Commentary to the 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time - Year C
ADMINISTRATORS ONLY, NOT OWNERS
“The earth and all it contains, the universe and its inhabitants are of the Lord” (Ps 24:1). Man is a pilgrim, lives as a stranger in a world not his own. He is a wanderer who traverses the desert. He owns a lot of lands as much as his feet can tread. But as he steps forward, it becomes not his anymore. People are not owners but administrators of God’s goods. This is an often insistently repeated affirmation of the Church fathers. We recall one, Basil said: ‘Aren’t you a thief when you consider your own the riches of this world; riches are given only to administer?’
An administrator is a person who often appears in the parables of Jesus. We have one ‘faithful and wise’ who does not act arbitrarily but uses the goods entrusted to him according to the owner's will. In the absence of the master, we also have another one who takes advantage of his position to ‘make himself the owner’ gets drunk and dishonors the other servants (Lk 12:42-48). There is the enterprising administrator, who commits himself, dares to risk, and makes the master’s capital gain profit, and then there is the one who is a slacker. The most embarrassing one is the shrewd administrator spoken of in today’s Gospel. The Lord puts a treasure in the hand of each person. What do we do to administer it well?
To internalize the message, we repeat: “Do not attach the heart to riches, even if it abounds.”
First Reading: Amos 8:4-7
Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land! “When will the new moon be over,” you ask, “that we may sell our grain, and thesabbath, that we may display the wheat? We will diminish the ephah, add to the shekel, and fix our scales for cheating! We will buy the lowly for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals; even the refuse of the wheat we will sell!” The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Never will I forget a thing they have done! —The Word of the Lord.
John Chrysostom—a church father of the IV century, wrote a memorable page about enriching oneself. It could be summarized in a sentence: ‘The rich are either a thief or a son of thieves.’ It’s a provocative affirmation, perhaps too drastic. However, the passage proposed to us today as First Reading seems to confirm it. We are in 750 B.C., and Israel is at her highest splendor. Her territory extends from Egypt to the mountains of Lebanon, where enormous ciders grow and whose precious wood is used to construct ships and palaces. New agricultural techniques are introduced to increase production. King Jeroboam II—an able politician—favors the commercial exchange, establishes a friendship with neighboring peoples, and allows big landowners to sell wine, oil, and grain at a reasonable price.
Religion is also in vogue: the temple spews of devotees and pilgrims who go to pray and offer sacrifices. The priests are salaried by the sovereign, and they are well paid. One has to bless God and thank the king for so much prosperity and fervor. But one man does not join the choir who praises the politics of Jeroboam II: It is Amos, a shepherd from Tekoa, a city situated at the periphery of the desert, south of Bethlehem. He explodes in invectives and terrible threats because—he says—it is true that there are wellness and riches in the country but only for a few. The poor of the land is exploited, and the weakest suffer from injustice and abuse. “They sell the just for money and the needy for a pair of sandals; they tread on the head of the poor and trample them upon the dust of the earth” "Woe to those who turn justice into poison and drag the law to the ground, hate him who judges righteously in court and detest him who testifies truthfully!" (Am 2:6-7).
The prophet levels his accusations against Jeroboam II, against the priests, the landowners and the rich. In the reported passage in today’s reading, he attacks the traders: “Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land” (v. 4). What are their wrongdoings? They buy the land products from the poor farmers and resell them to other more impoverished people at a higher price, “they trample on the poor and extort levies on their grain” (Am 5:11). How do they hoard the riches? As it has always been done, since the beginning of the world, they steal.
Amos describes in detail the method they use. During the week, ordinary people await the Sabbath to raise their minds to God, rest, meet family members and friends, and celebrate. Instead, the traders are not interested in the feast, the Sabbath, and the new moon because, in those days, trading was blocked. They could not wait for the hour to pass to resume their selling of grain and wheat. They lessen the measure, raise the price, use false scales, let pass waste products as good, and what is worse, “they buy the lowly with silver and the poor for a pair of sandals” (vv. 5-6). Some fifty years later, Micah will re-echo: “you tear the skin from my people and the flesh from their bones” (Mi 3:2). One seems to hear the harsh words with which, in the IV century, Bishop Basil condemned the usurers of his time: ‘You exploit the misery, extract money of tears, strangle the person who is nude, and crush the hungry.’
Amos speaks of trading, tricks, and cheating. What has God to do with these problems? Indeed, he has something to do, and in the last part of today’s passage (vv. 7-8), the prophet clarifies his thought. Where there is no justice, where the weak are oppressed and their sufferings ignored (Am 5:21-24), religion is only hypocrisy. Faced with the exploitation of the poor, the Lord is indignant and pronounces an oath that makes one tremble: “I will never forget their works.”
