THE TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – September 22, 2013

The Book of the Prophet Amos 8:4-7

St. Paul’s first Letter to Timothy 2:1-8

The holy Gospel according to Luke 16:1-13

 

We must pay attention to who is being addressed when Jesus tells a parable.  When we are vulnerable before them they always unsettle as they teach aspects of discipleship or attributes of the coming Kingdom.  If Jesus is speaking to the crowds, that is, to those who have not yet decided whether or not they will cast in their lot with Jesus and follow him, those parables usually warn of the cost of discipleship.  After all, Jesus wouldn’t want converts to feel duped when it dawns on them that the way of discipleship can be daunting.  If Jesus is speaking to the disciples, those who have chosen to walk in his ways, as is the case with this Sunday’s Gospel, then he is pointing out aspects or implications of discipleship.  This is how Jesus expects disciples to live out their vocation to follow him.

It is especially important to remember that today Jesus is speaking to disciples, that is, to you and to me, because this parable is among the most problematic of them all.  At first hearing, it might seem that Jesus is praising craftiness, even dishonesty.  The master reprimands the steward, the one left in charge of the estate during the master’s absence, for squandering the master’s property.  This is an interesting choice of words because that was what the Prodigal Son was accused of doing with his inheritance in last Sunday’s parable.  The word means to spend wastefully and foolishly.  In both cases, the foolish spending involved what was entrusted to them.  Ah, but then the master praises the dishonest steward when he acts prudently.

Once the steward has been confronted and an accounting is demanded, he rightly concludes that his station in life is about to be drastically reduced.  Living like one of the entitled one day, he is about to become one of the hoi polloi the next, from prince to commoner, even to pauper.  He recognizes his own limitations, that is, that he can neither be a common laborer, nor can he be one who sits and begs.  His pride won’t allow that.  He determines to ingratiate himself with those who are indebted to the master.  Summoning the debtors one by one before him, he slashes their bills, cutting the master’s profits, and makes it easier for them to repay and so get out of debt.  Some commentators say that he simply removes from the tab what had been added that would come to the steward upon repayment.  That is what tax collectors did to tax bills.  They added to the assessment in order to make their living.

Other commentators say the steward recognized on which side his bread was buttered, as we would say, and reduced what the master could expect to retrieve from his debtors.  It’s possible the master didn’t even know what was owed.  And the steward would do anything to make friends that would receive him in his desperation.

Jesus says that the master commended the steward for his prudence.  He is not being commended for his dishonesty but, recognizing the precarious situation he is in now, he does what he can so that he will have friends once he is thrown out of his position.  Disciples are to be prudent with what has been entrusted to them.  Jesus has entrusted to the disciples the Kingdom.  That means that their living the Good News and imitating Jesus is meant to prepare the way for the Kingdom’s entry into the lives of those they meet.  Disciples should be as determined in their ministry as the steward was in his endeavors.  Of course the obvious difference is that the steward was self-serving.  Disciples are to pour out their very selves in service of others.  This is not so that the disciples will be received into earthly mansions but, at the end of their ministries, they will be welcomed by the poor they have served as they enter the heavenly mansion prepared for them.

Now we hear Jesus’ commentary on the implications of the parable.  The implications have to do with the response to worldly wealth.  Jesus does not condemn wealth.  An axiom in this regard is often misquoted.  It is not money that is the root of all evil; but rather the love of money is that root.  If you are wealthy, what is important is what you do with that wealth.  The negative implications of squandering would apply.  I wonder if the Lord laughs at those who stand outside in long lines and through the darkest and dreariest nights just so that they will be among the first to buy the latest electronic gadget.  Much more encouraging are the news stories about the movement among the billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to dole out the bulk of their fortunes to charity.  Others have followed suit.  And already tremendous differences are being made for many of the most destitute in the world’s population.

It is safe to say that the Lord does expect us to give of our wealth, be it great or meager, expects us to tithe of our wealth to ease the needs of the poor.  We are to recognize our relationship with the poor.  Why else would Pope Francis long to see a poor church in service of the poor?  We ought not miss in Matthew’s judgment scene that the master praises the sheep on his right, for I was hungry and you fed me; naked and you clothed me.

