Without hesitation, the dean asks for wisdom. “You got it!” says the angel, and disappears.
All heads turn toward the dean, who sits glowing in the aura of wisdom. Finally one of his colleagues whispers, “Say something wise.”
The dean looks at them and says, “I should have taken the money.”
Now that just proves that academics can be funny when they want to be.
Some years ago, when I was working at a Catholic college, I got involved in a conversation about the Gospel with an older professor. He claimed he was an agnostic and had lost his faith because he found the Bible “too depressing.” “There’s no humor in the Bible,” he said, “especially the Gospels. Everything’s about sin and damnation. And Jesus never laughs. I can’t worship a God who doesn’t have a sense of humor.”
Before I could stop myself, I blurted out, “What do you mean; He created you, didn’t he?”
Not very charitable, and certainly not the best way to evangelize, but it was a pretty good one-liner.
In truth, Scripture is full of humor, especially the Gospels. Indeed, to His 1st century audience, the humor and absurdities present in Jesus’s parables surely brought on smiles and laughter. But too many of us don’t seem to recognize this.
Like the docetists, a bunch of early heretics who thought Jesus just pretended to be human, too many Christians today seem to think Jesus was too serious to ever be humorous, to divine to be human. To our modern ears much of the humor in the Gospels is subtle – after all the four Evangelists weren’t stand-up comics – and recognizing it demands some knowledge of the culture and the times.
The parable in today’s Gospel reading from Luke is a good example. It’s really a pretty funny story. The steward Jesus describes was lazy, incompetent and dishonest, and it all finally caught up with him. His boss fired him, but first wanted a full accounting of his stewardship.
Now the steward might have been a crook, but he was remarkably honest about his own capabilities. He neither denied his sinfulness nor ignored his limitations. How did he put it? Too weak to dig ditches and too proud to beg.
And he was also a very clever crook. Looking to the future, he ingratiated himself with his boss’ debtors by reducing their debts.
Now, Jesus didn’t applaud the steward’s dishonesty, and the steward didn’t get his job back. No, the only praise for the steward is that he responded to a crisis by acting shrewdly.
The punch line of the story is where Jesus says, “…make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” [Lk 16:9]. In other words, take your assets, your gifts, your cleverness, your self-knowledge, your drive for self-preservation and spend it on that which is lasting – that which has true value – that which can’t be stolen or taken away by others. Jesus isn’t telling us to imitate the dishonesty of the steward. He’s simply telling us to use our wits by focusing on the important, lasting, holy road to salvation, a road paved with faith and acts of love.
It’s the same message we find in John’s Gospel where Jesus tells us to act fully in the world, but not to be of the world [Jn 17:11-16]. Yes, Jesus tells us: Use money, tainted as it is, to win friends, and thus make sure that when it fails you, they will welcome you into eternity.
But who are these friends? Certainly not the fair-weather friends who suddenly appear when we throw our money around. Anyway, it’s unlikely they have the power to welcome us into God’s Kingdom. And he’s not referring to the dishonest merchants described in the parable, who work on the “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” principle.
Who, then, are the friends we should cultivate? Who will welcome us into God’s Kingdom?
The answer’s found in today’s first reading. The Prophet Amos lived almost 2,800 years ago and yet his words have lost none of their impact. He warns those who exploit the poor that the Lord sees their deeds and won’t forget them. Amos uses powerful language, accusing the exploiters of thinking they can buy up the poor as if they were just another commodity to be traded.
It’s the Gospel message pointing to what the Church calls the preferential option for the poor. Jesus announced the Good News first to the lowly, not to the great and powerful, and His public ministry continued to follow this pattern. He sought out those on society’s edges: the poor and helpless, public sinners, rejects and outcasts. His Church does the same today, continuing His ministry to the poor and rejected.
And the "poor" are not simply those deprived of material goods. The poor are those who have no defense, those who cannot help themselves, those who have only God…and God's people. Jesus didn’t neglect the rich and the powerful. He also ministered to them, but more often than not, it was to correct them, to tell them to let go of their greed, pride, and hypocrisy.
Yes, Jesus spent most of His time with the poor, and calls us to do the same. It’s among them that He carries out his ministry of healing. And it’s through us, through you and me, that He continues to encourage them and console them and heal them. These are the friends we are to cultivate – the poor and helpless of this world – for they will welcome us into the Kingdom.
There’s an echo here of Mathew’s Gospel [Mt 25] where Jesus describes the last judgment: Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers that you do unto me. Here our Lord identifies Himself with the poorest of the poor. The disciple, then, can serve his master only by serving them.
Monsignor Ronald Knox, the great English theologian, wrote that today’s Gospel parable “is only meant to emphasize a single point--that we must make proper use of our worldly goods while we have still time to do it.”
While we still have time…I just celebrated another birthday, another reminder that I really don’t have too much time left.
While we still have time…Yes, time to gain the only thing that matters in the end: the kingdom of God.
But we must serve God’s people not just sitting in our comfortable homes writing checks. Jesus calls us to do as He did: to get up close and personal, to love as He loves, to see Christ in others and to be Christ for others. Getting close to the least of our brothers and sisters doesn’t come naturally to many of us, but it remains our calling as true disciples. And so we must call on God for the grace of His Spirit to lead us.
Yes, brothers and sisters, we are in the time of grace, we are in the time when God has mercy on us and gives unsparingly. But when, at the end of our lives, the time comes for us to appear before God, the time of grace will have ended.
And don’t forget, it was our Mother, Mary, who prophesied in the Magnificat that Jesus would lift up the lowly. It is to Mary we acknowledge our sinfulness when we surrender “the hour of our death” to her care.
We will then face the moment of divine justice. But unlike the steward in the Gospel, we don’t have to wait until the last minute. We can and should begin today.
If Jesus can love those who are despised by the world, so can we.
If Jesus can speak words of encouragement and healing to those who need it most, so can we.
If Jesus can touch the leper and forgive the sinners He encountered, so can we.