Apparently Pope Francis made more than a few people in the blog-o-sphere uncomfortable with an interview he gave this week. He had the audacity to say out loud “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently,” Francis said. “We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.” Rather, he said, the Catholic Church must be like a “field hospital after battle,” healing the wounds of its faithful and going out to find those who have been hurt, excluded or have fallen away.
For some people, this is a very threatening development. For others, it is a long overdue message. For all of us, it is a challenge to live out the heart of today’s intriguing gospel passage.
Scholars are still divided over the parable of the dishonest steward. Who is the God figure in this? What role does the steward play? Does he represent Jesus, or Jesus’ followers? Is the debt really just about olive oil and wheat, or is there something more spiritual than this. And why does Jesus seemingly praise dishonesty in the steward?
We get a clue to Jesus’ intention in the word he uses for ‘squandering his property.’ It is the same word used to describe the younger son’s wastefulness in the parable of the prodigal son we heard last week. The manager, following the younger son’s appetites, ‘enlarged the debt of the tenants of the estate to support HIS extravagant lifestyle.” So, when the rich man comes and sees how the steward is living, it doesn’t take rocket science for him to know that there is no way he can be living like he is on normal income from the land he manages.
Now you have to understand, as steward, he has a ton of freedom to control the land and its use. He is entrusted with not just the produce of the tenant farm – what comes back to the owner in profit, – but the well being of the tenant farmers as well. So when his life style catches up to him, he realizes that he has emphasized the wrong end of his two duties by asking more from the farmers to support his life. So he makes amends. His forgiveness of the debt hones in on what is of ultimate value for the rich man – the GOD figure in this story– in regards to the tenant farmers. It is not about the profits raked in, but about the well being of the farmers. It is not about jars of oil and kors of wheat, but the relationship between the owner of the estate and those working his fields. He truly wants them to prosper. Or to put it in the recent words of Pope Francis, “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules,” he lamented. “The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.”
The dishonest steward is praised because, at the end, he realizes what his master truly values – as we heard in the story of the prodigal son that is linked to this story – every last and least and lost among us. And he acts accordingly. He does what is in his power to do to make sure that message, that value, takes root and finds a home. He uses the opportunity given him to genuinely help the circumstances that the tenant farmers find themselves in. Suddenly one has 50 more measures of oil, the other, 20 more kors of wheat to feed their families. By reducing what is ‘owed’ to his extravagant lifestyle, the workers are better off.
And isn’t that what Pope Francis is doing as well? Finding himself at the helm of the church, at this time in history, after the scandal of the abuse crises, and two popes, who in their leadership felt called to make sure the church was aware of the doctrinal side of our faith, he calls us to make sure that people know the mercy as well. Make sure that people know that Jesus Christ has saved them. “It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars!” Francis said. “You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.”
On this stewardship Sunday in the church, all of us are invited to look at how we are using the gifts God has given to us to heal the wounds of our society and world. And we are called to prudent, immediate action. (Think of the Senate debate to cut 4 Billion in aid to the food stamp program.) Like the dishonest steward, perhaps that means a shift in our understanding of what the Master really values, not kors of wheat and measures of oil, but the well being of each of the tenant farmers working the fields. And like the challenge that Pope Francis has left for us, may this church also seek to find and heal each least, last and lost among us…