It may help us to briefly consider the nature and function of a parable. The word, “parable,” comes from the Greek, parabolē, meaning “comparison, illustration or analogy.” A parable is a short, simple story that often involves a character facing a moral dilemma or making a questionable decision and then suffering the consequences. The meaning of a parable is not usually intended to be hidden or secret but straightforward and obvious. It is intended to suggest how a person should think, believe or behave.
Indeed, the story in this reading is relatively straight forward. We have an individual who has enjoyed a position of status and relative material comfort as the steward, or servant, of a wealthy land owner. The land owner has discovered that the steward has mismanaged funds entrusted to him, and as a result, he will be relieved of his position. He faces the prospect of loss of position, loss of social status, loss of comfortable residence, and the probable outcome that the only options for his sustenance will be manual labor or begging. He quickly adjusts the accounts of several of his master’s debtors in the hopes that these individuals will reciprocate by welcoming him into their homes, perhaps help him find work, etc. Interestingly, when his master learns of this, the master commends him for his prudence in business affairs (although not for his honesty!). This begins to lead us to consider the differences in values between the culture and the kingdom of God. And the parable ends with a brief explanation: No one can serve two masters; you cannot serve both God and mammon (or money).
This reading and similar readings are often interpreted as equating material wealth with evil, and implying criticism of those with material possessions. However, that seems to be a misreading of story. Biblical scholars tell us that in Jewish tradition (the tradition in which Jesus lived, learned and taught), wealth (or mammon) was not inherently evil. The question — and perhaps it is a more challenging one for us — is how we use our relative wealth. Material possessions and money are morally neutral. They are neither good nor bad.
The question becomes, how do we live in relationship to our material possessions? How do our material possessions effect the way that we treat others? Do we use our material possessions (no matter how little or how much we may have) in service of the values of this world and this culture; do we ‘serve’ the masters of materialism and consumerism? Do our choices and our behaviors include subtle exploitation, competition for money and status, conspicuous consumption and a general disregard for outsiders or persons in need? Or do we use our material possessions in service of the values of the kingdom of God? Do our choices and behaviors reflect, in practical ways, the universal compassion and love of God? Do we seek ways to welcome and be in solidarity with outsiders or persons in need? Do we share our time, our talent and our treasure with the marginalized and those in need, freely, with no strings attached, without expectation of return, recognition or honor?
I invite you to consider the simple fact that we either live in relation to our material possessions and wealth in a way that reflects the values of our culture or in a way that reflects the values of the kingdom of God —that is, in service of God, and therefore in solidarity with and on behalf of those in need.
Rev. Thomas Altepeter is an Ecumenical Catholic priest and pastor of St. Clare Ecumenical Catholic Community in Spokane.
He is also a licensed psychologist and has previously served as pastor of an ECC community in Wisconsin, been employed as a university professor, served as a director of a large behavioral health department, and worked in private practice as a psychologist.