Sep 22, 2019: 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

1st Reading – Amos 8:4-7

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!

Amos was the great 8th century BC prophet who preached justice in the northern kingdom. He is the earliest writing prophet and is often referred to as “God’s angry prophet” due to his frequent condemnations of injustice.

Today’s first reading is a prophetic oracle of condemnation; Amos is assailing those who oppress the poor.

Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land!

As we will read, Amos denounces unscrupulous merchants for their false piety, avarice, dishonest business practices, and exploitation of the poor and defenseless.

“When will the new moon be over,” you ask, “that we may sell our grain, and the sabbath, that we may display the wheat?

Israel observed a lunar calendar, celebrating the new moon at the beginning of each lunar month.  Special feasts and specific sacrifices were prescribed for those days (Numbers 28:11-15), and as was the case with the observance of the Sabbaths, all business was suspended.

Here we see the merchants who mistreat the poor pretending to be religious, eager all the while to resume their dishonest business.

We will diminish the ephah, add to the shekel, and fix our scales for cheating!

In the midst of the religious celebration, on the days of prayer, they are plotting how they will cheat others.

The merchants describe three different methods of their own dishonesty:

  • “Diminish the ephah”: an ephah is a unit of dry measure, a little less than a bushel.  When gauging the amount of grain, they do not measure out an entire ephah but give the buyer a lesser amount than what they paid for.
  • “Add to the shekel”: there was no way to ensure that each shekel (a unit of weight) was a standard measure, so it was easy to use only lighter-weight shekels when measuring.  The grain was paid for according to the number of shekels used as weights; lighter weights again meant that the buyer paid the same price for less grain.
  • “Fix our scales for cheating”: the scales used by the merchants are modified to cheat their customers.

We will buy the lowly man for silver, and the poor man for a pair of sandals;

The poor people that the merchants are defrauding are the landless, those who do not harvest their own crop but must purchase grain and wheat for their food.  Thus they are dependent on the honesty of the merchants, who not only measure out the produce on their own scales but who are in the position of determining prices for the staples of life.

These people were frequently brought to such extremes of poverty that they are forced to sell themselves into slavery to survive.

even the refuse of the wheat we will sell!”

The merchants are so greedy that they sell what should be discarded, by mixing wheat chaff with the good grain.

The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob:

Amos prophesied to the northern kingdom, which was often referred to as Jacob. The reference here to the “pride of Jacob” is probably an allusion to the arrogant self-indulgence of those tribes.

Never will I forget a thing they have done!

The last verse delivers the judgment of God, which is passed in the form of an irrevocable oath.  God swears an oath by the people’s own sinful pride that the evil perpetrated as a result of said pride will never be forgotten. This is meant as a severe contrast to God himself, who is the true Pride of Jacob.

This is truly an oracle of judgment.

2nd Reading – 1 Timothy 2:1-8

Beloved:
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.

This week we continue our study of Paul’s first pastoral letter to Timothy, a leader in the Christian community.

Beloved: First of all, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone,

Paul instructs Timothy to ensure that prayers are offered for the salvation of all.  He is not referring to private prayer, but directing Timothy on how to lead prayer during public worship.

for kings and for all in authority,

Prayers should be offered for all people, but special attention is given to civic leaders.  This indicates that Christianity was not fundamentally opposed to or at odds with those who wielded worldly power.  Besides, if all power comes from God, as Christians believed, then rightful leaders govern by God’s authority, and this authority should be respected.

This marked insistence that the liturgical prayer of the community concern itself with the needs of all, whether Christian or not, and especially of those in authority, may imply that a disposition existed at Ephesus to refuse prayer for pagans.  Recall that early Christians lived under Roman rule, which means that the civic leaders were probably pagan and had little interest in winning the approval of an insignificant colonized people.  So in essence, Paul is instructing them to publicly pray for those who did not necessarily look kindly upon them.

that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity.

Two reasons for such prayer are given.  The first appears to be pragmatic: pray for them so that you may have peace in their midst.

Like the Jews, Christians did not participate in civic worship of the gods and so were regarded with suspicion. Both groups may have made it clear that they prayed for the welfare of the emperor and other civic authorities in order to offset their distrust.

When the Church enjoys a congenial relationship with civic authorities, its members are better able to publicly live out the values they espouse.

This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.

The second reason for praying for these officials is that it is God’s will to do so.  The goal of their prayer is not simply for peace but also for the salvation of others.

“Is God not good to all, then? He is certainly good to all, because He is the Savior of all, especially the faithful. And so the Lord Jesus came that He might save what was lost (Luke 19:10); he came, indeed, to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29) to heal our wounds.

