Sermon 8. Stewards and also Sons of God

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, 31st July 1870

{99} The Parable of the Unjust Steward which is the subject of today's Gospel is more difficult to understand than most of our Lord's Parables—but there are some points in its teaching which it is impossible to mistake.

First in its literal sense it presents us with a view of human society, as it is, which is true in all ages, now as much as when our Lord spoke. Nothing is more common now in the world than that sort of dishonesty which is instanced in the Unjust Steward. He was in trust with his master's property; he treated it as if it were his own; he wasted it either by carelessness or by spending it on himself. He forgot his duty to his employer, as men do now, and as men now borrow money without rational expectations of repaying it, and thus involve themselves and are unable to meet the claims made on them. Such was the case of the Steward: he was called upon to make his account good, and he could not do so. Under these circumstances he was led on to commit a second sin in {100} order to conceal the first. He took his master's creditors into his counsel, and formed with them a plan of fraudulent returns with the purpose of making his books right. This, I say, is the first picture presented to us in this Parable, and it impresses on us by an instance St. Paul's warning, "The love of money is the root of all evil."

But a larger sense of the Parable, and one on which I shall rather insist is this: the view which it gives us of our duties to God and our conduct under those duties. It is plain that the Master spoken of by our Lord is Almighty God Himself; and by the Steward is meant each of His creatures, His rational creatures, who have goods, or, as is sometimes said, talents committed to them, by Him. He does not give these goods to us, but He lends them to us in order that we return them to Him, when our time is ended, with fruit or interest. Men in trade by means of money make money; and as at the end of a certain time capital is thus increased, so by using God's gifts well during the years of this mortal life, we are able to render in to Him a good account and return His gifts with interest. This is the meaning of the Parable of the Talents.

And so as regards the Parable of the Steward, on which I am now remarking, fields and market-gardens and woods yield a produce, and are the means of wealth; such are hay, wheat and other kinds of corn, and various fruits and vegetables in this country; such are olive {101} yards, vineyards, sugar canes, and other produce of the land abroad. As then money creates money, as the land bears bread, wine and oil, so our souls should yield the due return to God for the many gifts which He has bestowed upon us.

I am speaking of those gifts which belong to our nature, our birth, or our circumstances; gifts of this world. He has given us the means of worshipping Him and doing Him service. He has given us reason, and a certain measure of abilities, more or less. He has given us health, more or less. He has placed us in a certain station of life, high or low. He has given us a certain power of influencing others. He has given us a certain circle of persons, larger or smaller, who depend on us, whom our words and our actions affect for good or for evil, and ought to affect for good. He has given us our share of opportunities of doing good to others. All these are God's gifts to us, and they are given us, not to be wasted, but to be used, to be turned to account. The Steward in the Parable wasted them; and was made responsible for his waste. And so in our own case, we may waste them, as most men waste them; nay worse, we may not only squander them away, we do not know how; but we may actually misapply them, we may use them actually to the injury of Him who has given them to us; but whether we do nothing with them for God, or actually go on to use them to His dishonour and against the {102} interests of truth and religion, (and the latter is more likely than the former, for not to do good with them is in fact to do evil,) anyhow we shall have one day to answer for our use of them.

