by Father Patrick Brennan
Scripture: St. Luke 16: 9 -18
In the landmark work, Re-discovering the Parables, Scripture scholar Joachim Jeremias teaches us that the parables of Jesus take us to the core of the mind, the vision, of Jesus, as to what life in God's Reign is like. Some parables and parabolic images and actions of Jesus are quite consoling and comforting, like the parable of the Prodigal Son, which reveals God's great mercy toward sinners. But other instances of Jesus's parabolic ministry are quite disturbing, calling us to radical life change and repentance, warning us that we may be missing the point of life; warning us that in the eyes of God, opportunities for us to get on the right and moral course of life might be running out.
In the 16th and 17th chapters of Luke's gospel we have examples of some of Jesus's hard sayings, sometimes hard to understand, sometimes hard to live. Luke 16:1-13 tells the story of the rich man's dishonest manager, who is dismissed for squandering the rich man's money. This shrewd manager contemplates his fate after he is let go on how will he survive. He decides to create friends for himself among his master's debtors by lessening the debt that they owe the master. When the rich man notices how shrewd the manager has been, he commends him for his shrewdness. Jesus concludes the parable by saying the children of this age are shrewder dealing with this generation than are the children of the light.
Jesus wants us to be children of the light, but he seems to want us to develop some of the shrewdness of the children of this age. Translated for our day, I believe Jesus would like to see us take some of the skill, effort, time, and determination that we give to work, and apply it to life in the Reign of God, or living a spiritual life. He is not encouraging us to become dishonest like the manager, rather to become entrepreneurial about what really matters in life. Let us take a moment to assess what dynamics we use for success at work that we might apply to our spirituality.
Most of us who work, have jobs, are responsible to some higher authority. My work is ministry, but there is certainly a hierarchy of authority that I am responsible to in my work. What if the Reign of God became as important to us as our jobs? We would become much more deliberate and intentional about discerning what might be God's will for us in specific situations. God is our ultimate higher authority. As Eugene Kennedy recently wrote, God, through Jesus, invites us, not, to popular "soft spirituality," but rather to discipleship. True discipleship can be tough and demanding. We are called to lives of self-sacrificial love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation, charity and justice. We have an authority, higher than our bosses, that we need to attend to—to conform to—and that is God.
People who are successful in their jobs set goals. They are pro-active and imaginative in setting and then acting on those goals. What if we applied some of our goal energy to life in the Reign of God? Then, we would be pro-actively setting reasonable goals for ourselves about attitude and behavior changes that we might better live Jesus's vision of the Reign of God. We would set goals to deepen and improve our relationship with God and with others. We would set goals to take better care of our bodies, our souls, our minds and ourselves.
People who are good at what they do at work have a discipline. They know how to manage time, energy, and effort well. When we are growing in the Reign of God, we apply some of that sense of discipline of time, energy, and effort to realities like: prayer, growth in knowledge of Scripture, ministry, a sense of service in our jobs, helping God's Reign to emerge in our homes, and in the world.
At work, we are evaluated. If we become more serious about the Reign of God, we would evaluate ourselves more regularly regarding the quality of our discipleship. We might even be daring enough to ask someone else to evaluate us. And, as we do at work, we would use the results of the evaluation to re-shape our efforts in the future, in this case, life in the Reign of God, living as disciples.
Successful people at work are focused on results: concrete, tangible indicators that reveal that we are selling the product, advancing the cause of the business. It would be good if we looked at results, or fruit, in our spiritual lives too. If we are serious about the spiritual life, we ought to be growing in integrity, our sense of morality and conscience; we ought to be more loving at home; we ought to be more concerned about mercy, compassion; and justice; we ought to be closer to God through prayerfulness. How are our results when it comes to spirituality and spiritual growth?
Career-minded people are focused on advancement at work. Truly spiritual people are likewise focused on advancement. But spiritual growth cannot be understood through any image or metaphor that speaks of ascendancy, like climbing a ladder of success. No, spiritual growth is better understood as an ever-deepening spiral inward into the mysteries of God, love, self, and life.
During the development of many of our careers, we have sought out mentors, other people whom we have allowed to companion us, offering us their experience and wisdom, helping us find our way on the job. Many experts in the spiritual life would say that as spiritual people we need mentoring also, people who will help us grow in the skills of spiritual living, call us to deeper conversion, help us to discern ethically and in terms of God's unique call to each of us. These mentors can be trained spiritual directors, confessors, pastors, pastoral ministers, or Christian friends. A unique kind of mentoring takes place in small, Christian communities, as people of faith gather on a regular basis to pray, break open Scripture, experience communion with each other, and reach out to serve each other, the larger faith community, and the world.
Many of us have sought out seminars, certificate programs, advanced degrees, institutes, different forms of continuing education to help us grow in our professional or occupational fields. Faith demands that ongoing kind of learning and formation too. Unfortunately, many people cease religious education somewhere around eighth grade. Faith formation should be occasional and life-long, rather than regular and terminal. Often in parishes, the same small group of people take advantage of the parish's opportunities for growth in faith. When was the last time you took time to be fed, to nurture, to re-educate the spiritual dimension of your life?
Successful workers imagine and work outside the box. They are innovative, seeing, developing new ways, more helpful ways, more effective ways of doing things. One interpretation of the parable that we began with is this: the owner of the resources, the rich man, the master, is God. God is pleased when the manager, all of us, begins to be shrewd about helping those with few resources to share more in God's abundance. We are to be shrewd stewards of God's creation, shrewd about mercy and justice.
This parable closes with a clear statement: we cannot serve God and mammon, or property. God needs to be the center of our lives. All resources are to be seen as God's; and as stewards, we are to see that as many as possible share in God's resources.
The imperative in Jesus's perspective for us is to be serious about charity, and beyond charity about justice, or addressing and changing the systems that lock people in patterns of injustice as is further emphasized in another parable in Luke 16:19-31: the parable about Dives and Lazarus. Lazarus, who suffered in this life, is blessed with the first place in the heavenly banquet; but the rich man, who really has no name, ends up in a place of torment. He had known of Lazarus's plight and did nothing to help him. This parable of reversal warns us against sins of omission, but specifically the sins of omission that we are to be most watchful about are those through which we sin against charity and justice.
These hard, challenging sayings of Jesus continue in Luke 17, in which Jesus tells us that we are to do all that is expected of us and then say to ourselves: we did what was expected of us; we are worthless slaves. The emphasis in this parable is: the need to purify our motivation in all that we do. Our motivation is not to be profit, recognition, power; nor should we engage in self pity when we have done something for others. Rather, we are called to service of brothers and sisters in all that we do. The phrase "worthless slave" often does not sit well with us. The English does not capture well the connotations conveyed by the Greek version of the adjective. The ancient Greek reads "to whom nothing is owed." We need to keep in mind here that slaves did not have the plight in Jesus's time that slaves did during American slavery. Often slaves in Jesus's time were parts of the household, protected and cared for. In this hard saying Jesus is calling us to a holy realism: when we serve, which is what people in the Reign of God do, we are to see ourselves as parts of God's household, protected and cared for, to whom nothing is owed, and of whom one thing is expected: service to others.
Jesus, that great source of comfort, is also a great source of challenge to us where we are too comfortable. In Luke 16 and 17 he encourages us to give some of the same energy we give to work to the Kingdom, especially works of mercy and justice; He warns against sins of omission, especially in the area of mercy and justice. And he calls us to a holy realism about ourselves as servants in the family of God.
Imagine the negative energy, within each of us, amidst all of us, that could be diminished if we lived the wisdom of these three hard sayings of Jesus.
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