One of the unofficial traditions of the West Genesee School system is the Senior Prank. It is an unofficial tradition, because it is not sanctioned by the administration. It is, however, a tradition among the students to devise some sort of elaborate prank on the last day of classes which will allow the individual immortality among he annals of the school’s history. By and large, the pranks are harmless, and for the most part, not very creative. Most of the time they are the same variation on a theme. Usually water balloons and soakers are involved.
However, one year, one of the young parishioners at St. Luke’s came up with what I thought was a pretty clever and harmless idea. He simply zip tied all the lockers shut in one of the hall ways. Of course he got in trouble for this, as expected he was suspended for two days by the administration in an attempt to discourage future pranks. His parents were somewhat upset with their son. But when they told me, their priest, I was torn between the parental “ what was he thinking”, to wanting to praise him for being so clever. I think what frustrated his parents most was, had their son put as much thought and energy into his academics as he did into this prank, he could have pulled A’s instead C’s.
I offer this story to give perspective to this morning’s Gospel. The story of the Dishonest Servant is a parable which has perplexed scholars and preachers for centuries. No one can grasp why the master praises the servant after discovering the servant had basically “cooked the books” to assure his means of living after being dismissed from his master’s service. In the midst of the parable, we have to ask, is the master praising the servant’s dishonesty, or is he praising his shrewdness. As we read through the passage we realize, it is his shrewdness, not his dishonesty that is being praised. He is praised for figuring out a way to assure his well being well into his time of unemployment. What he is not being praised for is his lack of loyalty to his master. It is somewhat obvious that the servant was loyal to one thing and to one thing only, himself, and this he had proved to be very good at.
When we explore the passage from this perspective, Jesus’ statement at the end fits in. “A servant cannot have two masters.” In the case of the Dishonest Servant, he failed to realize had he been faithful to his employer/master, his concern for self-preservation and perhaps even advancement would have taken care of itself.
I am not sure life today is too different from the life of the Dishonest Servant. Instead of literally needing to choose between two masters, we find ourselves constantly deciding between competing values. The world praises success. Often success is defined by who has the ability to purchase the most toys, or who has the busiest calendar, or who is responsible for the most people working under him or her. At the same time, we are told we need to lead balanced lives, to allow us the time to take care of our physical and spiritual well being. If statistics are true, as Americans, we are not good at this, in fact, less than fifty-percent of Americans actually take all of their vacation time. For those of us who do take vacations, most of us bring work with us. It begs us to ask the question, where are our loyalties, and to what or to whom do we serve?
The end of today’s Gospel pretty much tells us the truth we do not want to hear, “we cannot serve God and Money. This isn’t the only time Jesus declares a dichotomy between money and God. In another familiar statement Jesus says, “where your heart is, your treasure is also.
Again, let’s go back to our passage. If the master is God, and the servant is us. We are praised by the Almighty for the ability to survive in this world. But. . .are we actually living? Do we believe the life we desire is found only when we make God our true master?
The choice between God and wealth, between God and this world, has been a challenge for humanity since the days of the Eden. Adam and Eve are given the opportunity to live in paradise as long as they choose to obey God’s command not to eat from the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They disobey God’s command believing they can become like God. At the end of the giving of the Law in Deuteronomy, God tells the people, “on this day I give you blessing and curse, life and death. Choose life.” . .In essence choose God.
What salvation history tells us, is that humanity is far better at obeying the ways of this world than we are at choosing the ways of God. In today’s Old Testament reading, we heard the lament of Jeremiah. The history of Israel is often a metaphor for the history of humanity. After Israel becomes a great nation under the rule of King David, centuries later, Israel lies in ruins. It is now held captive by Babylon. Why is Israel in ruins? Because her people and her rulers have been unfaithful. In the beginning Israel was a country ruled by the laws of Moses, but prosperity brought change, and change brought corruption and a disavowal of Yahweh. Israel became the dishonest servant as it forfeited its loyalty to God for the wealth of the world.
All that the world tells us that provides safety and security, whether it is the walls which surrounds us or the constant amassing of material things, create anxiety. They may feel as if they offer happiness and hope in the short term, in the long term they often cause anxiety as we constantly work to maintain and fortify what we have. St. Frances of Assisi advocated owning nothing. He taught that even the ownership of a single book takes our attention away from God because, he argues, the owner will become consumed with preserving his precious possession from moth and moisture.
Despite its complexity the challenge of the Dishonest Servant is simple The parable challenges each of us to ask, “What will God be praising us for today?” Will we be praised as the good and faithful servant who was entrusted with 10 talents of divine treasure, and finds a way to double God’s investment? Or, will we be praised by the Almighty for being shrewd members of this world who have learned the art of survival but not how to live and to trust in the abundance of God’s grace?