September 23, 2019
Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) on September 22, 2019 at St. Austin Parish and Westminster Independent Living and Nursing Facility in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-8; and Luke 16:1-13.
Our first two readings today seem to contradict one another. The prophet Amos criticizes the political leaders of his day for taking advantage of the poor, but the First Letter to Timothy encourages us to respect and pray for our political leaders. And our gospel passage is even more challenging. As St. Augustine wrote, “I cannot believe that this story came from the lips of our Lord.”
A parable is a story with a twist, and the ending to this parable is so surprising, most of us think that we’ve heard it wrong. Rather than trying to tie the parable to the sayings of Jesus that come immediately after the story we hear today, I think it would make more sense if we compared it to the story directly preceding it: what we usually call “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.”
I believe that the main point of this week’s parable is the same as last week’s: we do not deserve God’s mercy, but God freely gives it to us anyway. Let’s take a moment to celebrate that!
In pedagogy, it is always best to emphasize the good behavior that you want people to do, rather than to highlight the wrong behavior. You would think that the Church would have learned this in the past 2,000 years, but when it comes to this story, we usually call it “The Parable of the Dishonest Steward.”
Let’s summarize this confusing parable one more time. A steward has been given control of his master’s estate, squanders his master’s resources, and is about to lose his job. The steward knows that he’ll need to rely on his neighbors after he’s fired, so he cuts deals with everyone in the neighborhood who owes his master a debt. Instead of being angry, the master praises the steward for his shrewdness. I think this story should be called “The Parable of the Merciful Master.”
This parable has so much in common with the one that comes immediately before it, the parable we usually call “The Prodigal Son” but probably should call “The Loving Father.” In both parables, the main character squanders things entrusted to him by a superior and engages in sinful behavior. In both, the main character realizes that he must rely on others because he has no other options. In both, the main character is surprised to be welcomed by his superior.
Remember: a parable is a story with an unexpected twist. The twist in both of these parables is the same: the father and the master respond to egregious sins with mercy. The message is clear: God’s ways are not our ways. There is absolutely nothing we can do to merit God’s love. But God loves us anyway.
Hopefully, we’ve heard about God’s mercy at Church, from family, and from friends all our of lives. We know intellectually that God loves us… but so many of us truly struggle to believe it. Many of us think we’ve done something so terrible in our past that God cannot forgive us. But think about these stories. Jesus says that the father can truly love and forgive the son who squanders his entire inheritance. Jesus says that the master can praise the steward even after he takes irresponsible risks. Surely, then, God can forgive us whatever we have done. My Paulist brother Ron Roberson puts it another way: “God doesn’t love you because you are good. You are good because God loves you.”
Can we believe this in our mind?
Can we believe this in our heart?
Can we believe this in our bones?
20 years ago, the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, declaring, and I quote: “[Christians] cannot rely on their own good works or boast of their own merits as though they were not still in need of mercy.” Since the writing of the JDDJ in 1999, the World Methodist Council and the World Communion of Reformed Churches have signed onto it, too. That means that leaders representing 63% of the world’s Christians 1 have reached an agreement on this…
… but do the people they represent truly believe that we must rely on God’s mercy? Many of us are quick to tell everyone else that God loves them just as they are, but we hold ourselves to a higher, more stringent standard. We believe that God loves us for what we do.
Sadly, surveys consistently show that the majority of United States Catholics don’t believe in God’s unconditional love. For example, a 1993 study revealed that 84% of teen-aged US Catholics believe that, quote, “by their own efforts… people earn their place in heaven.” 2
This data jives with my own experience as a priest. I talk with a remarkable number of people who think that they are not good enough to deserve God’s love. But the reality is: God is wildly in love with each one of us, as individuals. No, I’m not talking to the person sitting next to you. I’m talking to YOU! [Take the time to point to at least ten people individually.] God loves YOU, no matter how unworthy you think you are! Here’s a prayer that might help us talk with God about our struggles:
The OTHER Serenity Prayer (author unknown)
GOD, grant me the serenity
to stop beating myself up for not doing things perfectly,
the courage to forgive myself because I’m working on doing better,
and the wisdom to know that you already love me just the way I am.
And even if we don’t think that God loves us unconditionally, we can still act like we believe it. Anyone who belongs to a 12-step program, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, knows that the second step is that “We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”
May this year be the year that we all get off the merry-go-round of perfectionism, and accept that God’s love and mercy is available to us right here, right now.
- According to various Wikipedia pages accessed on 17 September 2019, there are 2.42 billion Christians in the world. There are 1.3 billion baptized Catholics, and the Lutheran World Federation, the World Methodist Council, and the World Communion of Reformed Churches represent 74 million, 80 million, and 80 million people, respectively. ↩
- Lilly Endowment, “Toward Shaping the Agenda: A National Survey of Catholic Religious Education, Survey of Religion Teachers/Catechists,” 1993. ↩