In the 1987 Oliver Stone movie Wall Street, the Darwinian corporate raider Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglass) infamously tells his young protégé Bud (Charlie Sheen) that “Greed is…good.” In the upcoming sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, a reformed Gekko uses his wiles and wealth to try to head off a financial meltdown fueled by the very greed he once perversely promoted as a virtue. Life and what’s really important can look a lot different after a decade in prison for insider trading and other white collar crimes.
Greed, very clearly, is not good. After all, it is still one of the Seven Deadly Sins! Money may never sleep but as Amos and other prophets remind us, neither does God, who unlike money is also eternal. In our first reading, the wealthy and powerful of Israel were depicted as unreformed Gordon Gekkos, so anxious to take care of their business that they almost resented being constrained by the observances of the Sabbath and other festivals.
Their primary aim in life was to make money and to grow or stay rich; and if they had to bend a few rules—diminishing measures, manipulating prices, fixing scales, selling even the refuse of the wheat—well, that was simply the price of success. If they had to hurt a few poor people along the way, then so be it. Some were even willing to sell a pair of sandals to those so desperately poor that they were willing to put up their own lives and freedom as collateral.
Such greed was an abomination to God and his messenger, Amos. So why, in our gospel reading, does Jesus appear to endorse the actions of a rotten steward who changes his master’s invoices to benefit himself? Why does he encourage his disciples to make friends with the use of dishonest wealth? It may seem confusing at first, but the Lord’s intention becomes clearer when we consider his stern warning at the end of this passage: “No servant can serve two masters….You cannot serve both God and mammon (wealth).”
Jesus wasn’t commending the steward for his dishonesty but rather for his creativity and flexibility in response to a situation that challenged his success and even his survival—a situation not unlike that faced by the late first century church to whom Luke first wrote his gospel. Faced with the prospect of being down and out, the wily steward found a way to land on his feet.
We live in an age where the church’s mission of evangelization and in some cases even its survival are challenged by a host of forces. These pressures range from persecution by religious fanatics in places like India and Indonesia, to the relentless forces of secularization in the West, to the self-destructive demons active in the misconduct of some its ministers. Can we find a similar motivating energy, creativity and flexibility to fulfill our calls to serve God, proclaim the Good News, and love our brothers and sisters? Can we change not the timeless content of our message and values but the ways which they are celebrated, taught and applied?
When St. Paul addressed the first century forces that threatened the church from without and within, his response in some cases was prophetic confrontation. But as we witnessed in today’s second reading, in other cases he suggested what might be called prayerful accommodation. It a world filled with turmoil, the most powerful thing that the church could do was to offer “supplications, prayers, petitions and thanksgivings…for everyone.” Prayer changes things; and it does so first and foremost because it changes us.
The great human rights leader and apostle of nonviolence Mahatma Gandhi said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” That applies to us as individual disciples and also to us as a church. In a world where Gordon Gekko’s echoes still reverberate, proclaiming not so much in words but in actions greed as good and god as mammon, we have a holy obligation to say “No” and to show our sisters and brothers another and even richer way. +