Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 22 September 2013
Amos 8:4-7;Psalm 113:1-2, 4-8; 1 Timothy 2:1-8; Luke 16:1-13
Jesus warns us that we cannot serve two masters. What implications does that have for how we relate to authority? Paul writing to Timothy instructs Christians to pray for those who have power over us, so that we may lead a peaceful and tranquil life. Perhaps because I grew up in apartheid South Africa where I was taught that religion and politics don’t mix and only woke up later to the horrors that such an attitude allowed, I feel a visceral reaction against that passage in the Epistles. It seems like a cop-out – be all spiritual about it, and hope for the best. But I’ve learned to take that reaction as an invitation to dig deeper, to re-think my interpretation.
When we pray ‘Thy Kingdom come’ we are asking for something that is ultimately God’s work. For the systems of this world to begin to reflect the values of the Kingdom of God, a very dramatic conversion of the powers is needed. No wonder we need to pray! But as well as praying we need to be actively serving our true Master. And we’re not doing that unless we’re committed to and working for the things which matter to God. And what is that? Amos, prophet of social justice, makes clear that God is passionately, vehemently opposed to the people and systems that exploit those who lack wealth and power. Amos proclaimed that Israel would be punished because of this social injustice, and it was destroyed by the Assyrians about 40 years later. Clearly then, we can’t be praying for the peaceful continuation of a system built on injustice and exploitation, even if the system benefits us. That’s to have chosen the wrong master.
Psalm 113 is one of many psalms that celebrate the Lord as king. There are two ways in which the metaphor of God as the great king can be employed. One is the way that legitimates all human authority that claims to rule in God’s name. If God is enthroned above all, and the earthly authority rules by God’s decree, then to oppose that authority is to oppose God. One doesn’t need to know too much history to know that this notion can be used to perpetrate all manner of atrocities in God’s name. The second way of understanding the metaphor of God as king is, I believe, more consistent with Jesus’ teaching. It recognises that God’s claim to kingship undermines and relativises all other claims. If the God who is enthroned above all raises the lowly and seats the poor with princes, as the psalm puts it, then any lower authority that exploits the poor and rules in favour of the elite against those without power is in direct rebellion against the ultimate Power.
These reflections on the other readings in today’s lectionary give us a way in to one of Jesus’ most puzzling parables, that of the dishonest steward. It’s a story of a trickster which would have delighted Jesus’ predominantly poor and disenfranchised audience. In it, a steward who is about to lose his job uses his last few days to write off some of the debts owed to his master, hoping to make friends who will help him out when he is unemployed. The steward who tricks the wealthy master to help other needy people would be a hero for the crowds that followed Jesus but modern readers seem to be more uncomfortable with the ethics of his actions. What does this parable tell us about the Kingdom of God? The steward who finds himself in dire straits also finds himself freed from the need to keep his master happy, since he’s losing his job anyway. That difficult situation is also a liberating one which enables him to make different choices about who to prioritise. In some way, to be a Christ-follower in this world puts us in a similar situation to that of the steward. We’re still officially part of the system but our allegiance lies elsewhere now. Our actions shouldn’t be directed any longer toward benefiting the powers that be, but we can look around to see how we can act to benefit others, particularly the poor. Jesus came to proclaim release to debtors, and that’s what the steward can do now. Sure, his motives in Jesus’ story are selfish – the master he is serving is his own long-term best interests. The master we serve is different. But our actions should be similar – using the systems of this world to undermine those very systems. What does that look like? For Jesus, it meant calling the bluff of the so-called justice of the Roman occupying force and the so-called holiness of the religious leaders who ended up crucifying an innocent man and God-with-us in order to protect their self-serving systems. Martin Luther King Jr and Mahatma Gandhi are two powerful examples of thinking creatively and acting courageously to challenge the powers that be toward conversion, to bring them a little more in line with the will and the ways of the true Lord. Serving our new Master takes imagination and shrewdness and courage. It must begin with the small steps. When we choose in the little things to serve God and those without power, we’re training ourselves to be able to respond to the bigger issues in a way that reflects God’s own priorities. And if we’re working alongside the One enthroned on high, our efforts will count for something.