Second Reading: 1 Timothy 2:1-8
Beloved: First of all, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth. For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as ransom for all. This was the testimony at the proper time. For this I was appointed preacher and apostle—I am speaking the truth, Iam not lying— teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.
It is my wish, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands, without anger or argument.— The Word of the Lord.
In this part of the letter to Timothy proposed today, Paul gives provisions regarding prayer in the Christian community. He recommends that “requests, supplications, prayers and thanksgiving for all people, for the king and those in power” be made. The good order of our society depends on these people. If they do not fulfill their duty well, we cannot “lead a quiet and tranquil life” (v. 2).
The prayer of the Christian community is universal. It is addressed to God for the good and the bad, for friends and enemies. In this prayer, the great heart of the disciples, which does not accept distinctions based on race, tribe, nationality, social position, and riches, is shown. In a disciple’s behavior, the sentiments of the Father, who is in heaven “who wills everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (v. 4), are reflected.
One notices how many times in the reading the term all recurs. The passage concludes with a recommendation: “I wish, then, that in every place the people should pray, lifting up holy hands, without anger or argument” (v. 8). A Christian cannot pray with impure hands, with hands that do evil to one’s brothers/sisters (Mt 5:23-25).
Gospel: 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 aboutyou? 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’sdebtors 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 withtrue 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 lovethe other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon.” —The Gospel of the Lord.
This parable has always aroused a certain embarrassment because, apparently, praising dishonest administrators cannot be recommended to Christians to imitate. To understand its significance and give meaning to all the details, the how and when this administrator fooled his master should be established.
The traditional interpretation supports that the scam happened when he falsified the figures in the bills of exchange to ingratiate himself to the debtors. Other biblical scholars sustain instead that he committed some irregularities before being discharged. This second hypothesis seems to us more coherent and logical and we follow it.
Rather than telling a story, Jesus seems to be referring to an event of his time. A steward is accused before the great landowner he depends on for being incompetent, devouring, and squandering his fortune. The master calls him in and tells him what he heard from him. The facts are so clear and beyond doubt that the administrator does not try to justify himself or invent an explanation. He was immediately dismissed from his responsibility (vv. 1-2). What to do now? He is in trouble; he is left without a salary and must find a way to secure his future as soon as possible.
‘What to do?’ is the question that many persons ask themselves in the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. The crowd, the publicans, and the soldiers turned to John the Baptist, asking: “What must we do?” In the parable of the wealthy farmer, in his long soliloquy, the farmer asked: “What must I do because I do not know where to place my harvest?” (Lk 12:17). The listeners of Peter’s discourse on Pentecost day asked themselves: “Brothers, what must we do?” It is a question of anyone who faces a decisive choice in life.
The dishonest administrator knows that there is little time at his disposal. Like the foolish farmer, he starts to reflect. He knows only to supervise; he is neither able to hoe nor willing to humble himself to beg for alms. “It’s better to die than to beg,”—says Sirach (Sir 40:28). Before leaving the job, he must put the accounts in order; many debtors still deliver the products. He thinks deeply, calculates the pros and cons, and after much thinking, here comes the flash of genius. I understand!—he exclaims happily—I know what I must do (v. 4). He did not ask the opinion of anybody because he already knew all the tricks of the trade. He understood what is the right choice and immediately went into action.
He calls all the debtors and asks the first one: “How much do you owe my master?” “A hundred barrels of oil”—the person answers. The administrator smiles, taps on his shoulders, and says: “Scrap the bill, sit down and write fifty, immediately.” The debt that was 4,500 liters of oil (the product of 175 olive trees) is reduced to 2,250. A saving of almost two years of work by a worker! Then the second debtor enters the scene: he has to deliver a hundred measure of grain (550 quintals [1 quintal = 100 kilos], the product of 42 hectares of land). The same scenario! He is made to sit, and the discount accorded to him is 20 percent. One hundred ten quintals (11,000 kilos) are discounted. Not bad. In the future, these benefitted debtors will certainly not forget the generosity, and they will feel obliged to offer him hospitality in their houses. The story concludes with the master, as well as Jesus, praising the administrator. He acted with cunning. He’ll be imitated!
We are expecting a different conclusion. Jesus should have said to his disciples: “Do not act like this villain; be honest!” Instead, he approves of what he did. The difficulty lies here: how could a dishonest person be offered as a model? Before explaining it, I’d note that praising the shrewdness of a person does not mean to agree with what he did. They told me of a thief who could escape from prison, opening all doors with a simple lighter. He deserves praise. He was a villain, but he was clever (vv. 5-8a).
