At a Labor Day Mass one year, I offered a reflection on the Church’s teaching on human labor. I remember that that homily was about meaningful work, just wages, and the dignity of human labor. A visitor in town was present at Mass and came up to me afterward and said, “Father, I came this morning to attend Mass, not for a talk on Communism. You should stick to religion and not bring up politics at Mass.” I understand this concern. When people come to Church, they come to worship God, to celebrate the Eucharist, receive Communion, and be spiritually strengthened. But there is a misunderstanding.
It is a specific brand of Christianity that separates Christian worship from its social implications. Catholicism is different. Catholicism is primarily a communal experience. We believe that God calls us not only as individuals who have a personal relationship with Jesus but also that we are called into community and for community. Integral to our faith in Jesus and our Sunday worship is not only works of charity, but also working to create a just society where the human dignity of every person is respected, honored, cherished, and protected. But the most important realization is that this way of understanding faith is not some frivolous Catholic invention. It is rooted deeply in Biblical theology.
Today’s scripture readings provide the basis for a Christian faith that has social implications. I would like to reflect on these scripture passages.
“Praise the Lord, who Lifts up the Poor”
Let me begin my first point where today’s first reading begins. God says through Amos in today’s first reading, “Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land!” (Amos 8:4). This warning comes from God because the powerful of Judah “buy the lowly for silver and the poor for a pair of sandals” (Amos 8:6). God says to the exploiters, “The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob” Never will I forget a thing they have done!” (Amos 8:7). In Biblical language, this is called God’s preferential option for the poor.
Let me give an example of what we mean by ‘God’s preferential option for the poor.’ In a classroom of 25 children, a good teacher pays special attention to those who struggle more than others. It’s not because they do not care for students that do not struggle, but they care for those struggling in a different way than they care for those who are not. This is not about the teacher being nice to those who might be struggling, but about creating the right environment and providing the appropriate resources for every child to succeed.
The Bible teaches us that the poor have the Lord’s care in a different way than God’s care for those who are self-sufficient. In the Exodus story, God came to the aid of the oppressed Hebrew people over the Egyptians who enslaved them. God was not only good to the Hebrews, but God intervened to dismantle the structures that oppressed them and led them to freedom. That is why today’s Psalm response says, “Praise the Lord who lifts up the poor.”
The practical implication of this is very simple. If our faith teaches us that God has a preferential option for the poor, so must the Church, so must we, so must every believer. But it is not merely about our charity for the poor. It calls for understanding and dismantling structures that perpetuate injustices and building ones that promote the common good. Creating a just society where the dignity of every human person irrespective of race, gender, language, nationality, and religion is rooted in the Biblical tradition.
“You Cannot Serve God and Mammon”
Not only does the Bible have much to say about our relationship with the poor and the oppressed, but the Bible has much to say also about our relationship with wealth. And there is no ambiguity about it. In today’s gospel reading Jesus is very clear: “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Lk 16:13). The question simply is this: Do we manage wealth or does wealth manage us? I am deliberately using the term ‘manage.” In other words, does wealth control us or do we manage wealth?
Wealth is a very powerful force. Greed and addiction to wealth have perpetrated many social evils in the world – slavery, colonialism, human trafficking, wars, the drug epidemic, modern-day sweatshops, loan sharks – these are all results of human slavery to mammon.
In this context, Jesus taught his disciples something important through the parable of the dishonest steward. In the parable, the master commended the dishonest steward for his prudence. In other words, the steward was good at being dishonest. The moral of the story is simply this — that just as the dishonest steward was good at his dishonesty, a Christian must be good at what is entrusted to him or her. We can do that by thinking about these questions: “How much say does God have in the way we manage wealth and material things? Do we have a spirituality for our relationship with material things? Do we use and manipulate people? How concerned are we about creating a just society, promoting just wages, or the needs of the poor? Do we control mammon or does mammon own us?
A Spirituality of Stewardship
The New Testament particularly defines the relationship of humans to the material world as “stewardship.” Stewardship is radically different than ownership. Ownership gives us an absolute right over that which we consider ours. Stewardship says that what we have is, in fact, a gift.
A spirituality of stewardship invites us to “manage” our material resources and our relationships in a way that God intends for them to be managed. In this sense, the earth is a gift that we do not own but must manage as good stewards. The people in our lives, including our family, are gifts from God. The material things we own like our house, our automobiles, our credit cards, our investments, and our savings… as stewards we are called to manage them not according to our whims and fancies but by God’s will.
The problem often is that, socially, people consider finances to be a very private thing. Somehow, this spills into our relationship with God. We rarely think of our relationship with wealth as a spirituality. We rarely think of ourselves as stewards. To act as owners instead of stewards is to play God. The parable of the dishonest steward tells us that we are accountable for the way we manage God’s gifts to us. If we use them only to make ourselves richer without caring for others or by exploiting them, then we violate God’s purpose for those gifts. Rather, God’s gifts are to be used to give glory to God, to live holy and humble lives, to promote the common good, and to uphold the dignity of every human person.
The Eucharist captures the spirituality of stewardship. In bread and wine, we offer to God the gifts God has given us – creation, human labor, our resources, our talents, our struggles, and our joys – and offer them to God. God accepts them and offers them back to us as greater gifts – the Body and Blood of Jesus, our salvation. Today, we are invited to live the Eucharist in the rest of our lives. If we are good stewards of God, then life itself is our bread and wine. God blesses and makes life a gift toward eternal life.
But remember this – “You cannot serve God and mammon.”
Image: Adobe Stock. Shacks with corrugated tin roofs. Township near the coast of Freetown, Sierra Leone, West Africa. By JAMES.
Fr. Satish Joseph was ordained in India in 1994 and incardinated into the archdiocese of Cincinnati in 2008. He has a Masters in Communication and Doctorate in Theology from the University of Dayton. He is presently Pastor at Immaculate Conception and St. Helen parishes in Dayton, OH. He is also the founder Ite Missa Est ministries (www.itemissaest.org) and uses social media extensively for evangelization. He is also the founder of MercyPets (www.mercypets.org) — a charitable fund that invites pet-owners to donate a percent of their pet expenses to alleviate child hunger. MercyPets is active in four countries since its founding in December 2017. Apart from serving at the two parishes, he facilitates retreats, seminars and parish missions.