A Question of Generosity
September 19, 2004
This is a peculiar parable. Why is it that we find Jesus at the end praising a dishonest person? What is there about the actions of the crooked steward that Jesus finds good and invites us to imitate?
To answer this question we have to be sure that we understand the parable correctly. The manager was certainly dishonest. He clearly squandered his master’s property and was being fired because of it. But it is important that we understand correctly what his actions were, once his dishonesty had been found out. Normally we presume that when he brought in his master’s debtors and reduced their bills that he was further cheating his master. But this is not the case. In the ancient world managers were given their income through commission. When the manager in the parable reduced the debtors’ bills, he was not removing his master’s profit but his own. His hope was that by giving back to the debtors what was his own, they would recognize his shrewdness and generosity. Then, once he was fired, they might welcome him into their own financial operations. It was a risk to be sure. There was no guarantee that the debtors would respond in this way.
But what is noteworthy about this dishonest manager is that he had the insight to size up his situation and realize that the only possibility for future employment and security was to give away what he presently possessed. It is this insight and this action that Jesus commends and invites us to imitate. Because Jesus knows that if we correctly size up our present situation, we will realize that the only way to our future security is to give away some of what we possess today.
What is our present situation? Let me state this as clearly as I can. Everything we have is a gift: our life, our time, our relationships, our health, our money. Everything we have is a gift. This realization should certainly lead us to thankfulness. But thankfulness is not enough. Thankfulness must give way to generosity. For generosity is the sign of the kingdom of God. The person who understands God’s kingdom understands that everything that we have been given has been given to us to share. Faithful stewardship requires giving back part of what we have been given.
Why is giving back so important? Two reasons: others need it and generosity is good for us. There is no doubt that others need the things that we possess. You cannot go more than two feet without running into one of the many needs that exist in our world. People need our time, our presence, our money. God loves all people. So whenever anyone is hungry or sick or depressed God is counting on us and on our resources to help that person. Christians know this better than anyone else because the gospel tells us that whatever we fail to do for the least of our brothers or sisters we fail to do for Jesus. Therefore, refusing to give of what we have been given is a bad idea, a poor decision. Our relationship to God is connected to our generosity to others. We give because others are in need.
We also give because generosity is good for us. The deepest joy in life is giving out of love. Parents know this. Lovers know this. Sometimes we think that what is going to make us happy is to hold onto our time, to conserve our talents, to hoard our money. But this is not true. Joy comes from giving, giving freely and with love. The deepest moments of joy occur in the context of generosity.
Everything you have is a gift, a gift for which to be thankful and a gift to share. Holding onto the things we have been given will not make us happy. Giving what we have away will help others and give us the deepest joy.
So that is our present situation. That is how things stand. When the dishonest manager in the gospel saw how things stood, he did not hesitate. He swung into action. He started giving what he had away. We are called to follow his example. This week you will be given time, the opportunity to use your talents, and money. You could choose to hold onto all of these things and use them only for yourself, but that would be a bad idea, a poor investment. The gospel today poses a wiser and more helpful question. It asks us, “This week, how much of your time and your talent and your money are you willing to give away?”
Worship as Power
September 23, 2007
1 Timothy 2:1-8
Usually when we come to this part of the liturgy, this assembly settles back and passively wonders, “What is Father George going to talk about this week?” Today is going to be a little different. For the homily today I need your participation. I need you to sing. Now why you need to sing will become obvious as we move forward. The music is simple. It is a responsorial psalm we use here frequently. So let’s practice your part. I will be the cantor, so just repeat after me. But when we sing it, I would like you to sing with as much meaning and as much prayerfulness as you can.
Fr. George: (singing) “In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge, you have been our refuge.”
Congregation: (singing) “In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge, you have been our refuge.”
Very nice. So in the homily you will need to sing one more time. When you hear the piano just come right in. But again sing with as much faith and energy as you have.
