Sunday of Week 25 of Ordinary Time (Year C)

Commentary on Amos 8:4-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-8; Luke 16:1-13

Each of the readings today makes a separate, but related, point:

  • A warning from the prophet Amos on swindling and cheating in business;
  • An exhortation to pray for those in authority;
  • How to make use of our material goods.

A world of injustice
During the 8th century BC, the prophet Amos arrived in the prosperous kingdom of Israel. Behind the glitter of political and religious life, he saw a world of injustice and exploitation of the poor. He wrote his denunciations long before the time of Christ but they sound perfectly familiar to anyone living in any prosperous city of our own day. Cheating on weights and measures, tampering with scales (calculators and computers!), inflating the value of goods and deflating the value of money, buying up the poor for money (“Every man has his price”), finding someone gullible enough to buy what is basically trash… Practically every year in nearly every country corruption among the rich and politically powerful is reported. And, for the most part, it involves far greater sums of money and a higher level of criminality than the procession of petty criminals that pass through our courts daily and who are portrayed with such disdain and condescension in our media.

In over 2,000 years of “civilisation” and “religion”, hardly anything has changed. In spite of social welfare, the poor and the needy continue to be exploited and trampled on. The very existence of social welfare is the result of social imbalances in the distribution of a community’s wealth. And yet some are even critical of the existence of social welfare. “Let them work hard like the rest of us!” One is reminded of the late Bishop Helder Camara of Recife in Brazil. He was an outspoken critic of injustice in his society. He used to say: “When I give money to the poor, they call me a saint; when I ask why they are poor, they call me a Communist.”

We are all familiar with the dramatic crimes involving robberies and shootouts on our streets by “gangsters” and “thugs”. But far more money is disappearing – immorally and illegally – in plush air-conditioned offices by those oh-so-respectable wearing expensive suits and tooling around in luxury cars.

Serious imbalances
Such an abuse of the use of money and property results in serious imbalances both in our own society and in societies elsewhere. The world is divided now into North (rich) and South (poor), between a First and a Third (and even a Fourth) World.

So many are driven to get rich. What’s wrong with being rich? people ask. Catholics can be, and sometimes are, very rich. But, is it possible that no one can really become rich without (many) others being made or kept poor? To be defined as rich in our society means having more, much more, than the average person.

But, some may argue, what do purely social and economic matters have to do with the Church and religion? What business has the Church meddling in the market place? Ask Amos that question. Ask Jesus that question. “It is harder for a rich man to enter God’s Kingdom than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.” It is not just because the man is rich but because to be regarded as rich he must have goods which are denied in justice to others. We cannot say we love God, if we do not love our brothers. Such a person cannot be in the Kingdom… “Depart from me… I do not know you.” To be actively unjust to others is to deny love to them. It is not enough to say, as the Apostle James reminds us, “I’m really sorry for your trouble but I will pray for you at Mass on Sunday.”

In so far as economic matters touch on moral issues – justice, the dignity of the individual, basic human rights – then they certainly concern the Christian and the church community. To be an agent – actively or passively – of injustice is to deny love to another.

Luck of the draw
In our capitalist society built on competitiveness, we seem to accept that there are (some) winners and (many) losers. We can even attribute it to “the luck of the draw”. In which case, we basically accept the situation as “normal”. Many of us Christians have a deep (if largely unconscious) need to become more aware of just what Christian love and compassion actually entails. It can never be accepted as “normal” for people to live in inadequate housing, to have to work in intolerable conditions, to have to work twelve or more hours a day seven days a week just to make ends meet, to have to endure hunger, malnutrition over long periods, to have to sell their bodies in prostitution or near slavery…

Nor, while people live in such conditions, can it be accepted as “normal” that others live in comfort and luxury, especially if the source of their wealth comes from the exploitation of those who are living below the level of human dignity. No aware Christian can accept such a situation or, still less, be a contributor to such imbalances. Unfortunately, many of us are, wittingly or unwittingly, contributors. We show it by our own frenetic participation in trying to climb to the top and pushing our children to the top.

It is not a question, of course, of advocating total equality. On many levels, people are quite unequal. But, on the level of dignity and rights, no one can claim superiority over another person. Any diminution of human dignity (which demands a certain minimum material standard of living) cannot be tolerated by the conscientious and loving Christian. Some have been given more talents than others (and the Gospel clearly recognises this) but these gifts are to be used not to get more for oneself but to offer more for the building up of the Kingdom community. The greater our gifts, the greater our responsibility to share them with those who have less.

Praying for our leaders
The exhortation, then, in the Second Reading to pray especially for those in authority, in this context, makes sense. Those in authority do need our prayers that the power entrusted to them is used for the well-being of every person in the community. Considering that the presumed writer of this letter (Paul or some other Christian leader) was himself the victim of savage persecution by some authorities, he is not telling us to give our unqualified support to all the policies of our leaders. The Church can never, and and should never, identify itself fully with any civil administration. At best, there should be what Cardinal Jaime Sin of Manila used to call “critical co-operation”. But at worst, it may also required an out and out denunciation of an administrations practices and policies.

And so the Gospel speaks about stewardship. A steward is a person who is made responsible to handle the goods and property of his employer. The steward in the Gospel today was a bad steward because he was wasteful of his master’s property. He was going to be fired so he took steps to guarantee his future employability. And “the master praised the dishonest steward for his astuteness”. Jesus obviously told this story not to encourage dishonesty but to draw attention to the foresight of the steward.

“And so I tell you this: use money, tainted as it is, to win you friends and thus make sure that when it fails you, they will welcome you into the tents of eternity.” Jesus’ choice of a “steward” in today’s passage is altogether to the point. We need to be constantly reminded that we are the stewards and never the owners of what we possess. We have no absolute right to anything we have. “I can do what I like with my money and property because it’s mine” is not a statement any committed Christian can make. So the question of a successful life is not “How much did you make?” but “How did you use what you had to creative purposes for the general welfare of all?” That is the way to make the friends Jesus talks about in the Gospel.

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