Life & Soul

Understanding the puzzling tale of the dishonest steward

The 25th Sunday of the Year
Amos 8:4-7; 1 Tim 2:1-8; Lk 16:1-13 (Year C)

The Prophet Amos, who confronted the extravagant excesses of Israel’s northern kingdom in the 8th-century BC, could well have claimed to have been the most outspoken of Israel’s prophets. His strident denunciations of the rich had disturbed an insensitive, self-indulgent elite.

“Listen to this, you who trample the needy and try to suppress the poor, you who say ‘We can buy up the poor for money, and the needy for a pair of sandals.’ The Lord swears, ‘Never will I forget a single thing that you have done.’ ”

What had happened in Israel’s northern kingdom has been repeated to the present day. The natural resources of a country had been concentrated in the hands of the few at the cost of the poor. The indignation of Amos was fired with something more than a hunger for social reform. The arrogant exploitation of the poor was, for him, the denial of sinful humanity’s fundamental dependence on God.

From their very beginning the children of Israel had struggled as the victims of poverty and exploitation. From the Egyptian enslavement the Lord had heard their cry, their suffering and their toil. He had delivered them to a land flowing with milk and honey that would be their own. Their gratitude was to be expressed in their regard for the poor of the land, because they too had once been strangers in the land. May we never forget that we too are poor in the sight of the Lord. We can boast of nothing that was not initially his gift to us.

Our relationship with God, begun in grace, must be lived out in the same graciousness. The perplexing tale of the dishonest steward, lauded by his master, stresses this point.

Within the narrative we are the steward called to account for his wasteful squandering of the master’s property. Like the steward, we have the tendency to think that what has been entrusted to us is our own, to be used as we think fit, with little genuine concern for others. Ultimately this attitude enables both climate change and world poverty. It is the modern version of Amos’s northern kingdom on a global scale.

The dishonest steward, confronted with wastefulness, called in his master’s debtors and halved what was owing. Here at last was graciousness of a kind. Here at last was a thought for the poor. The Lord’s concluding explanation is the key to the story: “Use money, tainted as it is, to win you friends, and when it fails, they will welcome you into eternity.”

As sinners, our good deeds frequently begin with self-interest. May their conclusion mirror the Lord’s own graciousness.