It is very difficult to talk about financial equity in a market-driven economy. Some entertainers and sports figures earn extravagant salaries, while people in essential service professions like teaching often find it difficult to make ends meet. So many people struggle with some form of money problem. But in the broader scope of world economy, citizens of this country are considered to be among the most privileged. If we were to follow the Gospel injunction to “sell what you have and give to the poor,” we would have to go on welfare and would become someone else’s financial burden. What are we supposed to do?
The Bible never really tells us what to do. Instead, it provides standards that suggest how we are to do what we decide. We see this in today’s reading from Amos. The prophet is speaking to the wealthy who live in the prosperous northern kingdom. He does not condemn prosperity itself, but the way they use the power that comes from wealth. Rather than take care of the less fortunate in their midst, they take advantage of them for their own benefit.
We must remember that the people of ancient Israel were bound together by covenant. This arrangement implies that the wealthy had covenant responsibilities to the needy. Caring for the poor of the land was not a question of charity; it was a matter of covenant justice.
The Gospel reading is rather difficult to understand. A man who first squandered the property of his employer and then hoodwinked him out of goods that were due him is actually praised by the very employer he outmaneuvered. A closer look will discover that the steward was praised for his prudence (the Greek word used here means practical wisdom), not for his dishonesty.
The ancients had developed an economic system very different from what we have today, and so we cannot judge the steward by our standards. The story does not tell us what debts were forgiven. They might have been the overcharge that enhanced the employer’s holdings at the expense of the debtors, or they could have been the commission that he himself would have taken off the top. Whatever the case, the steward did not manage his employer’s property well, but he certainly knew how to endear himself to the debtors, thus taking care of himself. He showed self-interested practical wisdom.
It is precisely this practical wisdom that Jesus holds up to the children of light. Like the steward, they are expected to exercise practical wisdom. He, however, was devious. They are to be trustworthy, even in matters that pertain to this world, for “the person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones.”
This passage may be better understood if we look at the meaning of some of the Greek vocabulary. Two important words are derived from oíkos, the Greek word for household: oikonómos, steward or household manager, and oiketés, household servant. Neither the steward nor the household servant can claim ownership of the goods of the household. Jesus’ last words declare, “You cannot serve both God and mammon.” “Serve” means be to be a slave to something. In this passage dishonest “wealth” and “mammon” are translations of the same Greek word. Jesus is saying that we have to choose between God and riches dishonestly acquired or clung to.
Another word derived from oíkos (household) that is not found in the story but that is important for our consideration is oikonomía (economy or household management). The word’s range of meaning has broadened to include even the largest human communities. Our contemporary economy is not only market driven, but it is also based on principles of private property. As valuable as these principles may be, they often blur some of the values raised in today’s readings. Besides, although we have a right to private property, we know that we really only use the goods of the earth. They are not our exclusive property. Pope John Paul II speaks of the “social mortgage” of all our possessions.
Using the language of the Gospel, we might say that the earth with all its riches is the household; God is the householder; and we are the stewards or household servants. The question is: Just how do we manage the goods that are in our trust? Are we devious, or are we trustworthy? Do we manage these goods in ways that enhance the entire household and benefit all who belong, or do we squander them, thinking only of ourselves? And when we are called to accountability, do we change our course of action, or do we finagle ways that will guarantee our own comfort, even at the expense of others? Do we cling to the rights of private property, or do we recognize our covenant responsibility in seeing to the just needs of others?
Jesus’ last words are very demanding. He tells us that we cannot be slaves to both God and mammon. The decision is left to us.