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Who is your master?

September 22, 2007

The Backseat Homilist

Readings from Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land …”

Today’s scriptures begin with a direct volley from the prophet Amos. The theme is clear and to the point: our relationship with the poor will be the measure of how well we serve God.

We should be squirming in the pew. Is Amos talking about us? Perhaps he is, according to Luke. It all depends on who your master is and whom you trust with your life. To set the scene, Luke paints a picture of Palestinian life that would have been very familiar to his well-to-do Gentile audience, living under Roman rule (1).

A rich man, most likely an absentee landlord, has a steward whose job is to make binding contracts between the landlord and his debtors. These contracts include sizeable interest rates of up to a hundred percent. So if you borrowed 50 measures of oil, for example, you’d owe 100. That’s how his master makes his money. The steward’s job, however, suddenly hangs from a thread as the master acts on hostile charges against the steward and prepares to fire him. To lose his job will plunge him into immediate poverty, so the steward devises a way to win the trust of his master’s debtors and hopefully a place in their households. He has the bills rewritten to reflect only what the debtors borrowed and no more. Imagine what your credit card bill would look like if it only reflected what you spent, and not the interest! Most surprisingly, rather than punishing the steward for denying him his profits, the master rewards him for his prudence and his shrewdness in securing his future.

This is not exactly an image of the Kingdom of God. But this story, drawn from the conventional wisdom of the time, highlights a few values that no Christian disciple should be without. If a member of this sinful generation can understand the merit of securing his future through the sharing of wealth, how much more should Christians, who are called to share their possessions and live in loving community? If a member of this sinful generation can recognize how tenuous the support of earthly masters is, how much more should Christians, who have only one master, God.

It should be clear, Luke points out, that the follower of Jesus cannot serve both God and mammon. The word mammon is usually translated as wealth or money, but literally means “that in which one puts one’s trust.” The implication is that trusting God with your life, making God your master, is a very different enterprise than trusting earthly structures or people. In fact, the two are in direct opposition. Because trusting God in the manner that Jesus did, requires one to give up all attachment to privilege and to economic security and to rely entirely upon the fruits of a network of loving, mutual relationships. Meanwhile, trusting earthly structures requires one to cling to wealth and economic security at the expense of human relationships, not to mention the future of the planet itself.

Does this sound familiar? Because I think it aptly describes the trap that has ensnared our culture, and we Christians along with it. It is the reason that our networks of loving relationships tend to be quite small and heterogeneous, while our networks of economic relationships are legion. This is why the conventional wisdom insists that we cannot live without a car, or a credit card, or an unlimited supply of cheap goods. It is why we tend to be so anxious about “what we are to eat and what we are to wear” to quote Luke 12: 22. It is why Christians will concede that war is acceptable when it defends our economic freedom. Or to paraphrase the prophet Amos, it is why we shop on the Sabbath and why we uncritically participate in an economic system that fixes the scales and buys “the lowly for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals.”

Luke suggests that if we are wondering why our efforts as Christians seem so lackluster and our impact on the world so puny, our fruits so dry and tasteless, we might do well to ask ourselves – who is really our master, and who do we really trust with our lives?

Having God as master requires a much different sort of relationship to our culture, our possessions and to the people we live among. We must no longer be attached to them. That does not mean we reject them or live apart from them or condemn them as evil. We simply allow them no mastery over us. This was the way that Jesus lived, and this was why Jesus was so infuriatingly free to love across all social boundaries and economic barriers.

When we can embrace the goods of the earth, not as idols to be served, but as tools to be used in redemptive work and gifts to be shared with those in need, we will be useful in helping to build the Reign of God. And ironically, we will be free of the stuff that weighs us down and renders us useless as disciples of Jesus.

John Shea describes this leaner, lighter freedom very well in this story (2):

A king had two servants. One was asked to do something; he did it and was promoted. The other was asked to do something; he refused and was fired.

The obedient servant, continued to do what the king asked, and was regularly promoted. One day his thoughts turned to the servant who had lost his job because of his disobedience, and he decided to find out how the man had fared. He went to the former servant’s home, but found he no longer lived there. The obedient servant was directed instead to place more like a hovel than a house. Inside he found the former servant, dressed in rags, sitting on the floor, eating a bowl of thin soup.

The obedient servant was disgusted with the depravity to which his former colleague had sunk. “If you had learned to obey the king,” he said. “You would not have to eat thin soup!”

To which his fellow replied “If you had learned to eat thin soup, you would not have to obey the king.”

(1) Karris, Robert J. OFM. “The Gospel According to Luke.” The New Jerome Bible Commentary. (1990)

(2) Retold from Shea, John. “The Obedient and Disobedient Servants” in The Legend of the Bells and Other Tales. (1996).

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