Opening reflection (taken from Magnificat magazine, www.magnificat.com): The cruelty of the treacherous people of the first reading who cannot wait for the chance to “buy the lowly for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals” is almost too much to bear. And yet, all of us would fall prey to the lure of such ruthlessness if we did not love and serve the one Master Jesus Christ, “who gave Himself as ransom for all.” Probably the first time that those cold-hearted merchants “fixed their scales for cheating” it seemed to them like a very small matter. But “the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones.” The choice offered to our freedom in every moment counts. “God our Savior wills everyone to come to knowledge of the truth.” With hearts lifted up in holy prayer, we become those trustworthy people to whom God entrusts great things.
(This weekend’s Scripture readings are available in the New American Bible translation at the Vatican’s English website at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0839/_INDEX.HTM.)
First Reading: Amos 8:4-7 (Revised Standard Version)
A reading from the book of the prophet Amos.
Hear this, you who trample upon the needy,
and bring the poor of the land to an end,
saying, “When will the new moon be over,
that we may sell grain?
And the sabbath, that we may offer wheat for sale,
that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and deal deceitfully with false balances,
that we may buy the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and sell the refuse of the wheat?”
The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
“Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.”
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Meditation: The opening readings this weekend and next should be uncomfortably familiar to us in early 21st-century America. Amos was one of the earliest prophets (along with Hosea) to have his oracles preserved in Old Testament books bearing his name. God sent him to preach during the most prosperous period known by the divided Israelite kingdoms, the reigns of Jeroboam II of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and Uzziah of the Southern Kingdom of Judah.
Amos’ words were mainly directed to the tribes of the north, though Judah and Benjamin in the south are not excluded from his warnings. Both kingdoms owed their prosperity not to their own successes but to a period of weakness for the Assyrian Empire to their north in Mesopotamia. Judah further benefited from the relative faithfulness to God of its ruler, Uzziah (though he would spend his last years in quarantine, struck with leprosy for arrogantly and inappropriately offering incense in the Temple). But from the moment of their rebellion against Solomon’s son Rehoboam, the Northern Kingdom had been lukewarm toward Yahweh at best and aggressively idolatrous at worst. Amos was sent to warm the north that they were nearly out of time.
His condemnation is blunt. The people of the north might nominally be observing the Sabbath and the prescribed feasts of the Mosaic Law (the “new moon” reference) – but were their hearts in it? Certainly the merchants thought little of God: Their only concern was to cheat the poor and pocket their profits just as soon as the day of rest was over. It’s clear that the prosperity of the kingdom of Jeroboam II was built upon the backs of the “least of these” among the Israelites, the people whom the well-off were commanded to care for. But the rulers of the north had cut the 10 tribes off from the nerve center of their faith – the Temple in Jerusalem and its worship – lest the people decide to switch their loyalties back to the sons of David. In fact, they had imitated their forebears’ monstrous sin at Sinai and made golden calves!
Truly God would not forget their deeds. He proved it less than 50 years after Jeroboam II went to his grave. But He didn’t rain down fire and brimstone; He simply left the Northern Kingdom to turn to dust, partly through internal power struggles but mainly through the might of a resurgent Assyria. Having oppressed their neighbors and turned their backs on God, they would learn once more what true oppression meant: in exile, far away from the land of milk and honey.
Second Reading: 1 Timothy 2:1-8
A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to Timothy.
Beloved: First of all, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way. This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
For there is one God,
and there is one mediator between God and men,
the man Christ Jesus,
who gave himself as a ransom for all,
the testimony to which was borne at the proper time.
For this I was appointed a preacher and apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling.
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Meditation: Paul, on the other hand, presents a different vision of life among God’s people. He also reiterates that God has quite a different intention toward humanity than that which many have insisted on perceiving from the pages of the Old Testament. Did He lash out at His Chosen People in anger for their repeated unfaithfulness and turn His backs on them forever? Did He leave the Gentiles to their fate for their pre-Christian immoralities and ignorance of Him? By no means! The God who created us and made all things “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
How does this happen? Only through Christ, who alone could atone for the sins of humanity across the ages as the perfect High Priest who offered Himself, the perfect and spotless Victim, on the cross in our place. He prayed constantly for us even before His Passion – and as He did throughout His earthly life, so must we do.
