Over and above the central teaching of the parable of Jesus in today’s Gospel, which is to forgive as we have been forgiven, it contains another important lesson. If we look closely at the wicked servant, it is obvious that he is a wasteful man. He is a waster. He wastes his Master’s money and then his mercy. He wastes his fellow-servant’s life and reputation by having him condemned without pity. He wastes his relationships with his Master and with all his fellow servants. He wastes his own life, reputation and family. This kind of wastefulness comes from a lack of gratitude for the things and people that came his way and for a lack of prudence, justice and temperance towards them. He was so self-centred that everyone and everything else only meant anything to him if he could use it for his own gain and satisfaction. He was not only a failure as a steward of his Master’s property, but as a steward of his own property and, indeed, of his own self.
On this second Sunday of the Season of Creation, taking our cue from the rather sad picture of the wicked servant, it would be good for us to consider where wastefulness might have crept into our lives unchecked. After feeding the many thousands with bread and fish, Jesus admonished the apostles to collect the scraps left over so that nothing would be wasted. They filled twelve hampers. To waste is not of God. There is nothing and no-one in his creation which is superfluous or to be discarded. Creation has no dustbins since the harmony of the ecosystem God has made means that everything in it serves its purpose to work with everything else.
The first thing the parable tells us about the wicked servant is that he owed his king such a colossal amount of money that it would have taken him many lifetimes of work to repay it. In other words, he had spent well beyond his means. He had been extremely greedy, selfish and wasteful. True, the parable does not tell us what he spent the money on, but his later attack on his fellow servant suggests it was not in almsgiving, for he was not a good-hearted man. Quite the opposite.
The implication is also that he was an intemperate man, without balance and self-control or any sense of responsibility, including towards his family whom he risked getting imprisoned because of his own behaviour. His spendthrift ways made him heedless of their impact on those nearest to him. He wasted and he just didn’t care.
The parable then suggests that the wicked servant knew how to play the king. A bit of drama and fake humility had him grovelling at the king’s feet. But it was deceptive, manipulative, self-serving. The king’s pity went right over his head, not into his heart. His heart remained closed in on itself. It would not be surprising if he laughed to himself when he heard the words of forgiveness, since he was now free to start all over again.
This he did as quick as a flash. He knew that he was owed, too, so to get his hands on the money, he does whatever it takes, and as usual with no thought of the consequences, either for his fellow servant or for himself. His greed and wastefulness also made him violent as he seizes his fellow by the throat and throttles him with threatening language.
Another thing he does is to abuse the justice system to pursue his selfish ends, showing just how much of a hypocrite he was. He has his fellow thrown into jail for a measly sum of money in comparison with what he had owed the king. It was this violent and hypocritical behaviour which got him in the end. Of course, he did not himself see it. His life of wastefulness had made him blind and arrogant. He had probably convinced himself that he was beyond the law, could get his way round it.
In the end, he gets what he deserves. He is handed over to the torturers. He had tortured others in so many ways. His wastefulness had hardened him to trust, prudence, temperance, justice and mercifulness. He was never satisfied with what was sufficient, but somehow considered himself entitled to more and more and more. It’s as if his consumption and waste grew in direct proportion to the size of his ego. In fact, without realising it, he was already torturing himself morally and spiritually by his way of living. Being tortured in the prison simply showed on the outside what he had unthinkingly been doing to himself on the inside.
The wicked servant’s waste of the king’s mercy was certainly more serious than the waste of his property, but had he not wasted the property he would never have found himself in the position to waste the mercy. The mercy is the spiritual, the money is the material. How we handle the material things in this life will have repercussions on our spiritual welfare. In other words, how we handle and interact with the created, material world will have an impact on our moral and spiritual reality.
Pope Francis has frequently made reference to what he calls the “throwaway” culture. He says it primarily of the throwing away of human persons in, abortion and embryonic experiments, euthanasia, the elderly and disabled, human trafficking and refugees. In all these instances, the human person is turned into a thing and is used, abused and discarded as if he or she were just some piece of refuse. Haven’t we witnessed in recent decades fetal material and even unwanted new-born babies being found in dustbins? Haven’t we seen human beings crammed into the backs of lorries like carcasses of meat and, if the traffickers are in danger of being caught, they either slaughter or abandon them to their fate?
