An Altar of Human Hands

beggarTwenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time: 9-18-16

Peace be with You,

The gospel message we heard last week challenged us to face the uncomfortable reality that we are fallen creatures by confronting us with the most clear sign of our fallenness, i.e. that we turn away from the love of God just as he offers it to us.  A natural reaction to this reality would be to consign it to the realm of the abstract; saying something along the lines of “well it’s so hard to have a relationship with God because I can’t see or hear him.”  This has elements that seem to be true to a certain degree; however, to refute this reaction in a point by point fashion is not my intention here.  Instead, as we see in our readings today, even if that were actually the case, this is no excuse for not actively entering into a loving relationship with our God.

Our first reading for this week comes from the book of the prophet Amos.  By many biblical scholars, Amos is referred to as the prophet of social justice.  The reason for this is that at the center of Amos’ prophetic messages is the subject of social justice, as we see exemplified in our first reading for today.  There we find the prophet charging the people of Israel of ‘trampling upon the needy and destroying the poor of the land’ through fraudulent business practices (Amos 8:4-6).  As we hear from the prophet, such practices do not go unnoticed by God and He promises that the people will face judgment because of such deeds.  Thus, we see here that God clearly takes a stand on the side of the needy, a trend which will not end with the tradition of the Old Testament but makes itself quite obvious in the New Testament, especially in the gospel of Luke.  With this in mind, let us turn to the gospel reading for today.

The parable spoken by Jesus today presents itself in a puzzling fashion.  At first glance, he seems to be portraying a man who is obviously conducting his business affairs in a deceitful manner in a positive light, saying that in the end “The master commended the dishonest steward for his prudence,” then adding, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:8 & 9).  So what gives?  Is Jesus really proposing that we act in a dishonest manner when it comes to business dealings and saying that somehow this will assure us of eternal life?  Well, if the reading stopped there, we may be right to think that Jesus is contradicting the rest of the gospel message, however, the conclusion of the gospel message gives us a clue as to how we are to read the parable.

Having finished the parable Jesus says: “No servant can serve two masters.  He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve both God and mammon” (Luke 16:13; N.B. “mammon” is an Aramaic word meaning wealth).  So, Jesus sets a decision before us, do we serve God or mammon, i.e. wealth.  Put differently, what are we devoting our energies to, building up material wealth, or building up the Kingdom of God?  The question then is clear, but another question arises: How does the dishonest steward serve as a good example of one who devotes their energies to building up the Kingdom of God?  To begin, we must understand what is meant by the description of the man as a steward.  In this historical context, a steward was a head servant who would handle the business affairs of the master, which is why we see in the parable that the steward is able to lessen the debt owed to the master by various individuals.  Now, we must be clear, the motivations and the manner in which the steward conducts his affairs are wrong, as he is merely trying to save his own skin and goes about doing so in a very deceptive manner.  This is most certainly not what Jesus is pointing to as exemplary.  What Jesus is holding up as an example is with whom the steward is being generous.  In the story, the individuals with whom the steward is generous are those who owe a large debt to the master, evidently those who were in need enough to take out the loan (whatever form it may have been taken out in) in the first place.  Thus, though because of wrong motivations, the steward helps those in need.  Put simply, the steward ends up putting the emphasis on the people instead of the wealth.  We see this indicated by his thoughts: “I know what I shall do so that, when I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes” (Luke 16:4).  In a puzzling fashion, the steward ends up acting in a manner contrary to that which was condemned by God through the prophet Isaiah.  For though acting deceptively, he does so in order to befriend those in need and it is precisely this emphasis on the person that Jesus commends even going so far as to hold him up as an example to others as to how they may gain “eternal dwellings.”  So, our next question must be: Why is generosity to those in need so pleasing to God?

The answer to this question is twofold.  First, the Church has long understood that to be generous and to identify oneself with the poor is to imitate Jesus, who though God, became poor like us (Philippians 2:6-7).  Consequently, to be generous to the poor is to be generous to the one who bears the image of Christ in a very profound and real way, such that to be generous to them is to be generous to God Himself, as we see in the parable of the last judgment (Matthew 25).  Speaking on the topic to his congregation, St. John Chrysostom challenged his congregation in a way that is still very challenging for us who call ourselves Christian today: “You honor this altar indeed, because it receives Christ’s body [at the Eucharist].  But the poor man, who is himself the body of Christ, you treat with scorn…You can see this altar lying around everywhere, both in the streets and in market places, and you can sacrifice upon it every hour; for on this too is sacrifice performed” (Homily on 2 Corinthians).

My friends, if the words of Jesus are a bit obscure, the message of St. John Chrysostom is very clarifying.  We find ourselves in a world that upholds material wealth as a sort of ultimate good.  At the same time, we find ourselves in a society that sees the divide between the haves and have-nots grow with every passing day.  A simply glance in the streets of our cities tells the story, this is no secret, we are surrounded by those who lack the very basic necessities of life.  Today the gospel challenges us to look at those in need, and not see someone who wants to take something from us, but rather see them as someone giving us a beautiful opportunity. If we allow ourselves to, we see the face of the One Whose image we bear in the faces of all who hold out a hand to us in need, and those hands that reach out to us no longer appear to grasp what is not theirs.  Instead those hands are seen for what they are; an altar upon which to offer a gift to our God in love, an opportunity to return to God what is already his, an opportunity to return the love of Him Who we so often turn away from.

Your servant in Christ,


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