If you are left wondering what the parable of the wise steward is all about, you are not alone. Centuries of scholars, saints, pastors and wise guys have struggled with it. Some wonder why Jesus tells it; others wonder why Luke wrote it. Some of you are wondering right now why I am even trying to write about it!
I don’t know if I have a good spin on this story or not, and it’s not because I haven’t spent time reading it, thinking about it and doing some homework on it. One of the best ways to do one’s homework is to read a variety of sources. It’s also a great way to find interesting little stories that might be useful…like this one:
An expert on death and dying was presenting his seminar to a congregation to give them some idea of what the dying process is like. The first thing he did was to have people write down what they wanted to have on their memorial markers, assuming that they had died the day before.
You and I probably haven’t really thought much about our gravestones, although we know for certain that someone will put our dates of birth and death on it. In one of this expert’s seminars, a woman was still busy writing long after everyone else had finished. The presenter finally asked her what it was that was causing her to write so much and she said, “I’m writing down my potato salad recipe. You see, at every church potluck the women ask for my potato salad recipe and I tell them they can have it over my dead body – and that’s right where they’ll find it.”
The instructor then reads the poem that many of you have seen before about the ‘dash’ between those dates. It’s not the birth date or the date of death, it’s what we’ve done between the dates, in the “dash” area that matters. The best way to prepare for our own death is to live our life, living in such a way that we don’t leave just a ‘dash’ between the dates of our birth and death, but a genuine legacy.
The steward in today’s text leaves an interesting legacy. He is accused of being wasteful (Lk 16:1), but at the end he is remembered for being resourceful (Lk 16:8). It’s not clear what kind of wastefulness he was engaged in, but he was probably doing what most of us would do in a position of influence: he was taking advantage of his job for his own personal benefit.
We certainly understand the master’s desire to fire him, but it’s the steward’s response that is surprising. It’s not what we expect. The manager fixes the bookkeeping he has apparently misused and he changes them so that now they favor the master’s clients instead. In so doing, he makes the clients happy, but he also makes it difficult for the master to recoup the losses because no business owner would dare charge his clients more than their recorded debt.
The master, were he a capitalist in North America, would have been furious! Instead, this master praises the steward and the parable ends there. We don’t know what happens next. We don’t know if the steward keeps his job or gets fired, all we know is that we are called to become as shrewd as this steward.
But we need to listen carefully or we may think it’s telling us to learn how to lie, how to cheat, or how to steal. What Jesus really does is encourage us to learn how to be shrewd when dealing with money. One of the most important things I think we can learn from the shrewd manager is that relationships are more important than money. He knew how to use money and wealth to build relationships. Money was impersonal to him, something to which he was not attached. In fact, there is no direct indication that he absconded with any money. He didn’t like the idea of hard work. Nor was he after a “get-rich-quick” scheme. No, the money he had power over was simply a tool he knew how to use.
Unfortunately, we haven’t always learned that lesson. For some of us, money has power over us. It’s a competing god in our lives, competing for our allegiance among the many things that want us to give our full and undivided attention.
We see this in the lives of those who believe the most important legacy they can leave their children is a large inheritance, rather than a sense of purpose. We see it when people build enormous houses that require enormous amounts of time and energy to make the house function, rather than living within their means and investing money in projects that benefit others. We also see it in the lives of those who are constantly concerned that they need more money, instead of relying on their own talents and God’s grace to unleash the abundance that surrounds them at all times. So, when it comes down to it, perhaps we have all, at one time or another, been preoccupied with money.
When investigative reporters, as well as the FBI, are interested in learning the truth about a suspected criminal’s activities, they often “follow the money.” From the plane tickets to credit cards to bank accounts to verifiable addresses, the trail of the money often leads to the truth about a person’s life.
If we “follow the money” in our own lives, what do we will find? Have we invested in relationships? Have we invested both in our parish community and in the larger community? Have we invested in others? Or have we spent our money on ourselves, our entertainment, our investments for our future?
The shrewd manager knew that money was simply a tool to be used in building relationships. I suspect he was formerly predisposed to throwing parties for the rich, so that he would be respected by them. Maybe he bought them expensive gifts to sweeten his business deals….call it “customer relations” or “bribery”, there’s a fine line between them. Certainly, you and I know when people are trying to buy our friendship or allegiance rather than giving an honest expression of appreciation or gratitude.
The question is: what kind of gift do we bring to God? What kind of gift do we bring to the presence of Christ all around us? Is it a tacky attempt to purchase divine favor? Or is it a genuine token of gratitude?
When it comes to my own gravestone, I want to be remembered as someone who was faithful in both small and large things. We are, all of us, building some kind of legacy that we will leave when we are gone. With grace, I pray I will be able to become shrewd enough to use the gifts and tools I have been given to create and sustain relationships that last—ones that reflect my faith in God and my desire to do my part to co-create the Reign of God.