The parable in today’s Gospel reading reminds me of a physics professor I had in college. The professor loved to tell a story about a failed project by a group of engineers who wanted to provide a clean water source to a remote village in a developing nation. The engineers solicited a donation of a state-of-the-art water purification system, and brought the equipment to the village along with a high-tech electrical generator to power to system.
When they returned to the village a year later they found the water purification system unused, and the villagers still drinking from a contaminated cistern. At first they were insulted that the villagers were not using their donated equipment. Then, they learned that the equipment remained unused because no one in the village knew how to maintain it. The generator had broken down, and replacement parts were impossible to obtain. The engineers thought they were being very generous. Instead, they were being very unrealistic.
Realizing their failure, they came up with a smarter solution. They dug a well in an area unaffected by the local contamination, and installed a simple hand-operated pump. The villagers had to walk a short distance to get water, but it was clean and abundant. Most importantly, when the hand-operated pump broke down it could be repaired with locally available materials. The engineers’ second project became a model for similar projects throughout the region.
The steward in today’s parable would have been responsible to supervise purchases and sales, collect debts, remit payments and look after other financial matters. His job security would have depended on his ability to make a profit for his master. Today, the CEO’s of publicly traded companies are answerable to stock holders for corporate profits or losses. In a similar way, this steward would have been expected to make money for his master. Typically, such a steward would have been allowed to take a share of the profits, as a performance incentive.
Evidently, the steward wasn’t very good at his job; he probably hadn’t made enough of a profit from his various business deals. (Luke 16:1) When he learned he had lost his job, he decided to use his last few minutes to his advantage. (Luke 16:3-7) Like the engineers in the physics professor’s story, he devised a clever means to remedy his failure. While this parable seems to glorify the self-serving behavior of the steward, there is another lesson here.
Because of our cultural prejudices we tend to focus on the man’s dishonesty when he discounted the debts owed to his former master. In doing so, however, we fail to see his cleverness. He was probably trying to impress his master with his ingenuity, hoping that this would get his job back. Failing that, he would have at least made some friends. He gave his master’s debtors relief from their debts, and (without his master’s knowledge or approval), he made the master look exceedingly generous. In the end, everyone gained something. The steward’s demonstration of resourcefulness succeeded, and his master retained him in his position. (Luke 16:8)
Jesus summed up the parable by saying, “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” (Luke 16:8) The clever failure in the parable was very manipulative; he was very effective at soliciting approval from his employer. In addressing this parable to his disciples, Jesus was saying to them, “This manipulative failure was very clever about looking after his own well-being. What are you (my disciples), going to do with your lives?” The unprofitable steward is not an example to be imitated; rather, he is an example against which to measure ourselves.
One might argue that the greedy, incompetent frauds in society have an advantage over honest people. If a person is clever enough, and sufficiently determined, that person can probably find a way to manipulate an unfair advantage in any situation. Our society is full of people who have learned to game the system. For some of them the “system” is their employer or their customers. For others, the “system” is government entitlement programs. There are plenty of examples of frauds and cheats and free-loaders in the world. Most of us are satisfied with merely complaining about such behavior, but Jesus asks, “What’s your excuse? If someone with nothing but dishonesty as a talent can do well, what about you – with all your advantages?”
For a moment, think of all the stuff you own and enjoy. Think of all the leisure time available to you. Think of all the wonderful people in your life. Most of us have more advantages, opportunities and blessings than we can count. What are we going to do with it all?
Take another moment to think of all your worries and concerns. What about all the things that annoy you (like the frauds, cheaters and free-loaders)? Do any of them really merit your long-term attention?
All of us have heard the Gospel preached, and have received the gift of faith. We’ve been baptized, confirmed and invited to the table of the Eucharist. Doesn’t it seem like we ought to be doing something with these many God-given gifts?
There is a finite amount of time allotted to each of us in this life. There are a finite number of opportunities available to serve those in need. Eventually, our time and opportunities will expire; at that time, there will be no possibility for more. Wouldn’t it be a shame to waste those resources?
Jesus reminds us, as he did his disciples, that we enjoy the inestimable wealth of being his followers. That great blessing does very little for anyone (ourselves included), if we do nothing with it. Each day, all day long, we are surrounded by opportunities to witness to our faith, to care for the poor and to show compassion to our fellow human beings. In other words, while we live in this world, we are given the possibility to enter into God’s world (the Kingdom). What are you going to do about it today?
Like the steward in the story, like the CEO of a large corporation, we will be held accountable for what we do with all the advantages and opportunities we’ve been given. There’s no valid excuse for wasting opportunities to serve God and neighbor. Jesus reminded his disciples, “If a dishonest steward can redeem his failure, what’s your excuse for not doing the right thing?”