Making Friends with Dishonest Wealth

For the last several weeks I’ve been chairing my parish’s Increased Offertory Program, in an attempt to raise our income levels. We had great help from a consulting firm that has helped other parishes fundraise in this way, but still it was up to us to frame the message in just the right way.  As I once remarked to one of the secretaries, it’s a zen approach to fundraising: we have to ask for more money without asking for more money.  Because in all honesty, it’s not about the money, it’s about the mission.  This mission is, as our first pastor Fr. Barry said in an 1888 homily, “to be good Christians and good citizens, to edify men by leading exemplary lives.”  The money is a means to that end, and a sadly necessary one.

We’ve used several ideas to promote the program, such as the offering of the first-fruits of our labors to God, and the church as a kind of Promised Land where we are free to be open to God, and that “where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.”  But in my head I keep coming back to one of my favorite passages from the Gospels: the Parable of the Dishonest Steward.  In this episode from Luke’s Gospel, which is a longer version of the “God and mammon” lesson from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks of a steward who’s about to be fired by his master for squandering his property, so he calls upon his master’s debtors and begins systematically forgiving portions of their debts, so that after he is fired they may be more inclined to welcome him into their homes in return.  Jesus tells us that the master “commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently,” and this leads into my favorite part of the episode, which is Jesus’ application of the parable (16:9-13):

I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones. If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth? If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours?

No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

The Church oftentimes gets a lot of flack for its seemingly endless string of collections and the material wealth and splendor it appears to possess.  One of the reasons that Pope Francis is so popular with Church critics right now is that they have taken his remarks about desiring a poor Church and a Church of the poor and run with it, thinking maybe he’ll be the one to finally get rid of the pomp and circumstance and “sell off the Vatican” or whatever else.  But people tend to forget that true Christian poverty is not so simple or short-sighted as physical creatures eschewing physical wealth.  It is about being, as the Beatitudes say, poor in spirit, being humble before God in all circumstances — high and low, good and bad, prosperous and suffering — and so allowing Him to be closer to us.  And this parable of the steward reminds us that part of being poor in spirit involves making friends with “dishonest wealth.”

What is “dishonest wealth?”  It is, quite literally, wealth that lies; it is any richness or treasure that is perishable but that presents itself as non-perishable, i.e. everything this world has to offer us.  That includes all this money after which we all seek, as well as property and power and prestige.  Being poor in spirit doesn’t necessarily mean giving it all away, or having nothing to do with it.  One is not humble just because one has no money to spend.  It means being trustworthy with it, learning and knowing how to use it wisely.  It means not selling off the Vatican and giving away the proceeds, but changing the way the Vatican is used so that the Church and the people of the world may benefit all the more from its existence and presence.  It means not decreasing the number or types of collections per se, but understanding what it is we’re collecting and why so we know how to give.  It means not sacrificing beyond our means or capabilities, but recognizing that we do not live for only ourselves and using the means at our disposal to act upon that recognition.  It means being responsible in our magnanimity and magnanimous in our responsibility.

Fr. Barry in that same 1888 homily said that “the Church cannot help being strong and beautiful; it is her gift from God.  But this is not her aim.  She goes forth on one errand: she is sent to heal the diseases of the soul.”  It is in that spirit that I want to see this Increased Offertory Program succeed.  Jesus wants His brethren “to edify men by leading exemplary lives,” to use the tools that this world provides in order to “heal the diseases of the soul.”  In fact, He commands us to do so, even knowing that someday those tools will fail us.  And that’s okay, because if we can be trusted to use those tools correctly, He will give us better ones, ones that last.  As He tells us “the person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones.”  And to a God Who feeds all creatures great and small to their satisfaction, Who clothes even the grass of the field in splendor, Who created and is a part of all that is, human wealth and currency is a very small matter.

If we can render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, we will be able to render to God what belongs to God.  If we can be trusted with what belongs to another, we will be trusted with what is ours.  If we can be trusted with dishonest wealth, we will be trusted with true wealth.

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