Thus the Parable before us applies to all of us, as having certain goods committed to us by our Divine Master with a day of reckoning for them in prospect. But this is not all. Charges were brought against the Steward, and his employer called on him to answer them, or rather examined them, and found them well-founded. And so it is sometimes with us, that our conscience, which is the voice of God in the soul, upbraids us, brings before us our neglect of duty, the careless, the irreligious, the evil life which we are leading, our disregard of God's commands, glory, and worship; and anticipates that judgement which is to come. Now sometimes this self-accusation leads us to true repentance and change of life—certainly, praise be to God, this is sometimes the case; but more frequently, instead of turning us into the right path, it has the effect of making us go more wrong than we were before. When the Steward found he could not make good what his Lord had a right to demand of him, he had three courses before him besides that which he adopted; he might have made his debts good by extra work; again he might have got friends to have supplied the deficiency; or, he might have thrown himself on his Lord's mercy. He might have digged, or he might have {103} begged; but he rejected both means. "I cannot dig," he said, "to beg I am ashamed." So he went off into a further act of dishonesty to the disadvantage of his master. And in like manner, we, when we have been unfaithful to our good God and feel compunction for that unfaithfulness, have two modes of recovery: we might dig, that is, we might do works of penance; we might vigorously change our life; we might fight with our bad habits; we might redeem the time; that is, we might dig. But we cannot make up our minds to this laborious course; it is too great a sacrifice; it is above us; we cannot dig. And secondly we might beg; that is, we might pray God to forgive us and to change us; we might go to confess our sin and beg for absolution; we might beg the prayers of others, the prayers of the Saints; but to many men, especially to those who are not Catholics, this is more difficult even than labour: "to beg we are ashamed." Begging seems something inconsistent with what they call the dignity of human nature; they think it unmanly, cowardly, slavish; it wounds their pride to confess themselves miserable sinners, to come to a priest, to say the Rosary, to give themselves to certain devotions, day after day; they think such a course as much beneath them as a valiant effort to overcome themselves is above them. They cannot dig, to beg they are ashamed; and therefore they attempt to destroy the sense of their sins, which has fallen upon them by some means worse than those sins {104} themselves—I mean, such as denying perhaps that there is any such thing as sin, saying that it is a bugbear invented by priests, nay perhaps going so far as to say that there is no judgement to come, no God above who will see and will judge what they say or do.

Such is the repentance of men of the world, when conscience reproaches them. It is not a true turning from sin, but a turning to worse sin—they go on to deny the Holy Commandment because they have transgressed it; they explain away the sinfulness of sin because they have sinned. St. Paul speaks of this evil repentance, if it may be called by that name, in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, when he says to them the words of 2 Cor. vii. 10. Such is the state of mankind as we see it realized on a large scale on the face of human society in the world at large. When they do evil, act against their conscience and clear duty, there is this opposition between what they know and what they do; light becomes darkness, and instead of the light within them destroying their tendencies to sin, their sins dim or stifle that light, and they become worse than they were, because they were bad already.

This lesson I draw from today's Gospel. Now let us turn to today's Epistle, which carries on the lesson farther, and that both for our warning, and for our encouragement and comfort. It is taken from St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, and begins thus: "Brethren: We are {105} debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh; for if you live according to the flesh, you shall die." Now here first we must see what is the meaning of the flesh. At first sight it may seem to mean human nature, but that is not its exact meaning. To explain it, I will turn to the 40th chapter of Isaias. In it is the great promise of the coming of Christ, the preaching of His forerunner, St. John Baptist, and the gifts of the Gospel. The Prophet begins, "Be comforted, be comforted, my people," and he speaks of the voice crying in the wilderness ... Then he says, (which is the passage to which I especially refer), "All flesh is grass, and its goodness is like the flower of the field ... " Now is not the grass, and are not the flowers of the field in themselves good? Does not our Lord say that they are more beautiful than Solomon in all his glory? Certainly. But what is their defect? They fade—our Lord says that today they are and tomorrow are cast into the oven. That is the case with the human soul. Of course it cannot die as the flowers of the field; but its first estate dies. Whatever there is of good in it, whatever of virtue, dies out of the soul as life goes on, as the flowers die, as the human body dies; and as the flowers are at length (as our Lord says) cast into the oven, as fuel, fair as they once were, so much more does the moral excellence of man die, as time goes on; and the longer he lives, the harder, the colder, {106} the uglier in God's sight, the deader, I may say, he becomes.

Now we shall see what St. Paul's meaning is. When he speaks of the flesh, he means human nature in its state of decay, in that state into which he is sure to fall, as times goes on; and he says, "If ye live according to the flesh, ye shall die." If, like the Unjust Steward, we live in the mere way of nature, we shall soon lose all the little good that nature has on starting; and become worse and worse, as time goes on, just as the Steward went from one sin to another, till we reach a state of spiritual death. For all flesh is grass; and this is the beginning and end of the matter; this is the end of all our hopes, all our aspirations, as far as nature is concerned—utter, desperate ruin.

