Clever Stupidity

Clever Stupidity

Twenty-Fifth Sunday of the Year. Fr Euan Marley preaches on some Gospel characters.

When I was eight, a friend at school came up with a scheme to make money. He would buy goldfish at fifty pence, or whatever it was in old money, and sell them at forty pence. This way, we would sell more than the shops.

I could not convince him that there was a flaw in his scheme. I even tried drawing diagrams in the sand. Finally I moved to the more evolved end of the playground, the end where they play hopscotch, just to catch my breath. As it happens, that particular boy grew up to be a lawyer. Perhaps that’s an encouraging thought.

You couldn’t really have a parable in the gospels about a man selling things for less money than he paid for them. That’s because it’s stupid. People in the parables are rarely stupid. Even the foolish virgins are contrasted with the wise virgins who have brought enough oil for the bridegroom.

What many people find puzzling is that parables about bad people like the unjust judge should be used as examples of how we should make our way to heaven. Part of the explanation is that the parables aren’t just illustrations of a single point. They tell us about the world in which Our Lord lived. It’s a bit like the long metaphors in Homer’s Iliad, which constantly remind us of the real world, where people work and farm, as opposed to the aberration of war.

In fact the parables in Luke often seem to refer to real events. Like King Archelaeus gaining his kingdom from Rome (19:12), or the rich man who died unexpectedly, who sounds suspiciously like the father of the two brothers who are quarrelling over their inheritance (12:13-21). Which of you building a tower would not first work out its cost, the Lord asks (14:28)? Presumably the people who built the tower of Siloam which collapsed and took many lives.

The point is that these bad people are clever people. Their cleverness helps them to see a goal and to go after it. Yet they are foiled because they are looking for something which is a pale imitation of the real good.

Evil desires are never simply something different from good desires. Instead they are a parody of the good. The wicked are like people who build a plane which is perfect in every way, except that it can’t fly. This imitation good is dangerous because we are liable to mistake it for the real thing. At the same time, since it is a parody of what is genuinely good, it can lead us to that good if we go beyond it.

The big truth of the parables is that everyone is seeking God, seeking salvation. The unjust steward is at least wise enough to know how dangerous life can be, how friendship is a necessity though the friendships he makes are bogus friendship.

St Catherine of Siena understood that. She wrote to appalling people, always trying to show that what they really sought could only be found in God. To the Duke of Milan, Visconti, she wrote that he sought overlordship, signoria, but what use was that if he had no signoria over himself? To a member of the papal chancery, she wrote that he sought order in all things but himself.

Put together the parables of Luke and we have a picture of a bleak world, corrupt judges, stewards, politicans. Even the persistent widow may not have had a just cause. It’s her persistence which wins the case, not her righteousness.

Yet these people are seeking God. They might not know it but they are. They don’t know what they want but at least they know that they want something.

I once preached a sermon in a prison, saying very simply, if you don’t ask, you don’t get – it’s the same with God as it is in prison. A little later I met a prisoner who said that because of this he had knelt down and prayed for the first time in years.

“How did that work out for you?” I asked.

His face brightened, and he said, “It really worked. The judge found me not guilty.”

Readings: Amos 8:4-7 | 1 Tim 2:1-8 | Luke 16:1-13

fr. Euan Marley O.P. is Prior at Blackfriars, Cambridge.