Jesus expects disciples to hold wealth in perspective.  I remember several years ago reading an interview with the late actor, Tony Randall.  He had had a successful acting career and fortune followed.  In the interview, he said that he never wanted to take his wealth for granted nor did he want to think that his success gave him importance.  On those occasions when he thought he was getting a swelled head and was taking himself too seriously, he would journey to some impoverished area, Calcutta for example, and there walk among the poorest of the poor.  This brought him face to face with his powerlessness to do anything to alleviate the situation.  He said if he were to give something to a beggar the rest of the impoverished would throttle the recipient to wrest the pittance from him.  Randall’s interview did not go on to say what portion of his wealth he did give to charity.

Bernie Madoff’s name will live in infamy.  While he is not the only one to plot and become ruthless in his pursuit of worldly wealth, he can stand as the epitome of what the Lord is warning us about regarding succumbing to the love of money.  Of course there is always that possibility that Madoff thought his Ponzi scheme would work.  But it seems his lust for money stifled his conscience as he bilked wealth from friends and strangers and charities alike with the promise that they would see amazing returns from entrusting their fortunes to him.  Turned out in disgrace as he was when the scheme collapsed, and were he not in prison, who would have received him or offered him shelter in his impoverished state?  How different would have been his fate had he been trustworthy and honest in his dealings.  Had fortunes collapsed then, there would have been those to receive him into their homes when his wealth failed.

Remember, it is the poor we serve and to whose needs we contribute that will be the ones to pray in our behalf when they reach the heavenly kingdom before us.  They are the ones that will receive us into glory.  We don’t have to go to the other side of that coin.  We’ll just stay with the positive challenge and its reward.

It is important that we listen to the Prophet Amos in this Sunday’s First Reading.  Amos rages against hypocrisy and against blindness to the needs of the poor.  He is searing in his condemnation of a religious people whose observances of the Law and temple practices are hollow.  They may suspend their dealings for Sabbath observance or for other religious celebrations, but instead of giving praise and honor to God in order to return then to working for justice for the poor, the suspension time becomes one of calculating how to gouge more from the poor for their own profit.  It is chilling when Amos quotes the Lord as saying: Never will I forget a thing they have done!  That should give us pause, don’t you think?

By now, as disciples, we should know from all the emphasis that Jesus places on the embracing of poverty as part of the call of discipleship, that wealth poses a danger for us.  The question to pray about is, what is most important in our lives?  You cannot serve both God and mammon.  My dictionary says that mammon is material wealth having a debasing influence.  There are those people that seem unable to talk about anything else but money, its acquisition, and their unquenchable thirst for more.  It would not be difficult to conclude that what is most important in their lives is money, or mammon.  Where does God come in?  Second place?  Where do the poor come in?  Third place?  We cannot be slaves to wealth and serve God faithfully and strive to alleviate the needs of the poor.

There was an important sign proclaimed when on the night he was named pope, Francis stepped out on the balcony void of the majestic robes of splendor and with simplicity addressed the assembled as brothers and sisters.

So, we come to Eucharist.  The assembly gathers around the table united as the Body of Christ.  Again we give thanks to God.  We renew Christ’s dying and rising in bread and wine.  Christ’s dying is self-emptying.  He gives his body to be eaten and his blood to be drunk by those who stand in need.  In the Communion Procession, we approach with open and empty hands to receive the Bread and to drink from the Cup.  We come in our hunger and poverty to be filled and strengthened so that we can continue to be faithful stewards in service of the Gospel.  We come to be transformed by what we take and eat so that we can be sent to continue to meet the needs of the poor in whom we recognize Christ in his passion.

Christ is the master who has gone on a journey and entrusted to us as stewards the Kingdom.  We pray that when he returns in glory he will find us faithful and trustworthy stewards, not slaves to mammon, but servants of the One who seeks and saves and of the Good News he announces.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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