Have you noticed how often the Scriptures use examples from business and commerce? Today’s readings are an example of that. Jesus picks up a story from the Hebrew Bible (which is today’s first reading) but shifts its focus just a bit. Isaiah’s original story is about the people of his time who are ungrateful for God’s goodness to them. Jesus adapts the story to make the same point about his contemporaries, but changes it by weaving in something his hearers would be familiar with: the common practice of having tenant farmers tend fields on the owner’s behalf. It’s that wrinkle that we can usefully think about.
There’s a common phrase used by advertisers and financial advisers: “It’s your money; you earned it.” Well, from a Gospel perspective, no. Nothing we have is ours to do with as we please. When we earn, we use God’s abilities that He gives us; we use the resources of God’s earth; we contribute, yes, but we create nothing without God’s help in the background. Everything we have, we receive from God – and (as today’s Gospel shows) we hold everything in trust, to be used for God’s purposes.
One of those purposes, of course, is that we enjoy God’s gifts; this is a way God tries to convince us of His goodness. But that’s only one purpose; the greater purpose is that we use what God has given us to fulfill our vocation and to show His goodness to others. Paying the mortgage does that; we keep our family housed. Paying the food bill does that; paying for children’s clothing, schooling, and medical care does that. These are all ways we use God’s gifts to care for others and fulfill the vocation of parenthood.
Paying taxes also does that; we use God’s bounty to us to care for the civil community. Giving to the parish does that; we sustain the work of the Gospel in our neighborhood. Giving to the diocese does that, on a larger scale. Giving to national and international charities is the same.
The Gospel today makes it clear that it is possible to be a bad steward of what God has given to us. We can use what God has given us for destructive ends (buying illegal drugs or pornography, for example). We can fritter God’s goodness away by accumulating more than we need to live a decent life (some time ago I read that the fastest-growing use of commercial space in the country was for the construction of self-storage facilities for people to put away the junk that wouldn’t fit in often already-oversized houses). Those are the most obvious examples of misusing what God has entrusted us with. But there’s another way, not so bad but still not the best, that good people miss the mark.
Many people are in fact very generous when an immediate need comes along. People give when there’s a natural disaster, or when a relative hits hard times, or when a story about a child needing an operation goes viral on Facebook. But that really isn’t being a proper custodian and manager of God’s gifts. Such giving is ruled by emotion instead of being wisely planned. Certainly it’s proper to dig a bit deeper into the bank account when there’s an emergency – but the risk is that we neglect our ordinary, un-glamorous, invisible obligations.
The best use of what God entrusts us with requires prayer, discussion, and planning. If we are to work wisely with God for the well-being of our families, our society, our parish, and our world (really, “God’s family / society / parish / world” if we’re true to the Gospel about it), we need to allocate, as best we can, what God entrusts us with to what makes the most sense of our situation and our commitments. For most households, that means budgeting what we give.
The wicked tenants in the Gospel wanted the vineyard for their own, so they could do with the profits as they pleased rather than being responsible to the owner who had given them their jobs in trust. It’s as if they thought, “It’s our money; we earned it.” The Gospel goes on to tell us how that turned out. Until next week, peace.