No Servant Can Serve Two Masters

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Luke 16:1-13

Jesus said to his disciples, “A rich man had a steward who was reported to him for squandering his property. He summoned him and said, ‘What is this I hear about you? Prepare a full account of your stewardship, because you can no longer be my steward.’ The steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do, now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me? I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do so that, when I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes.’ He called in his master’s debtors one by one. To the first he said, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He replied, ‘One hundred measures of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note. Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.’ Then to another the steward said, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘One hundred kors of wheat.’ The steward said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note; write one for eighty.’ And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently. “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones. If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth? If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours? No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon.”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells a parable that can be difficult to understand outside of the historical context of first-century Palestine, for it seems that our Lord is commending the dishonesty of the steward. Furthermore, what could Jesus possibly mean when he recommends that we “make friends with dishonest wealth”?

In first-century Palestine, it was common for stewards, those charged with managing the finances of wealthy men, to cheat their master’s debtors by charging more than what was actually owed in order for the steward to profit, though dishonestly. So, if a debtor owed fifty flasks of oil, the steward would charge him 100 as repayment for the debt, keeping the extra fifty for himself. When the steward of the parable learned that he was being discharged because of his squandering the master’s property, he knew he needed to figure out a way to survive after he no longer had his position. “What shall I do?” He called the master’s debtors to him and asked how much each owed. When they told him, he reduced their receipts to what they owed his master without the extra he usually kept for himself. He wasn’t cheating the master by reducing what they owed. He was reducing their debts by erasing the dishonest fee he had attached for himself. When the master learned of this, he commended the steward, not for his dishonesty, but for his resourcefulness in securing for himself the good graces of the debtors so they would provide for him after he was out of work. The steward who had practiced dishonesty for so long turned to honesty when he faced hardship that he might be rewarded with security by his newfound friends.

This parable has long been interpreted as pointing to our need to prepare ourselves for the inevitable. The steward being fired from his master’s service is an allegory of death. Death is a result of the Fall, of our squandering the freedom God had given us at Creation. What do we do when we are facing death? “Lord, what shall I do to be saved?” The steward treating the debtors with honesty in hopes of finding a place to live with them after he has lost his position is an allegory of one turning to the virtuous life in hopes of finding a home in God’s kingdom. Jesus does not condone dishonesty. He does condone doing whatever is necessary to make peace with God for the sake of one’s salvation. In this case, Jesus recommends that we not attach ourselves too dearly to earthly wealth, but rather place our dependence in God. Why is earthly wealth called “dishonest money”? Because it gives us the allusion of security, when true security rests only in God’s saving grace.

“Only in God is my soul at rest, in Him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock, my strength, and my salvation. My stronghold, my Savior, I shall not be afraid at all, I shall not be moved.”

When Jesus says to “make friends with dishonest wealth,” He is not recommending a life of financial fraud. Rather, He is encouraging us to use our money for a heavenly profit, and not a temporal one. What use is all the wealth of the world if we fail to gain the wealth of the kingdom?

Jesus says if one is untrustworthy or dishonest in small matters, such as the wealth we accumulate in this temporal order by hoarding it or using it only for our own benefit and not to help others, how can they be trustworthy or honest in great matters, such as the wealth of the kingdom? Jesus says, “If you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth?” In other words, if you will not use your temporal wealth for the benefit of others, why would God give you the true wealth of His kingdom? “No servant can serve two masters,” Jesus says. “You will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon.” We cannot continue to make temporal wealth our goal in life, ignoring the poor and the needy, and hope to make friends in heaven.

How do we use our wealth for heavenly profit, to make friends in heaven, so that we’re sure there will be a place for us when we, too, are discharged from this earthly life? Jesus and the Fathers of the Church are clear: we do this by providing for those who cannot provide for themselves: the poor, the infirm, the widow and orphan.

There is, perhaps, the temptation to conclude that the poor don’t deserve the resources we provide, or that they so often waste the gifts we give them on alcohol, cigarettes, or even drugs. This temptation ought to be easily dismissed, though, when we reflect on the fact that we don’t deserve the grace God gives to us, in particular the grace we receive each Mass in the Eucharist, a grace, if we’re honest, we so often waste on anger, frustration, unkindness toward others, and other sins big and small, I dare say sometimes even before we get out of the parish parking lot!

St. Cyril of Alexandria, preaching on this parable in the early fifth century, said it better than I ever could: “What therefore would Christ have [the wealthy] do? It is, that while they are yet in this world, if they are unwilling to divide all their wealth among the poor, that at least they should gain friends by part of it; … For it is impossible for love to the poor ever to remain unrewarded. Whether therefore a man give away all his wealth, or but a part, he will certainly benefit his soul. It is an act therefore that becomes the saints, and is worthy of perfect praise, and that wins the crowns above, to set no store by earthly wealth, but distributing it among those that are in need, to gather rather that which is in heaven, and obtain purses that grow not old, and possess a treasure that fails not.”

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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