25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 17, 2022
Cathedral of Mary Our Queen
A Stern Lecture?
In these times of economic uncertainty, perhaps the last thing you want to hear in church on Sunday is a lecture about money. Listening to the Scripture readings, though, you might think that’s what you’re in for. In the Gospel, you heard it said that one cannot serve God and money. The prophet Amos condemned the citizens of Judah who could hardly wait until the Sabbath was over so that they could resume turning a dishonest profit.
I’m not planning to deliver a stern lecture on the evils of money, but I would like to suggest that difficult economic times afford us an opportunity to reflect on the place that money and prosperity occupy in our lives. Whether we have a lot of money or a little, it can become so important that it crowds out everything else – including God, other people, & especially the poor. Let us look at today’s Scripture readings, not as a stern lecture on the evils of money, but rather as a source of wisdom, truth, and love as we assess the important question of “God vs. mammon” in our lives, beginning with our first reading from the prophet Amos.
As mentioned already, Amos decried the citizens of Judah who could hardly wait until the Sabbath was over so that they could resume their dishonest profiteering. The Sabbath was meant to be a day of rest spent with one’s family and devoted to giving God thanks and praise for his many blessings. But Amos knew that many observed the Sabbath only grudgingly because their minds and hearts were focused, not on God, but money.
What, then, would Amos make of our culture? When I was growing up, most stores were closed on Sunday and practically everyone went to church. Most families also had a nice Sunday dinner (maybe not quite as nice as Sunday dinner at the Reagan’s on Blue Bloods), but a nice Sunday dinner, nonetheless.
Today, almost nothing closes (except Chick-fil-A), and in this digital world, many people work all the time, to the point of total absorption. Far too few families gather for Sunday dinner, and fewer families than ever before attend church services. Thus, we risk crowding God out of our lives while depriving ourselves of a needed day of rest and family companionship.
In the Gospel, Jesus tells a parable about a dishonest steward. In the ancient world, stewards occupied positions of trust and responsibility, As managers of the property and money of the wealthy, they were expected to be honest. The steward in Jesus’ parable was caught squandering his master’s property. He knew that if he lost his job, no one would take him in and that he would face either hard labor or penury – both unpalatable. So the steward made a deal with the master’s debtors by fraudulently reducing the amount of money they owed. He reasoned that these creditors would be so grateful that they would help him after he was fired – or so he thought. Surprisingly, when the rich man found out what his steward had done, he praised him for being prudent – for having foresight and for being enterprising.
At first glance, this story seems to be trending in the wrong direction. First, the steward misused his master’s property and goods. Then, he invited the master’s debtors to cheat, only to be commended by his boss “for acting prudently”. What are we to take away from this parable?
Like all of Jesus’ parables, it has a twist, a turning point, this one hinges on what it means to be truly prudent. The dishonest steward foresaw what would happen to him if he were fired. So he prudently used the money and resources at hand to ward off the outcome he feared by making friends for himself, that is, by ingratiating himself with the master’s debtors. The upshot of Jesus’ parable is not that we should be dishonest but that we should creatively use whatever blessings we have to ingratiate ourselves with others, so that we may be welcomed into heaven.
And who are these “others” with whom we should wish to be ingratiated? First is God who asks of us something more precious than our money.
The Lord is asking for our time and attention, our praise and our thanks not for his own sake, but ours . . . all summed up in the command, “Remember to keep holy the sabbath day.”
Second, we should seek to be ingratiated with those in need–the poor and the vulnerable. In the logic of the Gospel, we manage and use our resources prudently when we are generous to those who are in need. It turns out that prudence is not mere caution or cleverness but rather creativity in doing the will of God – the God who identifies with the poor, the God who “lifts up the poor” … the God who will not countenance the exploitation of the poor. Even in difficult times, we cannot afford to forget the poor. After all, we will take into eternity only what we have given away on earth.
Third, we should ingratiate ourselves with others by being honest and just – indeed, the mirror opposite of the dishonest steward. Jesus warned us to be honest in small things as well as large because he was well-aware of our tendency “to cut corners”, to cheat a little, all the while saying to ourselves, “Well, it’s not a big deal.” But dishonesty and moral compromise in small things have a way of snowballing.
Treasure in Heaven
The choice before us, then, is between God and mammon. The prudent choice is God. The imprudent choice is fleeting wealth. The way to choose God over mammon is a life of avid worship, generosity to the poor, and honesty in our dealings with others . . . But is that all there is? . . . A stark moral choice?
Perhaps not, especially if we re-visit Paul’s 1st Letter to Timothy where we read how earnestly God desires the salvation of every person. The truth is everything we have comes from God; we are his debtors. Furthermore, by sinning we have placed ourselves so deeply in debt that there is no way that we could ever pay God back. Into this dire situation, the God who gave us life sent us his Son, Christ Jesus, who has lavished upon us unparalleled compassion, an “imprudent” mercy … For the Lord aims not only to reduce our debt, but to wipe it away completely. This is the mercy we partake of every time we gather for Sunday Eucharist, a mercy we share in every time we are absolved of our sins. The Lord Jesus not only enjoins us to be compassionate and just, but by his abundant graces enables us to be honest, compassionate, and prudent, storing up for ourselves heavenly treasures by loving others on this earth. Thus do we hope one day to reign with the “the King of kings and the Lord of lords, who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light … To him be honor and eternal power. Amen.”