25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Am 8:4-7;1 Tm 2:1-8; Lk 16:1-13
In our First Reading and Responsorial Psalm there is a lot of talk about how God takes special heed of the poor and the needy. Then our Gospel Reading for the day has the parable of the dishonest steward and ends with the zinger: “You cannot serve both God and mammon.”
I think the theme is basically our relationship with wealth and material goods. To illustrate the point I would like to use an image. Say that a single dad buys his boy a bicycle for his birthday. Beforehand, he was debating whether to get him a this or a that, but then decided on a bicycle. So afterwards, when he sees his son really enjoying his bicycle and spending a lot of time with it, it makes the dad happy because he feels like he made the right choice and his main objective was to give his son joy since he loves him so much. In the same way, it gives God joy to see us using the gifts he has given us and enjoying them. It may not feel like our material possessions came from God since we worked hard for them and it took skill and good choices and self-discipline, but our talents and abilities are God-given and our opportunities in life were made possible by God. Just the fact that we were born at this time in history, in this country, and into this family make us very privileged. So many people in the world don’t have the kind of chances we have. It’s kind of like teamwork, though – we have to work hard to develop our gifts and bring our opportunities to fruition. Once we have gained material possessions it’s okay to take delight in them. Like the kid with the bicycle, it gives God joy and glory to enjoy the gifts he has made possible for us.
Now back to the bicycle, say that the boy gets so obsessed with the bicycle that he spends all his time and effort riding it and oiling it and polishing it. He’s very possessive of it and won’t let any other kid ride it. Furthermore, he is so absorbed by the silly bicycle that he forgets all about his dad and doesn’t show him any attention or affection or gratitude. That would make the dad sad. And I think that’s what Jesus is getting at when he says in the commentary after today’s parable, “No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.” One doesn’t have to look very far to see examples of people who are too absorbed in their possessions and their pursuits and their reputations – all at the expense of neglecting God. They’re more in love with the gift than the Giver of the gift. They’re like a woman who is given a ring by a man. He gives it as a symbol of his love and devotion and as a sign of their unity for life. She ends up being more enamored with the ring and its beautiful rock than the person in love with her and his tender heart.
So let’s tweak the bicycle example in another direction and say that the boy is very grateful for the bike and is very liberal in expressing his thanks to his dad. Rather than becoming too attached to the gift, it is the occasion for him to become even more attached to his father. He keeps the two things in their proper balance and prizes his father’s love and joy and glory much more than a bicycle that is shiny today and rusty tomorrow. This all makes his father very happy and content. Even further, the father is delighted to see that his son is very generous in sharing his bicycle with others, especially other kids in the area whose parents don’t have enough money to buy them bicycles. The joy of the gift is not just kept for one person but spread all around. When the father sees how maturely the son receives the gift, he is likely to give him a new bike every year!
So I guess the bottom line isn’t that material possessions are bad in themselves but it’s the amount of attachment we have in them. We have to keep checking ourselves to make sure our principle attachment is to God – the Giver of all gifts. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Our heart will tell us where our treasure really lies. If we’re becoming too absorbed in the gift, we have to do whatever is necessary to detach ourselves.
Recently, my oldest sister wrote an article for a periodical in which she described how she started collecting antiques and then specialized in collecting antique quilts. She became really good at it and had quite a few all around her house. But then some of the verses of Scripture like the ones we’ve been exploring pricked her conscience and she felt the prompting to start getting rid of her prized quilts. She said it was very freeing and she felt a real lightness as she moved in that direction. Similarly, I became engrossed with restoring antique clocks. The passion was so strong that it caused me to compromise some of the rules of the monastery. I very much felt the conviction of the verse, “No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.”
How easily we’re willing to part with our possessions can be a good indicator of how attached we are to them. Sharing our wealth generously with the poor can make God very happy, just like the kid sharing his bike with the less fortunate. God has given us opportunities and aptitudes that he hasn’t given to some of these other people on the globe. He has given them to us, not just for ourselves, but to be spread around. You know, there are actually enough resources on our planet for everyone to live comfortably if things were distributed evenly and fairly. But given the ugly human realities like greed, corruption, and general insensitivity, a minority are living in luxury and a majority are living in poverty. As the saying goes, live simply that others may simply live. And the more generous we are with sharing with the poor, the more God will turn up the spigot on the gifts coming our way.
And this helps throw light on the verse in today’s Gospel passage, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” After we die and are judged, we will be rated, not on how big our home was, or how fancy our car, or our position in society, but on how well we noticed people who were in need and came to their assistance. Remember Matthew 28 where the sheep were being separated from the goats. People weren’t commended or condemned on the amount of their possessions but on how they treated their brothers and sisters who were in a bad way. Do you want to spend eternity as a sheep or a goat? Being overly attached to trinkets is too much of a short-term thrill. We need to keep our sights on how things will be 500 years from now.
All this talk about possessions may seem to leave the people on this side of the rail out of the loop, but there are messages here for us monks too. St. Benedict warns that we can give up everything and enter a monastery and then become overly attached to something as simple as a knife or a writing pen. Whether it is a rope or a thread tied to a bird’s leg, it’s still not able to fly away in freedom. There are other opportunities to be generous, like visiting older monks in the infirmary, pitching in when help is needed here and there, and lending a listening, interested ear when someone wants to chat. Also, I think as a monastery we should be very generous in donating money to the poor – both here at home and abroad.
So, in summary, keep things in proper perspective. Material things do not last. Eternal things do. Do not become too absorbed with things of this world but rather use them in a way that will better position us in the world to come.