WHEN “WISDOM” GOES WRONG

Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

There is a contemporary “ring” to all the scenarios described by the first and third readings today. They sound so real and current they could as well be said of what goes on in people’s lives, all over the world – the references to cheating on the side, to dishonesty, to a little manipulation with the figures, a minute adjustment with the scales, and putting to use one’s foresight, practical wisdom, and abilities to get maximum advantage for oneself.

They sound so realistic and so contemporary that one is tempted to ask … so what’s wrong with being smart and using one’s talents to gain personal advantage? One even feels affirmed when one realizes that in the gospel parable, the Lord recounts how the master even “commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.” One initially gets the impression that, for so long as one “prudently” thinks and plans ahead for one’s future gain, one is simply putting to good use his business and managerial skills, and, therefore, is worthy of praise. “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

But wait a second. As is true of all parables, the illustration does not constitute the fullness of the message. The message comes from the totality, and not from an isolated portion of the text. Placed alongside the condemnation of the prophet Amos on those “who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land,” – the mendacious and cheating merchants of his times, we have here in the Gospel a case of a steward who “squanders” his master’s property, but who mobilizes all his inner resources including his practical wisdom (phronesis, translated in our text as “prudence”) when his pocketbook and financial future was at stake.

The Gospel commends him for being smart and alert to conditions that may spell good or harm to his personal concerns. The same Gospel, however, condemns the smart-alecky, selfish, and insensitive steward who uses all his abilities only for his own sake, to the total disregard of others’ benefit, including that of his master.

Now, this really sounds so contemporary and so real. Nay more, it sounds so personal and so true for each and every one of us. For in truth, in all honesty, in the secrecy of our own hearts alone with the God we claim we believe in, can we ever claim we have not acted at any given time in the past in a similar fashion as the dishonest steward? Can we honestly take exception to the rampant practice of using what we know and capitalizing on what others may not know to gain unfair advantage over others? How many unsuspecting clients have been victimized by the so-called “fine print” in which fair-sounding contracts hide veritable traps under legal gobbledygook? Even TV commercials portray the glorified cheating that takes place in the market place … “Where’s the catch here?” “There is a catch here somewhere.” How many of us have not fallen to the temptation of not telling the whole truth when doing so would be favorable to us and our concerns? Examples abound … examples of “wisdom” used for one’s benefit … examples of “prudence” and “wisdom” gone wrong.

Today’s readings give us a context for the same wisdom used properly and well – the sort of wisdom that would merit total commendation instead of condemnation. They give a call, not to the surreptitious use of wisdom for one’s dark and hidden motives, but that which is worthy of “children of the light.” We are exhorted to use our talents and abilities, not only for self-serving interests, but also for the interests of others, of the common good, above all, that of God. Wisdom used surreptitiously for selfish ends is wisdom gone wrong, and is proper of those who prefer to live in the dark, and not in the light. Contemporary moral reflection has a word for this – the sin of manipulation. It is that sin – all too common in our days – that capitalizes on others’ ignorance and one’s own information-rich position to pull a fast one on others, and gain unfair advantage over others. This is practical wisdom used solely for one’s own practical ends. The political and business landscape is dotted by such smart alecks who constantly feed on the blood of suckers. In their mind, a sucker is born every minute, and each one of them is fair game to the antics of these worldly-wise people of little conscience.

Today’s readings also give us the wider context in which to put our practical wisdom to good use – the arena of the common good, the good of society, the good of everyone in the same society. St. Paul admonishes us: “I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgiving be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity.”

It is interesting that Paul singles out especially “those in authority.” Yes, we do need to pray for those who live “out in the open,” as it were, those who live in glass cages, who, by their positions, are living their lives under the scrutiny of the public gaze. We do need to pray for political leaders. They are in a position either to use practical wisdom for themselves (corruption) or for the good of whom they claim to serve. In the Philippine context, with corruption institutionally built into the system at all levels, both local and national, it is most difficult not to be tainted by high profile crimes that are never prosecuted, and for which no one, at least openly, feels guilty of. We ought to pray for Church leaders, the men of the cloth, who, caught as they are in the trimmings and trappings of power and authority, may lose touch of the concerns of those whom the responsorial psalm refers to as the “lowly,” and those in the “dunghill.”

We ought to pray for ourselves, that in our legitimate quest for material prosperity and financial security, we may never lose sight of our sense of priorities. We pray for ourselves who are caught up in the concerns of daily life, that we may keep in mind that the dishonest steward’s greatest mistake really had to do with not acknowledging who the real master was. He had a master who paid him his legitimate wages, who even praised him for his being smart and wise, who only had good words for him who knew exactly what to do in order to safeguard his financial future. He managed his affairs well. He was a darn good financial analyst and investor! Wall Street would look benignly and glowingly at him and his fearless – if selfish – forecasts! The Apprentice reality show would most likely hire him.

His mistake, though, was simply this. Ultimately, he did not work with his master’s good in mind. He worked for himself. His master was his own welfare, his own gain. His master really was Mammon. He had practical wisdom. Kudos to that! But he missed the calling that transcended such worldly wisdom – the calling to be part of the children of light.

