We have two very interesting readings for our reflection this Sunday. The first comes from the prophet Amos. He lashes out in condemnation of the businessmen of his day. “Hear this, you who trample upon the needy, and destroy the poor of the land!” He then enumerates how they cheat and abuse the poor, and reminds them that God will not forget the suffering they’ve caused.
The Gospel passage that follows stands unique in the New Testament. Throughout the Gospels we read Jesus’ wonderful par- ables – short stories teaching about the Kingdom of God. Today’s parable is the only one of Jesus’ parables that’s not about the Kingdom. It’s a story that stands as the antithesis of the Kingdom. It’s a glimpse into the systemic corruption of the earthly kingdom.
Jesus presents a situation in which a hired steward is going to be fired for squandering his employer’s wealth. The steward, in
those days, was the CEO and general man- ager of his employer’s businesses, wealth and often his household. We’re not told what he did exactly. He may have made bad business deals, or perhaps found ways to enrich himself through this most important position. It doesn’t make that much difference to the story. It’s the steward’s response to his firing that’s central to the parable.
The corrupt steward goes immediately to his employer’s business ledger to find out which of his clients have outstanding ac- counts payable. He contacts two of them, probably the most prestigious accounts, and the ones that owe the most. He then cooks the books. One client owes one hundred measures of olive oil. The steward rewrites the contract to show a debt of fifty measures of oil. Another owes a hundred kors of wheat. He chops it down to eighty. The two clients would have been very pleased by this bit of corruption.
The part that really stinks in this story is that this manipulation of the books is a personal investment by the steward. This move will entangle these two clients in his web of thievery. He did them a huge favor. Now they owe him. As he says: “When I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes.” They can’t say what he did to anyone because they would be exposing their role in the thievery.
The cynical chuckle that concludes the story is provided by the employer. “The master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.” That’s the way of the world, the earthly kingdom.
The parable having been delivered, Jesus then addressed his disciples. Our translation of his message is confusing. “I tell you, make friends with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” Let’s interpret the sentence in this way. As “children of the light,” we must be trust- worthy even “with dishonest wealth” so that we can be trusted with the true wealth of the Kingdom. We have to learn to navigate through the corruption that so often surrounds money. The children of the light can’t be entangled in the world’s web of corruption. Jesus concluded this parable with his well-known principle. “You cannot serve both God and mammon.”
I conclude this reflection with a challenging anecdote. One of the great “children of the light,” was Mother Teresa. To continue running the many institutions she established throughout the world, she was continually putting out her hand begging for money. Many people responded to her pleas. I’m sure she thanked them personally – in the name of the poor she was serving. In the public arena, when she wasn’t asking for financial assistance, but was teaching the principles of the Kingdom, she was often heard to say, “Don’t tell me how much money you’ve given away. Tell me how much you have left.” Mother Teresa knew the meaning of detachment, and the liberation it brings. Jesus put it this way to his disciples, “the foxes have dens and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
Each of us, rich and poor alike, have a great deal to ponder today.
Today we’re presented with three parables. The context in which they’re delivered is the key to their interpretation. “Tax collector and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to com- plain, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”
Jesus has not only been welcoming to sinners, he has been eating with
them, an action that means he’s in communion with them! These three parables are Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ criticism of him, but more importantly, though them, we discover Jesus’ understanding of what the Pharisees label sin.
The first two parables are similar. The parable of the lost sheep presents God as a devoted shepherd anxiously pursuing a sheep that has gotten separated from the flock, and can’t find its way back. When that sheep is found, not only does the shepherd rejoice with his friends, but even the angels in heaven throw a party!
In the second parable, God is a woman who lost a coin – one tenth of the wealth she has. She scours through her house until she finally finds it. She’s so happy, she calls in her friends and parties – as do the an- gels in heaven.
The third parable is the well known story of the loving Father, the prodigal son and the unforgiving brother. God is the father who, from the time his son leaves him, stands at the window hoping for his return. When he does return, after loosing one half of the family’s wealth, the father runs out to hug and kiss him. The unforgiving brother, like the Pharisees, rejects his brother as a sinner.
Jesus is giving a twist to the idea of sin. It’s not an offence against God; it’s the experience of separation from the community. The sheep, the coin and the son are lost. When they’re found, the community on earth and in heaven rejoices. The father in the parable captures God’s joy at the return of a lost one who has suffered separation from God and the community. “We must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”
Dear God, thank you for never giving up on me. I confess that sometimes I don’t know where I am or where I’m going, but your love, like a magnet, continually tugs at me, pulling me in the right direction. Deep in my soul I know you stand with never tiring, open arms, waiting for me – waiting to hug me to your heart.
Most of my reflections focus on the message of the Gospel. This week, however, I felt attracted to the second reading of the day taken from Paul’s letter to Philemon. Some background is needed to understand the relational dynamic that’s the central focus of the letter. Three people are involved, Paul, Philemon and Onesimus.
