Print Version September 23rd, 2001
Well what the hell is that all about?! Problems, problems, problems! The crafty steward is a preacher’s nightmare. Some writers reckon that the bunch of sayings tacked on at its end—which all seem to try and interpret it—are themselves leftovers from four or five different homilies given in Luke’s own community. And look how they contradict each other! What chance do we have?
Well … maybe in the context of the reading from Amos and in the context of the two standards we can have a stab at getting some sense out of it.
As Ignatius sees it the way evil works in the world is to look good on the surface but be horrible underneath. We know the attraction of temptation only too well—we might not be outrageous and exploitative capitalists but we all know the attraction of security, of having something material to fall back on, of having money in the bank. After all nothing soothes the aching heart like retail therapy. The strategy of evil is definitely alluring but it is also deadly. It starts with the very reasonable attraction to good things and ends up bullying us into murder. That’s what both Ignatius and Amos agree on even if we resist the thought. We can be deeply religious and yet complicit in outright evil. Don’t we sometimes feel trapped by the things we have and the economic situation we are part of—when we see the poverty of African children or the use and abuse of our tender planet. But, we say, you can’t just change the world. You have to live with its realities. Yet don’t we feel the guilt when we see the victims of our possession? That’s the trap of the evil one. We start by being attracted to good things but end up ensnared and un-free and unable to change. Look at the language of the evil standard—it is all about snares and chains, tempting, bullying. But that reality has to be unveiled: outwardly it is all good sense and good stewardship. The veil of ordinary life and its compromises has to be lifted free … and when it is we see the throne of fire and smoke underneath.
The other standard has the opposite problem. “Attract them to poverty, to contempt, to humility.” Right! As if they are, in any way, attractive values. Outwardly they are horrible and terrifying. Ask the steward who is threatened with a dose of poverty and contempt and humiliation! But the language is all gentleness: none of the bad spirit’s force and fury. Jesus recommends, he chooses, he attracts. And when the veil is drawn away from the outward hardship of those words what is underneath is the plain of Jerusalem, lowly, beautiful and attractive—and Jesus sitting there, himself lowly, beautiful, and attractive—inviting you to join him.
Amos leaves us no wiggle room—godliness is not about religion but about justice, about how we spend our money. Religion gets pulled into the most evil of systems. And you don’t have a third choice, a third flag to fly—either you are with the poor or exploiting them.
The battle lines have been drawn up. If the parable says anything, it says ‘watch out… you never know when you’ll be called to account, you never know when you’ll be asked to show your bank book to the world.’ I guess I mean that metaphorically. But isn’t that a literal terror too. What reveals your real values better than the money you spend and how you spend it?
At least the wasteful steward came up with a contingency plan—he worked out what he could do when suddenly his values were held to account. Damn good idea too! Use money to make some friends.
That’s the challenge I guess … what’s our contingency plan? Where will we end up when our real values are put on display? If we had half the nous of the steward, half the astuteness of the children of this world, we come up with something good.