The late Carroll Stuhlmueller often reminded his students that real religious reform doesn't consist of bringing totally new concepts and customs into one's life, but rather in taking ideas or practices already existing on the periphery of our faith and pulling them to its center, while, at the same time, consigning some central (and cherished) ideas and practices to its edge.

When we join this insight to the unanimous belief of Scripture scholars that the historical Jesus was much more concerned with reforming Judaism than with founding a new religion, we gain a better perspective on His life and teachings.

We begin to look at the Hebrew Scriptures as more than just a prelim to the Christian Scriptures; we now see them as the basis for the reform Jesus initiated. And we especially become conscious of what parts of those Scriptures Jesus pulled from Judaism's periphery to its center.

Center of faith

Sunday's first reading (Amos 8:4-7) for instance, perfectly fits into Jesus' concept of reform. "Hear this," the prophet proclaims, "you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land." Following the lead of Amos and all the classic Jewish prophets, Jesus always put people before laws and institutions.

He understood how easily religious people start to use their religion as a cover for inflicting injustice and pain on others. Notice how Amos integrates religious practice with oppression of the poor.

"When will the new moon be over, the unjust religious folk ask, that we may sell our grain, and the Sabbath, that we may display the wheat?" They scrupulously observe their accidental ritual responsibility of new moon and Sabbath, all the while ignoring their essential commitment of justice toward one another.

"We will fix our scales for cheating! We will buy the lowly person for silver, and the poor one for a pair of sandals; even the refuse of the wheat we will sell!" Amos leaves no doubt about what is at the heart and what is on the outskirts of true faith.

The Pauline disciple who composed I Timothy also sees the need to remind his community about priorities (I Tim 2:1-8). After mentioning that God wants all people to be saved and come to know the truth, he unambiguously proclaims that truth: "There is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, Himself human, who gave Himself as ransom for all."

Supported by this conviction, the author has confidence not only that his community will know for what and whom to pray, but also that they'll be able to lead undisturbed and tranquil lives in perfect piety and dignity. Our lives fit together much better when we know in what sequence of importance to order our lives.

Seeking the important

It's against this background that we must listen to Sunday's Gospel (Lk 16:1-13). Jesus' message is simple: People spend much more time and effort trying to achieve temporary happiness and security than they do trying to achieve lasting happiness and security.

Why do we so carefully put passing experiences in the center of our lives, while, at the same time, we relegate permanent experiences to the perimeter? The rich man's dishonest manager shows an ingenuity in guaranteeing his future that is rarely found when followers of Jesus work on their future.

No servant can serve two masters, Jesus warns His community. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or be attentive to the one and despise the other. You cannot give yourself to God and money.

Only one spirit can be at the core of our lives. If we choose the same spirit which enlivened Jesus, then we'll make friends for ourselves through this world's good, friends who will provide us a lasting reception. We won't waste our gifts by creating an environment of pseudo-security.

Eighty-five year old Catholic activist Patty Crowley mentioned in a recent National Catholic Reporter interview that she no longer has much time for Church politics. "I just say the only important thing is Jesus' message, and the rest of the rules are for the birds. So give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, help the sick, visit those in prisons. That's what I do."

Do you hear what I hear? A voice keeps breaking into my mind saying over and over, "Atta girl, Patty!"

Whose voice could it be?