25th Sunday 2019
Amos 8:4-7; 1Tim 2:1-8; Luke 16:1-13
Oh come on, St. Luke. Play the game! That’s three particularly difficult Gospels in recent weeks. What on earth do we make of this one? Lord, whatever did you have in mind when you told this parable?
One practical point to begin with: some scholars have suggested that what the steward was doing was to reduce his own commission, so that he wasn’t actually cheating the master. I don’t think that this holds water. Jesus calls the steward “unjust”—the Greek text actually says that the master praised the steward “of injustice”, whilst the Jerusalem Bible paraphrases by referring to the “dishonest steward”—so we have, I think, to accept that the steward was cheating.
Yet the steward is praised. To use the current expression: what is that about?
I think that it is important to notice who it is that praises him. It isn’t Jesus. Our Lord is not commending dishonesty, or encouraging us to be unjust. It is actually the master in the parable who praises the steward for his astuteness, presumably because he recognises a kindred spirit. Jesus is implying that the master has made his money by sharp practice: that in his own way, he is as much of a scallywag as the steward: that they are two of a kind.
Throughout this episode, Jesus is expressing a deep distrust of money, and of money making. He speaks of money as “tainted”, using the same word adikia (literally ‘injustice”) as He had applied to the steward. Jesus is no friend of what we now call capitalism. The extreme right wing in America has criticised the present Holy Father for many things, not least his distaste for capitalism, and he has been called a Marxist. Those same people would be utterly horrified if they actually took note of what Jesus has to say, because they would be forced to realize that the Pope is merely repeating the message of his Master, not Karl Marx, but Jesus Christ.
Our Lord accepts that money has its place in society, but warns that it has the power to corrupt its users. St. Paul followed in His footsteps, stating, not as the Andrews Sisters sang, that “money is the root of all evil”, but that “love of money is the root of all evil”. At one level, we are brought back to Our Lord’s words about “hating” in the sense of “not being possessive of” with the additional warning that money has its own particular power to do harm and to possess its users.
He goes on to say, in effect, that we must use money justly. We will understand better his instruction to make friends who will welcome us into the tents of eternity when we hear, next week, the parable of Lazarus and the rich man whose eternal fate would have been different if he had used his money to befriend Lazarus, the poor man.
In all that Our Lord has to say, there is that same concern for justice which we find in the prophets. Amos, today, is scathing about those who exploit the poor, yet we would have to admit that very little has changed. Modern slavery is a massive issue, and there are other cases of exploitation closer to home. There have been countless examples of multi-national corporations moving jobs from this country to places where they can pay lower wages, not in order to provide jobs in those countries, but simply to increase their profit margins.
But we too have questions to face about our own purchasing habits. Do we always look for “bargains” without considering whether those who produced these goods are being exploited? Do we challenge the big retailers about working conditions among their suppliers? Are we prepared to pay a little more in order that workers in developing countries may receive a fair return for their labour?
If we consider seriously today’s Gospel, we may feel that Jesus has opened a can of worms. But let’s face it: cans of worms are there to be opened.