FAITH, the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us, is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”. In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus draws out the implications of such faith for our treatment of wealth. In Justo González’s words, he commands us “to manage things, not just out of a general sense of morality or even of justice, and not just to support the Church and its institutions — which we certainly must do. We are to manage things in view of the future we expect” (Belief: A theological commentary on the Bible: Luke).
Managing our possessions in accordance with “the future we expect” — and not according to the injustice of the present age — is an essential expression of our faith. Indeed, all aspects of our lives must embody the “assurance” and “conviction” that our epistle tells us are the heart of faith. Such faith prevents our being at home in a world of injustice, making us instead “strangers and foreigners on the earth”.
As disciples, we are citizens of “a better country”, prepared for us by God. To be citizens of this heavenly country does not imply indifference to earthly things. Indeed, it is precisely because of the future that we expect that we must manage our affairs (including our finances) differently in the present age.
Very often, it is the poorest — those unable to make life comfortable and secure by their own efforts — who are most receptive to God’s summons to faith. Although they were not materially poor, Abram and Sarai had direct experience of insecurity and discomfort. As Mary Healy observes, Sarai in particular “stands at the head of a long line of biblical women” who experienced the stigma attached to infertility in their culture, among them Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, and Elizabeth. When God made his promise, Abram was 75 and Sarai was 65 years old. They had to wait another 25 years for that promise to be fulfilled. As Healy writes, God “brought them to a point of totally giving up on human possibilities, so that it would be undeniably clear that the promise was fulfilled by his miraculous power” (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: Hebrews).
Divine providence, as well as individual and corporate sin, is evident within human history. God’s future, which we cannot see, has a visible impact on this current age. The descendants (both physical and spiritual) of Abraham and Sarah (the new names that God gives to Abram and Sarai in Genesis 17) are indeed “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore”.To have faith is not simply to live by a set of ethical convictions, as if the new Jerusalem will be built by the work of human hands alone. Rather, it involves trusting that God is active in human history and is bringing all things to their completion in Christ. The city that is to come is not only the product of human toil: it comes as a gift that God has prepared for us.
It is fitting, therefore, that this Sunday’s Gospel uses metaphors of vigilance and receptivity: of watching and waiting for the Master’s return. Jesus, however, also speaks of the “Son of Man” as coming “like a thief”. The ambiguity of his two metaphors — in which the Lord is both like a “Master” returning to his house and a “thief” breaking in — reflects the gulf between the powers which dominate this current age and the true source of all authority. Although such rulers may experience his advent like the coming of a thief, Christ is their true Master as well as ours (cf. Mark 3.27, Luke 11.21-22).
The vigilance that Jesus demands of his disciples requires them to make God’s action and not their own the primary focus. As St Hildegard of Bingen explains, “A human being is a vessel that God has built for himself and filled with his inspiration so that his works are perfected in it.”
God is the primary agent. Our part is to discern his call and participate in this work. Like the servants in the parable, we must, first of all, watch and wait. And when, like Abram and Sarai, we hear God’s word and discern God’s action, we must step out with faith, courage, and obedience. In Hildegard’s words, it is such faithful trust that “shows the way”, so that, “with the passion of heavenly yearning, we all produce rich fruit”.