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Worship, praying & good works

September 18, 2016

25th Sunday Year C                           18 September 2016

Amos 8:4-7                                 1 Timothy 2:1-8                          Luke 16:1-13

Today’s readings offer essential advice for Christians living in a fallen world. The theme is about putting into practice two of the Ten Commandments: the First and the Seventh. One and Seven. Remind yourself occasionally over the next few days about ‘One and Seven’ and how they make a difference to your life. If they don’t make any difference to your behaviour, something has gone wrong, and you need to think carefully about it. Incidentally, thinking carefully about things like that is called ‘repentance’. Call it re-thinking, turning things around to the way they should be… repentance.

A reminder of the First and Seventh Commandments: they are about not worshipping false gods; and stealing.

So, the First Commandment is ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.’

Now, maybe you’re thinking, ‘Yes, I’m OK on that one, because…., well, here I am at Mass. There’s a danger is that we can simply get into the habit of being at Mass, ticking a box. The question is, do we completely submit to God in the sense that we recognise that without God we are absolutely nothing? Are we grateful God created us and our world? Have we rediscovered our child-like sense of awe and wonder in the midst of God’s people?

You see, the cares of this world can knock us off track and we can end up going through the motions, but not letting the beauty, the mystery and the sheer power of our Mass carry us to a higher plane – to that place where we completely submit to God’s will, where we rest in the palm of His hand and are inspired to goodness. To a place where we really MEAN our prayers.

The problem of lukewarm worship is nothing new. The Prophet Amos was warning against it 750 years before the birth of Jesus. Israel at that time was experiencing an economic upturn. Growing trade and relative peace meant Israel was getting quite wealthy. But in the process people were forgetting about the First Commandment. Their faith became lukewarm. As countries get wealthy they can begin to worship a false god called ‘the economy’. And things are likely to go badly wrong. Con merchants, sharp practice, fiddling, cheating everywhere. You can’t trust anyone. Think about those unwanted emails and nuisance phone calls. And all such greedy, grasping behaviour is breaking the Seventh Commandment: ‘You shall not steal’

Something else happened in the time of Amos, which is equally true today: it was the age-old story of the rich getting richer while the poor got poorer. In fact, then as now, the poor were being exploited by the rich few, with a growing social divide between the rich and the poor. Don’t make the mistake of thinking, ‘I’m OK, I’m not a thief’. The problem is we are living in a den of thieves called modern society. All the time ordinary people are very much the victims of theft, sacrificed on the altar of that false god called ‘the economy’. Think zero hours contracts; think hungry people at food banks. Think, ‘What am I going to do about it?’

Another problem is that growing inequality in society seems to go hand in hand with people abandoning God. The Prophet Amos reminds us that the one true God should always be at the very centre of our daily lives; and he fearlessly warns those who are exploiting the poor that there is a price to be paid, in the shape of divine judgment: God ‘will never forget a single thing you have done.’ Amos’ words are a timely reminder for us too. As Christians we cannot simply allow ourselves to passively accept things that are wrong. And neither can we cop out by turning a blind eye to injustice by presuming that God will forgive us – that itself is serious error the Church calls ‘presumption’. No, we need to be in the forefront of the fight against worldly sin by doing three things: worshipping God; praying; and leading good lives that help the disadvantaged.

We’ve also heard today Saint Paul writing to one of his young converts, Timothy. Timothy was Paul’s travelling companion; he had been ordained and then took on been the challenging responsibility of being the new pastor in charge of the community of Christians in Ephesus. Paul is writing to Timothy to guide and encourage him in his new work as a Christian leader. If you like, Paul’s letter is a very useful guidebook for newly appointed parish priests. I’m sure Fr Paul would agree, and in fact I think he has read it at some stage, because I’ve noticed in the short time since he arrived that he often starts Mass with a reminder on the need for and the power of prayer. 2,000 years ago, being a committed Christian was not an easy option. It’s the same today. Those in charge don’t like troublesome Christians. An example of the price of being a Christian is touched on when Paul writes about praying “especially for kings and others in authority”. Being a true Christian means bravely standing up to the serious errors accepted by the society around us. And Paul is certainly doing this. The early Christians were living in the pagan Roman Empire, an Empire where the Emperor himself was worshipped as a god. It may not be obvious to us, but to those early Christians Paul’s words are very much about that First Commandment, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.’ Paul is saying, ‘Oh no you don’t’: the Emperor is NOT divine – Christians pray FOR the Emperor, not TO him.’ That idea was certainly a pretty brave thing to say in those times. But the early Christians’ faith and commitment to the one true God was certainly not lukewarm and it was more important to them than toeing the line and keeping their heads down. Paul’s message is a stark reminder of the personal consequences of living as a Christian. There are places in the world, even today, where people accept baptism through faith despite knowing they are risking their lives in proclaiming the truth.

 

Finally, let me mention today’s gospel. Paul’s role model is Jesus. Did Jesus mince His words? He did not. Those listening to Jesus 2,000 years ago would not have needed a fancy theological analysis of what He was saying. They too would have immediately recognised what he was talking about. Because Jesus was referring to real events and real people, but without mentioning names. It would be a bit like me telling a parable: ‘There was a very rich man who owned a supermarket chain. He lounged on his enormous yacht in the Mediterranean whilst his staff were all being made redundant.’ You’d know who I was talking about, wouldn’t you! Jesus was doing the same. His parable of the crafty steward has deliberate echoes of a shameful political scandal that were taking place at that time. The poor were being double-crossed by greedy, scheming bosses. Yes, Jesus was very controversial in His preaching. And elsewhere Jesus warns us that people will hate us Christians, and persecute us for daring to challenge such wrongs.[1] But Jesus bravely challenges these false ideas because what is happening is plain and simply against God’s Commandments, in this case worshipping false gods, and stealing by exploitation and injustice. Commandments One and Seven again.

 

In the gospel Jesus is NOT praising the man’s apparent dishonesty: Jesus is congratulating the steward for his management skills when he suddenly faces being sacked by his rich boss. He is praising him for being quick-witted, the way the man turns things around, the way the man, if you like, repented, in an urgent situation. Jesus then makes the most important point of the story: how ironic it is that such a disgracefully immoral man is so good at knowing how to deal with other shady characters like his rich boss. If only, says Jesus, if only God-fearing, honest people like us would be as quick off the mark to realise how close our own end is, and the urgency need we have to make sure we’re obeying Commandments One and Seven, by repenting and leading upright, honest lives, forgiving others and doing good deeds – before it is too late.

 

So try to keep Commandments ‘One and Seven’ at the front of your mind in the coming days. When you come across little injustices, little fiddles, little bits of exploitation next week, in your own little way try to do things that offer help and comfort to the poor, the oppressed and the downtrodden. For, as Amos reminded us, your Father in Heaven will never forget a single thing you have done.

 

[1] cf Matthew 5: 11-12

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