Stewardship vs. Ownership: A Parable

Today was graduation day for the University of St. Thomas School of Law. It was a joyful day for our students and their families. And I confess, as tired and warm as I may have been sitting on the stage during the ceremony, tears sprung to my eyes (as they do at graduation every year) as the President of the University spoke the words conferring the degrees upon our graduates.

The day began with a Baccalaureate Mass, celebrated by our Campus Minister, Fr. Erich Rutten, whose homilies always offer fruit for my reflection. Today was no exception.

Fr. Rutten spoke about various of the principles of Catholic thought to which our students have been exposed during their three years at the law school. When he spoke about how Catholic Social Thought understood property rights, he offered a simple, yet wonderful, parable.

Just as Jesus’ parables spoke to the experience of his listeners, Fr. Rutten invited the students to imagine that a law professor was going away for a time and asked a law student to house sit for him while he was gone. Imagine, he suggested, a law student who behaved as a responsible steward, taking good care of the house, enjoying it, but keeping it clean and in good repair.

Then, he invited, imagine instead a less responsible house sitter. This one had wild parties while the professsor was away. In fact, as time went on, the student began to think of the house as his own, treating it that way, with no thought for the law professor. In that case, imagine, he asked, what would happen when the law professor returned. What would his reaction be?

Although Fr. Rutten never used the term “parable” in telling his story, his story had all the force that Jesus’ parables would have had for his listeners (some of which, I fear, is often lost on us). As I was listening, I thought, how absurd! How could the law students ever think the property was his or hers? How could the student fail to realize he was only taking care of, and had only been given the responsible enjoyment of, that which ultimately belonged to someone else?

And that is precisly the reaction I expect Fr. Rutten was hoping to evoke. The realization that what seems so absurd to us in hearing the story is exactly how we treat this world we have been given. We have been granted stewardship over the gifts of this world, yet we act as though it is all ours to do with as we please. We never think to ask as the parable invites (indeed, demands) that we ask: How could we possibly think this?

We have been given this world to use and preserve as stewards. And, ultimately, we will be called to account for how we have cared for it.

Thanks for Fr. Rutten for a thought-provoking homily. And congratulations to the UST Law School class of 2011.


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