During his third missionary journey, Paul spent two years preaching and ministering in Asia Minor. Many were converted to Christ through his preach- ing, especially in the cities of Ephesus and Colossae where he established Christian communities. Philemon was a convert from Colossae. Later on, when Paul was under house arrest in Rome, 61-63 AD, Philemon’s runaway slave came to him and was converted by him. Paul put his relationship
with the slave, Onesimus, in an interest- ing way as he writes to Philemon: “on be- half of my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment…I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.”
This letter gives us a unique glimpse into one moral dilemma that the early Church lived with, slavery. The Roman Empire flourished under a slave economy. Some estimates put the number of slaves as high as 40% of the population. Some were captured in wars, many were kid-
napped by pirates and sold into slavery and, of course, many were the children of slaves. Some slaves were lucky enough to work in the house- holds of the wealthy. Others, not so lucky, were worked to death in mines or shackled together as they worked the fields. Onesimus was probably a house slave. It seems he also stole either money or valuable objects when he fled because Paul volunteers to make amends for him.
In the letter, Paul tells Philomen that he would like to keep Onesimus by his side as a worker from the Gospel, but is, non-the-less, sending him back to his master. But Paul is quite clear that the relationship between master and salve is quite differ- ent now. “Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, that you might have him back for- ever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a
brother, beloved especially to me, but even moretoyou,asamanintheLord. So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me.” This is powerful stuff!
A slave had the status of a chair or a table. A slave was an object that had no rights. A slave was not a person. Paul, however, elevates Onesimus referring to him “a brother” and “man in the Lord.” Paul didn’t condemn slavery outright, but we can see in this short letter that he recognized the challenge that the concept of slavery posed to the Christian way of Christ.
Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, articulates the moral foundation of a life in Christ. “For through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves in Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male or female; for you are all one in Christ.” (Galatians 3:28)
Christianity wasn’t able to come to grips with the immorality of slavery until the nineteenth century. Enlightened thinkers crafted our Declaration of Independence stating: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pur- suit of happiness.” Most of the men who signed this document were slaver owners. Thomas Jefferson owned more than 600 slaves! It wasn’t until 1865 that slavery was abolished in our country. But the depth of its depravity lingered on to this very day.
I find Paul’s letter to Philemon a wake-up call for us today. We still struggle with gender inequality. We still struggle with racial inequality. We still maintain a cast system that fosters the separation of the rich from the poor. Like the first century Christians we still hesitate to name our social sins. I don’t understand how any Christian can be a racist or white supremacist. I don’t understand how Christians can turn a blind eye to the horrors being inflicted on immigrants. I don’t under- stand how Christians can witness a government putting men, women and children in cages and remain silent- even if it means having an argument at a cocktail party.
Two thousand years ago Paul, the apostle his life to Christ, understood the deeper teachings of Jesus and articulated them in his letters to the Churches. Today, Pope Francis is regularly highlighting some of those teachings. He’s often degraded as a socialist and ultra-liberal by pseudo-Christians. Jesus spoke the truth and was crucified. Paul spoke the truth and was beheaded. What are we afraid of that we don’t speak the truth?
In the Gospel passage for today Luke sets the stage for an interesting scene. “On a Sabbath Jesus went to dine at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, and the people there were ob- serving him carefully.” OK. Jesus is under the microscope. Is he nervous or put off by this? Just the opposite. HE ob- serves the guests! He notices that they’re vying for the places of honor at the table. So, he slaps a parable on them.
He tells them that when they’re invited to a wedding they should take the last place at the banquet table. This will
prevent them any embarrassment should a more distinguished guest have been invited and was supposed to sit in the seat you’ve chosen on your own. He tells the guests to take the lowest place so that the host can
direct them to a higher seat. This will stimulate the guests’ admiration of them. Makes social sense; but then he adds a universal truth to the advice. “For every- one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” This is also a subtle attack at the Pharisees and their cohorts.
The word Pharisee means “separated one.” They followed the minutiae of the Law so perfectly that they were considered to have achieved religious perfection. Throughout his ministry, Jesus will challenge their multiplication of laws
calling them “blind guides” that lay “heavy burdens” on the people. (John the Baptist wasn’t as polite as Jesus. He referred to them as “a brood of vi- pers.”)
Jesus then shifts his full attention to his host. “When you hold a lunch or dinner do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they invite you back and you have repayment.” This must have been a shock for the Pharisee. Jesus had already taken a swipe at him in the teaching he gave to the guests. Now he singled out his host in the presence of his guests.
The scene concludes with Jesus delivering a teaching on the Kingdom. Speaking to the host, but not excluding the guests, he makes a reference to Isaiah’s description of the messianic time. For Jesus, this was THE sign of the arrival of the Kingdom. “When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their in- ability to repay you. For you will be repaid in the resurrection of the righteous.
I wonder what Jesus would get up and say if he were invited to a dinner at the White House.