No servant can serve two masters … You cannot serve both God and mammon” (Luke 16: 13)
Man’s injustice and inhumanity to fellow man has always been repulsive to God, attracting His anger and vengeance. Prophet Amos’ time in Israel was a time of grave social and economic injustice, where the poor were “bought for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals” (Amos 8: 6). In today’s First Reading (Amos 8: 4-7), God sent His prophet to address the rich "who trample the needy and try to suppress the poor people." Without any taint of diplomacy, the prophet declared the anger the Lord God threatened: what the Lord God asked him to say: “God swears by the pride of Jacob ‘Never will I forget a single thing you have done.’" These words must have rocked the kingdom from the royalty to the commoners because injustice was systemic and classified with a covert constitutional seal of approval.Everyone who had the least economic power and social advantage could exploit and abuse the poor without qualms. Today we live in a world where injustice have become even more complex and multifaceted than the days of Amos. Therefore, the words of the prophet Amos come alive to turn our attention to the reality of the injustices around us; their echoes turn our eyes to the pains and sufferings and humiliation man’s actions and inactions have caused fellow men; and their firmness reminds us of God’s disapproval and anger. Are we not pricked in conscience to think of any ways, no matter how subtle we have participated in the perpetration of these evils around us? Could we but spare a thought on what we should do? How should we relate with the poor in our society today? The Psalmist comes to our aid in our quest by presenting God’s loving care for the poor and the weak as a model: God "raises the poor... lifts up the lowly from the dust... Sets him in the company of princes." We are called to love, care and welcome the poor; to bring them into our fold; and to invite them to our lunch and dinner and to our feast (Luke 14: 13). In other words, to treat them equally.
The Parable of the Dishonest Steward, considered one of the most difficult parables of Jesus to interpret because of the seeming contradiction we find in it, is a parable of relationship between the (rich) master and a (poor)steward. The imbalance sets a similarity with the situation in Israel at the time of the prophet Amos, when the rich were so rich and exploitative and the poor were so poor and deprived. Rightly, the parable does not say anything about this. In view of the First Reading, one may be persuaded to ask: “How fair was the master to the steward? Could he have been dishonest because of the unjust and unfair treatment meted on him by his rich master?” Not that there is any excuse or justification for dishonesty, and one should never try to justify evil or sinful acts. However, it is important to note and point out that injustice could bring the worst in others, just as love and fairness could bring out the best. Every human being, irrespective of status, deserves to be fairly treated.
The subject of management of human beings and resources forms the central theme of the 16th Chapter of Luke’s Gospel which we begin to read today. In verse 1-13, Jesus tells the Parable of the Dishonest Servant to emphasise how earthly wealth should be best managed for eternal rewards.
The first character that is presented to us in the parable is the steward, who was reported to his master to have maintained a track record of embezzlement, misappropriation and unaccountability. Note that as a steward or better put, a slave, being in charge of his master’s estate was a rare privilege. But he abused it by his inordinate practices. Abuse of privileges is a common wound in the womb of our society, and it is almost becoming the “new normal” that those who frown at it or dare to condemn it are seen as queer, weird or jealous. What about us: what have done with the privileges that God has lavished upon us? Thus the steward here is a metaphor for all of us in our various corners. He crashes under the dangling hammer of the master, who was certainly going to sack him as the punishment for his dishonesty. Aware of his weaknesses as a man wrapped up in pride and laziness, who could neither dig nor beg, he developed a self-centred plan. He decided to reduce the amount owed by his master’s debtors so that they would welcome him during his wilderness experience. Though he is praised for being prudent, his action is still condemned as “dishonest.” The end does not justify the means: what is morally wrong stands morally wrong no matter the end it achieves. The core message of the Lord here is that earthly wealth should be maximised for greater and lasting gain.
Many people often forget the debtors in this parable: they were equally dishonest because they were accomplices in the dishonest acts of the steward. By agreeing to reduce their indebtedness to their creditor (one who favoured them in their times of need), they co-operated and connived in the perpetration of evil. Their acquiescence resonates our silence in the face of the evils in our communities. It is a loud reminder to awaken us from the long slumber of passivity in the face of the moral crises in our system.
The Master, like the father of the prodigal son (Luke 15: 11- 32), was over-generous and a bit too trusting. There is the image of God here, Who is over-generous with us, and even trusts us with so much blessings and graces. As was the case with the steward here, there is a day of reckoning, a day when accountability will be required of everyone who has been entrusted with anything. The master commended the astuteness of the steward as more “prudent” way the children of this world deal with their own generation in comparison to the way the “children of light” deal with heavenly affairs. Again, let it be noted that this was not a commendation of the dishonest means. Rather, the Lord was drawing the attention of His disciples to be more creative, innovative, even aggressive in their efforts to make their ways to the kingdom by using the things of this world optimally. This could be an allusion to Matthew 11: 12: “The kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and the violent people take it by force.” We need to re-strategise our evangelisation methods as individuals, groups and Church.
The key word in the remaining parts of the Gospel are trust and trustworthy. God has entrusted so much to us, just as the master of the steward on our parable: if we care for what has been given to us responsibly, the Lord assures us that we can be trusted with greater things of the kingdom. A life of faithfulness, dedication and commitment to God, without any entanglements is the surest way to achieve this with the grace of God. For truly: “No servant can serve two masters … You cannot serve both God and mammon” (Luke 16: 13).