On Serving Two Masters
(Am.8:4-7; 1Tim.2:1-8; Lk.16:1-13)
Carlo Goldoni’s play The Servant of Two Masters (1746) includes a scene where the character Truffaldino (‘Little Trickster’) tries to serve his two masters at simultaneous banquets, without either being aware of the other. It’s a farcical situation that highlights the absurdity of trying to please two masters at once.
This is like the old Japanese proverb that says, ‘A loyal soldier cannot serve two lords’. It’s impossible for us to please everyone and to always be in two places at the same time, so from time to time we all have to choose between competing priorities (Rom.12:2). But that’s not always easy to do.
In Return of the Jedi (1983), Luke Skywalker has to choose between the goodness of the Force and the evil of the Dark Side. In Ben-Hur (1959, 2016), Judah has to choose between his Jewish heritage and the glory of Roman power. Neither man can have both, and they have to fight for their choices.
In sixteenth century England, St Thomas More and St Margaret Clitherow had to choose between the whims of King Henry VIII and their Catholic faith. That took great courage, and both died for their choices.
It’s not surprising then that some people avoid making important decisions. They’d rather wait for a crisis, such as a health problem or losing their job or marriage, before doing anything. But sometimes it takes a crisis to bring out the best in us. Crises can be very useful turning points in our lives.
In today’s Gospel, a landowner finds that his steward (his estate manager) has been squandering his property, and he dismisses him. The steward had, in effect, two masters: his employer and himself, and his employer expected loyalty. In those days, stewards had the right to charge a commission on every transaction they handled for their landholder. We don’t know what he did wrong, but he’s fortunate in only being dismissed and not imprisoned or fined.
But this is a moment of crisis, and he has to make a decision. He knows his prospects are limited because he’s too old to dig, and too proud to beg. So what does he do? Does he hide in shame or does he take this opportunity to turn his life around? He decides to do the latter.
This steward knows he has a little time before others hear about his sacking. So he calls in the master’s debtors and he offers to reduce their debts. He appears to do this by deleting from each contract the commission he would have earned for himself.
He’s taking a loss, but he’s also taking care of his future by making the most of what little he has. The debtors are delighted and the landowner’s reputation is enhanced.[i] Everyone benefits.
Like all parables, this one’s meant to surprise us and to make us think.
Now, why is Jesus praising the steward? He’s not praising him for his dishonesty. Rather, he’s praising him for solving his problem in a way that benefits everyone. He’s put aside his greed and he’s chosen to use what he has to help others, as well as himself. And is it wrong that he himself might benefit? No, not at all. Jesus promised us that whenever we give, we’ll receive even more in return (Mk.4:8).
Bishop Robert Barron says that Jesus admires this man for three reasons, and each is of great spiritual importance. Firstly, the steward finds himself in serious trouble, but he’s not complacent about it. He knows he has to make a choice. Secondly, he makes an honest assessment of his situation, and thirdly, he acts decisively. He decides to make amends, by doing something that benefits all the stakeholders, including himself.
Bishop Barron says we need to do the same. He says that we all live in a time of crisis, and it’s time to wake up. We must stop deceiving ourselves, saying that everything’s OK when really we’re being far too complacent.
It was Karl Barth who said that the greatest of the deadly sins is sloth, where people simply don’t care about their spiritual life.[ii] St Thomas Aquinas described sloth as ‘sluggishness of the mind’ which is evil because it stops a person from doing good deeds (Heb.6:12).
Many people today say they love Jesus and call themselves Christian, but do little or nothing about it. At the same time, they live very secular, self-indulgent lives. Are they serving two masters? Are they trying to embrace two competing goals? Jesus says you cannot be the slave of both God and mammon (Mt.6:24).
At this time of crisis, it’s time to wake up, to make a clear decision: are we with Jesus or against him (Mt.12:30)? There’s no room for complacency; the stakes are too high.
Every crisis gives us an opportunity to turn ourselves into something better than we were before. Has the time come for you to revisit your priorities?
What changes will you make?
[i] John J Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus. Liturgical Press, Collegeville.1997:139-141.