The “parable of the wicked servant” is one of the most confusing and perplexing passages in the Gospels. So many questions arise: Is the wealth being distributed the master’s, or that portion of the servant’s? Is the servant being dishonest or clever? Is Jesus praising immoral behavior?
The interpretive key to the parable and instruction that follows seems to be Jesus’ last statements in the passage: “No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon.”
The instruction which precedes these statements makes sense if we carry a contrast that began with the parable through to these statements. The contrast is between how one handles matters of the kingdom of God and those of the world (possessions, mammon, etc.).
The wicked servant was highly concerned with the things of this world. It seems he is not being extolled for desiring these things, but for the effort and investment he made for them. While this is the way of the world, the drive is powerful.
Perhaps Jesus is urging his followers to have that same kind of drive for the things of God when he says: “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”
The contrast carries through in the next series of perplexing statements. Small matters versus great matters, dishonest wealth and true wealth, others possessions and possessions of the self. It seems that “small matters, dishonest wealth and other’s possessions” are some kind of reference to material possessions, while “great matters, true wealth and self-possessions” refer to matters of God, faith and the kingdom. Possessions and the things of this world are passing; they will not endure, and in the big picture they are of little value compared with those that will endure eternally. If one does not treat his or her possessions within the context of overall value, then what is truly valuable will be so diminished as to be lost.
So what is the proper context? Amos gives us an insight to help answer the question. The first reading is one of his oracles. It is a roaring criticism and denunciation of those who “trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land.” Desire for wealth drives these people to corruption. Their desire for the things of this world leads them to exploitation as they say: “We will diminish the ephah, add to the shekel, and fix our scales for cheating!”
The Scriptures make it clear that the poor and needy are to be cared for, not exploited. In the covenant, instruction is explicitly given for the “widow, the orphan and the alien.” This group represents those in most need in that society. The widow now without a husband is at the mercy of others, particularly of the extended family, to provide food, shelter and clothing – necessities of life.
The same can be said of the orphan who loses his or her parents. The alien or foreigner living in the midst of the Israelites requires hospitality to survive. Jesus exemplifies the care for the poor in many ways: feeding of the multitudes, the restoration of life to the widow of Nain’s only son, the numerous healings of the blind, crippled and lame.
His summation of the “greatest commandment” brings a certain emphasis to this teaching. When asked what is the greatest commandment he answers: ““You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Lk 10:27). The two go hand in hand and cannot be separated.
Jesus urges us to have a certain drive, motivation and desire for the things of God. His way is eternal and life giving. Material possessions can be used in service of God’s way but they can also lead us away from God.
And so Jesus instructs us: “You cannot serve both God and mammon.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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