Making Friends with (Our) Dishonest Wealth (Sermon for Sunday, 18 September, 2022)
“I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”
The Lord finds some odd models for us in the Gospel. He surprises the crowds by extolling tax collectors and sinners, and by saying they have to become like little children. Over the past few weeks, He has shocked the Pharisees and even His disciples with the assertion that wealth is not a sign of holiness.
For many people in our Lord’s day – and likely for many in our own – having material wealth was a sign of God’s blessings and favor. So long as one wasn’t engaged in an inherently dishonest profession (like being a tax collector), a good Jew could presume that his neighbor’s wealth was a sign of divine preference. Christ, of course, turns that notion on its head. “Blessed are you poor,” he tells us. Earlier in this section of Luke’s Gospel, he portrays a rich man as foolish, because our treasures should be in Heaven.
Even from a truly Christian perspective, though, the dishonest steward in St. Luke’s Gospel seems beyond counter-intuitive as an example of Christian living. In order to cushion his landing from a position of influence and wealth, he defrauds his master by canceling the debts of his clients. So why, then, does his defrauded master “commend” the dishonest steward, and does the Lord commend his actions as well?
In order to understand the Lord’s teachings, we have to keep in mind that a parable is not always an exact representation of how we are to act. Like many rhetorical devices, parables use exaggeration to make a point, or hold up a behavior within a particular context to show us what we can learn from the way a situation might be handled from a different perspective than our own.
In the case of the dishonest steward and his oddly congratulatory master, we see two people operating from within a worldly, materialistic paradigm. For these two men, material goods and their own material well-being are all that matter. The master “commends” the dishonest steward in that he has to admit that if he were in the steward’s position, he would have done the same thing. He wishes he could have harnessed his decisiveness and quick-thinking for better ends.
When Christ, then, tells us that, “the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light,” He is not saying that we should also defraud our employers, but something more like: “Look! See how materialistic and worldly people are able to direct the things of this world to accomplish their goals? Why can’t the ‘children of light’ use the things of this world to assist them in accomplishing the goals of the Gospel?” Christ shows us a certain worldly logic, and encourages His followers to pursue the goals of the Christian life even more determinedly than the “children of the world” pursue wealth and comfort.
Christ’s next words have always been even harder for me to understand: “I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” Why would He want Christians to make friends with dishonest wealth? Wouldn’t people with dishonest wealth be bad influences on those trying to live the Gospel? And when their wealth fails, why would having been friends with people like the dishonest steward get us into Heaven?
I’ll admit that my failure to understand these words of our Lord follows a typical pattern of misunderstanding the Gospel – assuming that Christ is criticizing someone else instead of me. “Dishonest wealth” isn’t the wealth of the dishonest stewards of the world! It’s my wealth, every time that I think that my material possessions are mine and mine alone, and not primarily a gift from my Heavenly Father. “Making friends with dishonest wealth” does not mean making friends with people who have dishonest wealth – it means using my “dishonest wealth” to make friends who will help me get to Heaven. In this surprising teaching, He turns the normal presumptions of the ancient world on their head: Instead of manipulating the spiritual world to gain a material benefit, followers of Christ are called to sacrifice material things in order to gain an eternal spiritual benefit.
By making friends with our dishonest wealth, he refers first to our generosity to the poor. As we hear countless times in the Gospel, the poor are particularly loved by God. Generosity to the poor does not earn us salvation – we can’t make up for a wicked life by leaving a fortune to the food pantry – but it is the expression of our love for Christ when we see Him in those left behind by the world. Christ will make this even clearer next week with the poor man Lazarus and the rich man who ignored him, and their very different eternal destinies. We are called to become friends with the poor through our sacrificial generosity.
We can also, though, take the Lord a little more literally. He actually wants us to use the things of this world to grow in friendship, because friendship is an important need of the human person, and because friendship is the best way to live our mission to make disciples of all nations.
I’ve seen this happen in several ways. Several years ago, I met a married couple in Texas who weren’t able to have children, and as they discerned whether God might be calling them to adopt, they realized that they had quite a few young priests in their diocese who had come from other places to serve there in rural Texas. They made it their vocation-within-a-vocation to support their priests’ vocations by an apostolate of hospitality.
Another couple I know is in their early thirties. They’ve gotten to know a lot of recent college graduates who have moved from other parts of the country. They regularly open their doors to provide a home-away-from home where Catholic young adults are supported in their faith, and non-Catholic young adults find a loving welcome inspired by faith in Christ – and maybe occasionally a priest or two (or well-formed lay people!) ready to help them journey closer to the Lord. Their openness to children in their marriage from a young age gives hope to other young adults who might struggle to make that commitment, as the world tells them to live only for themselves. The at times chaotic nature of their home sends a clear message that: “You can do this too. It’s okay not to be perfect.”
Maybe just an idea of what that radical hospitality and openness can look like: Last summer, I was going to stop by for dinner, and one of those young people wanted to come by and ask me some questions, so he invited himself. (Totally normal.) He showed up, chatted with my friends, and eventually sat down for dinner. Only I never showed up – because I was coming for dinner on Monday, and this was Sunday. About half way through dinner he asked, “Ummm, isn’t Father Royce coming?” “Nope, that’s tomorrow.” “Uhh, so, you weren’t expecting me either?” “Nope, but we’re glad you’re here!” Someone walked in the door, unexpected, and they didn’t even bat an eye. He came back on Monday. And brought a friend.
Now, not all of us are the radical extroverts who don’t skip a beat when someone unexpected shows up for dinner, but all of us are called to use the material blessings we have for the work of the Gospel. As we just shared with you today, our parish does that by using our material resources to further the mission of the Church – to make the Church and the Gospel more accessible and credible to the people of today’s world. And while generosity to the Church and to the poor is an important part of “making friends with dishonest wealth,” we can’t forget the personal initiative that Christ is calling each one of us to make.
When we talk about evangelization, we frequently have an image of someone out on the street asking passers-by if they’ve been saved. For most of us that’s not what evangelization ought to look like – not because it would be too hard, but because it would be too easy. Talking to people you’ve never met about the Lord involves, really, very little risk. We have to risk getting shut down, or yelled at, or (more likely) ignored, but we wouldn’t have to risk a relationship in which we’ve grown comfortable being silent about our faith in Christ and His presence in the Church.
Christ’s challenge to us, then, is to use the “dishonest wealth” that each of us has (that is, the material possessions that are not ultimately ours, but His) to create the opportunities in which deeper friendship can flourish. A good meal, for example, has the power to lift conversation beyond everyday small talk to our deeper dreams, hopes, and fears for our lives. Friendships that have that deeper grounding are the seedbed in which the Lord wants to grow relationships that sustain fellow-believers in their love for Christ and His Church and that give us the opportunity to share the Gospel with those who might not yet be disciples, or might not be disciples within the Body of Christ, the Church.
The calling of the Christian is ultimately not to the prudence of this world, but to fidelity. “If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours?” Faithfully administering the good things entrusted to us for God’s work, things that will ultimately pass away, God wants to bestow upon us what is truly ours – the inheritance of heavenly life, which is the true possession of the faithful for all eternity.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
XXV Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXXII