September 18, 2016
TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
A word to the merchants
Ps 113:1-2, 4-8
The Lord lifts up the poor
1 Tm 2:1-6
A prayer for authorities
Lk 16:1-13 (10-13)
An all-too-clever manager
Today’s seminar is titled “Business Ethics, 101.” In the first session, the presenter will be Amos, from Tekoa in Judah. He will be reporting on practices in Israel, in the years shortly before the demise of the Northern Kingdom, at which time the country was dismantled by the invasion from Assyria. He will be indicating some of the causes for the Israelite unreadiness and susceptibility to crisis.
This author paints a harsh picture of a merchant community that bases its activity on one single principle—making a profit. He makes the point by offering an image of worship activities, which the author clearly believes should be the anchor of a meaningful life. He shows instead how it is treated by these merchants as simply an inconvenience. They put up with it because it would be bad business not to do so. However, they cannot wait until it is over, so that they can get back to what they do best.
According to Amos, that would be exploiting those unable to fight back, the poor. He notes some of the practices, altering the amounts in relation to the prices, for instance. He also mentions that they saw value in the customer who was unable to pay full price, for this gave them an opportunity to dump shoddy materials at a lower price—materials that they previously had to dump, and swallow the loss. With the disadvantaged customer they were provided with an opportunity to make good even with the worst.
Other topics in his book, worth reviewing, include an analysis of practices of political leaders, using their position for personal gain (Amos 6:1-7), along with their wives, adding to the inequities by their demand for a loftier lifestyle (4:1-2); the judges who preside at the city gates, selling verdicts for a price that only the wealthier can afford (5:7-10, 14-15); and, finally, the priests, who give the impression that God is not concerned for the poor, but wish only to keep worship services continuing (5:18-27).
After a short break, the evangelist Luke will be reporting on the teachings of Jesus, presenting during his traveling symposium on the trek toward Jerusalem where he was to confront the leaders of his day. Today we will hear a parable about a slippery manager who used his position to provide a soft landing after he was released from his post. The parable features an estate manager who was fired for lax care of his owner’s property. His method of providing a featherbed for himself—namely, reducing the amounts debtors owed the owner in order to make friends for the future—has been questioned as showing little evidence of improved ethical standards. And yet the owner, and apparently Jesus, commend him for his actions.
This has been explained by some as relating to the customs of the day. The manager worked for a percentage of the profit, which he gave up in this case, using it to reduce the debts. This would explain the owner’s approval. In any case, Jesus’ emphasis seems to be on the ingenuity of the manager, and no so much his ethical modeling. He concludes with a wish that “children of light” were as enterprising in their work as this example of the “children of this world.”
This presentation concludes with a suggestive list for further discussion. These range from topics concerning management of the goods of others to further commentary on ownership itself. A shocking instance is the sixth, which compares wealth to the god Mammon, most likely because it demands a devotion bordering on the religious. Here we also find the famous dictum, “No one can serve two masters,” and so forth.
For reflection: Why should property even be a discussion topic in the Bible?
Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.