Psalm 34/35:3; Amos 8:4-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-8; Luke 16:1-13
Salus populi ego sum, dicit Dominus (cf. Ps 34/35:3; Ps 36/37:39 etc.) I am the salvation of my people, says the Lord. Some time in the early centuries of the Church, someone wove the text of today’s Introit Chant out of various Psalm verses, and set it to music, in the 4th mode. More usually an Introit text will be some form of prayer. As we enter Mass we address God, taking our words from the Psalms, in petition or confession or praise. Not today. In today’s text God himself addresses us. And in the first place he tells us who he is: I am the salvation of my people. That is to say: God is for us all that is good. He is our life, our health, our welfare, our happiness, our hope. If we have God, then, all for us is well. Without God everything is wrong; everything falls apart; everything tends merely towards death and destruction.
At the beginning of his Confessions, St. Augustine famously cried out to God: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they rest in you.” But Augustine knew that his heart was not yet perfectly at rest. So he went on: “Who will grant that I may find my rest in you?” (Conf. 1:5). St. Augustine experienced intensely the natural desire for God we all have. He longed for union with God; he wanted to receive all that God wanted to give him. Exploring that idea, he put this question to God: “What are you to me?” And he found his answer in our Psalm verse. Say to my soul, I am your salvation (Ps 34:3). And Augustine cried out in response: “Say it so that I may hear it. My heart is listening, Lord. Open the ears of my heart, and say to my soul: I am your salvation. Let me run towards this voice and seize hold of you. Do not hide your face from me (cf. e.g. Ps 26/27:9).”
Augustine wanted to have with God a direct, living, life-giving relationship. And so he returned again and again to the Psalms, where he found such a relationship to be everywhere expressed. In the absence of that, the Christian life, the moral life, even the human life, well lived, must surely be impossible.
In today’s first reading we heard the prophet Amos rebuking the Israelites of his own day. These people kept up the conventions of formal religion, but in reality God was nothing to them. They did not fear him. They did not see why he should influence their behaviour. So consciences were deadened; corruption and dishonesty flourished; the strong preyed on the weak, and the rich oppressed the poor. But the Lord was displeased. That was in the 8th century B.C.. Not long after the time of Amos the Assyrians would come and sweep the Kingdom of Israel away forever.
Looking around at our own secularised society, you might say we are in a worse state even than those ancient Israelites. For the most part we have dispensed even with the outward shell of religion. Surely it’s not hard to see the broken-ness all around us as a symptom of life from which God is excluded. Secular propaganda suggests we can find our salvation through sexual liberation, or through what we have, or perhaps by joining some angry campaign. We see the results everywhere: broken families; damaged children; addictions to alcohol or drugs or pornography; abortion, euthanasia, suicide; the culture of death.
Yet, says St. Paul, God wants everyone to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tm 2:4 - Second reading). The invitation to salvation is in principle always open: even to those in authority; even, if you can believe it, to Politicians. Even, dare I say?, to Bishops. And the salvation of God has a name. He is Jesus Christ our Lord, whom Paul here calls the one mediator between God and man. He died for all without exception. While life lasts, no one can be beyond the reach of his redeeming blood. Jesus is the human face of God. He is our life, our hope, our forgiveness, our reconciliation, our reward. In him there is not just escape from punishment. In him there is grace, holiness, perfect fulfilment, divine Sonship, limitless joy without end.
In the same passage of his Confessions, St. Augustine put another searching question to God. “Who”, he asked, “am I to you?” That is: why are you bothered about me; about my salvation, about my moral life; about my relationship with you? Augustine writes: “You command me to love you, and are angry if I do not, and threaten me with enormous woes. And is not the failure to love you woe enough in itself?”
We might see last week’s parable of the Prodigal Son as an excellent answer to Augustine’s question. But so also is today’s parable, of the Dishonest Steward. Let me take that now as a parable about failure to love God. The unscrupulous villain who is its hero may be a figure for each one of us. At the end of our life, we are going to have to give an account of our Stewardship, and who of us can face that with confidence? All that wasted time; all that heedlessness of God; all that carelessness about our own salvation; all that lack of gratitude; all those idle words and moments: never mind all those actual crimes committed!
We can’t possibly make up for all that, so we have recourse to cheating. We seek help from our friends. If only for motives of self interest, we take care to be good to others. We help them, honour them, pray for them, forgive them, love them, labour for their salvation. And instead of rebuking us for cynicism, the Lord will praise us for our astuteness. Because it’s simply the truth, that it’s in our own interests to love God, to serve him, to worship him, to keep his commandments, to be virtuous, good and holy. Turning away from God is sheer folly. Worshipping the devil is the height of stupidity. Living an evil life is a mug’s game. Whereas, all the Saints, and only the Saints, are perfectly happy. Yes, there is affliction for them in this world. But as our Introit Chant reminds us: de quacumque tribulatione clamaverint ad me, exaudiam eos - if they cry to me, out of any tribulation whatsoever, I will hear them. And I shall be their Lord, for ever and ever. Amen.