“Consecrated to be Stewards of the Good Things that Last Forever”
Homily for Mass for Jubilarians in Consecrated Life
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year “C”
September 18, 2022; St. Mary’s Cathedral
What a treasure we have in the Bible. It is indeed a rich treasure chest from which to mine an abundance of wisdom. One of the reasons the Bible so abounds in such richness of teaching and insight lies in its great variety of types of literature: historic, poetic, exhortative and so forth. Sometimes those teachings are clear, and sometimes they’re a bit of an enigma. I would suggest that both types come across in the readings for today’s Mass, but especially the latter.
Discerning Lessons from Perplexities
The parable in today’s Gospel certainly presents some perplexities. What might seem enigmatic to us, and even inconsistent with what our Lord teaches elsewhere, presents to us an invitation to dig deeper into the text.
First of all, we have the dishonest tactics of the master’s steward of which our Lord seems to approve (“And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently”). Likewise, why would the master in the parable commend a servant of his for acting dishonestly in the handling of the master’s affairs?
Let us first consider the cleverness of the steward. The prevailing practice for middle-management type of administrators in the culture of that time was to add a surcharge on taxes and loan payments they had to collect. This is over and above the amount owed, kind of like a dealer’s markup. So what the steward collected from the master’s debtors was the actual amount they owed him, for the steward simply eliminated the surcharge he had imposed upon them. Furthermore, he did this in anticipation of the punishment he was to receive, namely, being deprived of his stewardship of his master’s goods. Here we see the principle of reciprocity at work that was so common in the ancient world: the steward did a favor for the debtors, so now when he will be rejected and out on the street and in need they will owe him kindness in return. We see, then, that the master was not actually deprived of what he was owed. He praises the steward not for what he actually did, but for the cleverness behind it.
We can, then, sift through all of this to arrive at the lesson we need for living out our Christian faith in this world: it is simply that we are to live in a way that prepares us for what lies ahead. As long as we live in this world we must always keep before our eyes the world that is to come, so that we will receive a ready welcome there when we pass from this life to the next. Which brings us to the teachings in today’s readings that are actually quite clear and straightforward.
The Lessons of Stewardship
First of all, there is the lesson of stewardship, which comes through clearly in our Lord’s moral teaching following the parable: “The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones.” This is the responsibility of the steward, to administer goods in a responsible and trustworthy way, but goods that are not his own but rather those of his master. He has the responsibility to administer them, but they belong to another, and the master expects the steward to administer them not only honestly but also in a way that will give him an increase.
We serve the Lord in this sense of stewardship: everything we have is a gift from God, all of our material and spiritual blessings, and they are to be used for God’s purposes, for sharing and spreading His love, and in this way we return these gifts to Him with an increase. But we only do this if we live our faith with integrity, if we actually live every day the faith we express in ritual on Sunday. That there can be a chasm between the two is nothing new. Just listen once again to what the prophet Amos proclaimed to God’s people of old 2800 years ago: “Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land! ‘When will the new moon be over,’ you ask, ‘that we may sell our grain, and the sabbath, that we may display the wheat? We will diminish the ephah, add to the shekel, and fix our scales for cheating!’”
Yes, the people could claim that they were observing the demands of the Law in refraining from work on those days that the Law required them to, namely, the Sabbath and the day when there was a new moon, but that made no difference in their attitudes and their observance of the deeper demands of the Law, the principles underlying it. The merchants continued to cheat the poor, and they couldn’t wait to get back to doing so after the Sabbath observance was over. They were officially a part of God’s people, but they were living in a way that made them no different from their pagan neighbors all around them. This gives us a deeper insight into the moral of the parable our Lord teaches in the gospel, where he says, “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”
The saying here seems to divide all of humanity into these two camps, those who are of this world and those who are children of the light. However, read in the light of Amos’ preaching we can see something more to it: there are those who are supposed to be children of the light who live their lives more like children of this world. Is this not true in our time as well? How many will stop at nothing to satiate their desire for pleasure, riches, and power – lying, cheating, oppressing, and any other sort of dishonest means – while we who are called to proclaim the saving Good News of Jesus Christ do so only half-heartedly, are slothful and tepid and too easily conditioned by the world around us? Even the children of light can make compromises and accommodations to living like children of this world. So the distinction lies not only in humanity as a whole, but also inside of each one of us.
