A Reflection from Chris Holownia
Dear Parishioners, Happy Advent! In the spirit of this season of transition, renewal, thanksgiving, and conversion, I wanted to share with you a reflection I wrote on Luke 16:1-15 for Mass on November 11, 2017. The story of the dishonest steward is one of Jesus’ most puzzling parables, yet its meaning was made known to me through my experience working as a chaplain at Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse. In our consumerist and individualist culture, it’s sometimes difficult to remember that everything we call our own, even life itself, is a gift from God. We are not entitled to anything we call “mine,” and any control or agency we may seem to enjoy over our human condition is ultimately illusory. So thanks be to God for the unconditional love with which He sustains us and for the many blessings He showers upon us.
I was in the hospital a few weeks ago, and I met a gentle man named Ilyas. He told me he was Muslim and admitted that he had called the ambulance because he was stuck out on the street in a horrible rain storm in the middle of the night. He said that none of the shelters would take him in because they couldn’t accept anyone with his “special needs.” He had no money and wouldn’t be getting any until the third of November. He wanted to get to NYC because that’s where his cardiologist was, along with his religious community who would support him; the Islamic community in Syracuse was of no help. He needed $30 bucks for a bus ticket, even to Binghamton, he said. I offered him a Qu’ran, and I told him I would call the Muslim chaplain and see if he could pay him a visit.
Later, at rounds, I learned that this man had been in the hospital before, and had to be escorted out by security because he became violent. Was this the same man I had met, I wondered? Well, when the different doctors, nurses, case managers and social workers began to compare notes, they realized he had been playing them against each other for food and clothing, and the physical therapist confirmed that he was faking a disability that he didn’t actually have. He would need to be discharged because he had no needs, and when I mentioned his desire to go to NYC, they told me that Medicaid would only pay for a cab within the County. Later, my supervisor told me she expected he converted to Islam just so that he could benefit from their charity.
Talk about shrewd! The word shrewd in English originally connoted a “wicked/evil man.” The Greek word the master used to describe the shrewd steward from yesterday’s gospel (Luke 16:1-8) is phronimos, from phronesis, which is a special kind of practical wisdom or intelligence, or sometimes (more traditionally) translated as “prudence.”
Yesterday at rounds I learned the fate of that dishonest, shrewd, prudent, phronetic man — he had become enraged when the staff told him that he couldn’t remain in the hospital, that there was nothing wrong with him, that they couldn’t give him more clothes or any money. He grabbed his walker and went at the social workers. Security was called, and he was ushered out.
Now Ilyas was not a steward. The only steward I’ve ever known was the steward of the Elizabethan Club at Yale. It’s a full time, salaried position, employed by its Board of Governors. The Elizabethan Club, now in its 105th year, houses a library of rare books and manuscripts, hosts lectures and readings and various special events throughout the academic year, and serves tea daily to its members and guests. The Steward prepares and serve tea and sandwiches from 4:00 to 6:00 daily during the academic term, as well as refreshments for Club Nights and special parties and events. The Steward opens the Club in the morning and locks up at night, collects and distributes mail and magazines, welcomes new members, and accepts dues and monies for keys, tea purchases, and Elizabethan Club items. He or she keeps bathrooms supplied with paper and towels, writing desks with Club paper, plants watered, and flowers supplied. He or she supervises daily and weekly cleaning duties purchases food, flowers, cleaning supplies, kitchen and bathroom supplies for the Club, and sees that House rules are honored by members and their guests. Housing is provided year round in an apartment in the Clubhouse, a great location, along with parking and a health plan.
So naturally, praying over yesterday’s parable, I imagined Nadine, the steward during my undergraduate years, hoarding tea and cinnamon toast and cucumber sandwiches meant for guests in her apartment, secretly selling rare books on the black market under the cover of darkness, letting strangers stay in the club overnight as squatters… Then I imagined us novices secretly hoarding money for future haircuts or movies or buying personal snacks and toiletries on a trip to the grocery store using the communal Wegman’s card. What if we, or Nadine, were called to account for our squandering practices? According to the parable, Nadine might start handing out free keys to the club so that her generosity might be repaid by thankful new members once she was out of a job. We might distribute our excess money to our fellow novices to ingratiate them so that we might rely on their future generosity should we find ourselves destitute. Transactions. Deals. Bargains. Business. And the dishonest steward was praised by the master in the parable for his ingenuity. In fact, Ilyas was praised by the social worker with whom I was speaking at rounds – “I don’t blame him for doing what he had to do,” she said. Now I don’t know how our Jesuit directors or the Elizabethan Club’s Board of Governors might feel about such a reaction…
But in his commentary on the parable today, Jesus tells us that money and property and the transactions associated with them are fallacies even though they seem to be an inescapable part of “this age.” They are abominations in God’s eyes! In Greek, BLEUGMATA! What a word! And he doesn’t say that we shouldn’t serve both God and Mammon; he says that we cannot. It is impossible for us. Boom. Full stop.
