Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with the Old Testament prophet Amos. Through Amos, God warns the wealthy who cheat the poor that God will not forget their sin. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus speaks a parable about a rich man who employs a wasteful steward. Recognizing that he will be fired, the steward then negotiated with the people who owed his master, collecting a smaller amount. Seeing this, the master then praised his steward. Jesus then told those gathered that they should “use money, tainted as it is, to win you friends, and thus make sure that when it fails you, they will welcome you into the tents of eternity.” He goes on to say that anyone who cannot be trusted with money, they won’t be trusted with greater things. Finally he tells them that nobody can serve two masters and will need to choose between God and money.
I like the prophet Amos and wish his writings were more well known. Martin Luther King often quoted Amos 5:24: “then let justice surge like water, and goodness like an unfailing stream. It’s a short book, only 9 chapters, but it packs a punch. Amos wrote during a time of relative prosperity and he warned against the wealthy who cheated the poor.
It’s tempting to look at these readings and believe that wealth is a sin and money a poison but it’s more complicated than that. Amos’ time, like our own, wasn’t populated by only the wealthy. I’m not an economist but I’ve never heard of a society where everyone was wealthy; we take for granted that any society will have a disparity of wealth, where a few are wealthy, some are in the middle, and others live in poverty.
I do know that we define economics as the science of production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. And I know that nations or societies who have attempted to control the distribution have done nothing more than drastically limit production. In the 20th Century a few nations attempted Karl Marx’s ideal of a worker’s paradise; they called it Communism and saw capitalism as the enemy. Marx had no use for religion, calling it “the opiate of the masses.” But instead of beginning a paradise they ended up with nearly everyone living in poverty. Clearly the message of Amos isn’t that our government should legislate us out of economic disparity. It’s simply not practical.
And I think the idea of practicality gives us the bridge to today’s Gospel. At first blush it’s a confusing reading. Jesus often teaches with parables and most of the time the protagonist is a good guy. Think of the father in the prodigal son story. But what are we to make of the rich man and the steward?
I think we can all agree that they have an interesting relationship. The steward begins as an employee about to be fired, but instead of improving his job performance, he cuts deals with people who owe his boss. And then, amazingly, his boss approves.
So what gives here? It’s not like the boss’ debtors pay up: they just owe less. This steward doesn’t sound like my idea of employee of the month. But he was the rich man’s employee of the month. Perhaps the steward did well because his employer found in him a kindred spirit, whose greed translated into the grudging respect for this steward. Or, to quote Star Wars, “You’re my kind of slime.” Perhaps the steward recognized what would appeal to his master; that makes him quite the pragmatist.
In any case, there’s no way Jesus saw him as a good guy or someone to emulate.
Simply put, God is not a pragmatist. Again and again we see God and Jesus refusing to cut corners and criticizes those who do. God instead rewards generosity, and doing the right thing because it is the right thing. And when Jesus says to “use money, tainted as it is, to win you friends, and thus make sure that when it fails you, they will welcome you into the tents of eternity,” I think he’s being sarcastic. In other words, if you choose wealth over love you should go all in so that when it runs out you’ll have a place to go.
So where do we go with these readings?
Most of us who read this live in a capitalist society and legislating distribution of goods and services clearly doesn’t work, what do we do?
I’m not a libertarian and I believe there is a role for legislation in creating fairness. But I also believe it’s not the only answer. Instead of embracing communism, can we “baptize” capitalism? In other words, can we hold ourselves and our neighbors to a standard that encourages fair distribution of goods and resources? I think we can but it will call us to a sea change.
As I write this we are learning that a family here in the United States are worth something around $14 billion. They made much of their fortune from the sale of a highly addictive pain medication. There are two problems with this: first, who needs that much money? And second, when marketing their product they made claims they knew were false: they knowingly lied and said the medication wasn’t addictive when they knew that it was.
And what did it get them? Nobody can spend that amount of money and now their name is vilified; today we learned that they are declaring bankruptcy as a way to protect their assets. To quote Monhandas Gandhi: The world has enough for everyone’s need but not everyone’s greed.
I recognize that anyone who would do what they did to build their wealth wouldn’t find much interest in my writings, but I think there is a message for us too. Can we baptize capitalism? Can we look again at our consumption? It could be as simple as scrutinizing our giving to promote greater fairness in distribution. We can also recognize that generosity is time and talent, not just treasure. Our generosity, in the final word, isn’t just giving, it’s investing.
Let us invest on those things that will pay dividends to create the world that Amos and Jesus call us to.