LIVING AS GOD’S FAITHFUL STEWARDS
Everyone, even secretly, has mused about sudden wealth. What would we do the money? Pay bills? Quit employment? Buy new dwellings? Go on an extended vacation? What would we do?
Of course, the opposite is true. We all fear losing the little money we have. What would happen if we lost our jobs? Our banks defaulted? Our retirement suddenly “went up in smoke?” What would we do?
Money has become a driving force in middle-class families. We dream about it. We fear living without it. Accumulated wealth has become a measure of self-worth in modern culture.
Like many of us, the priest sees the damage that money can cause. Lives are destroyed over money issues. Many annulment interviews begin with a discussion about what role money — either lack of it or pursuit of it — played in a divorce. Many parents mistake spending money on their children as acts of love. Too often all these parents have to show for their expenditures are broken toys. The worst damage to families is when there has been a death of a parent and money and possessions have to be divided. Greed often overtakes family love.
As a priest and religious myself, a word to my fellow priests and religious: we are very good at promoting the philanthropists of the world. We are very good at begging from the rich donors, and channelling the contributions of corporate institutions. Are we also tempted to build large money making institutions and corporate giants, all in the name of charity? A question that we could ask ourselves in the light of the gospel text of today is, as individuals and communities, are we sincerely ready to “use money, tainted as it is, to win you friends, and thus make sure that when it fails you, they will welcome you into eternal dwellings” (Lk 16:9).
How we use money can determine our own future. Jesus made the same observation. But with a different and unexpected result.
- In 2010, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates together launched a campaign to encourage the wealthiest people in the world to make a commitment to give most of their wealth to philanthropic causes. The project is called, “The Giving Pledge”. One of those who have committed themselves to this pledge is an Indian-born entrepreneur, who now lives in the US: Manoj Bhargava. In his pledge, he states, “Service to others seems the only intelligent choice for the use of wealth. The other choices especially personal consumption, seem either useless or harmful.” This statement, I believe, captures quite well the theme of this Sunday: Service to others seems the only intelligent choice for the use of wealth.
- Jon Pedley lived the life of a swinging millionaire until an alcohol-fueled car accident in 2002 left him comatose and on the verge of death. Miraculously, he survived, and soon experienced a profound change of heart. The UK millionaire—who indulged in alcohol, womanizing, and other vices—later found God and was inspired by the charity work of his friend in Uganda.
He decided to emulate his friend, and literally gave it all away in 2010 as he sold his $1.5 million farmhouse and businesses. Pedley then used the proceeds to move to a mud hut in Uganda and start a charity for local orphans. The charity wasn’t only for the local children, either—British children with a troubled past were also sent there to help the locals and ultimately help themselves. For Pedley, it was a cathartic release from his once-decadent lifestyle—he remarked that “I’ve never been more sure about anything in my life” when asked if he really wanted to go through with it.
- Real estate and hotel tycoon Yu Panglin announced in 2010 that he had donated his remaining $470 million to his charity foundation, which became worth $1.2 billion. Yu stated that he did not want to leave anything to his two sons and encouraged his wealthy compatriots to do the same. To avoid abuse, Yu designated HSBC to look after the funds and gave explicit instructions no one could invest or inherit it.
Yu later explained his philanthropic views stemmed from his childhood experiences. He grew up in poverty and witnessed the hardships the poor have had to endure in life. He also explained that he left nothing to his two sons because all that money might corrupt them and expressed his belief that could they handle themselves without it. Such generosity has placed him consistently as China’s top philanthropist for several years in a row.
First Reading: Strange things happen when people suddenly become rich. People with money want more money. Material possession becomes a higher value, even an obsession.
The prophet Amos preached on this weakness. From a village in southern Judah, Amos traveled to the northern kingdom of Israel to condemn the rich land gentry. As a shepherd from the desert, Amos could not believe his eyes; here poor people were starving in a rich agricultural land, a land that “flowed with milk and honey.” Amos considered dire poverty in the midst of such prosperity an outrage.
Riches bring privilege and responsibility. Money’s privilege means freedom from material want. But riches also bring the responsibility to help others in need. The pursuit of money can blind some to this responsibility; obsession with money leaves some incapable of compassion.
Put your wealth in prayer before the Lord. Ask him to guide you in its use.
Second Reading: What would be the ideal Christian life? The author of 2 Timothy described this life in terms of peace, piety, and evangelization. The desire for a peaceful life is almost universal. The author encouraged everyone to pray for their nation and its leaders (even if the leaders were hated), so God would bless the faithful with freedom from persecution, harassment, and prejudice. This freedom would allow followers of the Lord to live an ethical lifestyle and to evangelize.
Gospel: Scholars and Christians in general struggle with this parable, as to its central point and the use of a steward of questionable character as a central figure and example.