I had always understood Mammon to mean “wealth,” but upon further investigation, I found that the term actually comes from a Hebrew and related Aramaic word which means “that in which you place your trust” or “that on which you rely.” So perhaps what Jesus is saying is that it is impossible for us to serve both our own interests and God’s interests. If we serve ourselves, it follows that we are inherently selfish, but God commands us to love our neighbor. If we rely on or trust in money, for example, we easily and quickly forget that we are ultimately and actually reliable on God’s love. We cannot put our ultimate trust in both ourselves and in God – we have to choose.
This is really difficult because it’s ingrained in our culture: my team, my school, my degree, my interests, my reputation, my hair, my GPA, my talents, my song, my family, my friends, my (favorite) show, my cats, my house, my seat, my prayer spot, my contribution to class, my idea, my job, my interpretation, my prayer service, my homily, my turn, my bathroom time, my understanding, my children, my pen, my service project, my facebook post, my instagram, my snap story, my country, my president (or not my president), my health, my gluten-free diet, my intelligence, my vocation, my desire, my life… Phew! We are possessive creatures! And we tend to equate our sense of ourselves so much with what we have or don’t have – and even more so in Spanish or other Romance languages (tengo calor, tengo razón, tengo hambre…). And Jesus says that what I esteem is an abomination?! How dare he? Well, at least that’s what the Pharisees say, the ones who, in another translation, are covetous, yearning to possess or to have.
When it comes to God, this way of thinking does not compute. Try to do this with God’s grace which, even in its smallest “amount” in our schema, is infinite. Indeed, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Try to say, “That’s my sunlight,” or “That’s my sky,” or “Those are my wild deer”; “That’s my generosity,” or “That’s my kindness” … “you can’t have it.” Or… Well, I’ll give you some, but only if you repay me with interest! We’d sound absurd! It doesn’t work this way, although many seem to think it does! I think this is partially what Jesus means when he says that those who try to hold on to their life will lose it. We only exist because of God’s gift. If God didn’t love us, we wouldn’t be here. But try to hold onto God’s grace, God’s love, and you will lose it. God’s grace is not transactional. It is infinite and eternal.
Considered in this way, God’s goodness has no comparative or superlative. The good is the good; there is no better or best or worse or worst. There is no conception of more or less, abundance or scarcity. We cannot measure what’s good or loving or worthwhile in this way. Those who have any good left will always find something to give. In the words of one writer, “God’s eternal love makes any banquet of body or soul which the whole world could set before us no more than a single morsel of bread” (Fr. John Tauler, O.P.). Jesus knows how to fill the water jugs of the Samaritan woman. He knows how to change water into wine. He knows how to satisfy thousands of hungry people with just very few loaves. St. Leo the Great, whom we honored yesterday, wrote, “He, nourished in his own, can multiply by taking away what he could have increased by giving.” God measures his gifts with love’s measure. And God does not measure differences in love according to the apparent magnitude of what we choose in any particular moment. Nor does he compare one hour to the next when he asks us to give ourselves in love to the present. For God, all that matters is our willingness to give fully in love to the current hour of need no matter what is available for our choosing.
Rev. Joe Smythe at the hospital shared this gem of Quaker wisdom with me on Thursday: I shall pass this way but once; any good that I can do or any kindness I can show; let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.
It is so easy to ask ourselves, “What am I doing that really matters? I’m not going to change the world today.” We may not cure cancer or end world hunger or usher in world peace, but that’s not our job. We might brighten someone’s day, bring hope to a troubled time, be present to comfort in a time of mourning, advocate for someone who has been wronged, clear up a child’s misconception, or give a woman a cone of water. In our culture of consumerism, self-absorption, interminable acquisitiveness, and “lust of the eyes,” money represents the root of selfishness and division, false self-reliance and control of one’s destiny. St. Paul in his letter to Timothy writes that a fondness for money is the root of all evil because it almost always turns out becoming an end in itself, an ultimate value, a controlling force. Mammon, that in which we place our trust, our very selves can become an idol that demands prostrating and sacrifice, and we can easily forget about God. And isn’t that one definition of sin? When we lose sight of God, it inhibits our capacity to do the good of which we are capable. It holds us back. Having worked at an independent school in a wealthy neighborhood, I have seen this in action. It’s really difficult for those who are wealthy in the riches of this world to comprehend this dynamic, even if they’re well-meaning, good people.
