At an elementary school teachers’ meeting one December, just before the Christmas break, the principal suggested, “Let’s all write out our New Year’s resolutions about how we can be better at our jobs, and I’ll put them on the bulletin board here in the teachers’ lounge; that way we can be mutually supportive in our efforts to improve ourselves.” The teachers agreed, and when their resolutions were posted, they all crowded around the bulletin board to read them. However, by mistake the principal unknowingly dropped one of the slips of paper, which happened to be the resolution of one of the younger teachers. When she didn’t find it posted, she began complaining, “He didn’t put up my resolution, even though it was one of the first ones turned in. He doesn’t care about me or value my feelings and input; this proves it!,” and continued ranting in this vein as she stormed out of the room. The principal, who had overheard all this from his office, was mortified; he hadn’t meant to exclude anyone. He hurried back to the teachers’ lounge and found the missing slip of paper on the floor; after tacking it to the bulletin board with the others, he paused to read it. It said, “I resolve not to let little things upset me anymore” (James Colaianni, Sunday Sermons Treasury of Illustrations, p. 85). It’s very easy to say we’re going to do something, but too often we’re like the young man who wrote in a love letter to his girlfriend: “My Dearest, I would climb the highest mountain, swim the widest stream, cross the burning desert, and risk a painful death in order to be with you—for I can’t bear to be apart from you. P.S. I’ll come see you this Saturday, if it doesn’t rain” (R. Kent Hughes, 1001 Great Stories & Quotes, p. 63). We can smile at such inconsistencies when they involve a case of puppy love or immaturity, but they’re a very serious matter when it comes to our faith. It’s not nearly enough to call ourselves Christians; Jesus expects us to live in a way that proves He is our Master and Lord.
In the first Letter of Saint Paul to Timothy (2:1-8), the apostle instructs us regarding the sort of community life we should strive for in our homes and in our parish: one of tranquility and peace, free of unnecessary anger and arguments, and marked by prayer and devotion; as he says, “This is good and pleasing to God. . . .” In the Book of the Prophet Amos (8:4-7), we are told what displeases God: a spirit of hypocrisy and dishonesty, in which people merely go through the motions of fulfilling their religious duties, while in fact scheming and plotting on how to take advantage of others. In response, the Lord swears, “Never will I forget a thing they have done!” In light of this warning, it might seem strange that, in Jesus’ parable in the Gospel of Luke (16:1-13), the master complimented his dishonest steward or business manager. However, what was being praised wasn’t the man’s dishonesty, but his willingness to think ahead, make a plan, and follow through on it. Worldly people do this all the time; Jesus desires this same degree of commitment from His followers. In fact, we should show an even greater degree of commitment and determination, for we’re not merely trying to get ahead in the world, but to prepare ourselves for membership in the Kingdom of Heaven.
In the year 293 a Roman general named Constantius Chlorus became emperor in the western half of the Roman Empire. Though not a Christian himself, he was a wise and humane ruler who greatly respected the Church—and in fact, it would later be his son Constantine who legalized Christianity and ended the official policy of persecution. Constantius Chlorus wanted to test the loyalty of the Christians among his royal officials and servants, so he ordered them to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods in order to keep their positions and remain in his favor. The majority of the Christians refused, but a few gave in—only to discover, to their great shame, that the emperor expressed disgust at them for their cowardice and ordered them never to enter into his presence again. When someone asked Constantius about this, the emperor explained, “Those who sacrifice their religion so easily are likely to be unreliable in all their duties; I have reason to believe they would be just as disloyal to me as they were to their God” (Msgr. Arthur Tonne, Stories for Sermons, Vol. 1, #323).
As Jesus says in the Gospel, if “you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth?,” and “the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones”—in other words, if we’re willing to put anything before our relationship with God, we are lacking in integrity and are unworthy to be a part of His Kingdom. Compared to the possibility of eternal life, everything this world offers—no matter how glittering or attractive—is a “small matter” or a form of “dishonest wealth.” There are many Christians today who, perhaps without realizing it, are being dishonest stewards—including those who pay more attention to political loyalties and personal preferences than to the Gospel in choosing how they’ll vote; those whose values and attitudes are shaped more by society and the popular culture than by the teachings of the Church; those who claim they’re too busy or tired for weekend Mass and daily prayer and Bible reading, even though they always seem to have time for leisure and entertainment; those who insist their money and material blessings belong solely to them, and resent the Church’s challenge to them to express their gratitude by being generous; and those who are quick to criticize, gossip about, or condemn others, even as they imagine God is still pleased with them and will be merciful to them despite their own judgmental attitude.
If every self-described Catholic in America started taking his or her faith seriously, our nation would be transformed overnight; all the evil influences leading our society astray would tremble before the spiritual power unleashed by our unity in prayer, penance, and purpose. Though the hour is late, a great and historic spiritual revival can still occur if all of us begin by using God’s grace to change our own hearts. It’s time for us to imitate the dishonest steward in a holy and noble way—namely, by thinking ahead, making a plan, and following through on it. This means honestly admitting our faults, humbly asking God to forgive us, and sincerely requesting the Holy Spirit to guide us in all our decisions and actions. Whether this changes the direction of our lives, or merely renews the commitment we’ve already made to follow the proper path in life, Jesus will be very pleased with us. As Our Lord says, we can’t serve two masters—and if we make it clear that our allegiance is not to this world, but to His Kingdom, we will have the assurance of receiving true wealth and of being welcomed into eternal dwellings.