Let’s deal with the steward first. The steward is said to be wasteful with the property of the rich man, and that he was dishonest. So we accept that at least at the outset of the story, in his actions up to this point, the steward has been dishonest in some manner. But does this behavior continue, once he is given notice? Possibly not, or at least the focus is not upon unethical behavior but shrewd behavior. While we might be inclined to assume he is still acting unethically in reducing the debt owed to the master, it is possible that the reduction of the debt was the money owed to this steward himself as his own commission and not upon the principal owed to the master himself. Such an interpretation is consistent with ancient practice, in which an absentee landlord of one sort or another appointed a manager for his affairs, which manager had great latitude in management and providing for his own commission. We should not think of this steward as a low-level servant with no personal authority, but more a manager empowered to act in the absence of the owner. Now this point is debated in the scholarly world, but it is one plausible alternative to a common perception that the steward was reducing what was owed to the rich man himself. Otherwise, one is hard pressed to know why the rich man would commend the steward, if it was at his own loss. Still, it may be that the rich man was so impressed with his shrewdness and the recovery of some of his money, that he ultimately praises him, regardless.
But whether or not the steward wrote off his own commission or the principal owed his employer, we must not allow the issue of ethics obscure the central point. Given what follows this parable in this chapter of Luke, it would seem that Jesus is making a point about our possessions and our focus, especially in light of the Kingdom of God. The use of possessions is a common theme in Luke and Acts, with possessions reflecting the interior disposition of a person. Those who are generous with possessions, giving alms and putting money and property at the disposal of the Church are clearly of right heart and living the Christian message. On the other hand, there are examples of those who hold to possessions and reveal that they are holding to this world or somehow excluding themselves from the Kingdom. A couple example of this are Judas Iscariot, who bought land with his blood money and died upon this possession, and the married couple Ananias & Sapphira, who conspired against the Holy Spirit in a deception involving property. So what is the point of the parable? At least one interpretation would be that we should use wisely and appropriately the things of this world, in light of the Kingdom to come, for just as the shrewd manager exercised prudence in light of his future life, so too should the Christian in light of the hope for heavenly life. This would certainly include the giving of alms, which should be done out of fraternal charity and establishes a spiritual friendship which will endure unto life eternal. But this, of course, is only a starting point. Whatever we have been given by God should be used or shared with an eye to what lies ahead, lest we end up with no friends and even outside of the Kingdom. It is not simply a matter of money and property, but all that we have been given by God.
As a final note, certainly it is no accident that Jesus chose a shrewd, even dishonest figure as a main character; for it provides a nice motivating contrast: if such a man is so enterprising in purely world matters, should not we Christians be even more enterprising or dedicated to values and matters of the Kingdom of God. Yes, of course!
In the Gospel, Jesus brings to light the fact that money and material things do not last forever, and therefore advises us on how to make use of them without losing our salvation. “The best way to invest,” a saying goes, “is to invest in human beings, especially the poor”. We should therefore learn from St Lawrence the martyr, patron of the poor and cooks, who presented to the Prefect of Rome fifteen hundred poor people he maintained as the Church’s treasure, instead of silver and gold. Amassing money and wealth for ourselves without using them to help those in need only amounts to shear greed and stupidity which profits nothing. It equally amounts to mere love of money and material things over and above God and our neighbours. This leads to idolatry because they become the only source of one’s happiness and joy. As long as they are there one remains happy, but when they are not there, one’s happiness fizzles out. That is why Paul warns us that: “The love of money is the root of all evil” (ITim 6, 10). Money and wealth only have value in so far as they are used judiciously to help oneself and the needy around us. Only fools hold tenaciously to money and wealth over and above God, and to the detriment of the poor. By doing this they indirectly, “say in their hearts there is no God” (Ps 14:1), because of the satisfaction they derive from their money and wealth. Only the ungodly use their wealth to oppress the poor and the weak, but the wise and the shrewd use them to help people. When we are blessed by God with wealth, it is important to realize that we are only but managers or stewards of it, for the purpose of its equitable distribution to those in need of it and not for our own selfish interest.
Finally, we are not to manipulate the poor and needy for economic gains. Jesus Christ who is their defender will surely fight their cause because of the injustices meted out on them. He has sacrificed himself for humanity, the poor inclusive, and therefore any form of injustice or oppression of the poor or weak as Amos decries will cry out to Jesus for vengeance as the blood of Abel did from the earth against Cain. This is because Jesus is the one who raises the poor from the hopeless state and lifts the lowly from the dust.
Let us not be satisfied with just giving money. Money is not enough,
money can be got, but they need your hearts to love them.
So, spread your love everywhere you go.
St. Teresa of Calcutta
Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.