Bible Reflection (18 Sep 2022)

25th Sunday Year C

Amos 8:4-7
1 Timothy 2:1-8
Luke 16:1-13

Am I rich? Am I greedy? Am I jealous? Let us develop a sense of detachment from our money and possessions.

My dear friends, are you rich, I mean monetarily? While most of us have jobs, own our cars, and live in our own home, we do not consider ourselves rich. The reasons some of us do not think we are rich could be we have loans and mortgages; and some of us feel we need to do better, like getting a bigger house, a better car, more expensive holidays, etc. For an objective answer to this question, it helps to layout the facts. In Australia, the average weekly income is AUD 1,769.80 or about AUD 92,000 a year (Source: ABS). According to a recent BBC report, across the world and across all nations, the average income is USD 18,000 or about AUD 26,000 (Source: BBC). In other words, an average income earner in Australia is earning three-and-a-half times more than an average income earner in the world! So, why do we still think we are not rich? If we are honest, most of the time, the reasons are greed and envy. The truth is, no matter how much money I have or how much possessions I own, I always want more, especially when I look at someone else who has more than me. It is in this context that this week’s readings address to most of us.

The First Reading this week came from the prophet Amos. Amos lived around 750BC, at a time where wealth is concentrated in the hands of a privileged few. Then, as is now, it was typical of the rich to exploit the poor. In the passage, we hear the rich merchants ignoring the purpose and meaning of the sabbath as a day of worship. They were disgusted with the practice of sabbath as they could not work on that day and hence were unable to make any money. The reason why work was not permitted on the sabbath day was so that people can devote their time to worship God and attend to their families. But the merchants were not concerned about that. Instead, they were only concerned about the materialistic, that is, when will the sabbath be over so that they can make money again: “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale?” (verse 5) Not only that, as they sell their grains, they would unscrupulously temper with the scale and currency so as to maximise their profit, ripping off the poor in the process. “We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances” (verse 5) (Ephah is a unit of measure for grains in those times; while shekel is a unit of currency.) In fact, so unscrupulous they were that they would even sell “the sweepings of the wheat” (verse 6). The sweepings are the grains that fall onto the ground during day-to-day transactions. Normally, these are swept away and discarded. But in an unscrupulous move, the merchants were sweeping these up and selling them, together with the dirt that has been swept up. And who are these merchants who would commit such unethical acts? They are those who came to the temple to worship God and observe the sabbath day. What hypocrisy!

My brothers and sisters, what about us? Are we hypocritical as well? Have we been dishonest in our day-to-day dealings? Let us ask ourselves: Do I cheat and swindle others? Most of us might consider ourselves honest. We might think: Yes, I may not pay enough attention to the Sunday worship; and may be I desire more money than I need; but I do not consider myself unscrupulous like the merchants in the First Reading. This is worth further self-reflection. Let us ask ourselves: Am I subject to greed, which is the miserly desire to gain and hoard wealth? Do I give to charity and help those less fortunately than me? Even if I do, am I significantly more generous to myself and my own needs that to the needs of the poor? What about envy? Am I jealous of another’s possessions? Like the merchants, do I neglect my relationships with God and my loved ones so that I may acquire more wealth? Most of all, what about materialism? Do I prioritise material comfort over the spiritual well-being of myself, my family and my community? Do I devote as much time and efforts to serving my family and my community, as I do to make money? What about unjust wages? As an employer, am I practically stealing my employees’ time by paying unjust wages? What about unjust performance? As an employee, am I practically stealing my employer’s wages through my unjust performance? What about the stealing of intellectual property? Do I commit software piracy and illegal streaming of movie and music? What about gambling? Am I addicted to gambling – whether in casinos or in stock/property market speculation – such that I neglect the financial needs of my family and loved ones? These are hard questions indeed! In truth, greed and envy affects all of us. This is why Jesus teaches us detachment.

