A young man found out he was going to inherit a fortune when his sickly father died, and decided he needed someone to enjoy it with. So one evening he went to a single’s bar where he spotted a woman whose natural beauty took his breath away. “I may look like just an ordinary man,” he said as he walked up to her, “but in just a week or two, my father will die and I’ll inherit $20 million. Come home with me and I’ll make you a wealthy wife.”
The woman went home with him that evening, and three days later, sure enough, she became his stepmother.
“The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”
These words of Jesus in the Gospel today reflect the shrewd lady in the story, and the shrewd steward in the Gospel. Both carry a message for us. We are invited to check our priorities; to put God first, and to use material things to help the needy, strengthen human relationships and build up the kingdom of God.
In the first reading the prophet Amos pulls no punches. He bluntly teaches that God detests dishonesty, injustice, unfairness and especially taking advantage of the poor. It seems this was the great sin of the chosen people over the ages, the way they were most unfaithful to the covenant to be a just, holy nation, a people set apart to show others the benevolence of God. They were called to greatness, but kept sliding into a narrow, selfish, self-serving religiosity that actually oppressed the poor and needy.
The Gospel of Luke, for its part, is basically a spirituality of money. Jesus’ listeners would have understood that the steward was simply finding a creative solution to his difficulties. He was correcting the wrong he had done. Letting go of his probably dishonest commission, he was prioritizing relationship and friendship, hoping to be welcomed later.
These readings remind us to turn away from self-serving attitudes and behaviours, and to turn toward fairness and justice. Jesus speaks loudly and clearly: we cannot serve two masters. If we choose to live as children of light, we must be creative and resourceful in finding solutions that are just and fair to all. Wealth must be put to good use, correcting injustice and restoring relationships with others. We must be as astute in the spiritual realm and with small things, as the steward was in the material realm and with bigger things.
In Jewish spirituality, two concepts dominate and are intertwined. The one, devekut, translates as “clinging to God” or contemplation; the other, tikkun o’lam, translates as “repairing the world,” the work of justice. One without the other — contemplation without justice, clinging to mystery without repairing the real world — is incomplete, the tradition teaches. It is dark without light, soul without body.
Another definition of justice is simply a right relationship with God as creator of this universe; with others through forgiveness, respect and reconciliation; with ourselves through self-worth and self-esteem; and finally a right relationship with all of God’s creation through ecological responsibility and care for the earth.
All this is to say that we are compelled by faith in Jesus Christ and love for God to use the material things that we have been given for the sake of loving others, working for justice and building up the reign of God here on earth.
Thankfully the church has a wealth of teachings on social justice that can help us strive for justice, beginning especially with Pope Leo XIII and his watershed encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891 in which he called for improvement of the condition of workers in time of rapid industrialization, stressing their dignity and the need for proper working conditions. He was ahead of his time.
Forty years later in 1931, Pope Pius XI wrote the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno in commemoration of Rerum Novarum, reaffirming the need for a social order animated by justice. He insisted on the right of the worker to a family wage, the dangers of individualism on one hand and collectivism on the other, stressed the goal of the common good and the need to balance justice with charity.
More recently Pope John Paul II, in his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens, stressed the right to work, to form unions, to have a living wage, the right of workers to participate in economic decision-making, and the right to strike as a last resort. He stressed human dignity and social justice and the fact that people are more important than the wants of capital. This teaching is especially relevant today in light of the plight of workers such as those in the Bangladesh garment industry and other sweatshops around the world.
The bottom line of the social justice teachings of the church is a consistent ethic of life from conception to natural death and a seamless-garment approach to all social issues. Catholic schools, parishes and dioceses should ensure that the social teaching of the church is taught to the faithful, a teaching that includes justice as the new word for peace.
A band counsellor of the Norway House First Nation was taking the lay formation program in Winnipeg. One of the sessions in that program was the social teaching of the church. He was so taken up with this new knowledge that he gave a session on the social teachings of the church to his chief and band council upon his return home.
The eucharist we celebrate today is in itself a social justice event. Here there are no distinctions between rich and poor, famous and unknown, CEO and blue-collar worker. We are all one in the Lord.
May this celebration help us work for justice, fairness and right relationships wherever we find, in our society, injustice, unfairness and strained relationships.
Sylvain Lavoie, OMI, Archbishop Emeritus of the Archdiocese of Keewatin-The Pas, is chaplain at the Star of the North Retreat House in St. Albert, Alta. He continues to live out his motto, Regnum Dei Intra Vos (the kingdom of God is among you), which is his overriding focus and passion.