Sermon by Charles King, St Michael’s Church, 22nd September 2019
Readings: Amos 8:4-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13
This morning two of our readings (Amos and Luke) focus on the right attitudes to managing our finances – whether at a personal or a business level. Now don’t worry, this isn’t a sneaky stewardship-type sermon just swept in under the carpet in advance of our November campaign. That will indeed come in due course from people better qualified than me to do so! So rest easy for the moment. But the thing is, wherever you go in the Bible, it’s hard to go too far away from the topic of money – indeed, Jesus talks about it one way or another more than anything else.
And our Gospel reading is a prime example. I’ve long been fascinated by this passage. It only appears in Luke’s Gospel although the last verse (“You cannot serve God and wealth”) also pops up in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:24.
A story of two halves
But it’s a bit of a funny story, isn’t it? There seem to be two halves: first, the story of the manager; and second, Jesus’ conclusions. But if what Jesus says seems pretty cut and dried (i.e. “You cannot serve God and wealth”), then the actual parable bit with our manager friend is more ambiguous. Is he good or is he bad? Are his actions the right ones or the wrong ones? Is it an easy decision that he takes or a hard one?
So let’s remind ourselves of what he does. Having been given the sack by his master for poor management – which seemingly includes not having collected his master’s debts – he decides to take matters into his own hands and make amends. As a sweetener to speed up payment from the various debtors, he offers to reduce the debt if it is paid off there and then. So 100 jugs of olive oil become 50; 100 containers of wheat become 80. All of which seems to satisfy his master, who’s now full of praise for him.
Now this parable is sometimes labelled the ‘dishonest manager’, sometimes ‘shrewd’, ‘unjust’, or even ‘penitent’. Some have him as a ‘manager’, others as a ‘steward’. Positive and negative connotations, all of which put a slightly different spin on how we understand things. I prefer the slightly less cynical term ‘shrewd’, as for me the key is in v11: “If you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?”
So here’s my take. Leave aside for a moment the question of whether something is in fact dishonestly acquired or not. For I reckon that’s a bit of a distraction. Rather, think about what we’ve been given to look after in the various parts of our lives. And so things become instead about how what we do in one part is reflected in another. Not whether something is specifically ours or not – whether it belongs to us or not. Instead the focus is on how we manage each element – or what we tend to call in church – stewardship. Crucially, it’s about ensuring, too, that that wealth or whatever it is doesn’t start to manage us!
Because as I mentioned at the start this is about our attitudes to what we have been given to look after. Because good and faithful stewardship honours God. Jesus is absolutely not saying money is bad, it must just not become that which guides us. We have a similar warning in our reading from Amos. Amos tells of the dangers of letting a desire to get on with business – business in the work sense – overtake the rightful need to do business with God. And for Amos, this is about finding Sabbath time. Because if we don’t, it means the focus of our attention gets misplaced; it’s the wrong attitude. All of which is summarised by Jesus’ conclusion: “You cannot serve God and wealth.” For wealth and God cannot be given an equal footing. Instead, putting God first informs the way in which we look after that wealth. And it stops the wealth managing us.
Because at the root of it, there’s more to this idea of wealth than just simply money. Sometimes you’ll hear this idea translated as ‘mammon’. That’s just the name given by Jesus to the force that wealth exerts over us. It’s about being governed by the wrong things, the wrong attitudes. That money itself should become the goal in itself, rather than something simply to oil the cogs of something better.
So if we’re to reorientate our thinking, let’s apply this idea of mammon to the Luke gospel passage. First, there is a belief that says as regards wealth, we only value what we can see. Whether it’s monetary or not, it’s only worth something to us if we can perceive it with our own eyes. The flipside of which means that what we don’t see has no value. Like the neglect of the poor and needy in our reading from Amos. Being overlooked gives them even the double whammy of being devalued as well.
And then secondly, linked to seeing and value, we might also say that what we can measure allows us to be in control. Part of the force of the Luke passage for me shows that both of these things – seeing and measuring – and what they signify – value and control – just seem to lose their potency when we see what the manager does. Because reducing those debts is a very visual thing – we see that in the image of the jugs of olive oil, and the containers of wheat – but equally there is something wonderfully freeing and generous, too, about giving up control of those measurements – reducing 100 here down to 50, and 100 there down to 80. They no longer control us. It’s a bit like those amazing words of hope at Jesus’ resurrection ‘death has lost its sting’ – well, relinquishing their control over us means these numbers lose their sting.
Thirdly, there’s the idea of what we give we gain. It’s so oddly illogical, because the sort of tune that God’s economy dances to doesn’t really have an equivalent in the market economics we’re used to. Conventional wisdom has the whole thing as a zero-sum game: if I give, you lose, because it’s all a closed-loop system. But with God, abundance and generosity – the principles of giving – show that the creative power of God is always active. Thus what we give, we gain. Is this perhaps a reason why the manager is described as ‘shrewd’? Is this perhaps why he’s ‘commended’ by his master? Because not only he – that’s to say the manager – would find some sort of gain himself, but there’s also the sense that the whole of the immediate society might gain as well. There’s a multiplier effect.
All of this seems to come from one thing: the conscious decision of choosing to lay wealth, or anything that has the ability to control us – that’s to say, to lay mammon – aside. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, calls this ‘dethroning mammon’, removing it from its position of power. And in its place, and guided by and serving God, we can begin to put in place alternative positive forces of power. Our own personal spending power to buy Fairtrade products, perhaps; new systems of lending like credit unions as alternatives to payday loans; for governments, debt cancellation for the poorest nations; and in recent times, even, as demonstrated by the huge movements globally, the decision of so many to engage in environmental activism. Is this in response to the mammon of climate change inaction? The desire to lay this inaction aside, and participate actively.
With the example of mammon; of wealth; of stewardship; Jesus invites us to reconsider what motivates us. What are our attitudes? I wonder if there particular ‘mammons’ in our own lives – those things that have power over us – and which we can choose this week to lay aside.
 Justin Welby, Dethroning Mammon: Making Money Serve Grace (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).