Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land! “When will the new moon be over,” you ask, “that we may sell our grain, and the sabbath, that we may display the wheat?
The beginning of our first reading is a perfect set up for trying to understand one of Jesus’ most difficult teachings. The reading condemns those who are literally sitting around waiting for the end of the new moon (the beginning of each Hebrew month marked as a holiday much like parts of Passover would be) or the Sabbath, so they can go back to work – and not just any work – but work that defrauds their customers. How many people do we know, so anxious about tomorrow that they miss the blessings of a Sunday? So anxious, they defraud God of the worship due Him?
Much like the thieving merchants of Amos’ time, the master and his steward were both thieves. Recall that charging interest on loans was forbidden in the Bible because it exploited the vulnerable poor, yet that is what they both did. Jesus’ hearers would know that the debt contracts of the master and steward included exorbitant interest hidden from illiterate peasants – a cut for everyone rich enough to control the terms. Today’s analogies may be high-interest student loans, credit card debt, and predatory pay-day loans. Wealthy landlords and stewards in Jesus’ day created other ways to charge interest often hiding it by rolling it into the principal. Hidden interest rates up to 50 percent! The steward, once confronted, set out to shrewdly protect himself, to act smartly for his own benefit.
All this selfishness and self-preservation, and we would think Jesus would roundly condemn all the players. Yet, oddly, Jesus doesn’t. Instead, he lauds the steward for his cleverness, with an additional complement to “children of this age” (those who were not His followers), for their shrewdness.
The lesson we can take from this teaching is that being shrewd requires we know what rules our hearts, that we know Who we serve, and that we take decisive action to change our ways in light of the coming judgment. If we serve wealth and self-preservation for their own sake, we will fail. But if we shrewdly (i.e., wisely) work for God, placing Him first in all we do – on Sundays, with money, with what we have, in acting compassionately toward the poor and suffering, we will enjoy the blessings of life with God because we cannot “serve both God and mammon.“