Francis J. Caponi, O.S.A.
Amos 8: 4-7
Ps 113: 1-2, 4-6, 7-8
1 Tim 2: 1-8
Lk 16: 1-13
There is something admirable about good thieves. Of course, some crooks are lazy, stupid, and undisciplined; but some are hard-working, clever, and well-organized - and these come up with some remarkable ideas. For instance, some years back there was a story about car theft at the King of Prussia mall. Thieves in a van would cruise up and down the parking lots with a device that could read the signals sent by a remote. When they saw someone locking a car with the remote, they would read the signal, and then duplicate it to unlock the car. And if the steering wheel had a club on it, they sprayed it with liquid nitrogen, waited a few seconds, and then smashed it with a hammer.
After reading this story, my first thought was, “What could these people accomplish if they applied their talent to something honest?”
Of course, I don’t approve of car theft. And no one could admire someone who swindles the elderly or loots from the local supermarket. Muggers and kidnappers are never praiseworthy. But I have a grudging admiration for the skill and thoughtfulness that can go into some kinds of theft, like bank robberies - at least the way they are portrayed in movies and t.v. shows. Art thieves, cat burglars, and bank robbers are often depicted as smart, funny, brave, dashing, and highly attractive to beautiful women. Shows like It Takes a Thief and the Mission: Impossible movies depict honorable thieves who steal for the good guys, breaking the law in the cause of justice and world peace, finding evermore imaginative ways to defeat alarms, locks, lasers, guards, and all-seeing computers. So although we don’t want to be thieves, and we don’t want to be the victim of thieves, still it’s hard not to appreciate a well-done theft. Smart thieves plan meticulously, strive to avoid violence, and don’t waste time on small change. If you are going to succeed as one, you need energy, creativity, dedication, and nerve. And all of those are admirable qualities.
At least that is what Jesus tells us.
A steward defrauds his master, cheating him out of large amount of wheat and oil. Yet, “the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.” Even though the owner is a victim, he admires the intelligence and energy of his thieving servant. Compounding our amazement, it is not just the rich man in the story who approves of the thief, but Jesus himself praises him. Why?
The steward is confronted with an imminent catastrophe, the loss of his status and income, and in response he snaps into action, shows a flair for planning and a gift for self-preservation, and comes out of the whole situation not as a beggar or a ditch-digger, but as a man with friends who owe him large favors. The steward is dishonest: he is the sort of man the prophet Amos speaks of in the first reading, a man who fixes the scales, a man who serves only worldly desires. But at least he serves them wholeheartedly. He may serve a bad master, but he serves only one, and he serves him completely.
“But what of you?” Jesus asks his disciples. “When confronted by his master, the dishonest steward responded with initiative, organization, and forethought. But you, who claim to be devoted not to this world, but to the coming kingdom of God, where is your devotion, your creativity, your labor? Do you give more of yourself to me than a counterfeiter does to crafting false currency, or a crooked merchant to fixing his scales?”
How do we respond? Do we serve one master, and serve him completely? Do we show half the energy, a quarter of the initiative, a tenth of the creativity in following Christ that a good thief brings to evil deeds?
All of us have some activity to which we give the best of ourselves. We place it high on the list of our priorities, and fix it at the center of our schedules. Is it gardening or golf, running or painting or camping? Is it watching television, surfing the web, collecting baskets or coins or crystal? Is it motorcycles, traveling, clothes, scrapbooking, food, or wine? Of course, none of these are criminal activities. All of them can be good. The question Jesus places before us is not whether we are better criminals than Christians. He hopes that his followers are well past that question! Rather, he asks if we are better golfers than Christians, better shoppers than Christians, better mechanics than Christians, better cooks and gardeners and musicians and travelers than Christians.
Can we find a few hours once a week to visit a batting cage or go swimming, but not find 10 minutes a day for silent prayer? Do we make sure to set aside time to visit with friends, remodel the kitchen, or watch a three-hour ball game, yet find ourselves “too tired” to read the Scriptures, comfort the sick, get to a blood drive, or visit the cemetery? How often do we leave Mass early, eager to get to the supermarket, the restaurant, or the couch?
Jesus is telling us what we already know. Where we put our time and energy and talent makes clear where our true treasure can be found. If parents say to their children, “I love you more than anything in the world,” but then go days without giving them much attention, the children will see the lie. So let us become like little children, and do the simple math for ourselves. Let us call Christ King and Lord and Teacher and Lamb and Savior and Son of God and Good Shepherd a dozen times a day. If our daily schedules and yearly calendars say otherwise, if our budgets and receipts tell a different story, what then? If we who have received every good thing from Jesus attempt to defraud him of our devotion and service, will Christ praise us for our sin? St. Paul says no: “Make no mistake: God is not mocked, for a person will reap only what he sows” (Gal 6:7) Likewise, the Book of Revelation: “I saw the dead, the great and the lowly, standing before the throne, and scrolls were opened. Then another scroll was opened, the book of life. The dead were judged according to their deeds, by what was written in the scrolls.” (20:12) Those books cannot be cooked, and if their numbers do not add up, we will be called to a terrible account. So let us turn to the Lord with hope in his great mercy, that we might receive from him the grace to do as he commands: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matt 22:37)