Saturday, September 24, 2022

God or Money

Here is the transcript of my latest podcast, God or Money. It is based on the Gospel reading for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity.

The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity 2022

Reading: Luke 16:1-15

Here at Christ Church, we have some beautiful stained-glass windows. The windows on the left as you enter the Church depict the Days of Creation and, on the right, the Seasons of the Church’s Year. The Lady Chapel windows have symbols associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary and the west window at the back of the Church has the Agnus Dei symbol and the River of Life. The Agnus Dei symbol is effectively the Christ Church logo! If you go to some churches with stained glass windows, you will see scenes from Jesus’ parables depicted on them. The parables of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and the Sower are all popular.

One parable you won’t often see, however, is this week’s parable. It is often described as the hardest of Jesus’ parables to understand, and it is certainly one that causes many people a lot of difficulty. Why is this? At the heart of the problem lies the fact that in the parable the dishonest manager gets praised: does this mean Jesus is praising dishonesty?

The first thing to say is that parables are stories designed to convey a message. Jesus tells stories drawing on his audience’s experience in order to make a point. As such, we shouldn’t over-think the stories, but concentrate on the point that is being made in them.

This story itself is easy enough to understand as a story. A rich man has an estate manager, who is accused of dishonesty. We are not told the details, but the story assumes that the accusation is true. The rich man is certainly not taking any chances and tells his manager that he is going to get rid of him. The manager faces a personal crisis. What is he going to do when he loses his position? No-one is going to employ him as a manager. He is not strong enough to work as a manual labourer, and he is too proud to beg. The plan he comes up with is designed so that those in a material debt to his master will instead become in a moral debt to him. The manager’s hope is that, as a result, they will welcome him into their homes when he is no longer a manager.

The manager summons his master’s debtors one by one. We are given two examples of how he executes his plan. While it is difficult to be precise about how much each of these debts would have been worth, they were undoubtedly substantial.

The first example is of someone who owes a hundred ‘baths’ of olive oil (about 4,000 litres or eight hundred gallons). This would have been the yield of about 146 olive trees. The oil would have cost one thousand denarii, or a little over three years’ salary for an average wage earner. The debt is a significant one by any standards. The manager tells the debtor to sit down quickly and write fifty, reducing the debt by 50%.

The second example concerns someone who owes a hundred ‘kors’ of wheat (about 30 metric tonnes or 29.5 imperial tons). This represents the yield of about a hundred acres. The average tenant and their family farmed about 5 to 10 acres. This amount of wheat would cost from 2,500 to 3,000 denarii. This was anywhere from just over eight to nine and a half years’ wages. Again, it is a significant debt. The manager tells this debtor to write eighty, reducing the debt to 80 kors (24 metric tonnes or 23.6 imperial tons). A 20% reduction on the amount owed.

St Luke describes the rich man’s reaction when his master discovers what the manager has done. St Luke writes:

‘And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.’ (Luke 16:8)

Many people ask how Jesus can hold up a dishonest manager as a role model for his disciples? There are all sorts of ingenious theories to try to get round the imagined problem, including explanations that seek to suggest that the manager was not dishonest in the first place. Some argue, for example, that the dishonest manager is simply eliminating his own commission on the debt, hoping that those he is being generous to will be generous to him. If this is the case, then the manager’s commission would have been a generous one, and if this was his commission, it would have kept him going for quite a while after he lost his job without him having to do anything!

The trouble with these theories is that they read into the story things which are not there and, more to the point, those who suggest them forget that Jesus is telling a story, not giving a factual report about a situation that actually happened.

Far more likely is that Jesus is suggesting that by asking each of the debtors quickly to change the amount they owe, the dishonest manager is involving the debtor in his schemes, so that both the manager and the debtor are complicit in dishonesty with each other! This is surely something that will make the debtors more amenable to helping the manager when he asks for help after he loses his position. So, what can we say in reply to those who have problems with this story?