Not too long ago I received a phone call. A man’s voice said, “Father, I am not a parishioner, but I’d like a few minutes of your time.” “Is there a problem?” I said. “Well, yes and no,” the voice said, “but I’d like to talk to you face to face.” So we set up an appointment. When he came in, I saw he was a man in his forties. He sat down in my office, and he said to me, “I’ve come here to say thank you.” “Okay,” I said, not sure what he meant. He told this story:
“A few weeks ago,” he said, “my seventeen year old son was injured in a traffic accident. He slipped into a coma, and the doctors told us he might not make it. My wife and I were in shock. Just yesterday our boy, our beautiful boy, was so full of strength and health and life, and today he lay motionless in a bed. We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know how to focus. We were close to despair. We sat for days at his bedside. When the weekend came around, my wife looked at me and said, ‘I think one of us should go to church.’ It made sense. We were a Catholic family, and we certainly had something to pray for. So I said, ‘I’ll go.’ I asked the nurse for a list of catholic churches, and I chose St. Noel, because I thought I knew how to find it.”
“But as I was driving here,I thought, ‘What am I doing? I can’t pray. I can’t even focus. And if I were to pray, what would I ask for? Would I say, ‘God, take care of my son?’ Where was God when the truck hit him? It became clear I was driving to pray to a God who I believed had abandoned us, and I had no idea if I could pray and no words that I could say. But I had promised my wife that I would go. So I parked my car in your parking lot. I walked in, and a man with a kind smile handed me a bulletin. The Mass had already begun. I sat down surrounded by people I didn’t know. I was in a daze, lost in my own numbness. My mind and my heart were a thousand miles away. I remember that the first reading came to an end, that a cantor stood up and intoned the psalm: ‘In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.’ Then I heard,”
Congregation: (singing) “In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge, you have been our refuge.”
“I was surrounded by voices, singing words of faith. I began to cry. At first I didn’t know why, but then I heard the words: God is my refuge. That was what I needed to believe. That was the prayer I needed to say. I couldn’t say it, but the people around me were singing it for me. I found myself taken up into the song. It felt like hundreds of arms embracing me and supporting me. I began to sing along. With each verse I sang a little stronger. Somehow, by the end of the psalm, something in me was healed. I devoured the rest of the liturgy. To my surprise, I discovered as I came to communion that I was receiving communion with hope. I left your church, Father, different, changed for the better.
“When I walked back to the hospital room, my wife noticed it immediately. ‘What happened?’ she said. I said to her, ‘Honey, I think we’re going to make it. I think he’s going to be okay.’ Three days later, my son came out of the coma. We are taking him home tomorrow. But I wanted to come here first to ask you to find a way to tell your parish community ‘thank you.’”
That is what I am doing this weekend at all the Masses. It is a good thing to do, because this story, which is a true story, points to who we are and why we worship God. It is so easy to come to Mass every weekend in a dull routine. We sit down and immediately our mind is somewhere else. We are here physically, but not actively. We say, “Let somebody else say the words. Let somebody else sing the psalm.” But to take that attitude would be to neglect our duty and our privilege. It is a privilege and a duty to praise and worship God, and when we do it fully, we also help others.
Today’s second reading from First Timothy says, “I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone.” Timothy is not simply saying to pray for others privately. He is asking us to pray for others when we gather as an assembly to celebrate the liturgy. This is who we are. This is why the parishioners who came before us built this church building, so we would have a place to come together, and together express what we believe. We are called not only to believe in our hearts, but believe publicly. We are not only to sing in the shower, but sing before the whole world.
I think we worship well here at St. Noel. The story that I told you proves it. But we have to continue to do that, not only for God, not only for ourselves, but for others. We need every voice to be an active voice, a voice that joins in and adds to our expression of faith together. Every voice, children, teens, men, and women needs to speak and sing in words of praise. When we sing that way, we not only praise God, but we help one another. You will never know who might walk into this church on a particular weekend. You may never know the burden that the person a few rows next to you is carrying. This is why we need to be who we are. We need to be a community which says by our enthusiasm and our participation, “Here we are. We have faith, hope, and love. If your faith, hope, and love are weak, lean on us, take strength from our strength.”
We are called to worship God. But in worshipping, we help one another. Let us recommit ourselves to participating in our liturgy fully and deeply. To make that commitment would be a very wise choice, because it is only a matter of time before something in our life brings us to the moment when we cannot believe, when we cannot pray. Then in that moment you will know what to do. You will know where to go. You will say, “I need to go and worship with my parish community, because today is the day that they must pray for me.”
