We can only serve one master

  • September 8, 2010
25th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C) Sept. 19 (Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13)

A right-wing commentator in the United States recently proclaimed that social and economic justice is a code word for fascism or communism. He went on to insist that anyone hearing references to these concepts in a sermon or homily should leave that particular church immediately.

Perhaps he should read the words of Amos along with many similar passages throughout the Old Testament as well as the words of Jesus. Throughout Israel’s long history and well into our own, prophets have consistently warned people that ritual and liturgical correctness or conventional piety and religiosity count for nothing in God’s eyes if not accompanied by fundamental justice. Social and economic justice was one of the fundamental demands laid upon the Israelites by God. The presence or absences of social and economic justice is the standard by which the nation’s relationship with God is measured and evaluated.

Amos addresses a representative group of believers and accuses them of two things. The first is that they compartmentalize their religion. The new moon and Sabbath are observed correctly but only with an eye on the crooked commerce that will resume after these sacred times have passed. Note that the fruits of worship do not extend to “ordinary” life — their economic dealings are dishonest and exploitive. But the second is even more grave: fundamental compassion and decency are absent as the poor and weak are treated as mere sources of profit and ground underfoot. Our own time is no stranger to various forms of economic slavery and the economic system we have created still places profits before people. To be immersed in the world of ritual, rules and right belief without compassion and justice is a grave distortion of religion and a failure to honour and love God. Our individual and collective path to God passes through this world and is determined by how we treat others along the way.

Beware of too much of a quiet and peaceable life. It is far too easy to slip into a privatized form of religious practice that ignores both the demands of justice and the need to bring about constructive change in the name of God. Sometimes Christians are left in peace because the “powers and principalities” of the world do not deem them to be much of a threat or challenge. We can only hope that this follower of Paul who wrote 1 Timothy intended “godliness and dignity” to include all of these things. And there is evidence of this, for the author implies that the time be used to ensure that all come to a knowledge of God’s saving truth.

With such an emphasis on justice, why does Luke’s Jesus use such a sleazy and dishonest character as an example to emulate? In Luke’s Gospel Jesus does this on several occasions as corrupt judges, cruel kings and other unsavoury characters find their way into his stories. First of all, the story was intended to be both realistic and humourous. He chose situations and people right from their everyday experience for they were well acquainted with injustice. But we can also laugh at the panic stricken and crafty manager as he struggles to fashion a golden parachute. But he is not praised for being dishonest — rather, it is for using “dishonest wealth” today in a manner that will ensure his future after it is gone.

Jesus comments that the children of this age — not a complimentary term — are more shrewd and aware than children of the light. They don’t wait for events to overtake them, they are on top of events and act immediately. So take a lesson from the shifty characters in this Gospel who know how to act shrewdly in the present. The choices we make today will have consequences for our future, both here on Earth and when we stand before God — so choose wisely.

Echoing Amos’s warning about the dangers of compartmentalizing our faith, Jesus insists that we can have only one master. Divided hearts and minds will not do — we cannot have it both ways. We must make up our mind: is our basic commitment to God and service or to self?