The prophet Amos didn’t mince any words when it came to doing what God asked of him. His central message was that the worship of the people Israel was completely messed up, because they dishonored God in their daily living, in every possible way, at every possible moment. Today’s first reading is evidence enough of what Amos was sent to preach: he details the various ways the rich cheated the poor who came to buy life’s sustenance from them. And he concludes with the very haunting words: “Never will I forget a thing they have done!”
I think we should keep Amos’s words in mind as we try to wade through what is, I think, a rather difficult parable to unravel in today’s Gospel. The steward in the parable seems to be some kind of high-ranking assistant to the rich man. He has enough authority that he is able to rewrite the deals people had made with the man, such that the rich man would have to honor them. But apparently he has not been doing his job, because he learns that the rich man is about to fire him. Much as anyone would do when they learn of that impending crisis, he takes stock of his abilities: he isn’t strong enough for manual labor, and his position has made the prospect of begging too humiliating to bear.
Given that state of affairs, he knows that he has to start cutting deals with the rich man’s clients so that they will be more likely to help him when he is looking for it after he is fired. So he basically writes off a large chunk of their debts to the rich man. Now how he could do that is anyone’s guess. Some scholars say that he just wrote of the commission he himself would have received for collecting the debt. Others say that he wrote off the usurious interest the master had been charging. Since we don’t know the answer, we have to assume that detail was either understood by Jesus’ hearers or simply unimportant to the story itself.
Now the next statement is difficult for biblical scholars to unravel: “And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.” Are those words part of the parable? In other words, did the rich man call the servant dishonest, and if so, was this what was about to get the steward fired? It doesn’t seem like that is the case. The Greek word used for “master” here is kyrios, or Lord, which usually refers to Jesus in the gospels. So it seems like Jesus is the one who is calling the servant dishonest, and that serves to squash the impression that Jesus was commending the steward for his dishonest dealings; clearly that was not the case.
But having said all that and having waded our way through the strangeness of this parable, the question remains: what is the point? Certainly Jesus isn’t saying that we should deal deceitfully with others, be they poor or rich. I think what Jesus wants us to understand is that, in the vast scheme of things, there is something more important than money. For the steward on the eve of his unemployment, the money owed to his boss was far less important than his ability to live after he was let go. Perhaps all of this is summed up best by the words that come at the end of the gospel reading: “You cannot serve both God and mammon.”
But what does that even mean? What is mammon, precisely? Mammon is avarice, an excessive love for money that treats money as a false god. We don’t have to tax our imaginations too much to see what mammon might look like today. It could be spending too many hours at work and not seeing your children grow up. It could be a covetous desire for the very latest gadget, or the biggest flat-screen television, or the car with all the bells and whistles. Money, career, gadgets, cars … none of these things are evil in themselves. When we turn them into a goal that surpasses God such that they become gods in themselves, then we are serving mammon – our lives our way out of whack.
And usually when things are this far out of whack, someone is paying the price. It could be our families who are growing up not only with a basically absent parent, but also a skewed idea of what is really important in life. Or maybe we desire clothing or other goods at the very cheapest prices such that the cost is someone in a foreign land – perhaps even a child – working in a sweatshop hours on end for very little pay so that we can have them. Our desire for all the shiny gadgets may come at the cost of what they do to the environment, or at the cost of feeding the poor. Mammon creeps its way into our lives so easily, and we cannot serve both God and mammon.
So if we’re just here in church for the hour, and we cannot wait to get out of here and get to Best Buy, then we’re as bad as the people trampling the needy in our first reading. If we leave this place and forget what we’ve been taught, quickly returning to unjust business practices on Monday morning, then we are serving mammon, not God.
The Catholic image of worship and prayer is summed up in the Latin phrase lex orandi, lex credendi, which loosely-translated means “what we pray, we believe.” So our vision of worship is that it doesn’t stop when we say “Amen” – our worship goes on into our daily lives. In fact, when we say, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord” our worship has only just begun, because we only truly worship God when we live the Gospel and put our money where our mouth is.