But not all desire the remedy, and many avoid it… He heals those that are willing and does not compel the unwilling.” [Saint Ambrose of Milan (ca. A.D. 350), The Prayer of Job and David 2,4]

For there is one God.  There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as ransom for all.

This verse contains what may well have been a very primitive creed.  Some interpreters have called it a Christian version of the Jewish Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone…” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).

It is God’s will that all come to know him, as well as Christ Jesus, the only mediator between God and humankind.

“For all”: belief in the universality of salvation through Christ should spur the Christians on to this kind of prayer.

“Through His body the Church has been allied to Christ and has been enabled to become a partaker in the Word of God. We know this both from the fact that He is called the ‘mediator between God and the human race,’ and from the apostle’s saying that’ in Him we have access through faith in the hope of the glory of God (Romans 5:2).” [Origen (ca. A.D. 240), Homilies on Song of Songs 3,2]

This was the testimony at the proper time.

This phrase is difficult to understand.  Most commentators believe it refers to the ransom Christ paid for all, which is mentioned immediately prior — a reference that his death ushered in the time of universal salvation.

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.

Paul himself was called as herald and as apostle to the nations.  Therefore, it is only right that the Church pray for the conversion of Gentiles.

It is my wish, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands, without anger or argument.

The reading concludes with a final injunction to pray in every place with hands uplifted, a common posture for prayer.

“Holy hands” is also translated as “blameless hands,” an important reminder of our obligations as Christians. The prayer of the community should be unmarred by internal dissension.

“Even a person’s bearing, when he raises his hands, describes a cross; therefore we are ordered to pray with uplifted hands so that by the very stance of our body we might confess the Lord’s suffering.” [Maximus, Bishop of Turin (died A.D. 408/423), Sermons 38,3]

Gospel – Luke 16:1-13

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.”

Today’s gospel reading is the story of the steward who rewrote the debts of his employer in order to ensure a financial future for himself after he is dismissed.  It has often raised more questions than it has answered, because it seems as though Jesus is commending him for unscrupulous behavior.

Jesus said to his disciples, “A rich man had a steward

A steward (oikonómos), or household manager, possessed great authority and full responsibility while the master was away.  The rich man was probably understood to be an absentee landlord.

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.’

Note that the text doesn’t state that he swindled his master; it says he squandered the property.

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.

The steward’s inner quandary gives us a glimpse of his circumstances.  He does not have the physical strength for arduous manual labor, and because of the social status he presently enjoys, lowering himself to begging would be too humiliating.

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.

What follows must be understood in light of Palestinian customs of agents acting on behalf of their masters and usurious practices common to such agents.

This steward had full authorization to make binding contracts on behalf of his master, a common arrangement in those days. He had to show a profit for his master, but he could make some profit for himself, too.  He did so by making clever loans with sky-high rates of interest, but this required finding ways around the Mosaic Law against taking interest on loans.  One way to accomplish this was to accept payment in commodities instead of cash. For example, a loan of 50 bushels of wheat with a 100% commission for the steward would have been shown as a debt of 100 bushels in the contract.

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 he said, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘One hundred kors of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note; write one for eighty.’

The steward forgoes his own usurious commission on the transactions by having the debtors write new notes that reflected only the real amount owed.  He does this in order to ingratiate himself with the debtors because he knows he will be dismissed.

And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.

The master of the house commends the dishonest steward for the prudent use of his material goods in light of an imminent crisis.

“For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

The “children of this world” are represented by the steward, who enthusiastically uses his wealth to respond to a problem.  This is contrasted with the “children of light,” i.e., Jesus’ disciples, which is the key to interpreting this parable.  In order to understand Jesus’ lesson, we have to know how the audience is being compared to someone in the story.

The disciples are compared to the steward for two reasons:

  • The disciples are stewards of property, not owners, because everything belongs to God. As stewards, it is the disciples’ responsibility to share God’s goods with those in need. Jesus has already taught the disciples how to regard personal property when he taught against greed and told them the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21).
  • Like the steward, the disciples are in a temporary situation and must prudently plan for their future.  Earth is a temporary situation; the disciples should keep in mind that the way they act presently will affect the circumstances in which they find themselves later.

Essentially, if this inept steward can prudently plan for his future, his disciples should be capable of the same.  They are being chided for their lack of zeal and practical wisdom. Those who believe in God often don’t give anywhere near as much attention to living godly lives as the worldly give to making more money.