Applied to the Consecrated Life
Which is why it is good for us to honor our jubilarians in consecrated life at this Mass, which really is a way of expressing our profound gratitude to God for gifting the Church with this vocation of inestimable value.
That is to say, the rich teachings of Scripture make these truths very clear to us. But words are not sufficient for us to really take the message to heart and live it out in our own lives, according to the concrete circumstances of our day-to-day life. For this we need living witnesses. Thank you, my dear sisters and brothers in consecrated life for providing us this witness, for being living examples of what it means to center one’s life exclusively on God. For those in religious life, there is no such thing as fulfilling one’s religious obligations and then going back to life as before. There is no duplicity in vowing life-long observance of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
The lesson the prophet Amos proclaims, and is illustrated in our Lord’s teachings from the parable we just heard, is one of justice to the poor. We prepare for heaven by our care for the poor. So much so that the biblical mind envisions a sort of heavenly bank account: every alms given to the poor is an investment in one’s heavenly bank account. This is why the rabbis would say, “The rich help the poor in this world, but the poor help the rich in the world to come.” With the vocation of consecrated life, however, we have something extraordinary, something that goes even beyond this: the religious voluntarily choose to be poor for the sake of the sanctification of the Church and the salvation of the world. Thus it is, thanks to our sisters and brothers who vow themselves in the consecrated life, it can be said that the poor in this world help the rich in the world that is to come!
Taking the Form of a Slave
Our sisters and brothers in consecrated life accomplish this by – now this may sound harsh, but so it is – becoming slaves of our Lord Jesus Christ. The idea of a slave certainly conveys a very negative meaning to us, someone deprived of freedom and subject to any sort of oppression. It all, of course, depends on the master, for a slave belongs entirely to his master, every moment of his day, and every ounce of his energy, belongs to his master; the slave has no spare time, not anything nor any time that is his own. But by becoming slaves of Jesus Christ, religious identify themselves to the one to whom they pledge their life.
As St. Paul tells us in his Letter to the Philippians: “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8). These are the ultimate stewards, dying to self to give all of their time, talent and treasure, their faith, hope and charity for the ultimate good and the only thing that truly matters: life in Jesus Christ. They have discovered the secret that here is where true freedom and fullness of life is to be found: to serve him as one’s Master is to be truly free.
That is why St. Paul concludes that ancient Christian hymn with the words: “Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:9-11).
The steward is a householder, he manages the affairs of the master’s house. In the eyes of the world it would seem foolish, a waste, to give one’s entire life to attending to the affairs of the house of God. But those in consecrated life have discovered a wisdom beyond that of this world, as explained most eloquently by Pope St. John Paul II in his Apostolic Exhortation Vita consecrata issued pursuant to the 1994 Synod of Bishops on Consecrated Life:
The house of God, the Church, today no less than in the past, is adorned and enriched by the presence of the consecrated life. What in people’s eyes can seem a waste is, for the individuals captivated in the depths of their heart by the beauty and goodness of the Lord, an obvious response of love, a joyful expression of gratitude for having been admitted in a unique way to the knowledge of the Son and to a sharing in his divine mission in the world [VC 104].
My dear sister and brother jubilarians: it is our joy to honor you today and, in a few moments, to witness the renewal of the vows you made twenty-five, fifty, sixty, seventy, and, yes, even seventy-five years ago! I did the math: the jubilarians we honor today represent, right before our very eyes, a cumulative 2,205 years of witness to the liberating love of Jesus Christ in the consecrated life! I know you did give one second of these years for the sake of recognition for yourself. But we need to recognize you, and it makes us happy to do so. And as we do so, I want to issue the challenge to our young people to follow your example.
Dear young people: the Church needs the witness of faithful, holy consecrated persons in our own time just as in every other; in fact, perhaps even more so in our own time than in the past. Do not be afraid to answer God’s call. Pray, stay strong in your practice of the faith and active in your faith community, seeking spiritual counsel from wise persons with valuable life experience. If you want to know what they are like, look around you in church today! As our Lord teaches us today, the wealth of this world will fail: that is, it will never fully satisfy, and it is all going to pass away, anyway. We cannot take it with us beyond the grave. The only thing we can take with us is the love of God we have shared with others. So set your sights on Jesus and follow him. He will not let you down!
I now invite our sisters and brothers marking milestone anniversaries in the consecrated life to come forward and stand at the foot of the altar to renew your vows. May God reward you for your gift of self to Him and His Church, and through you bless us with the help we need to live always and in every way as children of the light.