As Jesus continues his “death march” to Jerusalem in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 9–19), he challenges us this Sunday to choose, in a clear and conscious way, our goal in life: God or money. The First Reading reminds us that wealth was a seductive trap for the people of God throughout salvation history.
Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land! “When will the new moon be over,” you ask, “that we may sell our grain, and the sabbath, that we may display the wheat? We will diminish the ephah, add to the shekel, and fix our scales for cheating! We will buy the lowly for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals; even the refuse of the wheat we will sell!” The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Never will I forget a thing they have done!
Amos is often thought to be the earliest of all the literary (writing) prophets, since his relatively short ministry probably fell in the decade 770-760 BC. Amos 1:1 dates his prophecy to “two years before the earthquake” during the reigns of Uzziah of Judah and Jeroboam II of Israel, an event that archeologists now estimate at c. 760 BC, ±25 yrs. This would probably place his ministry just prior to Hosea’s longer career (c. 750-725BC).
Amos, like Hosea, prophesied to northern Israel; but unlike Hosea, Amos was not a northerner himself. He was a Judean from Tekoa, a village to the south of Jerusalem, an agricultural worker who raised sheep and tended an orchard of sycamore-figs (Amos 7:14). He was called by God to preach judgment to northern Israel at a time when that nation was wealthy, arrogant, and oppressive to their southern neighbors. Amos clearly distances himself from the professional prophets who learned prophesying from their fathers and practiced it as a kind of family trade (see Amos 7:12-14). He was not motivated by a desire to earn a living, but was impelled by a genuine commission from God (7:15).
This Sunday’s First Reading is a portion of the fourth of a series of five visions (7:1–9:8) of divine judgment that constitute the last major section of the book. After an oracle of judgment against Amaziah the unrighteous priest (7:16-17), Amos sees a “basket of summer fruit (Heb. qāyîtz),” which indicates that the “end (Heb. qētz) has come for my people Israel” (8:1-3). Wailing, mourning, death, and a famine of God’s word will come on Israel, because of the abuse of the poor (8:4-7) and worship of false gods (8:13-14).
A striking feature of this First Reading is the way these ancient Israelite merchants regard religion as an impediment to profit. “When will the Sabbath be over, that we may display our wheat?” The Sabbath, which God gave to man as a beautiful day of rest, to be enjoyed with family, friends, and God Himself, is now seen as a burden and restraint to the pursuit of profit. The problem is that these merchants are really not worshipers of the true God. They are worshipers of the gods of money and power: that is why the abuse of the poor (Amos 8:4-7) is followed by denunciation of the worship of false gods (8:13-14).
As Catholics we often forget that observance of the Sabbath (in the New Covenant, shifted to the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day) is still part of the Ten Commandments and obligatory for Christians. Although many of us live in nominally “Christian” cultures, respect for the Lord’s Day has been all but lost, and instead commerce and retail proceed on the Lord’s day of rest and worship as on every other day. Folks head from Mass to the grocery store, not thinking that this practice supports retailers being open on Sunday, therefore requiring their minimum-wage employees (the poor) to be there and labor on what should be a day of rest and worship for all. The consequences for Christian culture are tragic, because there remains, then, no one day of rest when persons have the freedom to worship and spend time in quiet with God and family together. As a Church, we cannot restore a Christian culture without re-establishing a respect—at least among Christians!—for the rest that is appropriate to the Lord’s Day (see CCC §§2184-2188)
Amos is best remembered in the Jewish and Christian tradition as a preacher of justice who was unafraid to publically rebuke the wealthy elite of his day, whose hypocritical and syncretistic religious practices did nothing to alleviate the guilt of their social and economic abuse of the poor. Amos composed his prophesies in simple yet vivid poetry, as in this much-quoted oracle:
“I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings,
I will not accept them,
and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!
Even today Amos’ words remind Christian believers that external observance of the Church’s rituals does not excuse or justify lifestyles of self-indulgence and indifference to the poor and needy.
Beloved: First of all, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth. For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as ransom for all. This was the testimony at the proper time. For this I was appointed preacher and apostle — I am speaking the truth, I am not lying —, teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.
It is my wish, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands, without anger or argument.
The Second Reading at this time of year is working its way through the personal letters of St. Paul. This passage from St. Paul’s first letter to Timothy stresses the need of the Christian community to pray together, especially for government officials. Good government is necessary that we may lead a “quiet and tranquil life in all devotion,” which pleases God who “desires all to be saved.” Why is good government and tranquil life connected with “all being saved?” Because political stability enables the Church to go about her evangelizing mission unmolested.
Pope Francis had some direct words about this passage of St. Paul, which came up in the ferial Mass readings earlier this week:
“None of us can say, ‘I have nothing to do with this, they govern. . . .’ No, no, I am responsible for their governance, and I have to do the best so that they govern well, and I have to do my best by participating in politics according to my ability. Politics, according to the Social Doctrine of the Church, is one of the highest forms of charity, because it serves the common good. I cannot wash my hands, eh? We all have to give something!”
