A Question of Generosity
September 19, 2004
This is a peculiar parable. Why is it that we find Jesus at the end praising a dishonest person? What is there about the actions of the crooked steward that Jesus finds good and invites us to imitate?
To answer this question we have to be sure that we understand the parable correctly. The manager was certainly dishonest. He clearly squandered his master’s property and was being fired because of it. But it is important that we understand correctly what his actions were, once his dishonesty had been found out. Normally we presume that when he brought in his master’s debtors and reduced their bills that he was further cheating his master. But this is not the case. In the ancient world managers were given their income through commission. When the manager in the parable reduced the debtors’ bills, he was not removing his master’s profit but his own. His hope was that by giving back to the debtors what was his own, they would recognize his shrewdness and generosity. Then, once he was fired, they might welcome him into their own financial operations. It was a risk to be sure. There was no guarantee that the debtors would respond in this way.
But what is noteworthy about this dishonest manager is that he had the insight to size up his situation and realize that the only possibility for future employment and security was to give away what he presently possessed. It is this insight and this action that Jesus commends and invites us to imitate. Because Jesus knows that if we correctly size up our present situation, we will realize that the only way to our future security is to give away some of what we possess today.
What is our present situation? Let me state this as clearly as I can. Everything we have is a gift: our life, our time, our relationships, our health, our money. Everything we have is a gift. This realization should certainly lead us to thankfulness. But thankfulness is not enough. Thankfulness must give way to generosity. For generosity is the sign of the kingdom of God. The person who understands God’s kingdom understands that everything that we have been given has been given to us to share. Faithful stewardship requires giving back part of what we have been given.
Why is giving back so important? Two reasons: others need it and generosity is good for us. There is no doubt that others need the things that we possess. You cannot go more than two feet without running into one of the many needs that exist in our world. People need our time, our presence, our money. God loves all people. So whenever anyone is hungry or sick or depressed God is counting on us and on our resources to help that person. Christians know this better than anyone else because the gospel tells us that whatever we fail to do for the least of our brothers or sisters we fail to do for Jesus. Therefore, refusing to give of what we have been given is a bad idea, a poor decision. Our relationship to God is connected to our generosity to others. We give because others are in need.
We also give because generosity is good for us. The deepest joy in life is giving out of love. Parents know this. Lovers know this. Sometimes we think that what is going to make us happy is to hold onto our time, to conserve our talents, to hoard our money. But this is not true. Joy comes from giving, giving freely and with love. The deepest moments of joy occur in the context of generosity.
Everything you have is a gift, a gift for which to be thankful and a gift to share. Holding onto the things we have been given will not make us happy. Giving what we have away will help others and give us the deepest joy.
So that is our present situation. That is how things stand. When the dishonest manager in the gospel saw how things stood, he did not hesitate. He swung into action. He started giving what he had away. We are called to follow his example. This week you will be given time, the opportunity to use your talents, and money. You could choose to hold onto all of these things and use them only for yourself, but that would be a bad idea, a poor investment. The gospel today poses a wiser and more helpful question. It asks us, “This week, how much of your time and your talent and your money are you willing to give away?”
Worship as Power
September 23, 2007
1 Timothy 2:1-8
Usually when we come to this part of the liturgy, this assembly settles back and passively wonders, “What is Father George going to talk about this week?” Today is going to be a little different. For the homily today I need your participation. I need you to sing. Now why you need to sing will become obvious as we move forward. The music is simple. It is a responsorial psalm we use here frequently. So let’s practice your part. I will be the cantor, so just repeat after me. But when we sing it, I would like you to sing with as much meaning and as much prayerfulness as you can.
Fr. George: (singing) “In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge, you have been our refuge.”
Congregation: (singing) “In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge, you have been our refuge.”
Very nice. So in the homily you will need to sing one more time. When you hear the piano just come right in. But again sing with as much faith and energy as you have.