And now I come to the light which dawns upon this darkness, the light which rises over against it, illuminating this solemn history; a light by which a lesson which is so painful, so depressing, becomes a consolation and an encouragement. Blessed be God, that though such is the state of nature, God has not left us in a mere state of nature, but has come to our relief, and brought us into a state higher than our own nature, and thereby destroyed this tangle, this web, this bond, in which mankind lies. He has sent to us His dearly beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to give us the gifts of grace, which is a divine power above nature, or what is called supernatural, by which we are able to do what nature of itself cannot do. {107} Isaias says, "All flesh is grass"; but St. Peter in his first Epistle (1 Pet. 1, 24) takes up the word, draws out the happy contrast between nature and grace, and reminds us that by means of the power of grace, what was flesh is flesh no longer, but is spirit; that is, the grace of the Holy Ghost changes our hearts, according to our Lord's words in St. John, "that which is born of the flesh is flesh, but that which is born of the Spirit is spirit."

This great and blessed announcement is made again and again in the New Testament by our Lord and His Apostles; but let me confine myself to what is told us in the Epistle for this day. St. Paul says, "Brethren: we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh." That is, we owe nothing to the flesh. What has the flesh done for us? It is nothing else than the corruption of our nature; the flesh is pride, wrath, hatred, malice, impurity, intemperance, craft, guile; or as St. Paul expressly says himself to the Galatians: "The works of the flesh are manifest, which are ..." (Gal. 5, 19). What then do we owe to the flesh? We owe sin, misery, a bad conscience, displeasure, spiritual death, future punishment. It has done nothing good for us, and cannot—"for if (he continues) you live according to the flesh, you shall die"; and after saying this, he goes on in wonderful words to enlarge on the contrast of our state, if we have, and if we profit by, the gift of the Spirit.

It is by this gift of the Spirit, that is, by the unmerited {108} supernatural grace of God, that we are set free from that law of sin and death, the law of the flesh, which is the state in which we are born. That tangle of the mind by which our best faculties are kept from rising to Almighty God and seeking their true end and doing their duty, and growing in all good, is a bondage, a slavery, and the grace of God sets us free of it, so that we may (as it were) rise on our feet, and become in St. Peter's words good stewards of the manifold gifts of God. Again this grace not only sets us free, so that instead of being slaves we are able to serve God, but it does something more for us. It would be a great thing, if we were allowed to be faithful servants of God, as the Unjust Steward ought to have been, but grace makes us that and something more; we become not merely servants but even Sons of God. What a second wonderful privilege is this! Though we were slaves of sin and the evil one, He not only sets us free from that slavery, and takes us into His house and His service; but, more than that, He adopts us to be His children. This is a second wonderful gift of grace. But there is a third: sons are heirs of their Father, and in like manner He gives us an inheritance; and an inheritance as far above any thing which our nature, even though it were ever so perfect, could merit, viz., the sight of Him hereafter, and eternal life. As paradise is beyond any thing which our sin could inherit, as sin never can merit God's mercy, but simply merits {109} punishment, so human nature, though ever so pure and perfect, could never merit heaven.

These are the great mercies of God which have reversed the state in which we were born, and enabled us to give a good account of our stewardship. He has fortified nature by means of grace; He has overcome the flesh in us by His supernatural aid, and that by three wonderful gifts: first, He has made us faithful servants, whereas without His aid we can be but Unjust Stewards; secondly He makes us not only faithful servants, but dear sons; and thirdly He not only blesses us in this life, but He promises us life everlasting, according to St. Paul's account in today's Epistle, which I will read again ...

What a view this opens on us both of consolation and of solemn thought! Nothing can harm us, the Sons of God, while we remain in our Father's house. Nothing can deprive us of our hope of heaven. But on the other hand how little we understand our privileges; how little we understand the words of the sacred writers about them. May God enlighten our eyes to see what the privileges are—"that you may know what the hope is of His calling, and what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints" (Eph. 1, 18).

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