Monday, June 13, 2005
This is one of the most challenging parables even for a Jesuit to explain. And still, it comes from the mouth of God's Son, and it says something terribly important for your life and mine. But to understand that, we must address three issues:
1. What did the parable mean in Jesus' own mind?
2. What application did the early Christians derive from the parables?
3. What might the parable say to you and me today?
First then, what did the parable mean in Jesus' own mind? Let's paraphrase the parable. There is a rich man, who owns quite a large estate. This landowner has a manager. What is the manager's job? - To handle the finances of the estate. He has a wide range of power, much leeway for discretion, equivalent to an accountant and loan shark. He keeps his master's accounts, can contract loans in the owner's name. He may even liquidate debts.
But one day our manager gets his summons. He is accused of dishonesty. Who accuses him? We don't know. What is the charge? Squandering his master's property. How exactly? We are not told. Is it neglect, swindling, poor judgment? At any rate, the owner summons him, that's it! No discussion; the case is closed. "You're fired. But before you pack up, prepare an inventory, tell me who owes me and how much."
The manager goes out. Outside the office he sits down in deep thought. "What shall I do? I'm not macho enough for physical labor. My hands are far too soft. I won't do unskilled labor, that's beneath my dignity…. Aha! I've got it! A super idea! If this works out, I've got it made. People will welcome me, when I leave here, because of utang na loob. They owe me.
Quickly he summons his master's debtors, all those with whom he had made deals. "You. Your IOU reads a thousand gallons of olive oil, correct? Write a new IOU. Cut your debt to half. Put down on 500 gallons. Take out my interest, the 500 gallons I charge you." "You. Your IOU reads a thousand bushels of wheat, correct? Write a new IOU. Forget my 20% interest. Simply write 800 bushels, exactly what you owe my master."
No dishonesty here. This is not the squandering for which the owner fired him. The manager is playing within the economic rules; he is giving up not his master's rightful return, only the interest he himself charged, his interest.
Somehow the master hears about the deals. His reaction? Anger? No, sir! He shakes his head in admiration: "Clever guy! I fired him and he trades on disaster to ensure his future."
And Jesus: What precisely is he approving? And what has this parable to do with the kingdom of God? Simply this. The dishonest manager, at a critical moment in his life, when his entire future was at stake, acted decisively to cope with the crisis, planned shrewdly to secure his future. Similarly for Christians, Jesus' preaching of the kingdom brings a crisis into their lives. We have to act decisively, plan shrewdly, to ensure a place in God's kingdom. That is where the parable proper ends: "And the master praised that dishonest manager, because he had acted shrewdly."
If this sounds terribly abstract to you, for your consolation, the early Christians seemed to feel the same way. After the death of Jesus, the parable was told and retold, at times and places where Christians were puzzled about its meaning – and didn't have a Jesuit to explain it! The result? Much moralizing over a cup of coffee. That's how you have the last part of today's Gospel: three applications, three concrete directives for living, which the generation after Jesus concluded from a puzzling parable.
Application 1: Make wise use of material possessions – what Luke calls "the mammon of dishonesty," dishonesty not because material things are evil in themselves, but because they can seduce you, lead you to dishonesty. Here we are faced with a gem of wisdom that should trouble any follower of Christ: "The children of this world are shrewder in dealing with their own generation than are the children of the light." Meaning what? Meaning this: Men and women, whose outlook on life is totally conditioned, solely shaped, by this world; men and women, who have no interest whatever in the godly aspects of human existence, are shrewder in dealing with their own kind that are the disciples of Christ in making their way to the goal that is God. Unbelievers put us to shame. Imitate their shrewdness!
Application 2 focuses on day-to-day fidelity. If you cannot be trusted with my lunch money, why should I trust you with my financial investment? If you are reckless in driving a broken down jeep, I'm not at all sure that you'll do better with my BMW.
Application 3 is a general attitude toward wealth: "You cannot serve both God and mammon." Not that you cannot have both; simply you cannot make both your master. Which of the two will you serve? If gold is your god, the God of Jesus Christ is not. Choose!
So much for the parable Jesus intended it, so much for what the early Christians drew from it. Now what of you and me? What might it say to you and me? What is Christ saying to you through the same parable today? For that you have to listen, not so much to me as to him. You have to say with the boy Samuel in the temple: "Speak Lord, for your servant is listening."
The basic link between the first century and the Third Millennium is what Jesus hinted at the close of the parable. Each of us has been put in a crisis situation. Not from kidnappers, hold-uppers, bank robbers, not from terrorists or nuclear bombs, or the coming semestral exams, not because a boss had given a termination notice, each Christian, rich or poor, insecure or happy-go-lucky, has to face up to a crisis - perhaps once, perhaps often, because the kingdom of God has been preached not only to the first century Jews, but to each of us.
The Kingdom of God is not a place, like America, or Canada, or the Middle East or Europe. The Kingdom of God, the heart of Jesus' preaching, is the rule of Christ over the human heart. Not political power, he is King of hearts, of our heart. "You are not your own," St. Paul insists to the Christians of Corinth, "you were bought with a price." What price? "The precious blood of Christ."
If we ask the young people of today what are the important goals of their lives, the answer would most likely be money, power, and fame. To the Christian eyes there is great danger in aspiring for these. Why dangerous? Because they tend to lead us to evil: to dishonesty, injustice, selfishness, and the destruction of the human spirit. When? Whenever goal number one is not God; whenever our primary purpose is not the age-old catechism response, "God made me to praise, reverence, and serve Him."; whenever to be alive does not mean, in the first place, life in Christ; whenever money, power, and reputation become gods, your masters instead of your servants.
The parable of the Dishonest Manager is a challenge to every Christian, more especially if we are gifted with the good things of earth, or hold in our hands the living or dying of others.
So then, look into your heart this Sunday of crisis. Discover what towers on top of your list of goals. See where God stands on the list, where money, power, fame, whatever. Then, like our manager friend but even more shrewdly, take the IOU you have with God, rip it up, write a new one – this time not less, but more, this time in tune with the command of Old Testament and New: "I shall love the Lord my God with all my heart, all my soul, and all my mind, all my strength." And while you're at it, you might as well add: "And I shall love others, all others as I love myself."