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Sunday, 22 September 2013

God or Money?

I imagine I'm going to be far from the only preacher this morning who starts her sermon with “What on earth is Jesus talking about here?” or words to that effect! This is probably the most difficult parable in the entire New Testament, as it really looks as though Jesus is commending dishonesty!

Let's look at it more closely. You have the landowner, who has employed a steward to look after his interests, much as large landowners do today, only they are usually called agents now. The agent would have been responsible for collecting the rents owed by the various tenants, and back then, would have been expected to pay himself out of those rents, rather like the tax collectors were. And this agent appears to have been defrauding his employer big-time, and the employer gets to hear about it, and demands to see the accounts – and if he finds he's been being defrauded, well, the agent will shortly be an ex-agent!

So the agent panics slightly – whatever will he do? He's getting a bit too old for a labouring job, which is all he could expect after being turned off like that, and there's no way he's going to beg. Ah, but what if.... and he has a great idea. If he adjusts the amount of the various tithes and rents in favour of the tenants, they'll have his back when he needs them. And that's exactly what he does. Now, you would have thought that the employer, when he heard about it, would have been even angrier, and would have sent for the police, but no. He laughed and commended the agent for his shrewdness!

And Jesus added: “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.”

That seems very strange, doesn't it? I've seen explanations that say the agent was just not charging the usual tax and his own cut, or that he was doing a Robin Hood and robbing the rich to help the poor, or any other explanation to help sanitise it.

But if you think of it, there are plenty of other parables where you raise your eyebrows and go, “Really?” when you hear them. The unjust judge, for instance – are we really supposed to think that God will “give in” to us if we nag at him, if only to get a little peace? Or that it's right and proper to knock up your friend at midnight to borrow a loaf of bread?

Even the parable of the Lost Son, that immediately precedes this one in Luke's gospel, you are supposed to expect that the Father will drop everything and welcome his Son with open arms?

Well, we believe that God the Father rejoices over us in that way, don't we? And this parable comes immediately after that one.

Jesus doesn't stop at saying that being shrewd with money is a good idea. He goes on to point out that those who can be trusted with a little
can be trusted with a lot.
Those who are dishonest over little things
are also dishonest over big things.
If you can’t even be trusted with a fistful of filthy lucre,
who is going to trust you with things of real value?
If you can’t be trusted to look after other people’s things,
who is going give you anything to keep as your own?”

“No one can play on two teams;
you’ll either give your best to one
and under-perform for the other,
or short-change one
and give your heart and soul for the other.
You can’t dedicate yourself to both God and financial success.”

Mind you, I rather think the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who was a rich banker before he followed God's call on his life, might disagree with that last sentence!

Jesus appears to be making three points in this passage. Very convenient for us preachers! Firstly, he is saying that being shrewd with money is a good idea. Secondly he is saying that being trustworthy is incredibly important. And thirdly, he says you can't dedicate yourself to both God and to financial success – you can't serve God and Mammon, as the old translations had it.

Firstly, then, being shrewd with your money is a good idea. Do you remember the other stories Jesus told about this – the stories where the master went off on a long journey, leaving his servants in charge of masses of money? Two of the servants invest the money wisely, and perhaps start their own businesses, and manage to double, and more than double, their initial investments, whereas the third buries his share in the ground and pretends it isn't there. And when the master comes back, who are the ones who are praised? The ones who were shrewd with the money, the ones who knew what they were doing and who invested it wisely and made a massive profit, they are the ones who are praised and given more responsibility. And the one who just hid his share away safely, not doing anything with it – he is the one who is condemned. The master even says he should have put it in an investment account so it could have earned interest – this would have horrified Jesus' hearers, as interest was as anathema to the Jews of those days as it is to the Muslims of ours.

So we are expected to use our money wisely. We're not necessarily called to be financial experts, of course – many of us will want to pay for the services of such a person, though, to help us get the most out of our savings. But even if we don't have any savings, even if we're just managing on a pension, we're still supposed to use it wisely. We shouldn't fritter it away on things we don't really need – especially if we don't really want them, either. Supermarket chains make a great deal of their profits from what they call “impulse purchases”, things you didn't go in there to buy. Look how difficult it is to come out with nothing more than what you went in for. Actually, given that supermarkets never seem to have the one thing you did go in there for, that's even more difficult than it sounds! But seriously, we should think before we buy. God isn't mean and stingy – we are perfectly allowed to buy what we need, and nice things that we want, but we don't want to fritter our money away with nothing to show for it.

And there are times when God asks us to use some of our money to help other people. In the Bible world, you were required to give 10% of your income for others, and it was only once you had done that that your giving really started. God promises that if we do that, we will be repaid abundantly, not necessarily in money, but repaid, nevertheless. We aren't required to give to every good cause that pushes junk mail through our letter-box, or accosts us in the street, but there are times when that still small voice prompts us to buy an extra packet of pasta for the food bank, or something like that. And, of course, we can't do that if we have frittered that money away on a lottery ticket or those biscuits that looked nice but we left to go stale.

Being shrewd with money is a good idea, Jesus said. And he went on to say that we must be trustworthy with it, too.

It almost goes without saying, doesn't it? We know that people who embezzle money, or who cheat on their social security get put in prison. Did you see that silly story the other day about the woman who was cheating on her social security? It turned out, apparently, that if she had been honest, she would have actually been entitled to 64 pounds a week more than she was actually getting, what with tax credits and family allowances and things.... Ah well. The system is probably wrong, but it's the only system we have. And we need to be scrupulously honest in our dealings with it. We need to be so trustworthy that a complete stranger could give us a hundred pounds and say “Hold that for me”, and we would be there holding it when he came back.

We know this, of course. It's been dinned into us over and over again that God's people are people of total and utter integrity. We ask before using someone else's broadband! Twenty years ago I would have said that we don't use office stationery or make phone calls on the office phone unless that was a specific perk of our employment. These days, I suppose, it's about not faffing about on Facebook when there is work to be done, or not downloading books or music from sites which you know are ripping off the authors or musicians. We need, Jesus said, to be trustworthy in little things so that we can be entrusted with big things.

It's not just about money, of course – can your friends trust you to keep a secret? Would you repeat something a friend told you in confidence? Do you tell other people's stories? We need to be trustworthy in absolutely everything we say or do.

So, Jesus says that being shrewd with money is a great idea, that we need to be utterly trustworthy, and, finally, that you can't serve both God and money – it's like trying to play for Crystal Palace and West Ham at the same time – what happens when they are playing one another? You have to decide who you will serve, and serve whole-heartedly. Preferably, of course, God. Now that doesn't mean you have to be silly about things – if they want you to go to a church meeting and you already have an engagement, say so. But you do need to put God first. It is very far from easy, of course – giving in to ourselves is always far easier. But that is part of what God the Holy Spirit does for those of us who want to follow him, and who want to put him first in our lives. By being in us and with us, God makes it easier, and helps us become the people we were designed to be – people who are shrewd with money,who are utterly trustworthy, and who don't live for money, but live for God instead. Amen.