2004—Twenty-fifh Sunday of Ordinary Time—C
As we move from summer to autumn, students are settling into school and business activities are getting into high gear. We may be pondering tuition bills or the impending cost of new projects. Life can seem to be taken over by calculator and computer. Yet the theme of today's gospel is that our salvation is not a matter of calculation at all. God is not a bookkeeper. The way we handle money and other resources is important, but it is not finally what really matters. What really matters is God's uncalculating love.
Today's gospel is one of the most difficult passages in all of scripture to interpret. There have been more explanations of it than the 100 measures of oil owed to the master. The story is commonly called the parable of "The Unjust Steward" In it Jesus seems to commend practices that Amos thunders against in the first reading-dishonesty that exploits the poor, violation the sacred duties of justice. Is Jesus really recommending dishonesty and injustice?
Jesus tells of the steward or manager of a certain rich person's land, someone like the chief operating officer for a large corporation. An audit has revealed that he has been squandering the resources of his master's estate, and he is called on the carpet to explain himself. Realizing that no defense is possible, the manager devises a plan. By reducing the debts owed to his master, he hopes to gain favor with the debtors, so they might hire him later. So he calls them in for some negotiations. One owes the equivalent of 100 barrels of olive oil, and the manager cuts the debt in half. For another, who owes many bushels of wheat, he reduces the debt by 20 percent. Shockingly, the parable concludes by saying "The master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently."
The most common explanation of the parable is that Jesus is not praising the dishonesty of the manager but his prudence in handling a difficult situation. Others, who have studied the economic practices of New Testament times, suggest that when the manager juggles the books he is simply reducing the illegitimate interest he had added to the loan for his own profit, not cheating the master at all.
There may be some truth in these interpretations, but they seem farfetched. I think it is more helpful am to note that the parable in Luke's gospel immediately follows the story we heard last Sunday, usually called the parable of the "Prodigal Son." Both parables portray a person facing a life-threatening situation because the central character has "squandered" resources-last week the son all the resources received from his father, today the manager the resources of his master. Last week, the story begins by saying "a certain man" had two sons-suggesting that the central character is the father who welcomes his son home with no questions asked. So last week's story could be called the parable of the generous or forgiving father, not the parable of the prodigal son. Similarly, today's story begins by focusing on "a certain man" who was rich. So the central figure in today's story is the master or owner, not the steward. The central focus in not how the steward maneuvers his way out of difficulties, but on the fact that the master offers him unexpected acceptance. The steward is rescued from danger by what he receives, not by what he accomplishes. So we can call it the parable of the "uncalculating master" rather than of the "unjust steward." And since the master symbolizes God, Jesus is telling us that God cancels debts independent of all our machinations. God is not a bookkeeper who keeps precise accounts of our successes and failures. No, God welcomes us back and loves us without calculating how much we have done right and how much wrong.
This is enormously good news. The image that God as the keeper of the book of life in which all our failures and achievements are written has been present in all religions. If we are honest, it will be difficult for any of us to take much comfort from thinking we will be judged by what has been written in that book. But today Jesus is telling us that God does not finally keep score that way. God is not a bookkeeper, but an uncalculating, generous lover. This good news can set us free from many anxieties. It can enable us to serve each other with generosity and justice. This is the good news for which we can give thanks around the table of the Lord today. So let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
David Hollenbach, S.J. St. Ignatius Church September 19, 2004