Sep 17, 2016

25th Sunday: Two Masters

"No servant can serve two masters"

Amos 8: 4-7
I Tim 2: 1-8
Lk 16: 1-13

From the time of ancient civilizations since our day today, there has always been some method of barter and trade; some form of cost and spending.  We wouldn’t normally think that Jesus had much to say about financial matters but in truth he had much to say about the use of money; both its benefits and its dangers.  In keeping with Jewish rabbinic teaching he often taught through stories and examples in order to make his point.  Normally those examples reflected situations of everyday life in his time; things that people were very familiar with already such as agricultural methods; planting and harvesting.  Today’s Gospel is one of the most perplexing and difficult scriptural passages to understand but it does reflect familiar customs.

The story involves an astute and crafty estate manager who was skilled in the art of crooked business deals.  He found a way, when he was dismissed for “squandering” the property of a rich owner, both to provide for his own future and to bring praise upon the rich owner of the property who fired him for being dishonest. Although his intent was less than admirable, he was clever in creating a kind of “win-win” result.

The untrustworthy steward created a sense of admiration for the master who fired him – he went to his masters debtors and advised they reduce their indebtedness to him Assuming that recommendation came from the master himself, not knowing the steward was about to be fired, they then would praise the master for his mercy to them and be willing to take in the crafty steward for being the bearer of good news to them. 

But, what Jesus then says about this manager is shocking in one way: “I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” Jesus’ recommendation is not all that clear here. Does he advise we use the same type of tactics as the steward in the parable?  Is he in praise of dishonest methods in order to gain success? Maybe a look at the first reading for this Sunday would put more in full perspective.

The prophet Amos in our first reading clearly warns his audience about the greedy: “Hear this you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land!” Amos warned those who use power and wealth to their own advantage while they sacrifice the more basic needs of the poor who need assistance to attain their own security.  “The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob; never will I forget a thing they have done!” This is a warning to those who are governed by their own pride and personal security at the expense of the more fundamental needs of others. 

In light of that, we may see the Gospel parable as both one of praise for its clever methods but a warning as to how and where we spend our resources. Our Lord essentially is in praise of cleverness and knows that if one is as enterprising with the good use of money, much good can be done and one will win the praise not only of others but all the more importantly, the praise of God, the true owner of eternal wealth.

The road to discipleship is not an easy one yet is for those who pay attention to the words of Jesus and put those teachings, methods, to practical use: prayer, self-sacrifice, attention to the needs of others, to be charitable for the cause of others, not my own advantage, to live a life formed by the Gospel values and not those limitations of this world.

More, the relationship between the poor and the rich; the “haves and the have-nots” and the social conditions of our time in which so many are suffering from the greed of others is timely with this parable. The greatest sin Jesus railed against was that of greed and injustice.  To be blind to both the material and the spiritual needs of the disadvantaged is a grave injustice and sin.

Wealth in and of itself is morally neutral.  Yet, how we use that abundance either for ourselves or to adopt a more open and enterprising mind and consider the greater needs around us, then to devise ways to assist those who need our help, is I think what Jesus is getting at here. 

God looks upon the poor with special favor.  As Pope Francis reminds us, he came to us in the guise of the poor; as a poor man, and spent much of his time with the outcast and the forgotten. 

The Gospel closes with a prophetic warning: “No servant can serve two masters.  He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and espies the other.  You cannot serve both God and mammon.”  (Lk 16: 12-13).

We immediately consider that “mammon” is a reference to money.  Yet it is really understood as more a kind of life-style that one adopts.  If power, wealth, and the pursuit of success is measured by the “master” of this world that which the world offers becomes our god.  Or if we see the material resources we have as an opportunity to assist the needy or to spread the Gospel more completely in some way, then our “master” becomes God himself and his glory; his praise.  In the end, we must be as enterprising, as clever and intent about our ultimate fulfillment before God as the dishonest steward was about his own reputation and his security. 

So, we must decide who our “master” is.  To whom do we owe our stewardship?  How do I prioritize where I place my energy and my most valuable concerns?  Does God and the Gospel have a role anywhere in those priorities or is it down the list.  Five dollars a week to my parish may be more of a token to sooth my own guilt than a real way to participate in the spread of the Gospel for example.  Yet, if that’s the best I can do with my situation then it is more generous than those who have so much more yet give less proportionately. If only more would be as "on fire" about matters of faith as they are for political positions or candidates, or the latest technology, sports teams, fashion, or material success as a measure of self-worth, what might our culture be like? Who or what is my real god (God) ?

So, this complicated parable today deserves some reflection.  Yet the bottom line may be to consider not only my material life but my spiritual life as well.  Simply coming to Church on a weekend is a good and necessary witness.  Yet, if that’s all I do I may find I live more for myself than I do for the spread of the Gospel.  Jesus in short recommends today that we prepare for the future, as the steward did, but to build up not a treasure for greed but spiritual wealth for our eternal future. 

O God, who founded all the commands of your sacred Law
upon love of you and of our neighbor, 
grant that, by keeping your precepts, 
we may merit to attain eternal life.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, 
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God, for ever and ever. 

(Roman Missal: Collect of Mass)