This difficulty does not exist if the parable is interpreted differently. If the owner had felt cheated again (2,250 liters of oil and 110 quintals of grain are not small stuff), he would be outraged. If he praises his former administrator, it means, in this process, he has not lost anything. We have to presume that the administrator this time has put back his own, giving up what he used to grab for himself a commission.
Let me explain: the administrators must deliver a certain amount to their owner, and they have a commission that goes into their pockets. It was the technique used by the publicans to enrich themselves when they collected taxes. What did the administrator of the parable do? Instead of behaving like a loan shark with the debtors, he left the profit he expected to have with them. If things were in these terms, then all items would be clear. The admiration of the owner and the praise of Jesus have a logical explanation.
The administrator was shrewd—says the Lord—because he understood which to bet on: not on goods, products that he was entitled to, that could rot or be stolen, but on friends. He knew how to renounce the first to conquer for himself the second. This is the point. We will shortly retake it.
Some sayings of Jesus linked to the use of riches follow the parable. These should be applications, teachings taken from the parable. The first: “The people of this world are more astute, in dealing with their own kind, than are the people of light” (v. 8). After having appreciated the administrator's ability, Jesus makes an observation: concerning managing money, doing business, making trades; his disciples (the children of light) are less wise than those who commit their whole lives to hoarding goods (the children of this world).
It is normal and it must be so: while ‘the children of the world’ can act without scruples (they only have to worry not to go against the law of the State or at least not to be caught red-handed), Christian believers must follow other principles and maintain a transparent and proper behavior. They are prohibited from fraud and deceit. Does this really happen? Perhaps Christians compete with ‘the children of darkness’ in economic affairs and cut a poor figure. And this is worrisome!
“Use filthy money to make friends for yourselves so that when it fails, these people may welcome you into the eternal homes” (v. 9). This is the most important saying of today’s passage. It synthesizes the whole teaching of the parable. We note above all the hard judgment the Teacher gives on riches. It is called ‘unfair,’ ‘acquired dishonestly.’ Amos already indicated the reason in the First Reading. We have heard his explanation on the origin of riches. After him, the Old Testament wise person affirmed: “Just as the stake is settled between two stones, so sin wedges itself between buying and selling” (Sir 27:2).
This is not a condemnation of goods of this world; it is neither an invitation to destroy them, to be freed of them as if they are impure objects. It is an observation: in hoarded money, some forms of injustice, exploitation, and misappropriation are always present. Jesus teaches the method to purify the unfair riches.
The administrator is a model of ability because he has a brilliant idea. If he consulted with his colleagues, they would encourage him to take advantage until the very end of his position besides increasing the income (nest’s eggs). He will take all the counterattacks: he understands that money can devalue, then he decides to stake all on his friends. This is a wise choice that Jesus encourages us to make, and he ensures the operation's success: the benefitted persons in this life will always remain by our side, and they will bear witness in our favor on the day in which money will have no value.
It is not a question of favoring the giving up of all that one possesses. That would be a senseless gesture, not virtuous. It would not help the poor but would increase their misery and would favor the lazy ones. What Jesus would like us to understand is that the only smart way of using the goods of this world is to use them to help others, to make them friends. They will be the ones to welcome us in life.
The last part of the passage (vv. 10-13) contains some sayings of the Lord. To understand them, it is enough to clarify the significance of the terms. The “little” (v. 10), “dishonest riches” (v. 11), and “the riches of others” (v. 12) indicate the goods of this world that could not be brought with oneself. St. Ambrose used to say: ‘We must not consider riches that we cannot carry with us; because what we should leave behind in this world does not belong to us. It belongs to others.’
The goods of the future world, the reign of God, are instead called: “the many” (v. 10), “the true riches” (v. 11), and “our riches” (v. 12). These could be obtained only by renouncing, as the administrator of the parable paradoxically did, all goods that do not count (cf. Lk 14:33).
Jesus concludes his teaching, affirming that no servant can serve two masters…God and money. We would like to please both: we will give the first Sunday and the other the ordinary days. It is not possible because both are demanding masters. They do not tolerate a place for another in the heart of a person, and above all, they give opposing orders. One says, ‘Share your goods, help the brothers/sisters, forgive the debt of the poor.’ The other repeats: ‘Think of your own interests, study well all the ways to make a profit, to hoard money, have it all for yourself.’ It is impossible to please them both: It’s either one or the other.