Today will determine your future

  • September 18, 2007

Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C), Sept. 23 (Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13)

Greed and corruption are certainly nothing new, for they have been around as long as humans. The callous injustice shown the poor and defenceless in the reading from Amos is not exceptional in that regard. What is very different, however, is that a firm link has been established between worship of God and care of the poor, marginalized and vulnerable.

In general, ancient religions placed very few ethical demands on their adherents. Correct ritual, sacrifice and honour were the essentials in pleasing these many local deities. But the religion of Israel was the first to make worship of God and the practice of justice inseparable.

The Decalogue commanded the Israelites to place God before all else. The many laws that flowed from that exclusive covenant with God established a justice-based society in which all enjoyed a degree of protection and care: widows and orphans, the poor, as well as slaves and foreigners.

Elaborate political and economic theories were not needed to analyse the causes of an unjust society. It was simple: those with the money and power were not right with God, despite what they might claim — and they were oppressing the poor.

In this passage, the powerful are not using the Sabbath to deepen their understanding of God’s laws. In fact, it doesn’t seem to concern them in the least. The religion of some became compartmentalized and separated from everyday life, as has been the case in all times, places and religions. Just wages, equality and elementary social services have seldom been given willingly, but usually as a result of struggle. Poverty, frustration, humiliation and helplessness are the breeding ground of revolutionary movements, social unrest and even terrorism. Societies and nations that become fundamentally unjust collapse under the weight of their own collective negativity.

This is but one of the enlightening insights that a good grasp of history offers us. Unfortunately, human beings seem reluctant to accept history’s instruction. A faith that does not express itself in justice is scarcely faith at all. 

A quiet and peaceable life might not always have been a good thing. This letter to Timothy, written perhaps by one of Paul’s followers, reflects a period when the Christian community was becoming more settled. It is clear that many just wanted to be left alone — perfectly natural, but it is easy to sink into a blissful ethical slumber. Perhaps there is another more edifying reason: God wants everyone to be saved, and this quiet and dignified life among so much chaos and injustice might attract many to the truth. But that quiet and peaceable life must be one that reflects decency and justice.

In Luke we find a sleazy, dishonest manager — and Jesus held him up as an example. His crowd would have delighted in the story, for in their everyday experience they were well-acquainted with cruel masters, crooked managers and corrupt judges.

If Jesus were telling the story today, He could choose from among corrupt corporate executives, public officials or harsh and unjust bosses. The costumes change; the script remains the same. Jesus is praising not the dishonesty of the manager but his foresight and enterprising nature. He was not passive and lethargic, but saw what needed to be done and acted on it immediately. He used his resources and wealth (actually, his master’s) to ensure his own future.

If this sleazy fellow could see things so clearly and be on top of things, Jesus implied, how much more you who claim to be my disciples.

Luke is aiming this story at his own communities 50 years or so after the death of Jesus. The message is clear: how you use your money and resources today — how you share it with others — will determine how you live eternally after the Lord’s return.

But it also applies in a secular context. How nations and societies use their wealth today is going to determine their future. The wealthier nations should keep this in mind. Globalization cannot mean more for the few and less for the many. In our own societies, “keeping a competitive edge” cannot mean leaving some behind. Distributive justice and the common good are fundamental spiritual laws and we ignore them at our peril.