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Sunday, 19 September 2010

Of God and Money

I don’t know –
today’s Gospel reading!
What are we to make of such a story, do you suppose?
The steward has been doing a rotten job,
so he gets told to put his books in order and pack his bags.
And he decides to make a few friends for himself en route,
to build up a few favours he can call in when he is homeless and hungry.
So he starts adjusting the debts of those who owe his master some money –
you owe my master a hundred jugs of oil?
Okay, let’s call it fifty.
A hundred bushels of wheat?
Hey, eighty’s just fine!

So what do you think his master would say to that if he found out?
Call the police, shouldn’t wonder.
Have him done for fraud.
But no –
the master was pleased!
One modern paraphrase puts it like this:
“Now here's a surprise:
The master praised the crooked manager!
And why?
Because he knew how to look after himself.
Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens.
They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits.
I want you to be smart in the same way –
but for what is right –
using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival,
to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials,
so you'll live, really live,
and not complacently just get by on good behaviour.”

Another paraphrase goes: “You see, that’s how it is.
The people who belong to this present world are far better equipped to dodge and weave their way through their dealings with one another than you lot are, and you belong to the light.
So take it from me, if you’ve got a fistful of filthy lucre, use it to help other people out. That way, when it runs out, you’ll have friends for eternity.”

John Wesley, who preached his famous “Use of Money” sermon
on this very passage, sees it slightly differently.
He reckons that Jesus is saying that those who seek no other portion than this world, and I quote: "are wiser" –
not absolutely;
for they are one and all the veriest fools,
the most egregious madmen under heaven;
but, "in their generation," in their own way;
they are more consistent with themselves;
they are truer to their acknowledged principles;
they more steadily pursue their end.”

We, Christians –
and I think this is as true today as it was in Wesley’s time –
aren’t very good at talking and thinking about money.
We remember that “the love of money is the root of all evil”
and shy away from the subject.
We might or might not talk about holding lightly to our material possessions and living simply and all that, but by and large, we don’t talk about it.
It was the same in Wesley’s day.
But we all need money, we all use money.
Wesley concluded that Scripture shows that we should earn all we can,
save all we can
and then give all we can.

He then went on to explain further.
I rather love this paragraph, as isn’t it true in today’s world where people spend so long at the office:
“We ought to gain all we can gain, without buying gold too dear, without paying more for it than it is worth.
But this it is certain we ought not to do;
we ought not to gain money at the expense of life, nor (which is in effect the same thing) at the expense of our health.
Therefore, no gain whatsoever should induce us to enter into, or to continue in, any employ, which is of such a kind, or is attended with so hard or so long labour, as to impair our constitution.
Neither should we begin or continue in any business which necessarily deprives us of proper seasons for food and sleep,
in such a proportion as our nature requires.
Indeed, there is a great difference here.
Some employments are absolutely and totally unhealthy;
as those which imply the dealing much with arsenic, or other equally hurtful minerals, or the breathing an air tainted with steams of melting lead, which must at length destroy the firmest constitution.
Others may not be absolutely unhealthy, but only to persons of a weak constitution.
Such are those which require many hours to be spent in writing;” –
or, perhaps, these days, at a computer screen –
“especially if a person write sitting, and lean upon his stomach, or remain long in an uneasy posture.
But whatever it is which reason or experience shows to be destructive of health or strength, that we may not submit to;
seeing "the life is more" valuable "than meat, and the body than raiment."
And if we are already engaged in such an employ, we should exchange it as soon as possible for some which, if it lessen our gain, will, however not lessen our health.”

He goes on to add that:
“We are, Secondly, to gain all we can without hurting our mind any more than our body.
For neither may we hurt this.
We must preserve, at all events, the spirit of an healthful mind.
Therefore we may not engage or continue in any sinful trade, any that is contrary to the law of God, or of our country.
Such are all that necessarily imply our robbing or defrauding the king of his lawful customs.”
These days, of course, it’s her Majesty’s Government, rather than her person, which is robbed by tax evasion and smuggling –
as prevalent now as in Wesley’s day, if not more so.
All the same, could it harm our souls to engage in it?
I suspect so.

