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Confused about Money?

I don’t know if you know the hymn “Tell me the stories of Jesus” – I remember it from childhood and I suppose it must have been written for children. “Tell me in accents of wonder, how rolled the sea / Tossing the boat in a tempest on Galilee / And how the Maker, ready and kind, / Chided the billows, and hushed the wind”, it says. As well as the calming of the storm, it recalls Jesus saying suffer the little children, the triumphant entry into Jerusalem and the garden of Gethsemane. And of course those are such good stories, so memorable.

If the length of a hymn could take it, perhaps the writer would have turned also to the prodigal son, or the paralysed man lowered through the roof of a house by his ingenious friends, or Jesus healing a blind man or the ten lepers, or perhaps the widow who is overjoyed to find her lost coin, or the shepherd who goes off to search for the hundredth sheep, and finds it and brings it home.

I suppose for a children’s hymn the woman caught in the act of adultery might have been a bit tricky, although actually that is a story I love to hear: the woman (not the man, which is interesting in itself) is brought to Jesus as a test case, and movingly, he “bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground”, and when pressed, he says “‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her’” and the woman goes free.

What I do not especially love to hear is the kind of thing we find in today’s gospel: “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.”

One commentary describes today’s passage as “noteworthy for its obscurity.” It is not even very clear where the parable ends and any explanation begins; it reads as a collection of injunctions about the use of money which probably came from different occasions in Jesus’ ministry, and are gathered together here by Luke. It is certainly interesting that Luke has a lot to say about money, and most of what he says is said after Jesus has “set his face towards Jerusalem”: the financial manager in the parable faces a personal crisis, and there is an impending crisis for Luke’s readers as Jesus travels towards Jerusalem where he will be put to death. If only those who seek to follow Jesus could act as shrewdly as the manager in the parable – is that what Luke is getting at?

Perhaps, but there is something else too: material wealth in itself is neither honest nor dishonest, but if we understand the acquisition and ownership of possessions as something in which to put our trust, we risk ending up isolated from God and from our fellow human beings. Money and what it can buy is in our service; like the Sabbath it is made for us, not we for it; it is not primarily an end in itself but a means to an end. In 2008 as the financial crash unfolded around us I watched in

fascination – our youngest child was born in May that year and my choice of TV for late night breastfeeding became Newsnight, and the crisis started to feel almost like a soap opera, with the complexity of financial instruments such as collateralised debt obligations and credit default swaps the pieces of evidence. Only it wasn’t Miss Scarlet, in the library, with the piece of rope but an embedded system, all over the place, with instruments that can surely legitimately be described as labyrinthine. I realise, of course, that what I understood is quite limited and my apologies for that, but I remember often finding myself wondering about the extent to which complexity of structures and instruments provides a false sense of security, inviting our trust, calling out to us that here meaning is indeed to be found.
One could say the same I suppose for those of us who always have about us a phone which connects us to social networks, email, news and so on – why does the bleep of an alert on my phone hold so much attraction for me, even in the midst of a conversation with the real person in front of me? I saw a sign in a cafe the other day, appropriately for the sentiment it expressed written in chalk on a piece of slate:

Material wealth serves some purpose beyond that of being an end in itself – our responsibility is to use our wealth to respond thoughtfully, prudently and wisely to the demands made upon us, to see money through the lens of the values of the reign of God. The hate one and love the other phrase is to some extent first century rhetoric, a form of over-statement used to make a point, but the question which comes right at the end of the parable is just as clear now as it must have been then: “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?”

Today’s gospel certainly presents us with serious challenges in terms of values, ethics, and priorities.  The reign of God has to be the lens through which we make your personal and corporate financial decisions; let us challenge the presumption that in wealth we will find happiness; and hear what the Hebrew prophets say to us across millennia, that wealth without justice and compassion leads to personal and corporate destruction.  Wealth without consideration of God’s shalom and purposes beyond our self-interest leads to poverty and pain.

One way of reading the story of the dishonest manager is that he forgives others their debts. Jesus, the subversive servant who though he is the Son of God washes his disciples’ feet forgives us our sins, and each week we pray “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those against us.”

LB - 22-9-13