Entrepreneurs for the Kingdom
September 18, 2010
So what are we to make of this rather strange parable that we have just heard? Jesus sets before us a manager who is dishonest and who has squandered his master’s property. When he finds out that he is about to be fired, he acts more dishonestly to make sure that others are indebted to him and will take care of him once he is dismissed. Then, at the end of the parable, the master commends the dishonest manager, and we are left with the impression that this manager is set before us as an example to imitate.
What are we to make of Jesus’ words? Let’s start with a clarification. We are indeed called to imitate the manager. But we are not called to imitate his dishonesty. There is only one quality in the manager that is held up for our imitation. It is the quality for which master commends him at the end of the parable. What is this quality? The Greek word that is in the text is translated in various ways. One translation says the master commended the dishonest servant because he acted “prudently.” Another translation says, the master commended the dishonest manager because he acted “shrewdly.” The translation I prefer is, the master commended the dishonest manager “because he was enterprising.” So, we are called to imitate the dishonest manager not by being dishonest, but by being enterprising. What does this mean? Well, to draw a word from modern times and to apply it to this situation, we can see the manager as an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur is a positive word which we use to describe a person who has the skills and abilities to be successful in business. What are those skills? The skills to be able to read a situation, to devise a plan, and to put that plan into action. This is exactly what the manager does in the parable. When it becomes clear that he is going to be fired, he reads the situation. He does not sit back and feel sorry for himself. But, he devises a plan and he puts it into action, so that others will be treat him well in the future.
Jesus appreciates this kind of entrepreneurial spirit. Not the dishonesty, but the energy and the risk taking that the manager engages in for his own self preservation. In fact, Jesus says that we should look to the manager and apply some of those same qualities to our following of the gospel. He says that the children of this world (the manager) show more initiative in dealing with their own kind than do the children of the light (we who follow Jesus). Jesus want us to see in the example of successful entrepreneurs an energy and a risk taking that will be used to spread the gospel.
We see that example everywhere in our world. There are thousands of people who work for Microsoft and Apple who spend day after day trying new designs to develop a better phone or personal information platform. The act this way because they know that if they establish an edge over the competition, they are going to make a lot of money. The are thousand of investors and lawyers on Wall Street who think night and day how they can develop new instruments for investments, new ways to make money. They do this because they know that if they can attract investors, they are going to be rich. There are thousands of people who work for British Petroleum who have developed the most technically advanced research in the world so that they can draw oil from two miles down below the ocean’s surface. They invest billions of dollars and hours and hours of work because they know if they can extract that oil, they are going to one of the most successful companies in the world.
Now, is all of this risk taking and energy in Silicone Valley and Wall Street and the Gulf of Mexico ethical? Not always. Are the risks taken always successful? No, and sometimes we end up paying the price. But, despite these things, you have to give these entrepreneurs credit. They are very good at what they do. They spend time, energy, and creativity in order to be successful. Jesus points to their actions in order to challenge us to devote some of our energy and risk taking to spiritual and personal values.
The gospel challenges us this week is to take some of the energy that we invest in our work and apply it to the things of God’s Kingdom. Can we spend some of the energy this week listening to our spouse, communicating with our children, showing kindness to someone who is suffering because of sickness or grief? Can we apply some of the risk that we are willing to take in our business adventures and direct it to the gospel? Could we risk reconciling with someone who has hurt us, understanding someone who thinks differently than we do, opening our hearts and our minds in the effort to unseat an stubborn prejudice?
God’s work will not be done on its own. The world can not change without our cooperation. Jesus calls us to be entrepreneurs for the Kingdom, to apply our energy, our creativity, and our commitment to build justice and understanding among us. Can’t we take some of our energy and risk taking and apply it to God’s work? Can’t we be at least as energetic as those who are so successful in the business world around us? We should be able to do that because the goal for which we are striving is so much more noble. We are called to give the best of ourselves, not simply to make money, but to build the Kingdom of God.
Following the Dishonest Steward
September 22, 2013
One thing we need to say about Jesus is that he knows how to get our attention. His parables often surprise and upset us. But he teaches in this way not to confuse us but to engage us, to involve us in the process of discerning what a particular parable might mean for our own lives. Consider the parable we just heard today. Its central character is a dishonest steward who first cheats his master then gets into trouble for doing so and then cheats him again to get out of trouble. Jesus presents this dishonest steward as an example to us of how to act prudently.