“For it is at least as sinful,” said Wesley, obviously forgetting for the moment what story he had taken to base his sermon on,
“For it is at least as sinful to defraud the king of his right, as to rob our fellow subjects.
And the king has full as much right, to his customs as we have to our houses and apparel.
Other businesses there are, which however innocent in themselves,
cannot be followed with innocence now at least, not in England;
such, for instance, as will not afford a competent maintenance without cheating or lying, or conformity to some custom which not consistent with a good conscience:
These, likewise, are sacredly to be avoided, whatever gain they may be attended with provided we follow the custom of the trade;
for to gain money we must not lose our souls.”
Slave trading springs to mind, of course, or trafficking as we call it today;
or again, drug-dealing.
“There are yet others which many pursue with perfect innocence, without hurting either their body or mind;
And yet perhaps you cannot:
Either they may entangle you in that company which would destroy your soul;
and by repeated experiments it may appear that you cannot separate the one from the other;
or there may be an idiosyncrasy,
a peculiarity in your constitution of soul, (as there is in the bodily constitution of many,) by reason whereof that employment is deadly to you, which another may safely follow.
So I am convinced, from many experiments, I could not study, to any degree of perfection, either mathematics, arithmetic, or algebra, without being a Deist, if not an Atheist:
And yet others may study them all their lives without sustaining any inconvenience.
None therefore can here determine for another;
but every man must judge for himself, and abstain from whatever he in particular finds to be hurtful to his soul.”

Wesley then goes on to explain that, just as you shouldn’t earn money doing things that might hurt you physically or spiritually,
similarly you mustn’t do anything that might hurt other people, either physically or spiritually.
Within those limits, you should work hard, concentrating on what you’re being paid to do and not wasting time on Facebook or Twitter.
Well, Wesley didn’t exactly say that, but that’s more or less what he meant!
And Wesley reminds us to use our God-given intelligence to do our jobs as well as we can.

He then goes on to discuss his thesis that one ought to save all one can.
He reckons you shouldn’t fritter money.
Buy your necessities, by all means, but don’t go mad for luxuries you don’t really need.
Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses.
And don’t spoil your kids.
“Why should you purchase for them more pride or lust, more vanity, or foolish and hurtful desires?”
And, foreseeing today’s massive inheritance tax, “Do not leave it to them to throw away.”
He was actually talking about kids wasting their inheritance, like the Prodigal Son, but it’s nevertheless a good point.

Finally, he discusses the third, and arguably most important clause:
“Give all you can”.
For him, it wasn’t about tithing, or giving away a certain proportion of your income.
He reckons you should start from the premise that everything you are and have is God’s, and take it from there.
Your property, he thinks, isn’t your own, it is God’s.
You’re just the steward.
And if, says Wesley, “you desire to be a faithful and a wise steward, out of that portion of your Lord's goods which he has for the present lodged in your hands, but with the right of resuming whenever it pleases him,
First, provide things needful for yourself;
food to eat, raiment to put on, whatever nature moderately requires for preserving the body in health and strength.
Secondly, provide these for your wife, your children, your servants, or any others who pertain to your household.
If when this is done there be an overplus left, then ‘do good to them that are of the household of faith.’
If there be an overplus still, ‘as you have opportunity, do good unto all men.’
In so doing, you give all you can;
nay, in a sound sense, all you have:
For all that is laid out in this manner is really given to God.
You ‘render unto God the things that are God's,’ not only by what you give to the poor, but also by that which you expend in providing things needful for yourself and your household.”

Almost everything I’ve said this morning has been Wesley, not me.
But talk about why keep a dog and bark yourself –
what Wesley had to say all those centuries ago is still true for us today, I think.
We should still be careful how we earn our livings,
not harming ourselves or our neighbours in so doing.
We should still work hard while we are at work,
not distracting ourselves or faffing about.
We should still live sensibly and frugally, especially in the light of climate change and reducing our carbon footprints and all that –
we are, after all, stewards of the planet God has given us.
And we should still regard ourselves as God’s stewards in our attitude to what we do own –
fine to spend money on ourselves where we need to, and God is totally not mean!
There’s no need to be a miser, but just to be aware that maybe one day God will ask you to do something for, or give something to, someone else.

And do pray.
I haven’t mentioned our first reading so far, from Paul’s letter to Timothy, but it seems that prayer was, and should remain, a priority.
When did you last pray for David Cameron or Nick Clegg?
And I mean really pray, not just “Oh God, David Cameron!!!”
Maybe if we all prayed for him, not just “God bless,” or “Oh God”, but really holding him and Obama, and other world leaders up to the Throne of Grace,
well, maybe things would be different.

I forget, at this instant, who it was who said that the world has not yet seen what one person truly dedicated to God can do.
I actually disagree with whoever it was –
Dwight L Moody, I think –
we’ve seen loads of people who have dedicated their life to God and made a huge difference, from Wesley himself, Mother Teresa, all sorts.
But the point is, if we are truly dedicated to God, if our whole lives are about being God’s person, then how we live may or may not make a difference to the whole world, but it probably will to our own immediate community.
Let’s be good stewards, but let’s also be streetwise and know how to use what God has given us! Amen.

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