A fundamental aspect of our Faith -- necessary, indeed, to our proper conduct as Christians -- is the fact that we are the adopted sons and daughters of God. We hear this almost every time we attend Mass, in the "Last Gospel" of Saint John: "to as many as received Him, He gave the power of becoming sons of God."1 We hear it again in today's Epistle, that we "have received a spirit of adoption as sons, by virtue of which we cry, 'Abba! Father!'"2 Saint Paul's use of the word (a carry over from Aramaic) is very revealing, as it means not just "Father" in the formal sense, but is instead a "diminutive" -- one of those personal expressions that people use only among family and intimate friends. Essentially, Saint Paul is telling us that God is not just our "Father," but also our "Dad." And that, of course, is to say that our relationship with God the Father is one of friendly intimacy -- the kind of relationship that a child would have with his father in a well adjusted and loving family.
If the Gospel seems a little strange, it might help to understand that this parable is one of several -- you have heard them before, separately, but perhaps not in order -- it follows the parables about the way a shepherd leaves his ninety-nine sheep to go and find the one that is lost in the desert; about the woman who has lost one of her ten coins and searches the house until she finds the lost one; and about the householder who welcomes back his prodigal son after he has gone off and dissipated his inheritance in a fit of debauchery.3 Today's parable follows these other three.
The arrangement of the four parables is interesting, in that the first and third refer (by allegory) to a God who is loving, generous, and sympathetic. He is the God who is willing to set aside all else to bring back an erring sheep to the fold; He is the God who welcomes back his children even after they have spent years squandering the graces He has given them. The second and fourth parables say something similar, but they are couched in terms that might appeal to those who have forgotten (or never knew) the intimacy of a healthy family relationship; they are couched in terms that might appeal to those who think of everything in terms of money. Just as we have them in our times, our Lord had to contend with His share of money changers, bankers, and tax collectors.
So our Lord presents today's parable (and the one about the woman searching for her lost drachma) for those who must see a Dollar-$ign in every sentence in order for it to make sense. To the avaricious person, it made a good deal of sense for the Unjust Steward to make the most of his last few days on the job, making sure that a number of people were in his debt, so that he could prevail upon them to take care of him during his unemployment. "I took care of you, so now you must take care of me." There are folks who think that this is the only reality in life, and that loving friendship is merely a fiction for the story books.
And it is precisely because our Lord is the Good Shepherd that He makes this effort to preach to those who have been hardened by the material cares of the world. For they too have souls, and God loves them in the same way as the shepherd who went to the desert to find his lost sheep; just as much as the father loved his prodigal son. Then as now, we live steeped in a culture of materialism -- a materialism that is somehow underlined and emphasized whenever people fall upon hard times (and the times of the Jews in our Lord's time could be hard indeed).
Of course, Our Lord was not telling us to work out our salvation by cheating our employers! Far from it! But what we might see in today's parable -- particularly when we understand it in the light of these other three -- is the suggestion that we ought to make a point of "playing up" to our Father in heaven. The children in the well adjusted ideal families we sometimes see in movies never tire of getting his slippers for their father, or making sure that he is comfortable before the fireplace, smoking his favorite pipe. We may not be able to light God's pipe for Him, but surely we can think of any number of things that will please our Father in heaven. Today's parable just might be telling us that we ought to do those things which please God, so that on the occasions when we do fall from grace He will still have some fond remembrances of us. Perhaps it is better to be thought of as redeemable than as unredeemable!
There is another side to this; another benefit. If we make a practice of doing the things which please our Father in heaven -- spending time with Him in prayer, attending Holy Mass, taking care of His other but less fortunate adopted children, and so forth -- if we get in the habit of doing these things, we are so much less likely to fall from grace. If they are equally developed and practiced, good habits are as difficult to break as bad ones.
And finally, we ought to consider the closing words of today's epistle. Not only do we get to call our Father "Abba," but Saint Paul informs us that "if we are sons, we are heirs also: heirs indeed of God, and joint heirs with Christ." If we learn from today's readings that God loves us, and that our relationship with Him is one of family rather than that of the hired help, we will have one of the fundamental aspects of our Faith "down pat." If we conduct ourselves as loving sons and daughters of a loving Father, there is very little that we might do to jeopardize our salvation.
Abba is our Father and we are His children.