Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
A modern-day parable:
A man named George was an independent insurance adjuster. By most worldly measures, he was successful. George seemed to be good at his job, but he had sort of an unspoken reputation for “creatively” making the numbers come out in the policyholders’ favor. He didn’t necessarily appear to be doing anything wrong. Profits were high, and scrutiny was low. He kept policyholders happy and paying their premiums; insurance companies liked that.
But, when the economy went south, George’s work started to dry up. Agencies had begun scrutinizing their claims rather than simply rubber-stamping them. George’s reputation was now working against him. Former associates and colleagues avoided him; George had effectively become an outcast. So, he laid low, and convinced himself things would eventually rebound. But they didn’t. Even when the economy began to turn around, the work still wasn’t coming back.
During this time, George had been spending his days puttering around the house, fixing this or building that, which kept his spirits up. He enjoyed it and frankly was pretty good at it. But all of George’s little projects cost money, which his family now didn’t have. He began to feel useless; his self-worth was at an all-time low.
One day, his exhausted wife came home from work to find him asleep in bed. He clearly hadn’t gotten up all day. Frustrated, she yanked the pillow out from under his head and hit him with it. “I can’t take this anymore!” she screamed through her tears. “You need to do something! I’m going to put an ad in the paper: handyman for hire; no job too small. If anybody calls, you’re going to take the job, no matter what it is. You’re going to do your best work and charge a fair price. Got it?”
George nodded sheepishly. The next day, his wife placed the ad. It took a week, but the phone finally rang. An elderly woman asked if he could come over and hang a screen door. That’s all?! He didn’t want to take the job, but he had promised his wife.
When George arrived, the little widow greeted him with a great big smile. “I am so happy to see you! That son of mine can’t hang this screen door. Are you sure you can do it?” George laughed…for the first time in a long time. He was done in 15 minutes but stayed all afternoon. His first customer brought him three glasses of homemade lemonade and talked his ear off. As he finally got in his truck to leave, she asked what she owed him. “It’s on me,” George said. She insisted on giving him $50.
“Ten dollars is for the door; the other $40 is for listening. It gets lonely out here sometimes. Thanks.”
And so began George’s Home Improvements and Handyman Service. No job too small. George and his wife eventually downsized and invested the difference in the business. One screen door at a time, George built a reputation for doing quality work at a fair price, by taking the jobs nobody else wanted.
What does this story have to do with the gospel reading? Consider that when someone deals with us dishonestly, we tend to want to punish them, kick them to the curb, and have nothing to do with them ever again. We judge their actions and deal with them harshly. However, those who truly love them, their family for example, are much more likely to deal with them mercifully, gently. They are much more interested in rehabilitation than punishment.
It’s easy to see these as two separate parties. In George’s story, lots of people judge his actions, but only his wife encourages him when he’s down and out. In the gospel parable, the master is actually both parties. First, he judges his steward harshly for dishonestly managing his affairs; this is easy to understand. Next, he commends the steward for arranging hasty discounts to his creditors, which is perplexing. To understand this, it’s helpful to know that the steward was just giving up the premium he had been over-charging and pocketing all along. He finally dealt with the creditors fairly, which is what the master mercifully appreciates.
We often view judgment and mercy as opposed to one another. With God, however, it is not so; in God’s justice, judgment and mercy are, in fact, intimately intertwined. Without mercy, judgment is crude legalism; without judgment, mercy is crude sentimentality. In justice, one tempers the other with a concern for the common good. People are allowed to experience the consequences of their actions, but their inherent dignity is still respected and preserved. In the gospel, the entire community benefits when the steward becomes a contributing member of the Body of Christ, rather than someone who simply uses his position to take advantage of others and line his own pockets.
The ultimate goal of justice is always conversion of heart. This often begins by experiencing and acknowledging the consequences of our sinful ways, which I, for one, am often oh-so-good at avoiding. But in doing so, I effectively block the path to God’s mercy and risk remaining stuck where I am.
A key to avoiding such ruts is self-examination. It is doubtful that either George or the dishonest steward in the gospel (or I, for that matter) would have gotten so far off track had they bothered to look in the mirror through God’s eyes every once in a while. One particular method for doing this is a regular Examen of Consciousness. This is an Ignatian method that focuses on developing a genuine faith-filled gratitude to God for the specific gifts he has given by reflecting on how we have (or have not) responded to his great love for us. Questions to ponder:
- How have I used my time?
- How have I used my resources?
- How have I served God in my relationships?
- How well have I loved?
Jesus makes it clear that our hearts must either be possessed by God’s love, or they will be possessed by the love of something else. Where have you placed your treasure?
Lord Jesus, help us to be wise and faithful stewards of the gifts we have been given.