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
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.