Sunday’s Sermon-Time for Scrutiny

Readings:  Amos 8: 4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2: 1-8;  Luke 16: 1-13

The Temptation is as old as humanity itself. Cain kills his brother Abel because he wanted to be considered the best. He was not and could not abide it. Better get rid of the competition. So he takes his brother’s life.

And have you heard the more contemporary take on Noah of the Ark and Flood fame?  Modern scholars view Noah differently these days. Unlike Cain, Noah was not jealous or cruel.  He was content to be who he was.  That’s why God chose Him.  Yet scholars today recognize a fatal flaw: Noah kept his faith on the bare bones level. He obeyed God, but only as a minimalist.  He did what he was told to do.  He built the ark, yes, organized the animals, yes; got his family together.  Yes, everyone was safe and sound.  But what about the others—those left to suffer annihilation by drowning?  Had he no interest in probing the depths of God’s mercy?  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of London, England, contrasted Noah with Abraham, the father of nations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  He notes that when, centuries later, God threatened punishment on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham was uncomfortable accepting God on surface level alone.  How could this great God be only a God of punishment and retribution?  Abraham’s neighbors’ gods weren’t any better than that.

Abraham used the precious gift of his free will and exercised his mind. He asked if God could be not only a God of righteousness but also a God of Mercy.  God was pleased with Abraham’s inquiry and invited Abraham to savor this truth:  the God you get is only as good as the God you take the time to know.  That’s we ponder scriptures, parables, participate in sacraments time and time again. Well, wouldn’t you know?  Abraham took the time to probe the mind of God, asking in quantitative ways how many innocent people God would spare amidst the sinful majority of Gomorrah. And so to Abraham the God of Mercy was revealed.  Proof:  God inspired Lot and his family to escape before destruction ensued.  (Of course, Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt but that was her fault and we’ll explore that another day.)  The point is that Abraham sought a greater God than his time and culture allowed. Jesus revealed this merciful God time and time again and even shares God’s HOLY SPIRIT with YOU, so that we, like God, may ever be concerned for the welfare of all, extending “Chosen-ness” beyond tribe and nation to all of the world.  As Saint Paul wrote to Timothy:

“This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.”

Jesus told parables like this one today to invite us to probe, probe, probe His mind and find the deeper revelations of the one, true God!  When we refuse to take this parable at face value alone, the Holy Spirit will reveal to us who we are and where we are today, this moment, in our faith and in our relationship with God. Sure, we could go the way of Noah who looked out for # 1 – he, himself and his family—or follow Father Abraham who looked beyond his family’s needs and concerned himself with the greater good. That same vision is at the heart of the Gospel of the Dishonest Steward.

In truth, we do not know if the Master’s accusation against the steward was founded or just a matter of hearsay. Notice he fired the steward BEFORE the steward offered an accounting of his stewardship. In any case the Steward is ready to join the “common folk,” rejoin the human race.  He will be welcomed into his master’s debtors homes because he charges them only the principle on their debt without the usual exorbitant interest common at the time.  Yes, in cancelling the interest due, he was “the dishonest steward” but that is, “dishonest” in the ways of the world–not in the ways of the Kingdom of God–God who lets the oppressed go free, and who is more concerned with people’s suffering.  God, who through the prophets, and AS JESUS, continually invites all who make life unbearable for others to probe their hearts and re-evaluate how they have come to the advantages they enjoy–no matter how law abiding he or she may be.  Indeed, in the end, the master praises the steward for doing what he evidently could not do:  profit less and gain more in terms of quality relationships, expanding his circle of friends with a wider, more ‘down to earth’ net.

What a wonderful character that steward is, for his story prefigures the conversion of SCROOGE! We retell that story every year, but how much has it changed the ways of the world?  How many take THAT story to heart, how many will take THIS parable to heart and keep trying to apply it? Can those with wealth and power take that great leap?  Let’s face it: it’s harder for them than for the average Jack and Jane.  That’s another reason why Paul urged Christians to “pray for everyone” including “kings and people in authority.”  Wealth and prestige hold many illusions and many temptations. Now this is not a rant on the banks and bankers and Wall Street, or landlords or business people or anyone with any kind of responsibility over others.  Everyone has got to make a living. But God knows every one of us could benefit from a little more self-scrutiny.  After all, this is a Bible for everybody, a Gospel for rich and poor alike. The words from Amos need to resonate in every heart, in peoples of every culture and income: Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land . . . never will the Lord forget what they have done!

When Jesus tells us to be trustworthy in the matters of “dishonest wealth,” –he’s not talking about graft or bribes or extortion here.  He’s talking about the way wealth—both material and spiritual– is filled with illusions of grandeur, inflated self-esteem that separates brother from brother, sister from sister nation from nation.  It’s dishonest for the false sense of dignity and self-worth that it bestows.  The only true dignity comes from God, the only true self-worth is in our common humanity, the truth that we are all in this world together.  And as for our possessions, everything we own is on loan –we belong to God.  The Kingdom of God requires us to be responsible with our possessions, assess our buying power, our voting power by asking “Who benefits?  Who Loses?” with every decision we make.  The Parable inspires us to avoid greed, cultivate charity.  If only we can let God secure us in God’s grace—and let that be enough for us and our wellbeing–not any other criteria.  Every Mass compels us to proclaim that we are ‘Chosen People” to let others know they are “chosen,” too.  That’s the truth of the Eucharist: We belong to Jesus and Jesus belongs to God.  In God all are in all.  So that week after week we humble ourselves to eat with strangers and distant acquaintances as much as with people we may know so that together we may probe the Eucharists deeper meanings.

In truth, we MAY HAVE come to mass today simply do observe the basics: worship God for an hour, hopefully to give thanks for our lives and for our faith, but haven’t we also come to see what deeper conversions Jesus and Scripture invite us to?  Abraham and the Steward took initiative to move into new territory. They re-assessed their lives, scrutinized themselves, their priorities and actions, and in doing so discerned God’s will.   Jesus beckons us on a daily basis to do the same.  What initiatives are we willing to take today to equalize the world?  To insist that no one is above needing forgiveness including ourselves, that all need conversion, all need to be constantly challenged to make the world a better place not with competition but collaboration. Isn’t that what the Eucharist is all about?  Or not?

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