This is a sermon I preached at St Mary’s in Swanage, Dorset, on 22nd September 2019
“Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” 3 Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” 6 He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” 7 Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” 8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9 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.
10 ‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 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 wealth.’” (Luke 16.1-13)
We’re in the Season of Creation, as we focus on the natural world and our relationship with it for good and for ill – giving thanks to God for all the blessings of creation and praying for it in its suffering. And creation is suffering. People and animals and plants are suffering as carbon dioxide and methane released into the air by human industry and agriculture warm the surface of the planet faster than the planet can deal with, leading to the 1st mass extinction (or, more properly, mass extermination) in human history and threatening human existence – right now – in places like Tuvalu and Kiribati in the Pacific. It’s a justice issue because those being hit hardest now are not, by and large, the ones who have created the problem and grown rich in the process. I’m not decrying the many benefits of the industrial revolution, but I am saying those benefits have not been evenly shared and while some have become very rich and comfortable, the costs of that have been borne disproportionately and the costs add up to more than the earth can bear.
Climate is a justice issue and it’s an economic issue. Whether it’s deforestation for farming, or extracting new oil & gas reserves when we can’t burn what we already have and keep the earth habitable, or expanding road capacity – money drives the destruction of the earth. Even when doing the right thing costs you more money (and it doesn’t always) – today’s readings challenge us.
When did money become the bottom line for the disciples of Jesus Christ? Aren’t there other values that the people of faith in God should put first? Do the followers of Jesus serve God and the coming of God’s kingdom of justice and peace and life in its fullness for all – or not?
Let’s look at this story Jesus told, although, it’s an odd one. You can imagine the people going away saying, “Verily, he tells good stories with wisdom and snappy punchlines, but this was not one of them.” The morals seem muddled – if there even are any. There’s no snappy punchline – the parable kind of peters out and Jesus moves into some sayings about money. Even the language of the story is awkward & doesn’t read well. Maybe, even for Jesus, it’s just hard to talk clearly and straightforwardly about the morality of money. Money is one of the great powers in the world – and it’s hard to stand up to it and tell it as it is. The songs give you the choice about what makes the world go round – is it love or money? And maybe that, in a nugget, is the challenge of the story.
The rich man in the story typifies an absentee landlord in Galilee 2000 years ago. The law of Moses included instructions designed to avoid some becoming rich and others becoming poor. When the Israelites entered the promised land, the land was portioned out to each family. If land was sold, it was to be returned to its original holder every 50th year. So there was to be no long-term acquisition of wealth, but land, the means of production of wealth, was to be kept evenly distributed. In addition, the charging of interest was forbidden. Interest is one of the main tools for transferring wealth from the poor to the rich, because it’s the poor who need to borrow and the rich who have excess cash to lend. Moses forbade it. To get rich in rural Galilee 2000 years ago meant ignoring Moses.
So – there you are. Your neighbour had fallen on hard times. Maybe it was just too long between buying seed and harvesting the grain. So you lent them some money and at harvest time you demanded the money back in the form of a share of the olive oil or the wheat or whatever – an amount worth what you’d lent them plus interest for your trouble. Of course, that ate into their surplus and so they’d need your help again. And again, and again – until what they owed you was more than they could ever pay and so they had no choice but to hand over the land to you and keep working for you, perhaps for generation after generation, as the amount of interest they owed stacked up year after year. There’s no evidence that the 50th year when debts were cancelled and land returned was ever practiced in ancient Israel. It’s no way to run an economy, is it? That Moses – such an idealist. So naïve.
The master in Jesus’ story will have ignored Moses to become rich, and because he probably owns several family farms, he employs a manager to look after things. And the manager, like his master, believes that it’s money that makes the world go round and as the middle man he cheats his master as well as his master’s debtors. It’s a corrupt system – the love of money being a root of all kinds of evil. Discovered and threatened with dismissal, the manager reduces the debts owed to his master, maybe removing the interest or his commission or maybe just fiddling the books – but in so doing he earns friends who will return favours – and he earns the admiration of his crooked master. He even seems to have earned the admiration of Jesus. Jesus at least highlights how well the manager used money. And then 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” (v.9)
If it’s not a story about not cheating, what is the story about? Well, context might help.