I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth,

Literally, “mammon of iniquity.” Mammon is the Greek transliteration of the Aramaic or Hebrew word that is usually explained as meaning “that in which one trusts.”  This is dishonest wealth not only because it was acquired by fraudulent means, but also because those who place trust in any material wealth will certainly be deceived.

so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

Worldly possessions are temporary, uncertain, and unreliable.  We should conduct ourselves to that when they fail, we will be welcomed into eternal life.

“Eternal dwellings” is also translated as “eternal tents” — that is, heaven.

The steward used his dishonest wealth to ensure his status within society; Jesus is instructing his disciples to act with the same level of enthusiasm and urgency to ensure their future status in heaven.

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?

Jesus then comments on the character of one’s stewardship.  The way one handles small matters will determine the way one handles weightier responsibilities.  If one cannot exercise practical wisdom when dealing with the mammon or wealth of unrighteousness (ádikías), how can that one be trusted with the real thing (to alēthinon)?

If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours?

If one cannot be relied upon as overseer of the possessions of another, how can that one be deemed adequate to have possessions of his own?

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 God and mammon.”

And here, in the last verse, we find the real point of the story.  Though shrewd in the ways of the world, the steward chose to serve his own financial needs rather than the economic interests of his employer.  This made him an unreliable or dishonest servant.  One cannot serve both the master of the household (God) and one’s own personal interests (mammon).  One must choose.

Connections and Themes

Today’s readings focus on a complex and sometimes divisive theme: the proper use of money and goods in this world.

Children of this world. We are creatures of this world.  We are made of it, and we are totally dependent on it for our very existence.  We require its air, its water, its food, its heat.  We need it for covering and for shelter; we need it to stimulate our minds and our spirits.  Therefore our use of its phenomenal resources cannot in itself be immoral.  What is questionable is the character of our use.  How much do we really need?  How much do we have the right to use?  What constitutes exploitation?  When are we hoarding?

It is not uncommon for high-minded people to be concerned about economic equity.  They have always struggled to ensure just distribution of the riches of the earth.  However, until recently the question of the balance of the resources themselves has seldom been an issue.  Today we are beginning to realize the folly in devising methods of distribution or redistribution without first taking stock of the measure of the resources we are considering.  We do not have an unlimited supply, and exploitation is already resulting in certain ecological imbalances.

The right to life. The right to life includes more than questions about reproduction or war or capital punishment.  It means we have a right to eat, to be clothed, to be sheltered, to be nourished by the beauty of the world of which we are a part.  But how much and what quality of food do we have a right to when others who have the right to eat do not have enough to live on?  How many changes of clothing do we have a right to when others who have the right to be clothed go naked?  How elaborate a home do we have a right to when others who have a right to shelter are homeless?  How much beauty do we have a right to when other gentle spirits live in squalor?

There are many circumstances that contribute to the complexity of these questions, making them very difficult to answer.  Surely the merchant in the passage from Amos had a right to his business.  He should not be faulted because he was prosperous while others were poor.  Nor should the steward in the gospel be criticized for not being needy.  We cannot be censured for putting resources aside for future use, for the education of children, for possible medical needs, for retirement, or even for vacation.  But how much do we really need?  How much do we have a right to?  Our consumer society might tell us we have a right to everything we can earn.  But do we?  In a world of limited resources, how much do we have a right to?  What does the balance of the natural world tell us?  What do the legitimate needs of others tell us?  What does our religious tradition tell us?

Children of light.  There are no easy answers to these questions.  We live our lives on the horns of a dilemma.  We have the right to use and to enjoy the marvels of our world, but we cannot do this free of responsibility to one another and to the world itself.  The men in today’s readings are not condemned because of their economic privilege but because they used it only to their own advantage.  As Christians, we are not merely children of this world; we are also children of light.  Paul’s admonition to pray for our civic leaders reminds us that we do indeed live in the real world, but we are called to live there according to standards worthy of our calling.  We are more than insatiable consumers.  Our value is not found in the measure of our possessions.  It is in the quality of our relationships, in particular with our relationships of our deprived brothers and sisters.

We are not called to disown the world.  It is impossible for us to do that because of our total dependence on it.  But we are called to live in it gently, using what we need and sharing what we can.  We may never be sure we have made the right decisions in this regard, but we must be ever conscious of our need to grapple with these issues.  We are not the only ones involved in our economic decisions, and so we cannot make them lightly.  We cannot afford to squander the resources of our world.  We must make decisions as trustworthy stewards of the household of God, not like the man in the gospel who was only concerned with his own well-being.  We must serve God, not mammon.

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