Not too long ago I received a phone call. A man’s voice said, “Father, I am not a parishioner, but I’d like a few minutes of your time.” “Is there a problem?” I said. “Well, yes and no,” the voice said, “but I’d like to talk to you face to face.” So we set up an appointment. When he came in, I saw he was a man in his forties. He sat down in my office, and he said to me, “I’ve come here to say thank you.” “Okay,” I said, not sure what he meant. He told this story:
“A few weeks ago,” he said, “my seventeen year old son was injured in a traffic accident. He slipped into a coma, and the doctors told us he might not make it. My wife and I were in shock. Just yesterday our boy, our beautiful boy, was so full of strength and health and life, and today he lay motionless in a bed. We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know how to focus. We were close to despair. We sat for days at his bedside. When the weekend came around, my wife looked at me and said, ‘I think one of us should go to church.’ It made sense. We were a Catholic family, and we certainly had something to pray for. So I said, ‘I’ll go.’ I asked the nurse for a list of catholic churches, and I chose St. Noel, because I thought I knew how to find it.”
“But as I was driving here,I thought, ‘What am I doing? I can’t pray. I can’t even focus. And if I were to pray, what would I ask for? Would I say, ‘God, take care of my son?’ Where was God when the truck hit him? It became clear I was driving to pray to a God who I believed had abandoned us, and I had no idea if I could pray and no words that I could say. But I had promised my wife that I would go. So I parked my car in your parking lot. I walked in, and a man with a kind smile handed me a bulletin. The Mass had already begun. I sat down surrounded by people I didn’t know. I was in a daze, lost in my own numbness. My mind and my heart were a thousand miles away. I remember that the first reading came to an end, that a cantor stood up and intoned the psalm: ‘In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.’ Then I heard,”
Congregation: (singing) “In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge, you have been our refuge.”
“I was surrounded by voices, singing words of faith. I began to cry. At first I didn’t know why, but then I heard the words: God is my refuge. That was what I needed to believe. That was the prayer I needed to say. I couldn’t say it, but the people around me were singing it for me. I found myself taken up into the song. It felt like hundreds of arms embracing me and supporting me. I began to sing along. With each verse I sang a little stronger. Somehow, by the end of the psalm, something in me was healed. I devoured the rest of the liturgy. To my surprise, I discovered as I came to communion that I was receiving communion with hope. I left your church, Father, different, changed for the better.
“When I walked back to the hospital room, my wife noticed it immediately. ‘What happened?’ she said. I said to her, ‘Honey, I think we’re going to make it. I think he’s going to be okay.’ Three days later, my son came out of the coma. We are taking him home tomorrow. But I wanted to come here first to ask you to find a way to tell your parish community ‘thank you.’”
That is what I am doing this weekend at all the Masses. It is a good thing to do, because this story, which is a true story, points to who we are and why we worship God. It is so easy to come to Mass every weekend in a dull routine. We sit down and immediately our mind is somewhere else. We are here physically, but not actively. We say, “Let somebody else say the words. Let somebody else sing the psalm.” But to take that attitude would be to neglect our duty and our privilege. It is a privilege and a duty to praise and worship God, and when we do it fully, we also help others.
Today’s second reading from First Timothy says, “I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone.” Timothy is not simply saying to pray for others privately. He is asking us to pray for others when we gather as an assembly to celebrate the liturgy. This is who we are. This is why the parishioners who came before us built this church building, so we would have a place to come together, and together express what we believe. We are called not only to believe in our hearts, but believe publicly. We are not only to sing in the shower, but sing before the whole world.
I think we worship well here at St. Noel. The story that I told you proves it. But we have to continue to do that, not only for God, not only for ourselves, but for others. We need every voice to be an active voice, a voice that joins in and adds to our expression of faith together. Every voice, children, teens, men, and women needs to speak and sing in words of praise. When we sing that way, we not only praise God, but we help one another. You will never know who might walk into this church on a particular weekend. You may never know the burden that the person a few rows next to you is carrying. This is why we need to be who we are. We need to be a community which says by our enthusiasm and our participation, “Here we are. We have faith, hope, and love. If your faith, hope, and love are weak, lean on us, take strength from our strength.”
