SEPTEMBER 18TH, 2016: TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
Hear this, you who trample upon the needy
and destroy the poor of the land!
“When will the new moon be over,” you ask,
“that we may sell our grain,
and the sabbath, that we may display the wheat?
We will diminish the ephah,
add to the shekel,
and fix our scales for cheating!
We will buy the lowly for silver,
and the poor for a pair of sandals;
even the refuse of the wheat we will sell!”
The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Never will I forget a thing they have done!
First of all, I ask that supplications, prayers,
petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone,
for kings and for all in authority,
that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life
in all devotion and dignity.
This is good and pleasing to God our savior,
who wills everyone to be saved
and to come to knowledge of the truth.
For there is one God.
There is also one mediator between God and men,
the man Christ Jesus,
who gave himself as ransom for all.
This was the testimony at the proper time.
For this I was appointed preacher and apostle
— I am speaking the truth, I am not lying —,
teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.
It is my wish, then, that in every place the men should pray,
lifting up holy hands, without anger or argument.
Jesus said to his disciples,
“A rich man had a steward
who was reported to him for squandering his property.
He summoned him and said,
‘What is this I hear about you?
Prepare a full account of your stewardship,
because you can no longer be my steward.’
The steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do,
now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me?
I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg.
I know what I shall do so that,
when I am removed from the stewardship,
they may welcome me into their homes.’
He called in his master’s debtors one by one.
To the first he said,
‘How much do you owe my master?’
He replied, ‘One hundred measures of olive oil.’
He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note.
Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.’
Then to another the steward said, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’
He replied, ‘One hundred kors of wheat.’
The steward said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note;
write one for eighty.’
And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.
“For the children of this world
are more prudent in dealing with their own generation
than are the children of light.
I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth,
so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
The person who is trustworthy in very small matters
is also trustworthy in great ones;
and the person who is dishonest in very small matters
is also dishonest in great ones.
If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth,
who will trust you with true wealth?
If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another,
who will give you what is yours?
No servant can serve two masters.
He will either hate one and love the other,
or be devoted to one and despise the other.
You cannot serve both God and mammon.”
Contrary to popular Christian belief, the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures weren’t sent by Yahweh to predict the coming of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. The late Raymond Brown always reminded his students and readers, “There are no Old Testament predictions of Jesus as we know Jesus.” Through the centuries we’ve given prophetic statements meanings which the original prophets never intended to convey. If prophets simply predicted an event which would only take place hundreds of years down the road, why did so many of them die with their sandals on?
It’s essential to see prophets as part of their day and age, not our day and age. They’re the conscience of the people, reminding them of how God wants them to live their lives, constantly pointing out how they’re living counter to God’s plan. No one does this better than the first of the “book prophets:” Amos.
Active in 8th century BCE Israel, Amos does what all prophets do: he goes to the “good folk,” showing how they’re practicing a faith which isn’t Yahweh’s faith. It’s historically easy to practice a religion which at times actually leads people away from God’s plan. If the prophet’s audiences aren’t at least outwardly committed to carrying out God’s will the prophet doesn’t have much of an argument when he or she proclaims God’s message.
That’s why Amos delivers the oracles in today’s first reading at the national shrine of Bethel: one of Israel’s most sacred sanctuaries. He’s addressing people who think they’re good Jews, individuals who among other things keep the religious regulations surrounding the new moon and the Sabbath. If they didn’t they wouldn’t be at Bethel. But he points out that once these holy times are over those who so faithfully frequent the national shrine “trample on the needy and destroy the poor of the land.” They use false weights when they sell their grain, and are willing to accept bribes (“a pair of sandals”) in their dealings with the poor and lowly. They go so far as to even sell “the refuse of the wheat” to those whose severe hunger forces them to buy it.
It’s no accident that the Pauline disciple responsible for I Timothy longs for followers of Jesus “to lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity.” We share his wish that people “should pray, lifting up holy hands, without anger or argument.” All of us hope to live a peaceful existence. Yet the gospel Jesus teaches that because of the prophetic aspect of being other Christs, that isn’t always possible.
In today’s gospel pericope, Luke’s Jesus reminds us that carrying on his ministry doesn’t happen by accident. It usually takes a lot of planning. He conveys that reality by pointing out the obvious: people work at doing evil much harder than they work at doing good. The unjust steward is ingenious in making certain his master’s debtors “will welcome (him) into their homes” after he’s been fired. Jesus demands his followers deliberately spend their lives giving themselves over to God, not to evil.
I’ve frequently suggested that we stop examining our conscience before we go to sleep at night, and begin to examine it when we get up in the morning. With the day in front of us, we can more easily figure out at what point we can squeeze in a good action for a friend, do an unrequested favor for someone, or simply be a loving person in a particular situation. It makes more sense to plot and connive good than just to instinctively do good when it comes to mind. Such precise planning could really make us prophetic Christians “dangerous” people in the world.