In Jesus’ time, large agricultural operations such as the one described in our gospel parable were rarely run by the owner or the family, such things were left to the steward to oversee. The steward had the full faith and backing of the owner to operate the business. The steward would sell the oil and wheat production for cash, trade, or in exchange for promissory notes. The bartering that preceded the execution of the promissory note was classic commodity bargaining: I will give you so many measure of oil now, and at this future date you will repay with a higher measure of oil. There were two thing buried in the difference between the higher amount and the original amount: profit for the owner and commission for the steward. That was the way things worked.
When his stewardship comes to light, the owner leaves him in his office of responsibility to make a final accounting. The steward goes to one client to verify how many measures of oil are owed. Just so you know, a “measure” of oil is an industrial quantity equal to about 6-8 bathtubs of oil. So, 100 measures of oil is a large debt. The 100 measure of oil is the “strike price” of the deal made. What we do not know is the original measures of oil traded. This is what makes this parable of the dishonest steward so notoriously difficult to pin down.
In reducing the promissory note from 100 to 50 measures of oil is he (a) cheating the owner, or maybe (b) taking out the owner’s profit and his own commission, or (c) maybe the steward was the one who took advantage of the deal and wrote in a huge commission for himself and now is giving up those riches in order to have friends in high places so he can again work as steward rather than digging ditches? Has the steward come to a moment of conversion and is making things right? Is just continuing to be a scoundrel and working the system for his own benefit? He is just making the best out of a bad situation?
As I said, this is a notoriously difficult parable to understand. What we do know is that the owner commends the steward for his actions. And there is this simple verse: “I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”
The verse would have made more sense to end with “you will be welcomed to what comes next.” But the verse is concerned with “eternal dwellings.” That was also the concern in last week’s gospel, the Prodigal Son. It is hard not to notice some parallels between the two parables.
Just like the prodigal son in last week’s gospel, the steward has lead a wasteful and dishonest life. Where the prodigal son disrespected and dishonored his father and is clearly in the wrong – at least in the first half of that parable, the steward’s actions are less clear. I mean, he is allowed to make deals, right? He’s entitled to his commission – right? He is just taking care of business, taking care of his own people – right? The prodigal son works up an entire speech about what a terrible son he has been, he doesn’t deserve to be a son, but a servant at best – at least that puts him inside his father’s house, right? That eternal dwelling. The steward doesn’t work up a speech, he works up new promissory notes.
Maybe I am just an optimist, but I lean to the interpretation where the steward, like the prodigal son, has had a moment of conversion; has come to his senses. He goes to the debtors and makes things as right as he can, giving up his commission and the owner’s unjust profits. He uses the dishonest part of the wealth to restore what justice he can, and then places himself at the mercy of what comes next.
What remains is honest wealth, and a heart now open to true riches.
It is not just parables of prodigal sons and dishonest stewards. It is the tax collector Matthew at his post, unjustly levying commissions and taxes on the people. Jesus looked at him with feelings of love and chose him, he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Matthew, sinner, followed. The prodigal son, a sinner, followed. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, better known as Pope Francis, a sinner, he too followed.
In the amazing interview published this week, Pope Francis said that one of the most compelling painting is ‘The Calling of St. Matthew,’ by Caravaggio. The Pope reflected:
“That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew….It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine.’ Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze. And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as pontiff.” Then the pope whispered: “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.”
The prodigal son, the dishonest steward, and St. Matthew – all decided to let go, follow Jesus, and find an eternal dwelling, to serve one master, to trust in the mercy of God, and then go where life would take them. Pope Francis – found great inspiration in Caravaggio’s painting. I would guess he let go of something to follow a road of mercy and holiness.
And then there is us… Here is what I believe – what I hope. We all have been brought to moments of conversion – moments we are so aware we are the prodigal son, dishonest steward, we are Matthew. And sometimes those moment pass without change. But those moments come again, again, and again because the Lord is ever calling. It is just as the second reading tells us, God desires that all be saved (1 Tim 2:4).
That divine moment is coming again, will we respond: “No, not me! No, this money is mine.” Or will we respond with Pope Francis: “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.”
If we can do that, what is prodigal in our lives, what is dishonest in our lives, those things we desperately clutch, they will begin to fall away. What will be left is honest, is holy, and of God. True wealth.
Note: I am away this weekend, so I thought I would post a homily from several years ago.
Image: Ian Pollack – http://ianpollock.co.uk/
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