Really? Couldn’t Jesus have found another character more suitable as an example of prudence than this crooked manager? But the minute we ask ourselves that question, it leads us to an answer. There is a reason that this dishonest steward is the central character of the parable. This steward made a mess of his life and knew that he was responsible for his own misery. Therefore, this parable is addressed to us, when we find our own lives in disarray and realize that we are the ones to blame.
We might have lied to our spouse or to a close friend and been found out in that lie. Now relationships that we value have been compromised and endangered. We might find ourselves in the midst of a divorce and, despite the charges and counter-charges, we know that there are things that we have done or should have done that contributed to the break-up. We might have abused drugs or alcohol and now find ourselves broken and alone, because of all the people who we alienated in the process. Like the steward in the parable, we can find our lives damaged by our dishonesty, weakness, and selfishness. It is when we find ourselves in those circumstances that the steward becomes an example to us. That is because this steward does not give up.
He could have easily said, “My life is over. I’m going to throw in the towel. My own bad decisions have finished me.” But he does not quit. He uses his position and the relationships he has made to get himself out of his misery. He is not afraid to use the resources that came to him through his crime to move beyond his crime. He uses the brokenness of his messed-up life to form a better one. That is exactly what we must do when we realize our lives have been damaged by our own selfishness and sin. When our relationships are broken because of our dishonesty, it does us no good to say, “Gee, I wish I had healthy relationships.” We must, instead, pick up the broken pieces of those relationships and try to move to something that is better. When we are in the midst of divorce, it does us no good to say, “If only I had a healthy marriage.” We must claim the fact that we are now a divorced person and try to find a way to move forward. When our lives have been broken by the abuse of alcohol or drugs, it does us no good to say, “I should have remained sober.” Instead, we must take up our life as we find it and use it to build a new life.
Seen from this perspective, the parable is actually a parable of hope. It tells us there is no place we can find ourselves in which God will not be present to us to help us. We believe that God is present to help us when we face an evil that comes to us which is out of our own control: when someone hurts us, when sickness comes, or when we are struck by an accident we could not anticipate. But this parable tells us that God is also with us when the pain we must endure is of our own making.
The dishonest steward is an example to us, not because of his dishonesty but because of his desire to live. Therefore, when we find ourselves damaged and broken by our sin and mistakes, this parable tells us it is not time to give up. It is time to take the broken pieces of our lives and move forward. It is time to believe that God is with us in our worst condition. It is time to trust that the God who is with us will lead us out of the mess we have made into newness of life.
Using Dishonest Wealth
September 18, 2016
Today’s gospel is a series of sayings of Jesus that pull in different directions. So rather than trying to harmonize them, I would like to focus on just one: the one that I think is the most problematic. Jesus says, “I tell you: Make friends for yourself with dishonest wealth so that when it fails, you may be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” It sounds like Jesus is asking us to use dishonest wealth for our advantage. Isn’t this out of character for Jesus? Wouldn’t you expect Jesus to say, “Avoid using dishonest wealth. Only use wealth that is untainted by corruption”? That is what we would expect Jesus to say. But, he does not.
So why is Jesus advising us to use dishonest wealth? Because at times that is the only wealth we have. Wealth, of course, here means more than money. Wealth is resources, opportunities to act. Wealth is the choices that we make in order to live. And sometimes those choices are far from ideal. Sometimes the opportunities that we have are compromised, flawed, even tainted. But Jesus is telling us that it is better to use those opportunities, those choices, that wealth even if it is far from perfect.
We might have a strained relationship with a son or daughter, a child who has made some poor decisions, perhaps even illegal ones. Jesus tells us that it does us no good to wish we had a different son or daughter, someone who is better. Instead, Jesus asks us to use that flawed relationship, to exercise our role as a parent in those imperfect conditions. Even if we fail, he tells us it is worth the effort.
