The Dishonest Steward

Post Date: September 16, 2022
Author: Ric Cross

A Reflection on the Readings for the Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, September 18, 2022

Reading I: Amos 8: 4-7
Responsorial: Psalm 113: 1-2, 4-6, 7-8
Reading II: 1 Timothy 2: 1-8
Gospel: Luke 16:1-13 or 10-13

These are some terrific readings this week with lots of background information that should prove interesting, so let’s start with Amos. Amos was an 8th century B.C. prophet of the northern Kingdom of Israel, as opposed to the southern Kingdom of Judah, and is often referred to as “the prophet of social justice.” He is the earliest of the prophets with a book in his name. Much like Elijah, who was a century earlier than Amos but did not have a book in his name, Amos’ style was blunt, often to the point of being offensive. And he was, like Elijah, independent; not a member of a guild of prophets as we see in First Kings 22, in the time of Elijah. Therefore, Amos was not beholden to a king or to religious leaders and was not concerned with prophesying against them. For example, he prophesied that Jeroboam, the king of Israel, would die by the sword, and when confronted by Amaziah, the priest of the temple in Bethel, he told Amaziah that his wife would become a harlot in the city and that Amaziah and his children would die in an unclean land. He didn’t even seem to consider himself a prophet as he referred to himself as a “shepherd and a dresser of sycamores.”

As the prophet of social justice, Amos pulled no punches and prophesied against all the nations around Israel for their sins against humanity; but he didn’t stop with those nations. He leveled the same condemnation against Israel and Judah for social injustice and for failing in their covenantal relationship with God: “They sell the just man for silver and the poor man for a pair of sandals” (2:6). Amos clearly recognized that there is an intrinsic connection between social justice and the prosperity of a nation. He recognized that if there is poverty and injustice in a nation, that nation has incurable cancer that will eventually bring it down because the God of prosperity is also the God of justice. So the message of our first reading this week from the book of the Prophet Amos is Social Justice!

As is generally the case, our second reading, in this case from 1st Timothy, does not normally fit into the “golden thread.” But Paul does remind us that we should pray for those in positions of authority (whether we like them or not), “that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity.”

Our gospel passage of the dishonest steward is one that is often misunderstood, and there are many theories as to the proper interpretation of this passage. On the surface, it may appear that when the steward reduces the amount owed by each debtor, he appears to be reducing what is rightfully due to his master. But, if we read the footnotes to this passage in our New American Bibles, those footnotes will reveal that it was the practice of many stewards at the time to inflate the amount owed by a debtor and keep the difference for himself as a commission. So, if that interpretation is correct and it seems to be the most widely accepted interpretation, then what the steward was doing was reducing the debt by the amount of his commission. In doing so, the master lost nothing, and the debtor would be grateful to the steward for the reduction and may look kindly on him when he is unemployed. “And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.”

Then our gospel passage gets a little confusing: “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” In other words, those who are accustomed to dealing with wealth, dishonestly gained or honestly gained (such as the steward in this case) are more adept in using that wealth to advantage than are those who do not deal in worldly wealth (the children of the light.)

“Make friends for yourself with dishonest wealth so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” This one is really confusing! According to my commentaries on Luke, in the original Greek of this passage, that which is translated in English as “dishonest wealth” was, in the original Greek, “mammon of iniquity,” and refers to “that which you put your trust in.” Anyone who deals with worldly wealth (such as the children of this generation) puts his trust in his profits. Therefore, in light of the coming of the end of the age, make friends for yourself with your profits by using them for charity. On the earthly level, you will be welcomed by those to whom you are charitable (the debtors in this parable). On the heavenly level, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings because of your charity to those in need. And if this passage is dealing with the charitable use of one’s wealth (attained honestly or dishonestly), then we are dealing with social justice.

If the idea of dishonest wealth becoming charitable seems a little strange, think of Zacchaeus, the tax collector in Luke 19. Tax collectors, who were Jews employed by the Romans, routinely extorted money over and above the tax due from the citizens for their own profit, and for that reason, they were hated by their fellow Jews. But Zacchaeus was quickly converted by Jesus, changed his ways and gave half of his possessions to the poor, and repaid everyone from whom he had extorted money. His dishonest wealth (mammon of iniquity) was used for social justice.

Jesus used many parables in his teaching because parables relate eternal truths, which are hard for the human mind to grasp, to earthly realities that we are all familiar with. In this case, the parable relates the earthly reality of wealth (whether honestly or dishonestly gained) to the charity and care of the poor that God demands of us. The beauty of a parable is that it makes an eternal truth clear to those who are open-minded enough to listen to the parable.

In last week’s parable of the Prodigal Son, God was presented to us in the person of the father of the Prodigal Son, who not only forgave the sins of the son but welcomed him back into the home after the son had squandered all the gifts the father had given him. This week, God is presented to us as the master who punished the unjust steward by putting him out of the house but praised the steward for putting his dishonest wealth to good use so that he may be welcomed into the house again. In both cases, God is presented to us as patient, kind and forgiving. God is not quick to punish; he gives us time to learn the error of our ways and to turn back to God. And when we do, God is quick to cancel debts and welcome us back into our true home.

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