In the end, it was a case of “wisdom” gone wrong, priorities skewed, motives forked, and allegiance misplaced. For “you cannot serve God and mammon.”

[Dundalk, MD - Sept. 19, 2004
St. Rita Parish]
LEARNING FROM A STREET-SMART ECONOMIST!
[Alternative Reflection]

Reality is what today’s liturgical readings smack of. Amos could as well be writing to people of our times. In our dishonest world of business, entertainment, and politics, we hear Amos’ ominous reminder loud and clear … “never will I forget a thing they have done!” (1st Reading).

Paul’s letter to Timothy could very well also be directed to us all who are growing progressively sick and tired of traditional politicians whose seeming sole preoccupation is their own gain and nothing else besides: “I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority …” Reality is what this stuff rings of … reality that stares us in the face almost everyday as we hear the daily news of the daily shenanigans committed by our reigning “kings and queens” in our governments. Truth to tell, what St. Paul continues to say should be reason enough to go on praying – if not, to go on hoping – that “we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity.”

I think it not an exaggeration to say that with such a dysfunctional and structural evil that local politics in the Philippines really is, a “quiet and tranquil life” that St. Paul speaks of is still an ongoing object of hope and fervent prayer for most of us Filipinos (and peoples in many other countries in the world!).

The street-smart “economist” (for that is the original word in Luke’s Greek gospel, oikonomos) – meaning a “steward” or “household administrator,” is another reality check for us. He who is close to the purse is close to power. He who holds money also holds great manipulative potentials. He who handles riches is rich with connections that can serve him in good stead when time comes. But he who dispenses wealth also deals with a wealth of opportunities to do good or do bad; to be tempted to dishonesty or to be tried, tested, and proven to be true to his moral convictions. Well, the facts of the story of the Lord make us touch base with all too real scenarios. Having squandered his master’s property, he is now called to task. The day of reckoning comes upon him, and when it does, all the tools in his economist’s tool box comes in handy for him. He buys people’s allegiances by writing off or condoning their debts. The machinery for all sorts of dishonesty goes churning for him, assuring him thus of precious “connections” to tide him over when the time comes.

And the surprising thing is that, as the story goes, “the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.” The street-smart economist does not only go away scot-free. He also gets a gold medal for his manipulative and evasive tactics. He graduates with flying colors in the school of dishonesty and allied vices!

Or is this really the case in today’s readings? Does the Lord teach us to go the wily ways of the shrewd politicians in our midst who continue to rob, pillage, and plunder with impunity? Does the liturgy today extol and glorify manipulation, dishonesty, and shrewd prevarications? Is this world meant to be a world run by those who have the right know-how and the right connections never mind if they run counter to objective moral standards?

Hmm … this is one of those days when we absolutely need to heighten the text in its proper context.

Yes … we need to learn a lesson or two from the street-smart economist. No … the context does not teach us to do AS the economist does. The context does tell us to do LIKE the economist does. There is a world of a difference between doing as he did, and doing like he did.

So, then, what lessons ought we to learn from the shrewd economist?

The key word to remember today is another Greek word – phronesis. This is translated as practical wisdom. Some would put it as prudence, as our text in English today puts it. If we read the rest of the gospel account today, keeping in mind the meaning of this word and concept called practical wisdom, then we probe the seeming scandal of the apparent approval of the steward’s wiliness.

No … the Lord does not extol and glorify the dishonesty of the steward. But he does offer the practical wisdom that he had, as an example from which we need to learn.

The world is filled with too many smart alecks that continue to pull a fast one on every one of us everyday. Unless you look over your shoulder, there are street-smart people who can advance their own selfish agenda by taking advantage of the ignorance of people. One smart-alecky institution in our times that manipulate the masses, is the world of mass media. People are caught unawares all the time, led by the noose to value what mass media value, to espouse truths presented by powerful sound bytes, and major media moments. We live in media-crazed world, where values, attitudes, and behaviors are shaped by what the world of sounds and images focus on. The new cathedrals of commerce are the ones greatly responsible for the postmodern religion in which nothing is absolute, and everything is but relative. Universal objective truth does not exist, but only that brand of truth that is true for me, here and now.

The smart-alecky “economists” – the high priests of manipulation in our times – are definitely using their practical wisdom (prudence) to advance their cause. Be they in politics, in economics, or in commerce, they show a relentless focus and unwavering vision to push their products and accomplish their self-serving ends. “For the children of the world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of the light.”

We do need to learn a lesson or two from that street-smart economist of the gospel. That prudence, applied rightly, would then lead us to treat others, particularly the less-privileged ones, the poorer one in every respect, with fairness and justice. That same prudence or practical judgment would also lead us to deal realistically with “all in authority.” Whilst we respect them and pray for them, we need to be wily enough to that “we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity.” But above all, that practical wisdom will lead us to set our priorities right. It means being focused and intent on doing like the dishonest steward did … use all his talents and all the tools available in his tool box to work for treasures that last, riches that matter, and that, my dear friends, refers to reality that goes beyond here and now, “for you cannot serve God and mammon.”

National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians
Paranaque City, September 17, 2007 (5 PM)

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