The throwaway culture with regard to human beings is both influenced by, and in its turn influences, the other throwaway practices of our society, especially Western society. The World Food Organization has documented that industrialised countries throw away more than a billion tons of edible food every year. It is also known that approximately a third of all food produced is discarded, and, as Pope Francis puts it, “whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor.” The Holy Father wishes that technology would invest more in imitating the cycle of nature which is able to absorb and re-use what it produces. This would avoid cluttering the earth and sea with piles of rubbish of plastic and other materials that are not biodegradable.
Yet the ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems require that we look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would be dealing merely with symptoms. As another religious leader, Bartholomew of Constantinople, has said, we must replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing. We need an asceticism which “entails learning to give, and not simply to give up. It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs. It is liberation from fear, greed and compulsion”. As Christians, we are also called “to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbours on a global scale.” He then says rather beautifully, “It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet”.
If we look at the opposites of the mistakes and sins of the wicked servant in today’s Gospel, perhaps this can shows us the ethical and spiritual roots which will help us heal ourselves and thus the environment.
The first would be not to spend beyond our means, not to have to borrow or get into debt. This is the virtue of prudence. As someone once put it, let’s not so much have what we want as want what we have. It is to check our hearts from keeping up with the Joneses, from coveting. Instead, it means accepting with peace of heart and humility the means that we have, giving thanks to God for his generosity to us, for his providence. That does not mean that we don’t seek to improve our economic condition, but if we do that, we should do it on the basis of hard work and commitment, of fair play and competition. People getting started in life or in particular need may well need to borrow, but the important thing is not to let borrowing become a lifestyle or habitual mentality. It will only lead to grief. Prudence will make us properly evaluate how to use the resources of the earth in a way that is actually needed, not in a disproportionate and destabilising way.
A companion to living within our means is to live in a balanced manner, to do all things in moderation. This is the virtue of temperance. The wicked servant was out of control, he had no sense of restraint or discretion. He was acting and living as if he were eternal and unaccountable. Intemperance is not only a matter of drinking too much alcohol, it’s a matter of too much anything, with the exception of love of God and neighbour. Temperance is a key virtue in human use of the earth. Over-exploitation of any aspect of the ecosystem inevitably affects the balance between all aspects. A tiny stone might only pierce one point in a window pane, but the whole window will collapse in pieces.
Akin to temperance is justice, and it is clear that the wicked servant was devoid of any sense of true justice, either towards his king, his fellow servant or even his family. Justice means that you give someone their due under God and under human laws which respect the law of God. After the king forgave him, the wicked servant was bound in justice both to be grateful to the king and compassionate towards his fellow. But he took the king for a fool and treated his fellow like a slave. There is a certain justice required in relating to the earth. Since we do not own it but, under God, are its stewards then we owe it in justice to the earth to treat it as God bids, not as our imprudence, intemperance and injustice would demand. The wicked servant thought he was above the law, but it came down on him like a ton of bricks. Humanity is not above God’s laws of nature which will in justice claim back from us the respect she deserves, and probably through suffering. We have to watch that we do not turn into a collective wicked servant with a collective huge ego. He ended up being tortured by the law, and the outcome for humanity could well be similar if our ecological conversion is not ready and sincere.
I have mentioned three of the four cardinal virtues: prudence, temperance and justice. The fourth is fortitude. In our personal lives, we need fortitude to see us through times of trial and distress. In the fight to protect and do what we can to restore the balance to nature which God in his goodness has entrusted to our responsibility, we will need that endurance and perseverance, that courage and forbearance, to be temperate, prudent and just. It is not a question of putting all living beings on the same level or of depriving human beings of their unique worth and the tremendous responsibility that worth entails. Nor does it imply the turning of the earth into a kind of god which would prevent us from working on it for genuine human advancement. The disorder which the wicked servant brought into his family and social circle because of his wastefulness contrasts mightily with the order which God has written into his creation. That order is expressed well in the preface of today’s Mass: “For you, Father, laid the foundations of the world and have arranged the changing of times and seasons; you formed man in your own image and set humanity over the whole world in all its wonder, to rule in your name over all you have made and for ever praise you in your mighty works, through Christ our Lord.”
By pondering on how the wicked servant should have been, and could have been if he had wanted, may the Lord make us prudent, temperate, just and full of fortitude, for our own benefit and for the benefit of this beautiful world.