Well doubtless, no-one, no matter how rich, is going to be pleased at losing so much money. Nevertheless, the rich man is impressed with the manager’s shrewdness in planning for his future. The rich man commends the manager for his shrewdness, not for his dishonesty. There is no suggestion that the dishonest manager is anything but dishonest. There is, however, something important to be learnt from the way he behaves.

Having told the story, Jesus comments on it. Jesus says:

‘… for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.’ (Luke 16:8)

In other words, those who do not belong to God’s Kingdom are better at dealing with their own kind to their own advantage than are the children of light, that is, those who belong to God’s Kingdom. Jesus tells his disciples what they should learn from this. Jesus says:

‘And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone they may welcome you into the eternal homes.’ (Luke 16:9)

Jesus is not telling his disciples to be dishonest in their dealings with people, but to use what they have materially in such a way in the present that it will benefit them spiritually in the future. The manager was worried about what would happen to him when he lost his job, and so he behaved in such a way that he would have a home to go to afterwards. Jesus is encouraging his disciples so to use money in this life that they have an eternal home to go to when they die.

St Paul writes that we brought nothing into this world and can take nothing out (1 Timothy 6:7). When we die, we all enter the next life with exactly the same amount: nothing! Jesus is warning us that, like the manager, we too all have to give an account of our lives and that includes our use of money.

We don’t like bringing money into it, but Jesus insists that we can’t leave money out of it. So as to leave his disciples in absolutely no doubt about what his message is, Jesus says:

‘No slave can serve two masters, for a slave will either hate the one and love the other or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.’ (Luke 16:13)

This, of course, is another reason we don’t like this parable and pretend to find it so hard to understand. We hate the idea that our attitude to money and how we use it in this world is going to affect our position in the next. Jesus could not be clearer that it will have a significant bearing on it.

Jesus has been speaking to his disciples. The Pharisees, who St Luke describes as ‘lovers of money’, over-hearing what Jesus says, ridicule him. Jesus’ response to the Pharisees is very important. Jesus says to them:

‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others, but God knows your hearts, for what is prized by humans is an abomination in the sight of God.’ (Luke 16:15)

One of the central beliefs of many believers is that of ‘justification by faith’. This is the belief that God accepts and forgives us solely on the basis of our faith in Jesus and not because of anything we do. We are saved by faith, not works. At the heart of the European Reformation in the sixteenth century was the phrase ‘sola fide’, by faith alone.

Faith alone, however, is about trusting God alone and serving him alone. When they are challenged by Jesus about their attitude to money, the Pharisees ‘justify themselves’. If, however, anyone is to be saved, they need to be justified by God. We can’t be justified by faith while we are still putting our faith in money. We can trust God, or we can trust money. It’s a clear choice. Putting the phrase, ‘In God We Trust’ on a bank note may suggest we can do both; Jesus, however, makes it plain that we can’t.

The sad reality is that very often many churchgoers, like the Pharisees, are also lovers of money. Not only do we love money, we also value both those who have it and those things which cost a lot of it. Jesus describes the things we often value as an ‘abomination in the sight of God’. These are strong words. We don’t ridicule Jesus for them as the Pharisees did; we just ignore them, or we pretend to love God, while really loving money. Jesus warns that God knows our hearts. He knows whom we love: him or money.

Jesus has already had quite a lot to say, in St Luke’s Gospel, about money and possessions, and about what his disciples’ attitude to them should be. He will have more to say after this! Jesus has warned about the stupidity of storing up goods and relying on material wealth (Luke 12:13-21). Jesus has urged his disciples not to worry about the future, what they shall eat or wear (Luke 12:22), but to make seeking God’s Kingdom their priority (Luke 12:31). Jesus tells them that where what they value is, there their hearts will be also (Luke 12:34). They will love what matters most to them.

We tend to let ourselves off the hook, that is, we justify ourselves (to use Jesus’ words) when it comes to what Jesus says about money. We do not think of ourselves as rich, and so don’t think that Jesus’ words apply to us. Of course, in making this judgement about ourselves, we always compare ourselves with those who have more than us, not with those who have less. Jesus, however, is not talking to the rich but to his disciples. Jesus does at times speak directly to those who are rich, but here he is speaking to his disciples in general, most of whom were anything but rich.

