Fifty-third in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Amos 8:4-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-8; Luke 16:1-13
Every so often, at work or among friends or wherever, people will argue with me about making a big deal out of things or picking the wrong battles or getting bogged down in the little things. Now don’t get me wrong – I’m fully aware of how neurotic I can get about details. But I also know that there’s a problem in taking it as-read that little things don’t matter. In the first place, if you keep disregarding little things to focus on big things, it won’t be long until the little things disappear from your mind completely and you start thinking of big things as more little things. And second, if you disregard the little things long enough, you eventually get a really big thing that’s a veritable Gordian knot of little things that will either overwhelm you or has to be completely done away with in one authoritatively fell swoop. Such is the situation in which the characters in our readings today have found themselves. Too many little things have gone unattended, and have become a big thing. And now, someone will act. A question arises: what is the line between belief and presumption? When do we simply assume God’s mercy instead of entrusting ourselves into it?
In the First Reading the prophet Amos, writing in the middle of the 8th century B.C., brings a severe promise from God in response to the dishonest business practices of the people. Disgusted by an attitude that longs for festivals and days of rest to be over so that they can rig the weights and measures in their favor, God has simply this to say to such people: “Never will I forget a thing they have done.” These aren’t the actions of those who don’t know any better. These aren’t even the highest or the lowliest of God’s chosen people. These are the ones among the people who have a responsibility to attend to what they have been given, and in some cases to whom they have been given. They know their duty to God and neighbor, and they continually ignore it to benefit themselves. They are running their own show at the expense of the poor and the needy, and in refusing to acknowledge their sin – and therefore failing to seek forgiveness from God – they have been building up a lot of little things for themselves. In a few more decades a big thing would happen as the Assyrians, who had been treating Israel’s rulers in a similar way, would finally move in to capture the northern capital of Samaria. In this unfortunate scenario, the solution to the tangled knot Israel had worked itself into was the same as Alexander the Great’s with the original Gordian knot: a sword strike right through the middle.
A similar situation confronts the dishonest steward who is the star of Jesus’ parable in the Gospel reading. After years of squandering his master’s property and making shady deals, the steward is about to be fired. However, rather than be overwhelmed by the situation he has delivered himself into, he uses the same skills that got him into this mess to create a safety net for himself, lessening the amounts owed by his master’s debtors – in one case, by half – so that after he is fired they might be likely to do him a favor. It’s an odd parable from Jesus, showcasing dishonesty as a virtue. He even says that the steward was commended by his master for acting “prudently” – a word usually reserved in Scripture for righteous men like Saint Joseph! But Jesus uses it as an example to His “children of light” about how to deal with the things of this world. “[M]ake friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth,” He tells His disciples, because “[t]he person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones.” What smaller things can there be in the grand cosmic scheme than money, possessions, stuff – “mammon”? “No one can serve two masters,” but one doesn’t have to be the servant of a second master in order to know how to deal shrewdly with him when the time comes.
Jesus shows us that by learning how practically worldly people deal with worldly goods, we may learn how to do the same and increase our mercy and compassion for those who only know the things of the passing world. In doing so we can seek to unravel our knots instead of cutting through them. No wonder Saint Paul, in our Second Reading, writes to his disciple Timothy prayers should always be offered for everyone, whether part of the community or not, and especially “for kings and for all in authority.” God “wills everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of truth,” and so we pray constantly not just for ourselves but for those who do not or would not pray for themselves. We aren’t supposed to just learn from each other; we’re supposed to save each other. God will do whatever we ask of Him when we ask with a pure heart, “lifting up holy hands, without anger or argument.” Why should we refuse to ask Him to show His mercy to those who don’t ask for it, who maybe don’t even trust it? Why should we leave them in the same precarious position as the Israelites in the First Reading, whose sin God would have forgotten for all time if such favor had been earnestly sought? Who are we to deny anyone that opportunity when it is in our power to secure it for them?
The Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon once said that the wicked cut through life’s Gordian knots, and that the righteous try to unravel them, but that only God can untie them. May we never force God’s hand into inaction by our own inaction. May we always be conscious of the little things before they become big things. And may Our Lady, whom the Lord has made the Undoer of Knots, help smooth our way.