But if Christ is the one Mediator, how can we deign to pray for anyone, let alone believe that we can pray to anyone already in the next life to pray for us? Not only can we pray, but we must pray! Jesus grants the privilege of sharing in His ministry to those who believe in Him, living and dead. We all are the members of His Mystical Body; our prayers are effective because they are offered in Jesus’ name. When we pray at all times – when we stay close to God – we are that much more able to avoid the self-centeredness and the fatal pride and arrogance that cost Israel and Judah their Promised Land in Amos’ time. Paul speaks from experience and with the authority He received from Christ. Let us take his words as divine truth and take them to heart.
Gospel: Luke 16:1-13
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke. Glory to You, O Lord.
Jesus said to his disciples, “There was a rich man who had a steward, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his goods. And he called him and said to him, `What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.’ And the steward said to himself, `What shall I do, since my master is taking the stewardship away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that people may receive me into their houses when I am put out of the stewardship.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, `How much do you owe my master?’ He said, `A hundred measures of oil.’ And he said to him, `Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, `And how much do you owe?’ He said, `A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, `Take your bill, and write eighty.’ The master commended the dishonest steward for his shrewdness; for the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations.
“He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and he who is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ.
Meditation: Huh? Jesus commends a steward for acting shrewdly but unjustly? And He tells us to “make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon” – or, in the New American Bible translation, “make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth”? Huh?
This tale might be the supreme example of Jesus’ declaration that He preached in parables to obscure the truth for those who didn’t believe in Him. It will make virtually no sense to those who read it without the eyes and ears of faith and little more sense to sincere believers who don’t seek the guidance of the Church and don’t invest the time needed to read this parable carefully and understand what Jesus means us to understand.
The dishonest steward likely would have fit in well among the corrupt merchants of Amos’ day. However he was wasting his master’s goods, it was bad enough to cost him his job. But why didn’t his master send him to prison, which he probably would have been justified in doing? The answer makes sense if the master is once more a stand-in for God, as is so often the case in His only Son’s parables. He showed mercy to the steward – and truly undeserved mercy at that, given what the steward does next. Think of it: He further deprives the master of his rightful property by reducing the obligations of the master’s debtors in the master’s name, the better to put the debtors in obligation to him and avoid the humiliation of manual labor or beggary!
Why would the master commend and not condemn the steward for this last act of betrayal? Remember that people sometimes commend grudgingly – with a tone something like this: “Well, I’ve got to hand it to him, that was a smart thing to do.” That’s not the same as praise, and it certainly isn’t equal to approval. But in reducing the debtors’ debts, the steward presented himself as granting generosity to the debtors in his master’s name. The master could not go back on this “generosity” without damaging his own reputation; by granting it, the steward put the master between a rock and a hard place. But the debtors would be grateful to the master all the same — because chances are good they never knew it wasn’t the master’s idea.
In telling this story, Jesus surely does not praise the steward’s behavior. But He does present His people with a challenging question: If this dishonest steward can do the right thing (generosity) for the wrong reason (his personal gain), what should you, My people, learn from this so that (borrowing Paul’s words) all people may be saved and come to knowledge of the truth?
How about by showing generosity for the right reason? One could read the NAB translation – “make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth” – as saying Christians should resign themselves to adopting the methods of the steward or Amos’ dishonest merchants if that’s what it takes to “grow the Church.” But that cannot be right, can it? The RSV translation – “make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon” – better unlocks the meaning. Jesus is telling us to use the goods entrusted to us in the right way – to use them to treat others with the undeserved generosity with which God has acted toward us.
What if we learn that those goods had been earned or used unjustly before they were placed in our hands? If so, those dishonest merchants or stewards will surely answer to God. But we can never use that fact as an excuse to be dishonest toward the dishonest – and we can never use it as a reason to withhold the true generosity and mercy with which God has treated us. If we are faithful, if we are merciful, then we will be showing generosity for the right reason. We will be acting with a shrewdness that will never occur to those who only serve this possession-driven world. No matter how unfaithful we have been with God’s blessings before that point, the Master will come to us and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Come and share My joy.”
Close with individual prayer, followed by Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be