14th Sunday after Trinity

12 September 2019

Proper 20: Trinity 14: Amos 8.4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2.1-7; Luke 16.1-13

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THE parable of the unjust steward is one that “we should all read and consider before attempting to interpret any of the other parables of Jesus”. As Justo González explains, it undoes the common notion of parables as “nice stories about commendable people whom we ought to imitate” (Belief — A Theological Commentary on the Bible: Luke). The story concerns the behaviour of the “children of this age” — a surprising set of people from whom to draw lessons for discipleship.

The steward is dismissed by his manager for “squandering his property”. To avoid a life of poverty, the steward’s response is to reduce the bills of his master’s debtors, so that, after his dismissal, they will “welcome him into their homes”. St Augustine observes that Jesus does not condone the steward’s dishonesty. The lesson is rather that he “exercised foresight for the future”. The master’s praise is the rueful admiration of one “child of this age” for the foresight of another.

Jesus’s challenge to the “children of light” is to act with the same degree of foresight — but according to a different set of values, and for a different future. In Augustine’s words, “When even a cheat is praised for his ingenuity, Christians who make no provision blush.”

The steward’s treatment of the debtors was instrumental. The writing-down of debt was motivated not by compassion, but by selfish interest. In contrast, Jesus urges the “children of light” to use any wealth they have to “make friends”: that is, to form genuine relationships. St John Chrysostom explains that the “friends” whom Jesus is referring to are the poor; for it is they who will welcome others “into the eternal home”. This echoes Jesus’s earlier instruction to his host to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” to his feasts (Luke 14.12-14). In this age, wealth should be used to build relationships that anticipate — and, indeed, participate in — the life of God’s coming Kingdom.

Jesus goes on to warn that “you cannot serve God and wealth.” The choices of the “children of this age” are intelligible in the light of their allegiance to Mammon. In contrast, the behaviour of the “children of light” is often confused as they seek to live at ease in this world’s empires rather than as exiles who belong to a different Kingdom.

Amos also challenges his hearers to handle wealth in the light of God’s future. Addressing a decadent ruling class, whose members have ceased to believe that they will be held to account for their actions, he prophesies a reckoning that will bring justice for those whom they now oppress and cheat.

Our epistle urges its readers to pray “for everyone”, and specifically for “kings and all who are in high positions”. Kings are to be prayed for, but never to be worshipped. Their authority is always subject to that of the true King of Kings. The early Christians paid a heavy price for their refusal to participate in the Emperor cult. For them, to pray for their rulers was often to “pray for those who persecute [you]” (Matthew 5.44).

Paul never allows the violence of empire to turn his heart to hatred, nor to distract him from the reality of God’s sovereignty (cf. Philemon 1, where he describes himself as a “prisoner of Christ Jesus”, not of Caesar). As John Barclay argues, his ministry “subverts Rome’s imperial claims precisely by not opposing them within their own terms, but by reducing Rome’s agency and historical significance to just one more entity in a much greater drama”.

He neither defers to Rome’s might, nor does he seek to replace its empire with another. “To upstage or outdo Rome would be to accept its terms of reference, even in surpassing them” (Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews).

The world’s rulers are to be loved and prayed for, even when they cannot be obeyed. The Christian hope is always that their hearts may be turned. Our epistle emphasises that “God’s will to save extends to all, perhaps to counter a more restrictive view of salvation promulgated by gnosticizing opponents” (Jouette Bassler, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus).

These lections call us to witness to Christ, with confidence and love, in the face of the empires of Mammon. We are neither to be ensnared by such empires, nor to respond to their violence in kind; for it is God’s Kingdom that represents the ultimate reality.

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