonest, but at least he was clever. Nowadays we are like the disciples of Jesus, less clever than people of the world. We are children of light, lacking inventiveness and imagination, more timid and fearful than the sons of darkness.
Perhaps we are surprised that Jesus suggests to us, as he once did to his disciples, that we should make use of what we have now to ensure that we will have no problems in the future. He insists that when faced with likely misfortune, because we have not administered well the gifts he has given us, we should not waste time in useless complaining but should make use of every opportunity to look for a solution to our problems. He is telling us today to look quickly for a solution to our problems with God, so that our past infidelity will not compromise our future, which can still be saved if we make friends. If we find ourselves without hope at present, we should not waste our time worrying instead of preparing for a better future. We should not live regretting our past, when we should be doing something to avoid further misfortune in the future.
While we still have something at our disposal, and still have goods to administer, while we are still alive, nothing is completely lost. There is still hope. We should not forget that life is the greatest gift God has given us to administer. God is less tolerant of idleness than of dishonesty. He prefers cleverness to laziness. In God’s eyes, doing nothing for fear of making a mistake is worse than getting something wrong while looking for a solution. The God of Jesus condemns those who do nothing, more than those who may have committed some injustice when trying to build a better future. The master praised the unjust steward for the cleverness with which he acted. God is like that master in the parable. He knows that we will not always succeed in being good administrators, but he wants us, at the very least, to use our imagination and creativity. Even if we are not faithful in everything, let us at least show some cleverness.
A God like the God that Jesus taught may seem a bit strange. However, even if we are surprised because he does not fit in with our idea or our expectations of God, that does not mean that this God preached by Jesus is not true. We need to get over our surprise. We should take seriously what Jesus said to his disciples. By praising the unjust steward, Jesus wanted to free us from the guilt complex that keeps us from using all the gifts we have from God to serve others. The fact that we are not good should not stop us from using our gifts in the service of others. If we refuse to use our gifts to help others, then we are indeed unfaithful stewards. What is more, and this is the real paradox, precisely because we have been unjust in our administration, God will not take our injustice into consideration when it is for the good of others.
The steward knew he was being unjust but this did not stop him from sharing with others the goods that did not belong to him, and making friends for himself in this way. Neither should we allow ourselves to be blocked by the awareness of our faults and the experience of our weakness. Precisely because we are not good enough, we can allow ourselves the luxury of making some small mistakes in our administration of the goods we have received, writing off something from the account or not demanding all we should. This was the astuteness of the steward who earned the Lord’s praise. After a life of dubious fidelity, with some goods badly administered, we can still gain eternal life with God. We ought to think carefully about this. That is what Jesus taught his disciples and taught us about God. We will be his disciples today if we accept God as he wants to be for us. If God does not place too many objections, despite our poor administration of the gifts we have received, provided we share them with anyone who is indebted to us, God will look not to our wrongdoing but to our generosity. This generosity should not cost us too much since the gifts we administer are not our own but God’s. God allows us to cheat him on condition that we do good to others. Can we do any less?
Finally, and this is no less important, Jesus does not want money to occupy the place in our lives that should be reserved to God. Otherwise, we will not be able to administer properly the few goods we have received. Only when we have God as our supreme good will we be good administrators of the goods we have, be they few or many. To be good administrators we need to remember that everything we have is given to us on loan. God is our only good. Everything else is good only because it comes from God. If we move away from God we lose everything and end up in perdition. We need to realize that there are still many things, people and projects in our lives that may seem very good, but are in fact bad if they separate us from the good God, or take his place in our hearts. He is our only good. To make way for others would mean moving away from him and losing him forever.