Words on the Word

25. Sunday C

Amos 8:4-7: The Lord swears, ‘Never will I forget a single thing you have done’.
1 Timothy 2:1-8: Christ Jesus sacrificed himself as a ransom for all.
Luke 16:1-13: If you can’t be trusted with money, who will entrust you with real riches.

Six weeks ago, Br Martin and I were in Cameroon to visit Bamenda Abbey, a monastery founded by Mount Saint Bernard in 1964. We flew to Douala, a port city on the south West African coast. From there we drove north-west for eight hours. On the journey one travels through very many villages that seem almost identical: poor settlements, largely of mud houses. The people are subsistence farmers, their plots set back, but their dwellings close to the road, for trade’s sake. Stalls with vegetables and fruit line the road at regular intervals. Whenever a car slows down, children and women come running with other produce, nuts, palm oil, or a catch of bushmeat. In this predictable sameness there are equally predictable exceptions. In most villages, one house stands out: a mansion among hovels, a single large property with satellite dishes, an ornamental staircase, manicured lawns, and armed guards. The rich make their presence felt, in a contrast that seems preposterous until, by virtue of sheer repetition, one gets used to it and accepts it as part of the order of things. Why do I mention this example? Because, when today’s Gospel speaks of ‘a rich man’, the riches in question are riches of this kind. Biblical Palestine did not enjoy a high degree of prosperity. Most people were poor, even as most people in the world today, outside our bubble of comfort, are poor. The rich are at once envied and despised. In St Luke’s Gospel, the rich don’t come across at all well. It is good to be mindful that the parable we’re dealing with is followed by another that begins with the exact same words: ‘There was a rich man’. It is the story of Dives and Lazarus, of a man so blinded, corrupted by riches that he leaves a poor man at his gate the prey of slum dogs.

We shouldn’t, then, go looking for sublime moral in this story. It is not a parable in the sense that the story of the Prodigal Son (which precedes our text) is a parable. Jesus does not say, ‘Go and do likewise’. He simply says, ‘This is how it is in this world, how the children of this world get by.’ Once we get this, a text that at first seems intractable begins to make sense. The steward is a scoundrel. His master is probably a scoundrel, too. They take advantage of each other. The master suspects disorderly dealings, so says, ‘Let me audit your accounts’. The steward gulps. He hasn’t got accounts! The fact that the debtors can amend their bonds tells us that there is no record in the bursar’s office. The steward will have lent people money at a handsome rate of interest. That is why he can be flexible when quickly cashing in what he needs to replenish the master’s coffers. With one he knocks off 50%, with another 20%, according, I suppose, to initial gullibility or need. By virtue of only apparent generosity, former clients can become potential patrons for the future. The master watches all this from a distance. He is, one senses, amused. At the end of the day, he says, Bravo! Who knows, perhaps this is how his own wealth was amassed?

If this is all there is to the story why does Jesus tell it? His point does not regard the steward’s procedure but his urgent response. Called to account, he got ready. He knew that, if he didn’t, he’d be done for. We, too, Jesus tells us, will be called to account. That is what both stories of ‘a rich man’ is about. How do we respond? Are we setting our house in order? Or do we simply think, ‘It will work out somehow’? The steward uses acumen to win himself friends in his neighbourhood. Invoking this man’s practical sense, Jesus asks: ‘And you, do you make allies to help you gain access to eternity’s tents?’ These words say something vital about the nature of the Church. The Church is not just a herd of individuals vaguely steering in the same direction. It is a communion. Within it we are called to bear each other’s burdens, each helping the other reach a common goal.

When the Lord speaks of winning friends with ‘tainted money’, he isn’t, of course, speaking of bribery. He asks us not to see wealth as an end in itself. We shouldn’t heap it up just to build bigger barns. We should use it for the good of others. That is what it is to prepare ourselves for the life of heaven, where all, absolutely all, is gift. The first lesson is: Give alms—use your substance for the benefit of folks in need. A spiritual principle follows: Put first things first—use money with your eyes set on God’s kingdom, don’t pretend to serve the kingdom if what you really seek is riches for yourself.

So there is, in this Gospel, food for thought for each of us. How willing are we to share our goods? How concerned are we for the needs of others? Do we realise that we are stewards, entrusted with means we can’t really claim as our own, for which we must give an account? Do we see that the choices we make in this life—for good, for evil, for sheer indifference—have a direct bearing on our fate before the judgement seat of God? Here and now we are shaping our eternity. We are making ourselves more or less fit to belong in the kingdom of God. That kingdom operates by the law of Christ, who ‘sacrificed himself as a ransom for us’. He gave all he had, all he was, and gave it freely. He offered his life that others might live. That, brothers and sisters, is the example we are called to follow. Let us help one another remember this crucial fact, and to conduct our lives accordingly, in a manner worthy of Christians.

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