Sunday, September 19, 2010

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Amos 8:4-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-8; Luke 16:1-13

The parable in today’s gospel is one of the most confusing of Jesus’ parables, even to biblical scholars. It seems to raise far more questions than it answers. And I suspect that the ordinary man or woman in the pew listening to this must be thinking: why in the world is Jesus praising the dishonest servant? In effect, the dishonest servant stole from his master twice....and the master praises him. This surely is a puzzler. In fact, many scripture scholars believe that the last sections of the parable were added later by other writers to provide possible interpretations. Even in the first century people were having trouble figuring it out.

The only exegete who offered an insight that I found credible was a scholar I had consulted many times before, Prof. Norman Perrin. He notes that there are two presuppositions that must be remembered to render this parable intelligible. The first is that Jesus often taught as a wisdom teacher. And wisdom teachers sometimes made use of non-wise individuals in their teaching. Sometimes an unwise person can do a very wise thing. It happens. Secondly, in a parable there’s only one point that matters—just one. So in this parable Jesus is describing a disreputable individual who does a very wise thing—he takes action when he is faced with a personal crisis. That’s the only point that matters. That fits in very well with Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God. He says over and over: the Kingdom of God is here; you need to act on it. The Presence of God is in your midst. Respond to it.

That’s all well and good. The first step is the decision to take action, to do something in response to God. Then the harder part comes: what exactly is to be done? It seems that just about anything religious these days is confusing. Situations are so complicated. There are too many conflicting voices. We live in an exceedingly complex world. Whether it’s a serious decision about end-of-life issues or just "what should I do in a family dispute"...multiple, conflicting courses of action present themselves. We may want to take action, to do the loving thing, to do the Christian thing. But what that not always easily determined.

I always get a lot of support in situations like this from St. Augustine. I have to say a little bit about Augustine himself. In recent years he’s gotten a lot of bad press about some things he wrote and said about sin and sexuality and dying babies. He said those things when he was a very old man and he had gotten cranky. People forget (or don’t know) that for thirty years before that, he was an exemplary bishop. He was known for his great pastoral compassion in guiding and dealing with people. That’s brought out beautifully in this insightful little book by Theodore Tack, As One Struggling Christian to Another: Augustine’s Christian Ideal for Today. Augustine knew very well, from his own life, how struggling it can be to try and do the Christian thing. Augustine lived in a time when the Roman world was falling apart. Germanic tribes from the north were dissolving a way of life that had existed for over seven hundred years. People were scared and confused. It would perhaps surprise us to know some of the issues that Augustine preached about on Sundays in his cathedral: terrorism, drugs, live-in marriages, divisions in the Church. Sound a bit familiar?

Augustine knew well that any religious decisions are difficult and often unclear. He advised his people that "you just have to do the best you can." He said there are two ways you can prepare yourself for a difficult decision. The first obviously is prayer, to earnestly ask the Spirit of God to guide you in your decision. The second, less obviously, is to do a little gardening. Put yourself in a nurturing mood. And then make the decision to do the loving thing as you see it. In the parable today Jesus says: Act now. Augustine would then add: "Indeed, but know that the decision is not always going to be clear cut what you should do. Pray, do a little gardening, and then make the best decision you can."

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