Jesus tells us to “make friends for [ourselves] out of the mammon of unrighteousness” so that when it runs out (or when we run out of life, for we cannot take it with us), we may be welcomed into eternal dwellings. Does this mean we are to use the mammon we have been lent to make friends, as the shrewd steward did? Or does it mean to “make friends” with mammon itself, as opposed to being its servant? To have the right relationship to mammon, to our own self-reliance – not to idolize it and worry about it and fear for its well-being.
Either way, we are not just ourselves. We are all interconnected. We discover ourselves in encounter with others. At some point, if we rely too heavily on mammon, then it becomes very difficult to love as God loves. Any kind of selfishness separates us and keeps us from loving others, for if we love as God loves, unconditionally and interminably, then we won’t have anything left for ourselves. Thankfully, God’s grace is infinite and eternal, so it will never run out. Moreover, everything we have to give is already a gift to us, not something we earn or deserve or are entitled to! So hey, as it turns out, I actually know many stewards! We are all stewards of God’s gifts, and we must treat ourselves and them as such. The way we deal with the littlest things – those “abominations” of this world about which we care so deeply – reflects the way we deal with the greatest of God’s gifts. The way we treat the “least among us” reflects the way we treat Jesus Himself. And if we are dishonest or unrighteous stewards, then why should God even think about giving us anything for ourselves?
So let’s try to be more attentive to the culture of selfishness and egocentrism in which we live and move and have our being. Let’s challenge ourselves to notice when we or others identify with something as “mine” and begin to add God into the equation. “God’s gift of my talents,” “God’s gift of my health,” “God’s gift of my country.” Indeed, we end most prayers with “through Christ, our Lord.” What about “my job, through Christ” or “my understanding, thanks to Christ”? My supervisor at Upstate Hospital once asked me how I start my day. “Coffee,” I said, playing into her usually concrete nature. “Noooo!” she laughed. “When you first open your eyes.” And then she told me what she does. She begins each day like this: “Through the immaculate heart of Mary, I offer the work, the joys, the prayers, and the sufferings of this day to you, O God, for all the intentions of your most pure heart.” That way, she explained, everything that you do is already in God’s hands, even if you forget.
So I’ll end where I began. This past Thursday, while we were waiting for rounds to begin, I told the social worker that the saga of Ilyas reminded me of this parable that I’d been pondering, and we got into a discussion about it as others filed in. What happened next made me smile and taught me something about the power of God’s word to change hearts. The whole group somehow got to talking about what they do in their free time, especially in terms of exercising. The social worker said she was going to do aerial yoga for the first time, and her colleague, the case manager, who reminds me of Red from Orange Is The New Black, said that she could never do that because “fat chicks don’t hang on stilts.” The social worker retorted that the owner of this place actually noticed two overweight ladies peeking into her class one day and invited them to join. When they said they didn’t have any money, she told them it didn’t matter, that they should come try it out. They loved it, and their beaming faces showed it. Afterwards, the instructor invited them back the next week, and again, they repeated that they didn’t have the money to pay. The owner said that didn’t matter, that she cared more about her community of yogis. “I can see that it brings you joy, so you should come and enjoy it,” she said. Now there’s someone who’s not a slave to money.
And the only proper response to such gratuity or gratuitousness? Well, in French they’d say merci. In Latin, gratias. In Spanish and Italian, gracias and grazie. Sometimes in English, too, we say “grace.” In Greek, it’s eucharisto, yes, Eucharist, from the Greek word for, you guessed it, grace, kharis. In response to God’s gracious gifts, we can only reciprocate in kind. As the psalmist sings today, “Every day will I bless you, and I will praise your name for ever and ever. Let all your works give you thanks, O Lord.” Thanks be to God, indeed!
Ad maiorem Dei gloriam!
Chris Holownia, n.S.J.
Rom 16:3-9, 16, 22-27; Psalm 145:2-3, 4-5, 10-11; Luke 16:9-15