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Readings: 17th Sunday after Trinity

13 September 2013

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Proper 20: Amos 8.4-7; 1 Timothy 2.1-7; Luke 16.1-13

Almighty God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you: pour your love into our hearts and draw us to yourself, and so bring us at last to your heavenly city where we shall see you face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

AMOS is forthright about justice in business dealings. Since Magna Carta introduced national standards for weights and measures, we have taken these for granted, but in Amos's day there was no benchmark or redress against fraudulent measures. Only God heard the cry of the poor (Job 34.28), and Amos declared that God never forgot abuses that brought them to ruin.

Even though Deuteronomy (23.19-20) forbade charging interest, by Jesus's time there was endless scope for working round that prohibition, and business interest rates of 50 per cent were normal. Jesus builds on this with a story of huge volumes of goods and money: this was a massive enterprise. The level of trust in the manager had been enormous.

Human nature does not change, and the readings remind us that, although more sophisticated in manifestation, banking scandals today are but part of a dishonourable history of the misuse of other people's money and the manipulation of facts and figures to secure financial advantage at other people's expense.

Like the prodigal son in Luke's previous chapter, this manager was squandering someone else's property. Jesus is clear that the money was owed to his master: it was not simply unauthorised commission to line the manager's pockets.

When called to account, the manager's priority was to ensure that he would have friends after his "banking collapse". His action in rewriting the legal documents, to reduce what was owed, was a wily way of achieving his stated ends, although far from an honest way of serving his master, who commended him for his shrewdness, not his honesty. We can imagine the master shaking his head in dumbfounded amazement at this latest twist to the tale, as he realised he had been out-manoeuvred, yet again, by his manager.

When commending this approach to making friends, Jesus was undoubtedly speaking ironically, which we miss because, we cannot hear the tone of voice that he used.

We also lose something significant in translation, because whereas the manager wanted to ensure that he would be received into people's "homes", Jesus used a different word the second time, and spoke of his being received into people's eternal "tents". That is an oxymoron: there is nothing eternal about tents, and Jesus's hearers would have picked up the mockery: the steward wanted earthly security, but Jesus said, in effect: "Go ahead and do what he did; join the company of rogues and share their eternal insecurity."

Another, subtler reading of Jesus's comment to the disciples, to whom this parable was directed, looks forward to the ensuing parable about the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16.19-31). In this reading, Jesus was challenging his disciples to use their money to ensure that the poor, like Lazarus, will receive them into their eternal home with God.

If the parable is surprising, so, too, are Jesus's next words. Instead of saying, as we might expect: "If you have not been faithful with what belongs to you, who will entrust you with what belongs to other people?", Jesus reversed it, and placed the onus on our proving our reliability with what belongs to other people before we are given what is our own.

Perhaps the key lies in the fact that we are held accountable for our stewardship of what belongs to others, whereas what we do with our own possessions does not normally involve such answerability to other people; so any deceit can go unchecked. We have to have our own internal moral standards, which we learn by being held responsible for our actions.

Jesus was overheard and ridiculed by Pharisees, whom Luke describes as "lovers of money" (Luke 16.14). Attempts to unpick corrupt systems and live ethically, uncontrolled by money, frequently bring scorn. In his comment at the end of the parable, Jesus brings it down to what masters us.

On another occasion, Jesus said: "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6.21). So this week we pray, wisely, to get the foundation right: for God's love to be poured into our hearts.

We predicate our prayer on St Augustine's confession: "Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in thee." Hearts at rest in God should be less likely to be trying to find ways to seek security by exploiting others.

 

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