‘Listen to this, you who trample on the needy and try to suppress the poor of the country. The Lord swears by the pride of Jacob: ‘Never will I forget a single thing you have done.’” Not surprisingly, this forthright condemnation of the exploitation of the poor was not well received in Israel’s northern kingdom to which it was addressed. The Prophet Amos had spoken as an outsider. His life had begun as a shepherd in the southern region around Jerusalem. God had called him from this settled existence to become a prophet, the conscience of Israel’s prosperous north. His indictment of their greed was withering, outstripping even that heaped upon our own financial institutions in recent years.
His condemnation of the prosperous north could apply equally to the worst excesses of the consumer society. The people were condemned for their resentment of the demands made by their religion. Time devoted to faith was unproductive; it stood in the way of making money.
In Amos we see a natural progression from the compromise of religious and moral values to outright fraud. Avaricious traders were accused of defrauding the poor by tampering with weights and measures. More significantly, they became a society without compassion, a society in which the poor were forgotten, no more than a commodity to be bought and sold.
While as individuals we shall rarely generate the wealth to eradicate poverty, we must never cease to be compassionate, never cease to be what the Prophet Amos became: the champion of the poor and the conscience of a society governed by wealth.
The gospels do not condemn wealth in itself. The crucial question is the part that possessions play in our lives and the way in which we use them. These issues are set before us in St Luke’s account of the dishonest steward.
The steward to a rich man held a rank of power and influence, perhaps not unlike the managing director of a small company today. As the parable unfolds the steward was denounced for this wasteful ways and served with notice to quit. Not unnaturally, he was concerned for his future, being ill-equipped for any other kind of employment. We are somewhat perplexed when he used his position and influence to grant favours to his master’s debtors at the expense of that same master. What is more perplexing is the praise of his master for this blatantly fraudulent behaviour. “The master praised the dishonest steward for his astuteness. For the children of this world are more astute in dealing with their own kind than are the children of light.”
The parable is not an endorsement of fraud. It does, however, raise the crucial question of the manner in which we use our wealth. Do we use it for selfish gain or, like the threatened steward, for the benefit of those less wealthy than ourselves?
The central challenge of the passage comes in its concluding challenge. “No servant can be the slave of two masters. You cannot be the slave of God and of money.”
We are enslaved by whatever shapes our attitudes and preoccupations. Sadly, this can sometimes become a preoccupation with what we have. When, however, our preoccupation is to use the little we have for the benefit of others, we become those praised by the Lord. “The man who can be trusted in little things can be trusted in great.”