The parables of Jesus are little “stories with a mystery.” There is no “right” or “wrong” way to understand them – we are simply invited to ponder and tease them out a bit. For me, one of the more baffling parables is that of the Dishonest Steward or Manager found in Luke 16:1-13.
The story begins with the steward in some serious hot water. The King is threatening to fire him and he knows that this job loss will lead to total devastation; he knows if something doesn’t change, he is going to die a hard death of poverty and starvation. So, he sizes up his situation, has a moment of clarity and wastes no time executing his sly plan for survival.
While he still has power to make deals with his master’s money, he calls each of the debtors in for a one-on-one meeting; keeping each meeting private might be a clue that something shady is going on. He has each of them acknowledge how much they owe the Master and then has them altar the numbers. It is the manager’s idea, but the debtors change the amount owed in their own handwriting. Now they not only owe the manager something, they are partners in crime. The manager has taught them how to cook the books, but they have gone there willingly. After he’s fired, they will welcome him into their homes because if not, he will ‘out them’ to the Master.
Now Jesus comes in for the surprise ending, right? He says “And his master commended that dishonest manager for acting shrewdly.” (Say what now?)
John Shea says he hears this as a kind of begrudging admiration, like the Scotland yard investigator who puffs thoughtfully on his pipe at the scene of the crime and says “hmmm, well, you gotta give it to him – the crook really knew what he was doing.” But, truly, anyway you spin it, despite the manager’s questionable motives and ethics, it does appear that Jesus is praising him for acting shrewdly/prudently.
And perhaps we can relate. The manager is probably worried about feeding his kids and paying the mortgage. Think about the incredible lengths we would all go to ensure that our children are fed and housed. (I know I would do some pretty shady things…)
Jesus, in effect, is asking us today if we are that serious about their spiritual well-being?
In this parable, Jesus is really talking about our spiritual survival; he is saying that the “children of light” could take a couple plays from the “children of the world’s” playbook. Jesus is pointing out how we tend to be very savvy and shrewd in the ways of the world but are not as single-minded and wise when it comes to protecting our spirit.
Case in point. Jesus is always talking about the dangers of money, and this parable is no exception. Our relationship with wealth is without question one of (if not) THE most predominant subjects found in our scriptures; it is a profoundly spiritual matter.
Our own Catholic Social teachings says “God intended the earth and everything in it for the sake of ALL human beings, so goods must flow fairly to ALL. It is unjust for any person (or nation) to store up surplus goods solely for his or her own private use when others lack the bare necessities for life.”
As Dorothy Day said: “If you have two coats, the second one doesn’t belong to you. Yet our closets and basements are bursting with “stuff” we don’t need. There is an entire industry of storage units because we don’t have enough space for all our stuff.
Every year 15 million children die of starvation. This effects us. We are all connected. We aren’t able to find happiness or peace because we shouldn’t be able to. We should feel restless in our cozy beds at night when we know there are over 65 million refugees fleeing war right now, the highest level ever recorded, who have nothing – no home, no safety, no hope for their children…
Those of us who make $34,000 a year or more, are part of a very elite economic class, the wealthiest of the wealthy, the top 1 percent of humanity’s 7 billion people. WE are the 1% from a global perspective. And our excesses are making us sick and shallow as a society. Jesus’ words today may not sound like good news, but they are; hard, direct words of good news, because in the end, good social justice is good self-preservation – good spiritual health.
But it’s tough because we have lots of fear. Lots of anxiety about of not having enough. I literally begin to sweat when I think seriously about my kids’ college tuition and retirement. Don’t we all shutter when we hear stories on the news about the poor old woman who eats cat food or dies alone from heat exhaustion because she can’t afford air conditioning? This is scary stuff!
Yet Jesus says “do not be afraid or have anxiety…do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. It is God’s good pleasure to give us all that we need.”
Dishonest wealth in this reading doesn’t necessarily mean that we gained it dishonestly, it simply means that our wealth lies to us – it promises what it can never deliver. Wealth can never provide us with true happiness, security and peace. It has some power to provide nominal security, but it parades as an ultimate safety. Even with a huge retirement fund, the old woman still could die of loneliness and depression. We are squandering all our time and talent running after a false god. Social scientists tell us that poverty stems not from a lack of money but of a lack of relationships – faithful, reliable, social connections – the very building blocks of the Kingdom of God that Jesus dreamed for us.
We need to be trustworthy in little things and follow the instruction of the prophet Malachi that reads “Return to me. Don’t rob me of your tithe. Don’t keep me at a distance. Bring me the whole thing, the first fruits of your labor – a full 10% of your earnings so that there may be food in my house…Put me to the test. Try and surpass me in generosity!”
Tithing isn’t about money. It’s ridiculous to think God needs our money – ALL things belong to God. All that we have and own is just on lend for a few years. Tithing is about trust. God wants our trust. This is the real challenge that Jesus puts before us over and over again.
Giving is good, not just for others, but for us. Tithing is good news for us because it’s part of our user manual, so to speak…God designed us and knows how to keep us healthy (like putting oil in a car).
The true hallmark of those who believe in what Jesus taught is a life fashioned by choosing to live more simply…
Choosing intentionally to have less stuff…
Choosing to cease from amassing more stuff…
Living simply so that others may simply live, giving to those in need, not from our surplus but to the point that it pinches a little and trusting that God will provide all that we need…
Jesus is showing us the way, instructing us to follow him but many of us stand motionless on the path. We nod “Yes, I believe” but don’t trust him enough to take a step.
In closing, a story…
“Many years ago a man named Blonden strung a tightrope across Niagara Falls, and walked across the raging waters. A crowd gathered as he successfully made his way back to his starting place. He asked “Who here believes I can cross over again, but this time pushing a wheelbarrow?” The exhilarated crowd began shouting, “We believe, we believe!” And sure enough, Blonden steered that wheelbarrow successfully across the Falls and back, to the riotous applause of the onlookers!
Then he asked “Who here believes I can do it again? The crowd again shouted “We believe! We believe!” all the louder. Blonden turned to one of the men in the crowd who was cheering the loudest, looked him straight in the eye and said,
“Ok, then….get in.“
 Paraphrase John Shea