James Buchanan was president of the United States from 1857-1861. He had the best credentials of any person who ever held the office. He began as a State legislator in Pennsylvania, served his State in both the House and the Senate, was ambassador to both Russia and England and was Secretary of State. He was known as a man of moderation and had a personal political philosophy I, at least, find modest and sensible. Yet, his administration was so bad that he has sometimes been considered a traitor. He was not. His problem was not lack of good will or talent but a major misconception. He believed that the problems before the Civil War could have been managed by usual means. Perhaps reform was needed but the situation could have been maintained. Yet his was a time for revolution not reform and so as his successor Abraham Lincoln remarked “War came”.
Luke tells us this today as well. Meeting Jesus always creates a crisis: it always demands a conscious decision. This is true both for individuals and for a community.
The parable of the incompetent steward is a hidden Lukan masterpiece. The steward was essentially a financial manager responsible for the daily operations of an estate or business. This man was obviously not very good at it, yet notice how he deals with a crisis. He immediately takes control of the situation and uses his authority while he has it to prepare a future for himself.
The master does not condemn him for it. Indeed, he seems to wish that he had demonstrated this kind of daring and initiative when he was his manager. Yet Luke’s observation is very astute. Managing day to day operations requires a different set of skills than leading in a crisis. Daring, creativity indeed a certain ruthlessness are not required when everything is going well but are needed when something has to be changed: disorganize to reorganize, to use the language of community organization.
The gospel today began with Jesus addressing his disciples. This is for everyone as everyone needs to know that having met Jesus our lives have changed forever; the foundations have been broken and we must build something new. This will affect every part of our lives, but it will be clearest in what we do with the material world and in short Money. Luke’s realism should come as no surprise to us. He has already told us that “life is more than food and the body more than clothing” (Luke 12:23) and that he has come to set the world on fire (Luke 12:49) with its severe consequences (Luke 12:51)
Knowing Jesus is an upheaval, but how do we put this in dollars and cents? There are several principles that we could invoke as we did this last year when Msgr. Lo Pinto and I discussed Catholic Social teachings, but let me tell you about a man I knew.
Samuel Abam was a pharmacist in Bamenda, Cameroon. His position would have allowed him to amass a great fortune and indeed he was able to provide quite well for his large family securing a good education for each. When he died a few years ago there was a great and wide outpouring of grief. His web remembrance page had over 23,000 views with almost as many posts. Most of them were personal remembrances of kindness. He had very “flexible” terms for extended credit and there were people who literally owed their lives to his generosity. He also was a good judge of talent and financed the education of numerous young people. There were over 2000 people at his funeral. Testimony in itself to a life well spent but most significant to me was a story I heard from his daughter. Two men came up to the family with great sadness. They had flown in from Europe to attend the funeral and said that everything they had accomplished in life was because of Dr. Abam’s generosity. Neither she nor anyone else in the family knew them. To quote from St Mathew:
But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing,4so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. (6:3-4)
It has been said that he who dies with the most toys wins. This is very foolish. We see in the Father’s repayment of Samuel Abam what winning is: he who has formed the deepest relationships has begun heaven here and now.
This is true for individuals and it is also true for parishes. Maintenance and relationships are terms of art in organizing. A maintenance organization is one seeks to keep itself going with as few disturbances as possible. It is concerned with clear structures, well defined hierarchies and indeed maintenance in the literal sense. These are not unimportant but if it is the motivating factor for a Parish you have James Buchanan for your pastor and will look only, to use the terms of today’s gospel, at small matters and perhaps not for long.
We are called to deal with great ones. For a parish to be truly Catholic, it must show the presence of Jesus. That is our great calling and requires that we organize ourselves around relationships with Jesus and each other. They must be developed at the same time and the key is the Eucharist. Without the Mass we may become many things some good but nothing great.
As we see with the papacy of Pope Francis, when our emphasis shifts to relationships, there may be a lack of clear definition of roles and rules, but a greater sense of participation and belonging.
As we work so hard to maintain our church building, let us ask ourselves what we are willing to do to deepen the relationships among us. We may receive a plaque for the former, but we will receive the foretaste of heaven for the latter.
ON THE CUTTING ROOM FLOOR:
Once more, we see that St Luke’s insights cannot be contained in a thousand words, so I would like to point out two definitions and a comparison.
Crisis was originally a medical term. A crisis occurs when a fever or illness has reached its most dangerous stage. It will either break or consume the patient. The doctors must know how to interpret the situation and administer the proper treatment. Something radically different will occur causing either great good or harm. A crisis situation occurs when a fundamental change is inevitable whether one acts or does not.
Prudent: St Luke uses the word Phronimous in today’s Gospel which was translated as “prudent”. Merriam-Webster defines prudent as: marked by wisdom or judiciousness prudent advice a: shrewd in the management of practical affairs prudent investor b : marked by circumspection : DISCREET c : PROVIDENT, FRUGAL.
As a highly educated Greek, Luke’s understanding would have been closer to Aristotle’s:
Hence men like Pericles are deemed prudent because they possess a faculty of discerning what things are good for themselves and for mankind; and that is our conception of an expert in domestic economy (oikonomikous) or political science (politikous)” Nichomachean Ethics 8, 5, 5
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is closer to the ancient Greek and defines Prudence as:
Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; “the prudent man looks where he is going.” “Keep sane and sober for your prayers.” Prudence is “right reason in action,” writes St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, It is not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation. It is called auriga virtutum (the charioteer of the virtues); it guides the other virtues by setting rule and measure. It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience. The prudent man determines and directs his conduct in accordance with this judgment. With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid. (1806)
The most prudent person is not the most cautious but the most effective. This needs to be the mark of every disciple.
Mammon and false trust: Mammon derives from Ma, the Aramaic word for “that in which one places ones trust”. Today’s Gospel passage speaks continuously about what is trustworthy. Even by the time Luke is writing mammon had come to mean material things. Luke slyly plays on this and is asking his readers to decide what or who is most trustworthy: Material Wealth or Jesus? One must be Master. This is still the case for us: we still “cannot serve both God and Mammon.”