In today’s readings there is a focus on the uses and abuses of wealth. We have only to note the daily news in our own time to see that the message of the prophet and the gospel are still a challenge to the present economic practices of the world.
Amos is one of the early prophets, his ministry is dated to the years 783-746 BCE. It was a time of prosperity for the wealthy, but as so often, not for everyone. As the authority for what he says, we have the typical expression, ‘the word of the Lord came to me’. In the book Amos writes that he was a herder and a grower of mulberry figs, rather than one of the religious leaders. Perhaps this agricultural background made him more aware of the trials of the needy and more open to God’s care for the poor, which was the special concern of his prophecy. That emphasis is shown in today’s selection.
The festival of the ‘New Moon’ and the Sabbath were days which the Jews were to observe by abstaining from all work. Here the wealthy are accused of hypocrisy in following the letter of the law but, instead of celebrating a holy day and giving the time to God, they spend the time fussing until they can start making money again. Further, in their dealings they are willing to cheat and swindle the poor who needed to buy the food they were finding so profitable to sell. To ‘buy up’ the poor may mean they are forced into debt or even slavery to enrich those already rich.
Like most of the prophets, Amos spoke in Hebrew poetry, which has the form of ‘parallelism’ – repeating an idea in two or three different sentences. This is reflective, so that in reading there is more time for understanding. This poetic form is also found in most of the Psalms, as in our response today.
The Old Testament sometimes speaks of what seems ‘ancient history’ to us, but Amos could hardly be more current. The daily news carries many examples of both the overly wealthy and the poor, and those who are literally starving. The style is different, but the concerns are those in statements of Pope Francis, such as this:
‘No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world! Everybody, according to his or her particular opportunities and responsibilities, should be able to make a personal contribution to putting an end to so many social injustices…. The measure of the greatness of a society is found in the way it treats those most in need, those who have nothing apart from their poverty!’
‘The world tells us to seek success, power and money; God tells us to seek humility, service and love.’
Psalm 112:1-2, 4-8
The last set of verses shows the Lord’s care for the poor, echoing Amos. The more joyful praises in the first two sets lead into the next reading.
1 Timothy 2:1-8
On some Sundays, as today, the middle reading takes a different theme than the first and third. As last week, we are hearing from the Letter probably written by a follower of St Paul to bring Paul’s story and his teaching to Christians of a slightly later time. Urging prayers for everyone in a spirit of unity frames the central teaching on God’s saving love for all. He emphasizes that this comes through ‘Christ Jesus’ – the form of the name preferred by this author. We are not always aware of the meaning of these words which are used today as an ordinary name like ‘John Jones’. ‘Christ’ comes from the Greek word for ‘anointed’ – one who was especially chosen and consecrated for an office. ‘Jesus’ comes from a common Hebrew-Aramaic name, ‘Joshua/Yeshua, which like many of Semitic names it has a meaning: ‘God saves’. So the very name fits the central point of the reading: God as Saviour, salvation coming to us through Christ Jesus.
In a time of political turmoil in so many countries, the call to pray for leaders is a pertinent reminder.
Luke 16:1-13, which may be shortened to 16:10-13
The Gospel selection takes up the theme on the use or abuse of wealth that we heard in Amos. Although the general thrust of the reading is clear, it is a section that some find difficult to interpret, seeing it as praise for one who is dishonest. Is that, however, what Jesus is doing? Some background on the situation of the story is helpful. The master was likely an absentee landowner, and his property seems considerable. While out of the country, he left the management of his property to the steward, making it easier for a dishonest agent to take advantage. The master may have been lending at interest, something forbidden by the Jewish Law. One way around this was to write a contract that called for more to be repaid that had actually been received by the debtor, and such a contract would be the ‘bond’ mentioned in the reading. In re-writing these, the steward may have been eliminating the amount of interest. If this is meant to be the case, G. B. Caird in his book on Luke says ‘perhaps for the first time in his business career, the steward had done what the law of God required.’
More likely, I think, is that Jesus is using the shock value of the story, and speaking with a kind of irony. The steward in order to look after himself, thinks long and hard, and comes up with a plan. He will use financial interests in a way that benefits him. Neither Jesus nor Luke call the story a ‘parable’, nor do they call on the disciples to follow the steward’s dishonesty – which is stressed at the end. The point is to learn from his efforts for his own good future. ‘The children of the world’ give time, attention and hard work to what will benefit them. Disciples who are careless in their efforts or distracted from what is most important to their true welfare – ‘seeking first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness’ (Luke 12:31) – should learn from the single-mindedness of the worldly but apply it to their spiritual rather than financial life.
Using wealth to help the needy and oppressed is one way of applying this message as shown in the following verses. Jesus says that money ‘tainted as it is’ can be used to help others, a sharing that will bring the disciple God’s reward.
The next saying has a different emphasis: How we might live as ‘stewards’. Even if we are doing ‘little things’ for God in our lives, we can show our trustworthiness in how we carry them out. The saying about two masters is cast in the Semitic way to show a contrast – as in last week’s reading – saying ‘hate and love’ where we use language of ‘preferring one over another’. The point is how choices of a goal to follow will determine our lives. If we choose to follow God, we have to give up any other goal that gets in the way of that.