Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Cheat the World

Matthew’s Gospel has the famous story of the talents: those who make money get more.  To contradict a worldly interpretation of that parable, Luke’s Gospel gives a very different version, which we read this Sunday.

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Our first reading, from the Prophet Amos, sounds the theme: “Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land!”  Interesting that they ask, “When will the new moon be over . . . that we may sell our grain, and the sabbath, that we may display the wheat?”  They observe the Law.

But they also say, “We will diminish the ephah, add to the shekel, and fix our scales for cheating!”  They cut corners.  They “buy the lowly for silver.”  And “The Lord has sworn . . . Never will I forget a thing they have done!”  Maybe we should start worrying about the way we do business.

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Our Gospel immediately follows last Sunday’s Prodigal Son.  Jesus tells the story of a steward getting fired “for squandering his property.”  His solution is to squander it more: “How much do you owe my master?”  “One hundred measures.”  “Quickly write [a new bill] for fifty.”  To get his employer’s debtors to “welcome me into their homes,” he helps them cheat his employer.  Pretty rotten. 

And somehow, Jesus says we should copy that conniving steward.

The key verse might be the one right after our reading ends.  Next week we will read Luke’s story of the Rich Man and Lazarus.  But we skip five verses between that story and this one.  The first of those verses says, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him.”

In last week’s Gospel, he told the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son—and the celebrations when they were found—to contradict the Pharisees’ scandal at him welcoming sinners.  But all of those stories leave us open to thinking that the real goal is to have prosperous farms, money, and parties.  We, who are like the Pharisees not only in our lack of mercy but also in our love of money, might get the wrong idea.

So Jesus launches into this story, and next week’s, about the Rich Man and Lazarus.

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Here’s the moral Jesus draws from this strange story of the dishonest steward: “Make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

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It’s one of Jesus’s weirder analogies, but it works: We are the dishonest steward.  The boss is this world.  He is going to fire us; he rejects us; he does not care for us; he will not provide for us, he will fail us. 

And so like the dishonest steward, we should cheat him right back.  Waste his money.  Deny his values.  Take his wealth away from him and use it for better things.  Serve God, not mammon.  Use the things of this world, not to grow richer in this world, not to impress the boss who will fire you.  Use the things of this world, as the dishonest steward did, saying, “I know what I shall do so that, when I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes”—or rather, as Jesus later explains, “into eternal dwellings.” 

Focus not on what the world wants.  Cheat the world, and do what God wants.  That means, for example, caring for the Poor Man Lazarus.  It means that instead of cutting corners and trampling on the needy, you give and don’t count the cost.

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“What is exalted among men,” Jesus says, in the second verse between this week’s reading and next’s, “is an abomination in the sight of God.”  Live by a different standard.

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The fifth and last verse we skip is Luke’s only treatment of divorce: “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.”  All the strength and punch of Jesus’s teaching.  But Luke cuts it down, and puts it in a different context.  What does it mean to live Jesus’s teaching on marriage?  It means rejecting worldly standards.  You can better understand what he says about marriage, Luke thinks, if you learn not to be worldly about money.

Our reading from First Timothy adds a parallel about government.  “There is one God.  There is also one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”  So approach even government, not with worldly perspectives—not with tribalism, not with attempts to get more money or honor or whatever for you and yours—but with a desire for unity, working for peace and quiet, not for war.

It’s not enough to follow the Law—observing the sabbath, or avoiding adultery, and then looking for how you can cheat your neighbor to get more money.  Jesus calls us to a new standard.  Subordinating our financial life to that standard is a good start in living a truly converted life.

Where could you cheat the world by being kinder?

eric.m.johnston

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