Things are not as simple as they used to be—or so it seems. Perhaps there never really was a time when issues were clear-cut and moral decisions were easy. In our time, technology allows choices never before possible. Decisions about medical choices, for example, particularly those involving the beginning and ending of life, are more complex than ever before. In global economic systems the ramifications of our choices now go far beyond our local and immediate venues. How to understand complex systems and make good moral choices is a question that today’s Gospel can open up for us.
The parable in today’s Gospel is itself so complex that the only thing biblical scholars agree on is that it poses more questions than it answers, and no interpretation fully answers all of them. Questions such as these confront us: How can a dishonest steward be praised by his master? Who is the master? Jesus? The rich man? Is the parable about lost honor or lost income? What is the economic system presumed in the story? Does it concern usury? Or the steward’s commission? What does “squandering” signify? Is the charge true or false? Who are the debtors? Is the master a sympathetic character or a villain? Is the steward someone to be emulated or is he a picaresque character designed to give us a chuckle in a comic story?
To complicate things further, it seems that the original parable of Jesus ends at verse 8a, and verses 8b to 13 are more like homily notes of early interpreters. These verses are stitched together by catchwords offering four different interpretations around the theme of the right use of money, none of which really captures the dynamics of the parable proper.
One possibility for this Sunday is not to try to settle the interpretation of the Gospel parable, but to look instead at the underlying values and attitudes that the readings propose, which orient us toward what we must do in order to be able to make good moral decisions in complex situations. In the first reading, the situation seems straightforward: the dishonest merchants cannot wait for the sabbath to be over so they can return to cheating the poor.
As with Amos, our first important step is to cultivate the ability to see from the perspective of those made poor and to be outraged, as he was, about economic practices that feed greed and “trample upon the needy.” Once one sees these practices, it is then important to do whatever is possible to counter them. Publicly raising one’s voice, as did Amos when telling the truth about the unjust practices, is one important response. Another is to observe sabbath days, when rest and communal and contemplative prayer can help communities of faith to cultivate eyes that see what is needed for the common good. A sabbath rest from buying and selling also provides a hiatus from exploitation of the poor and cultivates reliance on providence.
The letter to Timothy reminds us of the importance of praying for all those in authority so that they will be persons of wisdom, able to lead in such a way that all can enjoy a dignified and tranquil life. From the Gospel we can see that a time of crisis is an opportunity to assess one’s own or a community’s strengths and weaknesses while weighing different possibilities for the future. Cultivating relationships, as did the steward, is essential. When all these values and practices are put together, then a creative solution for the common good emerges and decisive action can be taken.