In this week’s Gospel, Jesus expounded the virtue of detachment from money and possessions, through His teaching of the Parable of the Dishonest Steward (or Manager). On first glance, this is a curious and confusing story. A rich man employed a dishonest manager. On hearing about the manager’s dishonest conduct, the master called the manager to tell the latter that he will be sacked. But the manager decided to conduct a final act of dishonesty. The manager called up all his master’s debtors and unilaterally reduced the amount each owed. He did so in order to earn favours from the debtors, so that they would treat him well after his employment with the master has ended. And here is the twist. When the master found out about the manager’s latest dishonest act, not only did he not punish the manager but “commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly”! What was going on? If you are asking this, then good. Jesus has caught your attention.

Often, Jesus would tell us of a parable and throw in a twist in the end. He catches our attention and makes us scratch our heads. For example, two weeks ago, we read how we should hate our loved one (Lk 18:26). In other parts of the Gospels, we read His seemingly harsh words to a Canaanite woman (Mt 15:26); how we should amputate our limbs and dig out our eyes (Mt 18:8-9); and last week we read how Jesus would illogically risk losing 99 healthy sheep to go looking for one lost sheep (Lk 15:4-6). But let us not just scratch out heads and dismiss these stories as non-sensical. Instead, let us reflect what is it that Jesus is really telling us. To understand these confusing teachings, we need to view it from God’s spiritual lens rather than with our human logic. In this Parable of the Dishonest Steward, the employment of the manager under the master represents our life on earth. Often, in our life, we are so absorbed with this life so much so that we lose sight of the next. This is the case with the dishonest manager. He was so busy enriching himself that he did not think about the day when his employment would come to an end. This is similar with us, especially on monetary matters. We are so busy making and accumulating money in this life that we lose sight of our eternal life. In a sense, the manager in the parable was fortunate in that the master informed him of his imminent dismissal. In truth, many of us live in ignorance of the timing of our departure from this earth. Like the rich fool in the Parable of the Rich Fool (Lk 12:16-21), we amass wealth till the day death strikes us unexpectedly. By then it is too late. As Jesus concluded at the end of that parable, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” (Lk 12:21) In this week’s parable, with the benefit of foresight of his imminent dismissal, what did the dishonest manager do? He called up each of his master’s debtors to cancel a portion of their respective debts. But there is a difference between his earlier dishonest acts and this latest act. Whereas before, the manager behaved dishonestly to enrich himself monetarily; but now, he has developed a detachment from money, albeit the master’s. He was dispensing with money in the last days of his employment, so as to enhance his well-being post-employment. So it should be with us. We ought to develop a detachment with wealth in this life for the sake of our well-being in the next. Hence, Jesus concluded at the end of the parable, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” (verse 9).

In truth, many of us are not so different from the dishonest merchants of the First Reading and the dishonest manager of the Gospel. Just like them, we commit acts of dishonesty without realising; or worse, realising but not acknowledging. The Church teaches us that greed and envy are two of the seven most serious sins that we call cardinal sins. These are called cardinal sins because they do not just affect us. They have flow-on effects to those around us. Consider those of us in leadership positions where others look up to us as examples – parents, employers, religious and ministry leaders. Our poor conduct effectively normalises sinful behaviours for people around us. In so doing, we are actually training them to commit sins. The problem is further compounded if we are proud, not self-aware or do not have someone who is prepared to provide us wise counsel in a loving way. We scandalise our families and our communities by our conduct. Referring to the family, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery – the preconditions of all true freedom.” (CCC 2223) But of course this does not apply just to our children and our families. Many of us hold leadership positions in faith communities, social clubs and commercial organisations. Our sinful behaviours in these faith-based, social and commercial settings have a similar flow-on effects as they do in our homes.

So, how do we turn away from sins? We need to nurture our spirituality through prayers; through reflecting on God’s Word, and through the loving support of those who genuinely care for us. To step away from sin, we also need to develop self-awareness of our sins, humility to admit to them; and courage to change. We also need to be patient and realise that conversion does not happen overnight. Conversion is a process. We do not become saints in an instance. Underscoring this in the Second Reading, St Paul wrote about praying for conversion, especially for those in leadership positions. St Paul wrote, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” (verse 1-2) Aptly, St Paul wrote these words for his friend, the young Bishop Timothy, who was a leader in the Church. St Paul concluded, “I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument” (verse 8).

My dear friends, let us pray for conversion – for us, for our loved ones, for our leaders, and for all our brothers and sisters. Amen.