Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 19, 2004
St. Martin de Porres, Cincinnati
(Based on Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-8; Luke 16:1-13)
During this period which the church calls 'ordinary time' we are asked to pray over different facets of what is involved in being disciples of Jesus. We move through one of the Gospels (this year it is Luke) examining ourselves from a particular perspective each week.
At first glance it would seem that this week what we are to pray is our honesty in our dealings with our neighbor. Both the account from the prophet Amos and the parable of Jesus in the Gospel deal with examples of cheating, of dishonest behavior. But I'd suggest that if we read a little more deeply we might find that there are more profound issues at stake.
In Amos' time the custom was to refrain from buying and selling on the big feasts. So he depicts the greedy traders as chomping at the bit until the feast-day is over and they can go back to their deceitful ways.
How did you cheat in those days? Everything depended on weighing things fairly. So you doctored the scales. You adjusted the size of the weights so that people who thought they were getting a pound of flour were getting only three-quarters. (They didn't have the more sophisticated ways of cheating we have developed in modern society...)
But in his attack Amos is really aiming at something more vicious. It's not just how the cheating is done, but who is being cheated. It is the poor who are being defrauded; the innocent and unsuspecting, those who don't have the resources to see what is being done to them.
It's not just a matter of individual ethics at stake here, it is social injustice. And Amos is blistering in his condemnation. He has God saying "Never will I forget what they have done!"
But then we turn to Luke and we come up against a disturbing puzzle. It's now hundreds of years later, and the cheating is more subtle. Transactions are now being written down. The steward is about to be fired so he covers his you-know-what by fudging the books. Change the numbers, they'll never find out.
The disturbing thing, though, is that the steward appears to be praised for his cheating. Can Jesus be condoning such dishonesty?
First of all, we need to note that it is the master in the parable who praises the steward. Nice work! That's the way you get ahead in this world. I believe that Jesus actually takes us to a different level, to a much more profound choice. If you want to succeed in the ways of this world, then that's the way to be smart among the children of this world -- but the deeper choice is really: is that where you want to place yourself in the first place? We have to first take our stand on whether we want to live the life of the Kingdom or align ourselves with the gods of this world. We can't serve God and mammon. The real choice is between God's world and that of worldly success.
In the responsory verse to today's Psalm we praise "the Lord who lifts up the poor." That is what our God is about.
The word of God does not speak to us in the abstract. It is a word injected into history, it speaks to us where we are right now.
And where we are right now is nearing the end of the process by which we will choose those who will lead us for the next four years. And because of our power in this world, our choice will affect the whole world. We are about to exercise a most serious responsibility.
Religious leaders of every denomination are raising their voices to weigh a very important question. Amid all the political rhetoric, all the speeches and posturing and spin, who is speaking for the poor? Whose policies will help those who are most powerless in our country and the world?
There are a lot of questions we might very appropriately ask of our candidates. Some will focus on the positions of the candidates with regard to the unborn. And that's a worthwhile question to explore. Some will want to hear where they come down on the way our society is going to deal with gays and lesbians and their right to be dealt with fairly. Others will place the emphasis on how a leader might respond to terrorism. And others will want to ask how a leader proposes to extricate us from the situation we have created by invading Iraq.
These are all legitimate issues and we need to be open to weighing all of them. But in the midst of such complex questions we are called to apply the biblical criterion: who is speaking for the poor?
Wise religious leaders remind us that to be responsible voters we may not just pick out our single issue and ignore all the others. Why is that irresponsible? Because the leaders we select will have an impact on all of those issues and we will bear our share of responsibility for the effects of their choices.
In the Epistle to Timothy Paul for prayer for everyone, "but especially for kings and those in authority." As I was pondering that, it occurred to me that Paul could not have imagined a modern republic such as we are blessed with. Who are 'those with authority' in such a society? It is "we the people." We are the authority because we freely select those to whom we give the power to lead us. So if we translate Paul's request into our contemporary world he's really telling us to pray for ourselves.
We need to pray that we may have the wisdom needed to balance these complex questions. It's not a matter of a simple black-and-white calculus of easy answers. Wisdom is a gift from the Lord, given to those who immerse themselves in a weighty responsibility.
Paul prays for the authority figures that the people might be able to vies their lives in peace and with respect for people's dignity.
He also prays that people might not act out of anger and contentiousness. As a country we have lost the ability to listen to one another, to respect those who hold different views. People who study our nations' capital says that peaceful discourse and responsible search for solutions that might actually deal with difficult issues is gone, that partisan bickering has never been so acrimonious. As we pray for ourselves as the ultimate authority we need to pray for healing, that each of us can be healed of the arrogance of believing that we have all the answers and those who view reality from a different perspective are our enemies.
And then let us recall that the rich and the powerful have well-heeled lobbies to make sure their voice is heard ab dominates our public discourse. It is we who speak in the holy quiet of the voting booth who must be the voice of the poor.