“Follow the money.” This catch-phrase was made famous in the film All the President’s Men in 1976, and is usually associated with political corruption. But it came to my mind as I tried to make sense of the parable of the dishonest steward and the world we live in.
Last Sunday’s parables about the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son are about forgiveness, but they are also stories about the power that money and its equivalents have in our lives. A lost sheep means economic loss for the shepherd; a lost coin is a big problem for a peasant woman; and each of the two sons wanted to be sure of his share of the inheritance.
Besides today’s story of the dishonest steward, there are similar money stories in Luke’s gospel: the rich fool who builds more barns to store his wealth and next Sunday’s parable of Lazarus and the person who feasts at every meal. And all the gospels tell us that Judas is willing to betray Jesus for money.
To “follow the money” in the teachings of Jesus is fascinating but also uncomfortable. The Jewish habit of pronouncing in absolute terms does not give us any wiggle room: “You cannot serve both God and mammon.”
What is missing in today’s gospel reading is the verse immediately following: “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.” I can understand why the Pharisees laughed at Jesus because they did serve both – they kept the law, said their prayers and watched their pocketbooks. And when I am honest with myself, I do the same. Yes, I say God is first, but I also need money to serve God well, don’t I?
There are some good interpretations of the parable of the dishonest steward, but I found myself returning to the relentless reference in Luke’s gospel to the challenge to not fret about money and possessions. Since I am convinced that Jesus only taught what he himself had experienced, how did he come to such a radical demand for those who want to follow him? He must have observed in himself and others that too much stuff and too much money are obstacles to the freedom that we long for. And I am referring to interior freedom here – the free heart that longs to see God. Only the Divine reality is truly free and overflowing with love and that is what we want too. Recall the story of the rich man who sincerely wants to inherit eternal life and who Jesus invites to give up his possessions and become truly free. Bu instead the man goes away sad.
There is another area in our lives that is affected by money and possessions and that is our relationships with others. Disagreements about money create tensions for all of us don’t they? Husbands and wives often argue over money problems and children wish they had a bigger allowance. We all make judgements about others’ spending habits. Everything in our culture – including education, health care, politics, the sports industry, entertainment, even the churches – are evaluated by their impact on the economy. What do we do in a world that reminds us daily to “follow the money?”
Do we act prudently like the dishonest steward who is praised by the rich man? Not exactly a conversion story it seems to me. Or do we do what Jesus suggested and don’t worry because the birds of the sky and the lilies of the field do nothing and are cared for by the Father? That is also hard to imitate.
Awareness of our dilemma seems like an important first step. Face the fact that it is difficult to make choices about God and money in our world and pray to be more generous. Decide to be less judgmental about everyone else’s choices.
And remember that giving money and gifts is also an expression of love. To “follow the money” can lead us on a path to greater love if we listen to the Christ in ourselves and in one another.