Wednesday, September 14, 2016

TRUE RELIGION


25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C. Amos 8:4-7; 1 Tim. 2:1-8; Luke 16:1-13

AIM: To show the need for a decision for Jesus Christ that carries over into daily life. 

          “Prepare a full account of your stewardship because you can no longer be my steward.” The man in the story we have just heard has been squandering his employer’s property and is about to lose his job. Following the custom of the day, Jesus calls the man a steward. We would call him a manager. Jesus’ world knew nothing of bookkeeping or audits. A wealthy estate owner, like the man in this story, simply had to trust the man who ran things for him. In this case the owner finds out that his trust has been abused. Probably the manager has been lazy and irresponsible, running the business entrusted to him in a slipshod and careless manner. Most likely his employer has warned him before, perhaps many times, telling him that if doesn’t shape up, he will be history. 

          Now, with the knife at his throat, the manager suddenly develops enterprise and initiative which, if only he had shown these qualities before, would have made the business prosper rather than stagnate. Facing ruin, the manager calls in all his employer’s customers and tells them that if they will make partial payment on the amounts they owe, he will mark their accounts “Paid in full.” He is counting on these people to take care of him after he’s fired. Instead of altering their IOUs himself, and risking discovery of the swindle when a later investigation shows that the fraudulent documents are all in his hand, he has the debtors write up the new receipted bills themselves.

          Now comes a surprise. “The master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.” From antiquity Bible commentators have disputed about who is meant by “the master.” Is he the man’s employer – or Jesus himself? It is difficult to believe that the praise can have come from an employer who has just told his manager that he is about to be fired. So the praise must come from Jesus himself.  How is that possible? Prudent the manager may have been. But honest? Hardly.  How can Jesus praise what all can see is a swindle?

          Jesus does not praise the manager’s dishonesty. He praises the man’s ability to recognize his desperate situation. For him, it is now or never. Jesus addresses the parable to those who remain indifferent to his message. The story is Jesus’ attempt to shake them out of their complacency. His message confronted them with the need to decide: for him, or against him. To postpone this decision, to continue living as if nothing had changed, with the attitude of “business-as-usual”, was in fact to decide against Jesus. That meant disaster. Trapped in what looks like a hopeless situation, the manager cleverly found a way out and acted while there was still time. It is this cleverness and enterprise which Jesus commends, not the man’s dishonesty.

          Jesus Christ asks us for the same decision today: for him, or against him. It is not a once-for-all decision – something like learning to ride a bicycle: once you’ve learned, you know it for life. Our decision for Jesus Christ needs to be renewed every day. For me it starts with something as simple as getting out of bed when my clock radio comes on at 5.15 in the morning. Only if I rise then can I prepare for the Mass I celebrate five days each week at 6.30 by waiting upon the Lord in silence for a full half-hour beforehand. That time with Him, and the Mass which follows, nourish me. They are the sunshine of my whole day. Without that hour spent with the Lord whose uniform I wear, though unworthy, I’d just be spinning my wheels.

          Our first reading tells us, however, that the decision which Jesus asks of us goes beyond prayers and church-going. The people whom the prophet Amos was addressing in that reading were like some Catholics today. They knew all their religious obligations. They were careful to fulfill them. Once they had done so, however, they considered that the rest of their lives was theirs to live as they pleased. Careful to observe the law of Sabbath rest, they could hardly wait for the Sabbath to be over so that they can resume cheating the poor on weekdays.

          They fix their scales and measures to give people less than they are paying for. They take advantage of people temporarily unable to pay their debts, like a ruthless money-lender who forecloses a mortgage after a single missed payment, so that he can buy the property himself at the sheriff’s sale for a fraction of its true worth. Amos even portrays these people gloating over their profit from the sale of junk food: “Even the refuse of the wheat we will sell!”  The prophet’s condemnation of these outwardly religious but deeply dishonest people is crushing: “The Lord has sworn ... Never will I forget a thing they have done!”

          That first reading is a warning against an over-spiritualized religion, which puts church-going into a separate compartment from what we do the rest of the week. The second reading extends that lesson. The command Paul gives there to pray “for kings and all in authority” sounds routine to us. In our country those in authority are still relatively friendly towards Christians. Sadly we must say “relatively,” because we are witnessing a growing and powerful tide of opinion in our country which insists that religion is a purely private affair which must never influence public policy. When we protest, for instance, that abortion victimizes both women and their unborn children, we are told that this is a private religious view which must not be imposed on society. In protesting abortion, however, we are not imposing anything. We are proposing, with arguments to support our position. Those arguments are not drawn from religion. They are based on what medical science tells us about human life at its beginning. We propose. We give reasons. Then we vote. That is how democracy works. 

          These three readings have a message for us today. The gospel confronts us with the need for a decision: for Jesus Christ, or against him. Amos’ denunciation of rich, hypocritical worshipers in the first reading reminds us that church-going is not enough. If our decision for Jesus Christ does not carry over into daily life, then all our Masses and prayers are worse than useless: they can bring down heaven’s condemnation. Finally, Paul’s command in the second reading to pray even for godless and anti-Christian rulers warns against an over-spiritualized religion. Our Catholic faith may indeed have to do with heaven. So long as we are here on earth, however, our faith has to do first with the here-and-now. We are called to work with all people of good will to build a just society, insisting as we do so that morality is not merely a matter of personal opinion, but that there are moral truths which are applicable to all.

          Is that a tall order? You bet it is! That is why the Lord Jesus gives us the guiding light of Holy Scripture, the teaching of his Church, and the strengthening power of his Body and Blood in the Eucharist. Thus enlightened and strengthened, he sends us back to our everyday lives. It is there, outside church walls, that our decision for Jesus Christ is put to the test. There, in everyday life, we encounter God afresh: not as we encounter him here, in his word and sacrament; but in the world he has made and in those who, like us, are God’s daughters and sons.