- In Luke 14, the rich don’t go to the great banquet but the poor do and Jesus said “You cannot become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
- In Luke 15, Jesus is criticised for welcoming sinners and eating with them, so he tells the 3 stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son, who squandered his father’s property, rather like the dishonest manager, but came to his senses and was welcomed home.
- Then after today’s story, Jesus tells the story of a rich man and a beggar at his gate named Lazarus – where Lazarus dies and is welcomed into the eternal home of Abraham’s embrace but when the rich man dies, in the torment of Hades he’s told that things would have been different if he’d been generous in life to Lazarus.
So I think there’s an obvious message about making friends with the poor through sharing wealth with them, because they are the ones first into the eternal homes and it’s they who might welcome you in.
In terms of this broader sweep of Jesus’ teaching about money, being faithful with dishonest wealth is surely about putting our money to use for the Kingdom of God. It’s about being clever and shrewd with the resources at our disposal – not hoarding them but disposing of them in such a way as to maximise the over-turning of the systems of the world so that the world more resembles the Kingdom of God.
You’re not going to get a different message from Luke. From the Magnificat’s overthrow of the powerful while the humble poor are lifted up, through the Nazareth manifesto of chapter 4 with its message of liberation and of good news for the poor, through Luke’s beatitudes – “Blessed are you poor for you will be rich” – all the way through the desolation of the cross on into the radical discipleship of the early church in Acts 2 and 4 – Luke insists on a radical dismantling of the economic systems that impoverish the poor and enrich the rich, to be replaced with a re-distribution of wealth based on trust in God and covenant relationships in community – the church putting its money where its mouth is – so that in word and deed the church proclaims God’s incredible love for the world in God’s gift of God-self in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, and the coming rule of God in Christ – a world of justice, peace and life in its fullness for all.
Jesus’s point in this story and the sayings that follow it are about using wealth in service of what you value. What interests are the children of light serving? Surely we must serve the light, and not squander our master’s property through simply tagging along with the values of the prevailing economic attitudes of our culture – but instead put God’s will first and make wealth the servant and not the master.
Operation Noah’s Bright Now campaign is one example of how the church can put its money where its mouth is. Whether they should have or not, Churches have acquired considerable wealth and this is invested in various ways, including on the stock market, to raise income for the church’s mission. Historically those investments have included oil, gas and coal shares – the church giving financial support to the industries that are fuelling the overheating of the world. Operation Noah’s message has been very simple – that the church should stop investing in the destruction of life and stop profiting from the suffering of the world’s poorest people who are being hit hardest by global heating – and instead we should be shrewd and wise about putting our wealth to work for a better world, investing in solutions rather than the problem.
And slowly, the church has been lining up its finances with its message. The United Reformed Church decided this summer to move its investments into a fossil-free fund and the Methodist Church and the Church of England are in a review process with decisions due in the next year or two. Around the world, a number of churches and groups like the World Council of Churches have already divested and so far, faith organisations worldwide have moved about $3trillion of money out of supporting the fossil fuel industry – 27% of the total divested. Now the challenge is to find creative ways of supporting the rapid development of renewable energy so that we can reduce the carbon waste gases that are causing global heating and give the world a chance to survive and re-shape itself. And then will come our biggest challenge – proclaiming what God’s kingdom would look like, so that people and the ways we relate can be transformed by the love of God in Jesus Christ, ready for the coming of God’s kingdom.
We can campaign. We can support campaigns, including those calling into question the legitimacy of financial orthodoxies and the money-based systems and culture that are impoverishing and destroying life on earth. We can use our money and our time and our talents creatively and lovingly for the good of others, especially those who are poor and ill-treated and suffering. We can choose whom we will serve and change how we live so that our lives line up with the values of the one we serve. We can put all we have and all we are into God’s service – so that, guided and equipped by God’s Holy Spirit, each of us and all of us together work with God in building the eternal home into which all living beings will be welcomed – to live, in peace, life in its fullness in Jesus Christ.