There is a tendency, the Pope observed, to only speak ill of leaders, and to mutter about “things that don’t go well.” “You listen to the television and they’re beating [them] up, beating [them] up; you read the papers and their beating [them] up. . . .” He continued, “Yes, maybe the leader is a sinner, as David was, but I have to work with my opinions, with my words, even with my corrections” because we all have to participate for the common good. It is not true that Catholics should not meddle in politics:
“‘A good Catholic doesn’t meddle in politics.’ That’s not true. That is not a good path. A good Catholic meddles in politics, offering the best of himself, so that those who govern can govern. But what is the best that we can offer to those who govern? Prayer! That’s what Paul says: “Pray for all people, and for the king and for all in authority.” “But Father, that person is wicked, he should go to hell. . . .” Pray for him, pray for her, that they can govern well, that they can love their people, that they can serve their people, that they can be humble.” A Christian who does not pray for those who govern is not a good Christian! “But Father, how will I pray for that person, a person who has problems. . . .” “Pray that that person might convert!”
Jesus said to his disciples, “A rich man had a steward who was reported to him for squandering his property. He summoned him and said, ‘What is this I hear about you? Prepare a full account of your stewardship, because you can no longer be my steward.’ The steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do, now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me? I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do so that, when I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes.’ He called in his master’s debtors one by one. To the first he said, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He replied, ‘One hundred measures of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note. Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.’ Then to another the steward said, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘One hundred kors of wheat.’ The steward said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note; write one for eighty.’ And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.
The role of steward in a large household was one of great responsibility, but also wealth and prestige. It went to the master’s most trusted male slave. As a result, enterprising young freemen in the Roman empire sometimes sold themselves as slaves to wealthy men in order to become stewards of their households.
Since the stewardship was an administrative position in which one lived in physical comfort, the steward realizes he is in great trouble when the master wishes to fire him. He’s not suited to any other way of making a living, and as a slave he has no estate of his own. He’s been use to socializing with his master’s peers, although he is not truly their social or legal equals.
So he pulls of a kind of “white collar crime.” Calling in his master’s debtors, he has them manipulate their receipts to “erase” a significant portion of their debt. Then they will be in this steward’s debt after he is fired, and “owe him one.”
Eventually, when the master found out what the steward had done, he “commended” him. This probably means, he acknowledged (grudgingly) how cunning his former employer had been.
“For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.
Non-religious people frequently have more “street smarts” in manipulating others than those who practice a faith. That’s why its best for Christians to stay out of the “rat race” rather than try to compete in it.
I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
This is perhaps the key teaching of this entire Reading. The world encourages an attitude in which we use people to gain things. Jesus reverses this: use things to gain people. If spending money and giving goods can open others to friendship with the Church and ultimately Christ Himself, then spend the money, give the goods.
Pagan religion in the ancient world tended to be a semi-magical way to manipulate the spiritual realm (the realm of the “gods”) in order to gain material wealth.
Christianity is precisely the reverse of this. It is a religion in which we sacrifice material in order to gain spiritual wealth.
That is one reason why the “health and wealth Gospel” is such a perversion. Periodically one can here a radio or TV evangelist preaching Christ as a means to the “good life”—this is a return to paganism, a subordination of the spiritual to the material. It does not lead to true conversion, because as long as Jesus is a means to an end—and not the end itself—one is not yet a Christian.
The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones. If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth? If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours?
“Small matters” are often not small at all, because their consequences can be huge. This was illustrated some years ago when the $136 million-dollar Mars Climate Orbiter was lost on its maiden voyage due to malfunction. The problem? The contractor Lockheed Martin and constructed the device using English measurements, whereas the purchaser NASA conducted their operations only in metric.
Small issues—an inch vs. a centimeter—can have enormous material consequences and also spiritual ones. St. Josemaría Escrivà used to say he could tell the state of a man’s soul by looking at his desk or inspecting his closet. The interior of a man is reflected in his smallest actions.
Jesus teaches us here that material wealth—which in the eternal perspective is a matter of very little consequence at all—serves for us as a “testing ground.” Our faithful administration of material goods—which would include generosity toward the poor—wins favor with God and gains spiritual blessing, and to the contrary, self-indulgent use of material goods damages spiritual progress.
No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon.”
The Christian who approaches discipleship with Christ while still trying to attain “the American dream” or the “good life” is dooming himself to frustration. If wealth, pleasure, or power in this life is what you are after, you truly have the wrong religion! It is truly pathetic, for example, for the Christian who devotes himself to mission work in his youth to become embittered or disgruntled in mid-life when he or she realizes they do not have the material wealth or creature comforts of their peers who went straight into business out of high school or college. Frustration results when the Christian loses focus on Christ and begins to pine for certain pleasures or pursuits that seem out of reach or incompatible with his life’s vocation. The only answer for this kind of frustration is re-conversion: to call to mind whom we are serving and why, and recommit to his service.