Jesus then is challenging those who follow him to use money wisely, not so much with a view to how it will affect us in this world, but in how it will affect us in the world to come. Jesus is challenging us both as a church and as individuals to get our values and priorities right.

1. A Challenge to the Church

Quite rightly in the Church we tell people to put God first. We warn, as Jesus did, that you can’t serve God and money. But then we never stop talking about money and asking for it. Try this simple test. When you go to a Church meeting, see how long it is before you are asked for money. Or when you visit a church website, before you are asked to donate or subscribe. We are obsessed with money.

When this is pointed out to us, we, like the Pharisees, seek to justify ourselves. We don’t want it for ourselves, we explain, we want it for God’s work. People, we argue, won’t give unless we ask them to, and not even then. That’s why, we claim, we have to go on asking.

There is much that could and should be said about church finances, but for now I would just highlight one question we should be asking every time we ask people to give money. Are we sure it is God’s work we want the money for? How much, for example, is it about our own pride and our desire for power and prestige? We need to take seriously Jesus’ words about how what is valued by humans is an abomination to God. Are our values the values of God’s Kingdom or have we simply adopted the values of the society in which we live and given them a religious gloss?

It is, of course, right to put the cost of the work of the Church to people who belong to the Church, but as Hudson Taylor famously said, ‘Depend on it. God’s work, done God’s way, will never lack God’s supply’.

So, what happens if that supply does not come? Our normal reaction as a church is to rush to fundraise and to make special appeals. When what we should be doing is asking is whether the reason the money isn’t coming is that it is not, in fact, God’s work we are doing. If we don’t have the money and resources for a project, the chances are that it is not a project we should be undertaking to begin with.

When Jesus says you can’t serve God and money, he is talking to churches as well as to individuals.

2. A Challenge to Us as Individuals

Obviously, as individuals, we don’t like the idea of giving away all that we have. Jesus does not ask all of us to do so. But he does ask some. Those Jesus calls to give away all that they have are a special gift to the Church not because they give their money to the Church, but because they model in a dramatic and vivid way what the values and priorities of the Church should be and also what the values and priorities should be of us as individuals.

It is impossible for us to ignore money. Money is inevitably and unavoidably central to our lives. Even those who give away all that they have and who take a vow of poverty have to beg for it. So, while we are not all called to give away all that we have, we are all called to be like the manager in the story. Again, not by copying him in his dishonesty, but by following his example of using the financial resources at his disposal to secure a home for himself in the future.

Many of us will have invested in a retirement plan in which we pay money now, so that we will be able to afford to have a roof over our heads when we retire. Jesus is telling us that we need an eternity plan, so that we will have an eternal home when we retire from this life. We are to use what money and material resources we have now in order to secure an eternal home, rather than to make ourselves at home here.

We have just celebrated the Feast Day of St Hildegard von Bingen (September 17). St Hildegard was consecrated to God as a child and lived in monastic seclusion while growing up and for a large part of her life. She came, however, from a noble family of some means, and she was to use that connection and draw on those means when she felt God was calling her to establish and lead her own monastery.

St Hildegard is an example of someone who lived out the message of Jesus’ parable, using money faithfully to obtain an eternal home, while not loving it or using it to make herself at home in this life.

The message of the Gospel is that we are saved by grace through faith alone. Again, that is, we are called to trust God alone and to live by trust in God alone. As Jesus says, we cannot serve God and money; but we can serve God with money, both by giving it away and by giving it to his service. We cannot, however, serve him by loving money and keeping it all for ourselves. Jesus says:

‘If, then, you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?’ (Luke 16:11-12)

We have been given money to use. But if we are unable even to use wisely what ultimately is of little worth, why would anyone entrust us with something of real value. Rather than worrying about how much we own in this life, which is temporary and passing, we should be thinking of the life to come, which is permanent and eternal. Jesus challenges us to be like the manager in his story, and to start thinking of the future, while we still have the time to do so.

St Hildegard, pray for us.


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