The prophet Amos preached at a time in Israel’s life when many people had fallen away from faith in the One, True God. Amos’ prophecies are often used in reference to the Church’s social justice teaching, but those prophecies are not primarily about social justice. Amos spoke to a faithless nation; he tried to call them back to their ancestral faith.
Amos’ portrayal of God was very much in keeping with the preaching of the other prophets who reminded Israel that their God was God of all the universe. Today’s first reading is an excerpt from a prophetic vision of God’s power commanding the workings of the universe.
This portrayal of God’s power was intended to demonstrate the foolishness of the idol worship that had led the people away from God. Amos said that the worship of other gods was both idolatrous and pointless. God was not a minor deity whose influence was localized to a particular realm or even to only the people of Israel. Rather, God was God of all, and an offense against God would have wide-reaching consequences.
The ancient prophets had come to realize that, if God is God of all creation, then God’s salvation could be offered to all. Jesus’ own message of the universality of salvation was taken directly from this prophetic tradition. He considered his own life and ministry to be the fulfillment of God’s offer of universal salvation.
Even though it was not an original idea, the message of universal salvation upset some people during Jesus’ time; not everyone was prepared to be as generous as God was. The parable in this Sunday’s Gospel illustrates the rationale behind Jesus’ vigorous defense of the idea of universal salvation.
In the parable a man is fired from his job as manager of a wealthy man’s estate. The steward (manager), was fired for being corrupt. We see the depth of his corruption in the short time between his firing and the publication of his firing. Before his former masters’ servants learn of his firing he called them in and offered to reduce their debts to the landowner. It wasn’t generosity that inspired this action; it was self-interest. He said to himself, “What shall I do, now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me? I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do so that, when I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes.” (Luke 16:3-4)
The corrupt steward made himself look good, but put his former master in an uncomfortable situation. If the landowner had later demanded full payment from the debtors, he would have created a great deal of ill will. As it turned out, the smart thing for the landowner to do was to go along with the corrupt steward’s scheme. If he let the reduced debts stand, it could only make him look good to his clients: they would pay a reduced rate to the landowner, but the landowner would gain their respect because of his generosity and leniency.
This is a parable about forgiveness; it is a parable, specifically, about the value, in God’s eyes, of being lenient and forgiving toward sinners. During Jesus’ lifetime people complained that he welcomed sinners and ate with them. (Luke 15:2) Some also complained that he portrayed God as being too lenient in offering salvation to all. Jesus responded that the universal offer of salvation could only bring honor to God’s name because it made God look generous and gracious.
God’s graciousness and leniency toward sinners is still a source of scandal to some people today who think that God ought to be more demanding and judgmental. This image of God as judgmental is more a reflection of the mind of the people who ascribe to it than it is a reflection of the mind of God. We are slow to trust a God who forgives when we ourselves are slow to forgive.
This parable of the corrupt steward ought to make us think twice about withholding forgiveness from those who offend us. Does forgiveness make us look too lenient and easy-going? Or rather, does it make us look good in the eyes of others?
There is an old saying, “Sometimes, you are your own worst enemy.” This is certainly true about each of us when we refuse to forgive those who offend us. Our refusal to forgive keeps us bound to past hurts, and makes us look petty.
It is also possible to be our own best friend, by doing the sorts of things that contribute to having a good and holy life. Do yourself a favor this week; be your own best friend: forgive someone who offends you.