The immediate response to the Gospel today (Luke 16:1-13) is to ask why the unjust Steward, the man who fiddles the accounts, is praised by the Master. Now I think that the answer to this is that Jesus is producing a series of shocking stories to really get over to us his radical message – that it is not just good people who are loved by God – that God loves in a totally unreasonable over-the-top kind of way. Remember the story of the son who goes off and spends all his father’s money? It actually comes just before this story in Luke’s Gospel (15:11-31) Here too this son, who has done some really bad things, is nonetheless welcomed back home. Middle eastern fathers do not run! So when this father runs to greet his wicked son, he is being very dramatic indeed. Meanwhile the other son (could this be you and me?) who thinks he has always been good and respectable, ends up angry and bitter.
Yes, we do tend to think that we’re basically good and respectable people, don’t we? It is “them” out there, we think, who cause all the trouble in the world. We know that we may commit a few sins, but hopefully we go and confess them at least a couple of times a year, and then plod happily on vaguely self-satisfied the rest of the time. At least, that’s what I’m like! So the story of praise for this steward really unsettles me, just as it must have unsettled the Pharisees at whom it was originally aimed. It reminds me how easily I slip into hypocrisy, making a distinction between good people like you and me, and the others out there who cause all the trouble in the world.
All this is a reminder of what we heard in our 2nd Reading isn’t it, (1 Tim 2:1-18) that God “wants everyone to be saved”, and that he will go to extraordinary lengths to do this; even to the point of becoming a human being like us, and bleeding and dying nailed to a cross as a common criminal! This is what the amazing love of God is like, and our Reading tells us how we can be drawn into that love. How? We are told that “Prayers should be offered for everyone” – that these prayers should leave no-one out, and (wonder of wonders!) that we should particularly pray for people in positions of authority.
I expect that you, like me, find it hard to have sympathy for our politicians especially those we disagree with, those who are doing or proposing things we do not like! Equally, we get irritated with the petty officials who are employed by the government to impose these laws and regulations upon us, and/or to take away our money in taxes of one kind or another without managing to do the things WE want them to do, like dealing with the potholes in our roads! Yet we are told to pray for them? It’s worth remembering here that the first readers of that Letter to Timothy had to put up with people in authority who make our politicians and government officials seem really gentle and considerate. Christians at that time had to face punishments of various kinds, simply for being Christians, yet they were being urged to pray for the very people who were doing this to them. Yes, loving our enemies and praying for them is a really hard thing to do; yet that is what God requires of us, to make our love a bit more like his.
I mentioned taxes just then, and it’s certainly the case that those who threaten our financial situation are most difficult to love. I find it hard to forgive those banks in America that lent too much and then crashed in 2008, leading to the banking crisis that has led to so much worry and misery since then. I’m particularly infuriated that at a time when ordinary people like us have struggled in various ways and seen various services cut, the very rich, including many of those bankers, have got even richer!
Faced with this command that I am meant to pray for them, my instinct (and maybe yours?) is to pray that they might lose their money and discover what it is like to struggle with much less, or at least that they will come to realise that money does not bring happiness!
None of this is easy is it, but then who ever suggested that being a follower of Jesus is easy? And when we fail to love like God, as we do every day, we have one consolation. God still loves us, even when we do not love ourselves, because God is love itself; God’s whole work of creating us, and the Universe, is one continuous act of love. Living in, and responding as best we can to that love, is all we can do.