‘No servant can serve two masters’

Father John A. Kiley

Saint Luke must have had his tongue fixed squarely in his cheek when he presented the parable of the unjust steward to his readers.

First of all, the sacred author has thrown moral theologians into turmoil for centuries by his seeming praise of dishonesty. “The master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.” How possibly could the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who is Light and Truth, commend the illegal behavior of writing false invoices? In fact, the parable of the dishonest steward is not a commendation of dishonesty but simply a recommendation for prudence. Parables are not allegories. In an allegory every detail has significance. Parables, conversely, have only one lesson; all other details are insignificant. Dishonesty here is only a gimmick; only an arbitrary backdrop to highlight the steward’s prudence. Saints should be as prudent as sinners, is the moral of the story. “The children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own kind than are the children of light.”

How odd nonetheless that St. Luke should even employ money, investments, and material resources in any instructive role whatsoever! St. Luke never has a good word to say about wealth, affluence or riches. It is St. Luke who has the newborn Jesus rest in a humble manger, be adored by lowly shepherds, and be redeemed by two doves, the temple offering of the poor. His advice to his disciples is consistently negative toward money: “Though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” Again, “Sell your belongings and give alms. Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy.” And what could be more challenging than, “In the same way, every one of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.” St. Luke records Jesus observing elsewhere, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” This Sunday’s Gospel concludes with St. Luke memorial words, “You cannot serve both God and mammon.”

The tales of Jesus repeated by St. Luke especially warn of the danger of riches. Consider the rich man who perished while Lazarus was saved: “Abraham replied, ‘My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.” Consider also the scorn accorded the Pharisee and the praise heaped on the tax collector: “I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Remember the tragic story of the rich young man: “When Jesus heard this he said to him, “There is still one thing left for you: sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” But when he heard this he became quite sad, for he was very rich.” Zacchaeus is praised precisely for his detachment from his wealth: “But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over. And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham.” Jesus also praises the poor widow and her mite, “she donated all she had to live on.”

Clearly St. Luke means it when he writes, “No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.” Few Christians have been called down through the centuries to observe strict evangelical poverty. St. Francis of Assisi made a cult of poverty. St. Benedict Joseph Labre was, frankly, a street person, choosing to live hand to mouth in the great cities of Europe. On the other hand, many Christians have been poor through no choice of their own – probably most of our ancestors. St. Luke, who probably had a Greco-Roman background, saw firsthand the danger that wealth presented in the pagan world. He witnessed the dulling of the spirit and the death of the soul that resulted from the compulsive desire for an abundance of goods. For St. Luke, life consisted of opposing options: material versus spiritual, this world versus the next world, goods versus the Good.