One late evening, a gunman accosted a finely-dressed man who just parked in front of an expensive jewelry store in Washington DC. Pointing the gun at him, he demanded, “Hand me all YOUR money.” The man was indignant and busted out: “Do you know the person you’re threatening? I’m a US Congressman!” “Oh,” replied the gunman, “in that case, hand me MY money.” That sounds like what the rich man in today’s Gospel wanted: his money (J. Robinson).
The story sounds complex but it actually isn’t. The shrewd and unjust steward of the parable might have done some other thing because of which his master is sending him packing. Whatever it is, the Gospel passage was silent. But that he lowered the value or amount owed by debtors to his master was nothing unusual in the Palestinian commercial circumstances of the time. He merely subtracted a substantial amount that would have gone to him as commission so the debtors could pay only the amount that the master merited. Technically, it was he who lost money. You can compare it to the prudence of a basketball team that trades away a good player because he is eligible for free agency and will leave anyway. Years ago the Thunder management showed naivety in letting Kevin Durant’s contract expire so he could walk free to any team he wanted. When they realized that he wasn’t going to renew his contract, they should have sold him a year or so before the expiration date.
The servant in the Gospel was astutely working his way into another job; in fact, he created many opportunities for himself by the apparent favor he bestowed on the debtors. We do that ourselves in many ways when making business deals, whether it is selling our used car or house or equipment. We don’t spend money to paint the house we’re putting on the market because we necessarily want to do a favor to the buyer. We just think it’ll raise its value. Retailers psychologically manipulate buyers by marking a product $19.99 to create the false impression that it isn’t $20. Sprinters try to anticipate the gun so they get one false start. A center on a football team will almost always try to get a couple inches out of the referees’ blind spot. Here’s Jesus’ concern in the parable: we do not apply this same ingenuity to the one thing that really matters, namely, our eternal salvation. He’s asking how often we sit down to plot how to use our talents to become better Christians? How many times have you thought out ways to circumvent moral problems when they arise? What’s your best tactic for defeating the temptation to pornography? Have we sat down to plot how to implant the practice of faith in our family? We do these in mundane areas like commerce and politics but are less resourceful in planning for our eternal salvation.
Amos decries the astuteness with which people cheat with scales, inflate money in order to pull a windfall from the poor. But when it involves the things of the spirt, people surrender their cleverness, skill and plain nerve. Hence, the Gospel centers on 1) the condition of the rich before God; 2) the abuse of riches; and 3) how to make reparations for this abuse. The rich person who may be a CEO, a manager or a steward is not the absolute owner of wealth. The true owner of everything we claim as ours is God. We’re only secondary, relative and dependent stewards of God’s gifts and talents and we should not abuse, rather use them in distributive justice to advance the good of others, especially the poor. The poor ask in the name of God for charity and justice in the allocation of the riches God gave to all. Am I advocating that you give all your money to the first guy you find standing at the street corner? No! But we must give until it hurts, realizing that “what you kept, you lost; what you spent, you had; but what you gave, you have” (Epitaph on an English tombstone).
Fr. Chukwudi Jo Okonkwo