Your family may be characterized by divorce, perhaps even a divorce that you did not seek. Now whenever there is a family gathering—a wedding, a baptism—you must deal with painful relationships and face people you would rather avoid. Jesus says it does us no good to wish you had a happy and united family. Instead he asks us to take up the broken family that is ours and use as much patience, understanding, and love that you can to make things better rather than worse.
Look at the presidential race. We have two candidates who are the most unpopular in American history. It does us no good to wish we had other candidates. Jesus asks us to exercise our right to vote and to choose the better candidate (or the lesser undesirable candidate). It is better to make that imperfect choice than to throw up our hands and stay at home on Election Day.
When you don’t have the wealth you want, use the wealth you have. This saying of Jesus is difficult. It is a hard saying, and it makes no promises. It does not say that if we reach out to an estranged son or daughter, we will develop a wonderful relationship. It does not imply that our ex-spouse will be more pleasant. It does not promise that we will elect a great president. It calls us to do what we can.
Now, of course, from the perspective of faith, we have the consolation of knowing that God appreciates our intentions and honors our choices in flawed situations. We believe that God will find some way to bless us. But that aside, there is not much in Jesus’ saying that is satisfying. It simply tells us that in a compromised, flawed, and dishonest world, it is better to do the little that is possible than to do nothing at all.
Called to Be Trustworthy
September 22, 2019
When J. D. Rockefeller died in 1937, he was universally recognized as the wealthiest man on earth. There was a great deal of speculation about just how large his fortune was. The person who knew the answer to this question was his personal secretary who had oversight of his finances. In a now-famous interview after J.D. Rockefeller’s death, a reporter asked the secretary, “Sir, can you tell us just how much your boss left behind?” The secretary answered, “All of it.”
We spend a good deal of time and energy over money. We earn it. We inherit it. We save it. We spend it. We invest it. We try to build up enough money to support our families and cover our retirement. There is nothing wrong with any of this as long as we remember that a day will come when we leave all of it behind.
Now if we were people without faith, our approach to money would be simple. We would have complete say over the use of our wealth. If we could accumulate enough money to bring us to a comfortable death, we could say, “I used my money the way I wanted to and now everything is over.” But we are people of faith. Because of this, the way we use our money is not entirely up to us. God has a claim on us. We are called to serve God.
Today’s gospel says that we cannot serve two masters. We cannot serve both God and mammon. Mammon is the biblical word for wealth. So, the saying tells us that we cannot serve both God and money. The deepest question, then, in today’s gospel is, “Who is our master?” Who will we serve, God or money? If we choose to serve God, what does God tell us about our finances? The answer to this question is found in today’s gospel, because over and over again Jesus uses the word “trustworthy.” We are told to be “trustworthy” about small things and large things, about what belongs to others and what belongs to us. Jesus uses the word “trustworthy” to make the point that the wealth we own is not really ours. It has been entrusted to us by God for God’s purposes. Now let’s just say up front that this approach to money is very different from the way we usually think about our finances. You will not receive this perspective from your banker or your financial planner or your stockbroker. In their view the money you have is yours, and you can do whatever you want with it. God is simply not in the picture.
But for us God is in the picture, and that means that God has claims on our bank account. Now what do you think God wants us to do with our money? You know the answer as well as I do. God wants us to share with those in need. God wants us to alleviate the sufferings of the poor. God wants us to use our resources to build a better world. These claims that God makes on our finances are not peripheral or incidental matters. It is not God saying, “Be generous. Give a little off the top. Write an extra check at Christmas.” What God wants from us is that his purposes become our purposes, that we see the wealth entrusted to us is used for God’s kingdom. Perhaps one who said this most bluntly is St. John Chrysostom. In one of his sermons he said, “Not to share what we have with the poor is to steal from them, because the good things we hold are not ours but theirs.” Our money belongs to the poor because it has been entrusted to us to be used not only for our good but for the benefit of others.
That then is the principle. It is a reminder to us that being Catholic is more than just saying prayers, avoiding sin, and coming to Mass on the weekends. Being Catholic involves our recognition that God has a claim on our resources, that all we own has been entrusted it to us. So I leave you with today with this reflection: How much wealth has God entrusted to me? How do I plan to use it for God’s purposes? It is an important question, one that we should take seriously, because the day will come when we leave all that we own behind, except of course those things which we have already chosen to give away.