We are called to worship God. But in worshipping, we help one another. Let us recommit ourselves to participating in our liturgy fully and deeply. To make that commitment would be a very wise choice, because it is only a matter of time before something in our life brings us to the moment when we cannot believe, when we cannot pray. Then in that moment you will know what to do. You will know where to go. You will say, “I need to go and worship with my parish community, because today is the day that they must pray for me.”
Entrepreneurs for the Kingdom
September 18, 2010
So what are we to make of this rather strange parable that we have just heard? Jesus sets before us a manager who is dishonest and who has squandered his master’s property. When he finds out that he is about to be fired, he acts more dishonestly to make sure that others are indebted to him and will take care of him once he is dismissed. Then, at the end of the parable, the master commends the dishonest manager, and we are left with the impression that this manager is set before us as an example to imitate.
What are we to make of Jesus’ words? Let’s start with a clarification. We are indeed called to imitate the manager. But we are not called to imitate his dishonesty. There is only one quality in the manager that is held up for our imitation. It is the quality for which master commends him at the end of the parable. What is this quality? The Greek word that is in the text is translated in various ways. One translation says the master commended the dishonest servant because he acted “prudently.” Another translation says, the master commended the dishonest manager because he acted “shrewdly.” The translation I prefer is, the master commended the dishonest manager “because he was enterprising.” So, we are called to imitate the dishonest manager not by being dishonest, but by being enterprising.
What does this mean? Well, to draw a word from modern times and to apply it to this situation, we can see the manager as an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur is a positive word which we use to describe a person who has the skills and abilities to be successful in business. What are those skills? The skills to be able to read a situation, to devise a plan, and to put that plan into action. This is exactly what the manager does in the parable. When it becomes clear that he is going to be fired, he reads the situation. He does not sit back and feel sorry for himself. But, he devises a plan and he puts it into action, so that others will be treat him well in the future.
Jesus appreciates this kind of entrepreneurial spirit. Not the dishonesty, but the energy and the risk taking that the manager engages in for his own self preservation. In fact, Jesus says that we should look to the manager and apply some of those same qualities to our following of the gospel. He says that the children of this world (the manager) show more initiative in dealing with their own kind than do the children of the light (we who follow Jesus). Jesus want us to see in the example of successful entrepreneurs an energy and a risk taking that will be used to spread the gospel.
We see that example everywhere in our world. There are thousands of people who work for Microsoft and Apple who spend day after day trying new designs to develop a better phone or personal information platform. The act this way because they know that if they establish an edge over the competition, they are going to make a lot of money. The are thousand of investors and lawyers on Wall Street who think night and day how they can develop new instruments for investments, new ways to make money. They do this because they know that if they can attract investors, they are going to be rich. There are thousands of people who work for British Petroleum who have developed the most technically advanced research in the world so that they can draw oil from two miles down below the ocean’s surface. They invest billions of dollars and hours and hours of work because they know if they can extract that oil, they are going to one of the most successful companies in the world.
Now, is all of this risk taking and energy in Silicone Valley and Wall Street and the Gulf of Mexico ethical? Not always. Are the risks taken always successful? No, and sometimes we end up paying the price. But, despite these things, you have to give these entrepreneurs credit. They are very good at what they do. They spend time, energy, and creativity in order to be successful. Jesus points to their actions in order to challenge us to devote some of our energy and risk taking to spiritual and personal values.
The gospel challenges us this week is to take some of the energy that we invest in our work and apply it to the things of God’s Kingdom. Can we spend some of the energy this week listening to our spouse, communicating with our children, showing kindness to someone who is suffering because of sickness or grief? Can we apply some of the risk that we are willing to take in our business adventures and direct it to the gospel? Could we risk reconciling with someone who has hurt us, understanding someone who thinks differently than we do, opening our hearts and our minds in the effort to unseat an stubborn prejudice?
God’s work will not be done on its own. The world can not change without our cooperation. Jesus calls us to be entrepreneurs for the Kingdom, to apply our energy, our creativity, and our commitment to build justice and understanding among us. Can’t we take some of our energy and risk taking and apply it to God’s work? Can’t we be at least as energetic as those who are so successful in the business world around us? We should be able to do that because the goal for which we are striving is so much more noble. We are called to give the best of ourselves, not simply to make money, but to build the Kingdom of God.