Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 23, 2007
St. Martin de Porres, Cincinnati
(Based on Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-8; Luke 16:1-13)
The readings for today’s liturgy present us with a puzzling conundrum. In the reading from the prophet Amos we hear his blistering attack on those who were cheating and defrauding the poor in his day. Then in the Gospel we hear Jesus tell a parable in which a landowner appears to praise his steward for exactly the same kind of dishonesty!
How are we to reconcile this apparent contradiction?
A lot of ink has been spilled by Scripture commentators as they try to wiggle their way around the apparent meaning of the landowner’s behavior. One of the most ingenious suggests that the manager had already cheated the owner by padding the bills owed by the debtors and then skimming off the extra for himself, so that when he later has them change the numbers on the bills, he is really just restoring them to the price they should have been paying in the first place.
Perhaps. If that explanation helps you, it’s yours!
It seems we can only be sure of two things from the story. First of all, it goes without saying that Jesus would not be praising dishonest dealings. And second, the main thing he is trying to get across is that we should be as intent on the things of the Spirit, on our spiritual growth, as those who seek earthly profit are on getting ahead in this world.
Beyond that I’m not sure we can say much with certainty about the praise of the owner. Maybe we’re not supposed to; it’s a parable, not a treatise on economic behavior. You’re on your own on this one! No brilliant wisdom from this podium. . .
I’d suggest that, rather than trying to unravel all the possible meanings in a parable — a moral story — we might find richer fruit by reflecting on the account of a real person in a real social setting. It turns out that this Amos fellow, who appears to be an obscure lesser prophet, actually can speak to our situation. Very clearly, in fact.
Before we meet the man we need first to take a look at the situation he’s going to confront. We are going back over six centuries before the coming of Jesus.
What’s going on? Well, amazingly enough considering the rest of the biblical story, this is a time of peace. And economic prosperity. The whole of Palestine is apparently free of conflicts. More importantly, the people are doing very well, indeed. There are very nice things to be had. It’s true that there are those Assyrians starting to get their act together but they pose no immediate threat.
It all sounds ideal. It’s just that there is one major flaw in the picture. It’s all a hollow shell. The whole enterprise is based on injustice. The people aren’t getting rich, it’s only the religious and political elite that are benefitting. They are getting rich on the backs of the poor. Fraud and deceit are rampant, the poor have to pay exorbitant taxes. The measures are being rigged so you don’t get a full bushel for the price you pay. Even the scales they use to weigh the stuff are phony.
It’s not hard to compare the situation with things going on in our society, is it? Just think of people who have spent their whole working lives with the expectation of a pension, and suddenly it is taken from them overnight with no recourse. Think about innocent people being lured into impossible mortgages they could never begin to pay, and now they have their homes foreclosed. Think of CEOs, many of whom not only don’t benefit their companies ut actually drag them down — and then they walk away with golden parachutes. Think of the disparity between the growth in executives’ compensation as the incomes of those who actually work to produce the goods and services barely stay stagnant. Think of an administration which can build a devastating war on the basis of lies and then turn around and tell us expansion of health care for children would be too costly. There is much wrong in our society.
The list could go on and on.
Back to Palestine. Where is this fellow Amos during all this? He’s far removed from it all. He’s out in the fields scratching out a living. You see, the Amos we know as a prophet is actually what we would call today a migrant worker. He goes around tending what we translate as ‘sycamore’ trees. They were really a kind of tree that produced a very small, hard fruit that was quite bitter to the taste. It was a fruit only the poor would eat.
But the Lord won’t let Amos stand apart. He’s plucked up and compelled to go into the public arena and speak out in protest at what’s going on.
And where is he sent to prophesy? To Bethel. It’s a name that probably means little to us, but it was the most prominent holy shrine in the land. That is where you went for the most sacred sacrifices. If we are to get a sense of what that might mean today, we might imagine Amos going down to the steps of our cathedral. Or perhaps to the National Shrine in Washington. Maybe to the steps of St. Peter’s in Rome. In fact, the steps of that holy of holies, the New York Stock Exchange, might capture it best.
No matter how you slice it, it’s a bizarre scene. This unknown farmer stepping onto the most holy religious stage — and confronting those who controlled the whole system.
Let’s listen to a few of the thing he is shouting in the plaza:
Woe to the complacent in Zion,
to the overconfident in Samaria,
Leaders of a nation favored from the first. . .
