When St. Paul called upon the people of Corinth to give generously to the collection for the needs of the Church, he referred to their wealth as “your surplus now.” Corinth was a wealthy town, and the Corinthians could reasonably expect to go on being affluent for many years to come. Yet Saint Paul seems to appreciate the point made by the author of Ecclesiastes: “There is a season for everything” (3:1). Riches will come, and riches will go. Poverty will rise, and poverty will end. There is no security in the pursuit of wealth, “for it is able to sprout wings like an eagle that flies off to the sky” (Prov 23:5).
The obvious solution to the problem of the insecurity of riches is to build up savings during times of plenty, so that you will have something to live on during times of poverty. This is not, however, the solution which Christ proposes. Having called the industrious man who saves his wealth for the future a “fool” in the twelfth chapter of Luke, He goes on to praise a crafty and dishonest steward in the sixteenth.
“There was a rich man and he had a steward who was denounced to him for being wasteful with his property. He called for the man and said, “What is this I hear about you? Draw me up an account of your stewardship because you are not to be my steward any longer.” Then the steward said to himself, “Now that my master is taking the stewardship from me, what am I to do? Dig? I am not strong enough. Go begging? I should be too ashamed. Ah, I know what I will do to make sure that when I am dismissed from office there will be some to welcome me into their homes.”
Then he called his master’s debtors one by one. To the first he said, “How much do you owe my master?” “One hundred measures of oil” was the reply. The steward said, “Here, take your bond; sit down straight away and write fifty.” To another he said, “And you, sir, how much do you owe?” “One hundred measures of wheat” was the reply. The steward said, “Here, take your bond and write eighty.”
The master praised the dishonest steward for his astuteness. For the children of this world are more astute in dealing with their own kind than are the children of light.
And so I tell you this: use money, tainted as it is, to win you friends, and thus make sure that when it fails you, they will welcome you into the tents of eternity.” (Luke 16:1-9)
This is a very bizarre parable. It’s difficult to imagine the master that Christ portrays: clearly the man is angry at the beginning with the steward’s mismanagement of his affairs, and yet at the end he praises the steward for his further misconduct. What could this mean?Let’s analyse the parable as an allegory for the relationship between men and God. Every man is a steward of the wealth of the earth, of his own time, and of his own soul — and all are guilty of mismanagement. We all know that sooner or later God is going to ask for an accounting of our stewardship and that we are going to come up short. So what ought we to do? The steward in Christ’s parable has been given charge of the master’s material wealth, and he has been responsible for contracting various debts with people in the community. Notice that the steward does not cook the books in order to embezzle funds for himself, but rather cooks them in favour of his neighbours. In the world, it would be dishonest for the steward to forgive these debts, but in the spiritual life, it is good, indeed praiseworthy, to forgive the debts of others. The steward is astute because he recognizes what many Christians have not noticed: that friendships and fraternity with other men is of greater value than wealth. The steward is going to lose control of the master’s wealth — it is perishable, and it is to be taken from him; his friendships, however, he will retain, and his friends will “welcome him into the tents of eternity.”
The wisdom of the world says that you should never lend money to your friends because it will cause resentment and discomfort when they fail to repay you. Christ says exactly the opposite. You ought to lend money to your friends, especially when you have no reasonable expectation that they will repay. In fact, if they’re unlikely ever to repay you, all the better. Resentment and discomfort only arise if you have your heart set on getting back what you have given. If you lend money and don’t worry about getting it back, there is no problem: you may get the money back at some unexpected date, as Saint Paul suggests, or you may reap a harvest of increased friendship and gratitude, as Christ tells us. Either way, sooner or later you are going to need something. It might be money, or it might be something more valuable than money, but if you give your surplus away now, then the things you need will be there when you need them.
The more that a man invests in cementing relationships and supporting the least of God’s people, the greater a return he will gain — either when calamity strikes him, or when he arrives before the throne of God and is asked for an account of his life.
[Excerpted from Slave of Two Masters]
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