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Holy Dishonesty

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)  | Fr Benjamin Earl urges us to be lavish with God's bountiful gifts given to us. 

The readings that the Church gives us today present us with certain difficulties. Dealing deceitfully and dishonestly is, to say the least, not pleasing to the Lord, as the prophet Amos makes abundantly clear in the first reading.  The steward in the Gospel is described by Christ himself as dishonest, and our natural sense of justice is rightly offended by this man’s actions, effectively stealing from the master to secure benefit for himself. Nevertheless, the dishonest steward is commended by his master for his astuteness, and our Lord seems to be suggesting we should emulate him in our use of “money, that tainted thing” – more literally “unrighteous mammon” – to curry favour with others. Most of us, I expect, wouldn’t dream of behaving like this, and wouldn’t expect such behaviour from those entrusted with our property. So the passage is fraught with difficulties.

Blessed John Henry Newman, soon to be canonised, once wrote, “ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt” [Apologia pro vita sua].  So we can freely acknowledge the difficulties with this passage, without doubting the gospel message. But what is that message here?

To answer such a question we need to remember the context of today’s Gospel. It follows on immediately from the passage we heard read last Sunday, the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost (or “prodigal”) son. In those parables we had three stories that had little to do with the way people really behave. Real shepherds don’t generally abandon ninety-nine sheep just to search for one; real women don’t generally throw a party when they find a coin down the back of the sofa; real human fathers don’t generally throw an expensive party for sons who have frittered away half the family fortune.

Last week’s parables weren’t about how men and women actually behave. Nor were they about how people ought to behave in this world. Rather they were metaphors for how God behaves towards us, how he is extraordinarily generous and recklessly lavish towards us his children who have strayed like lost sheep and squandered the gifts he has given us.

So too with this week’s Gospel. If we are looking in the parable of the dishonest steward for guidance on how we should behave in this world for the purposes of this world, we’re looking in the wrong place, and we are bound to get mired in difficulties. Christ talks of two realms in the Gospel: the realm of the “children of this world” and that of the “children of light”. The parable, while using what is an extraordinary image in the setting of the realm of the children of this world, is really about how God acts for his purposes in us, who are “children of light” and how we should act for his purposes in that realm. If the wicked of the children of this world can use the resources at their disposal for their selfish ends, how much more should the children of light should be able to use the resources at their disposal for the purposes of the God whose resources they are.

We are stewards of God’s creation. Everything we have, be it material wealth, or the gifts and talents that God has given us, or even our life itself, everything belongs ultimately to God. He will, one day, call each of us to himself and require from us an account of our stewardship, and so we must be astute stewards.

A real earthly master would, of course, be furious to discover that great swathes of his fortune had been written off to provide for his steward’s retirement. But God is not an earthly master. Whatever we do with the gifts God has given us, there is no way we can diminish his dominion or subtract from his majesty. Indeed, God who has lavished gifts upon us actually wishes us to lavish those gifts on others. “Love one another as I have loved you,”  he says [John 15:12]. Indeed, “greater love has no man than this,” that he “lay down… for his friends” that most precious of gifts he has received from God, life itself.  In short: lavish God’s gifts on what is good and true, and do not count the cost, for God’s bounty is without end. Your friends and his will welcome you into the tents of eternity.

Readings: Amos 8:4-7  |  1 Timothy 2:1-8 |  Luke 16:1-13

Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a window in the Sainte Chapelle in Paris.

Benjamin Earl O.P.

Fr Benjamin Earl is Procurator General of the Order of Preachers, responsible for representing the Order to the Holy See and for canonical issues in the Order's General Curia  |  benjamin.earl@english.op.org


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