Lying upon beds of ivory,
Stretched comfortably on their couches,
They eat lambs from the flock,
And calves from the stall.
Improvising to the music of the harp,
Like David, they devise their own accompaniment.
They drink wine from bowls,
And anoint themselves with the best oils . . .
Therefore, now they shall be the first to go into exile,
And their wanton revelry shall be done away with.
The Lord God has sworn by his very self,
Say I, the Lord, God of hosts:
I abhor the pride of Jacob,
I hate his castles,
And I give over the city with everything in it . . .
The high places of Isaac shall be laid waste,
And the sanctuaries of Israel made desolate;
I will attack the house of Jeroboam with the sword. (cc. 6, 7)
That’s the king he is naming. By name! This is serious stuff. And so the priest sends word to Jeroboam. “The country cannot endure his words!” So it’s not hard to see what will happen. Amos is banished, cast out. His prophecy is rejected. How absurd to say those Assyrians could overcome the people favored of the Lord!
And we know what happened. His prophecy was fulfilled, to the letter. Jeroboam and his court were swept away. There is such an irony here: they are gone, and the words of this most unlikely field hand-prophet are still being read 2700 years later. Still powerful, still challenging all our complacency.
We need to be clear about the foundation of his challenge. It was not the injustice alone (although that was grave enough): it was the fact that this evil was being perpetrated among a Covenant people. God had invited them into an intimate covenant and in a covenanted people there is no place for haves and have-nots, for winners and losers. All are responsible for the weakest members of the people. Remember that sacred threesome always invoked by the prophets: you are to look out for the orphans, the widows, and the aliens in the land. They symbolize all those who are shut out and kept voiceless. All those exploited by the social system.
Amos has much to say to us about the deepening gap in our country between the wealthy and the little people whose labors create that wealth.
But maybe, beyond his message, Amos is even more significant for who he is.
It would be interesting to compare him to the prophets of our day. We might think of Desmond Tutu, who spoke up courageously against the evil of apartheid — but he had the prestige that came from being an archbishop. Or Martin Luther King — but we can’t forget that he was a Pd.D.,, with all the benefits of postgraduate education. Maybe a better match would be Cesar Chavez, the leader of the farm workers, or Dolores Huerta, the foundress of La Raza. They came to their prophetic role with hands that have known the harsh realities of picking lettuce under a California sun. We could think of Rigoberta Menchu down in Latin America. She was indigenous, the least respected of all. We could think of those two women in Ireland, Mairead Corrigan and her friend, who braved the hostility of both the IRA and the Ulster Constabulary. The housewife who had enough of deaths at the hands of drunks and founded Mothers against Drunk Driving. Maybe Cindy Sheehan. One of my favorites is that ordinary townswoman up in Vermont who spoke up and compelled the whole world to recognize the horrors of the most devilish weapons ever devised: land mines that are not aimed at killing a particular enemy but are a legacy we leave to innocent people everywhere. She wins the Nobel Prize — and we don’t even remember her name. She was a nobody before, and having completed her mission she blends back into ordinary life.
Amos is much like that blind fellow that Jesus cured (John, c. 8). We don’t know his name. When the religious leaders challenge his account because he is ignorant of the law, he doesn’t back down. He says, “All I know is this, that I was blind and now I see.” You make of that what you want! I know my experience.
The important thing is that Amos accepted a call he never wanted in the first place. He accepted th burden of naming what was wrong and what is right. He spoke truth to power. He trusted in the Spirit and was willing to pay the price it exacted of him.
You and I, in all our ordinariness, have been given that same spirit of prophecy that dwelt in the heart of Jesus. We can’t use the excuse that “I’m only a little fish, God couldn’t really want to use me.” Our Baptism takes that excuse away. When we encounter injustice that oppresses any of our brothers or sisters — in whatever form — we are responsible to speak out. It may be against a God-awful war, it may be against a racial system that wants to try six black high-school kids for murder in Jena, Louisiana, while it looks the other way at the white kids who participated in the same scuffle. It can be taking place in your neighborhood or town, in your workplace.
We will soon be at the banquet table with Jesus. We will partake of his very life, a life gained at the price of his death. Let’s pray that this holy food will give us the same courage he showed. The same trust to speak out on behalf of those whose voice is denied by the powerful — no matter what the cost.