Sunday, 18 September 2016

God or Mammon: Where are true riches to be found?

First preached as a sermon at Guildford Cathedral on 18th September 2016, on the text Luke 16.1-13.

Tax collectors Marinus van Reymerswaele
‘Mammon’ is a good old fashioned word: as the Authorised Version of the Bible renders Jesus’ words at the end of the gospel reading today: ‘you cannot serve God and mammon’ (Luke 16.13). More modern translations, accurately, translate the original Greek word, mamōnas, as ‘wealth’ or ‘riches’. But mammon conveys something a little bit more, it suggests wealth or riches that are not entirely above board, a bit dodgy or are the object of worship.

‘You cannot worship God and mammon’. It’s a pretty punchy conclusion to Jesus’ rather extraordinary parable, variously known as the ‘Unjust Steward’, the ‘Dishonest’ or ‘Crooked Manager’.

Every time I read this parable, and believe me, I read it through a number of times in preparation for preaching this morning, I find myself squirming. What is going on here? Why do I squirm and recoil when I read it?

First of all, I don’t like the manager. He’s squandering the rich owner’s property and is negligent. He clearly should have been disciplined years before. And when he’s found out - after whistle-blowers have finally plucked up courage to expose him - the manager wriggles and finds strategies to make the best of a decidedly bad situation.

Here we don’t have hot blooded sin - like rampant sexual passion, intemperate violence or spur of the moment lying, which are bad enough - but cold blooded sin, calculated plotting and scheming. This is the worst kind of white collar crime going on.

And then there’s the rich man, the master, who colludes with all of this and somehow thinks it’s laudable. Many a tycoon seems to enjoy seeing an employee being quite as devious and slippery as the tycoon himself: after all, what were his riches based on?

The debtors also quite happy to accept the freebie that they are gaining: none of them challenges the dishonesty of the manager. We might even start to think, ‘well, I wouldn’t be like the manager, and I wouldn’t be like the fat cat tycoon, but as for the debtors, well, what they did by accepting some reduction of the debt they owed wasn’t illegal: he’s rich he won’t notice…’

So what’s Jesus up to in this parable? Is he really commending all this behaviour? If we think that, then I want to suggest that we might read the parable completely the other way round.

The problem comes when we read this parable thinking that Jesus is commending it to us wholeheartedly. Jesus isn’t holding this parable up as an example to us to look at, study and replicate. Rather he is holding a mirror up and asking: ‘what do you see of yourself in this? How do you make choices as you negotiate the complexities of the world? What does all this look like to you when you are my disciple?’

This parable should make us squirm and then examine why. We should take heart from that squirming; it means that our ethical antennae are alert to the contradictions in the parable, and the cognitive dissonance it contains, because we realise that there is something profoundly wrong going on, that there is no such thing as victimless crime ultimately, and that lack of probity and honesty in small things grows and mutates rapidly into something bigger and impossible to control. Jesus refuses to give us the answers we expect but makes us do some work so that we are not the spiritual equivalent of the manager, being bad stewards of what belongs to someone else: that is to say, not being negligent and squandering our God-given gifts.

When we squirm at this parable we are drawing from a deep ethical tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures articulated by, amongst others, the prophet Amos who condemns those who exploit the poor, by making small measures, profiteer and passing off the sweepings of the wheat for good grain.

Yet we know, and this is hard too, that the world of business relies on risk, on taking a chance and exploiting an opportunity. Without entrepreneurs generating money and moving it round then economies stagnate and poverty becomes endemic: look at North Korea or Zimbabwe. The parable of the talents reminds us that money needs to move and work in an economy: the servants who made their money work and grow are commended and rewarded; the servant who dug a hole and put his talents of money in it is told that, because his expectations were nil, he should expect nothing now the master has returned.

Then there is the whole business of being financial directors, fund managers, budget holders, accountants or those of us dealing with household budgeting: each of us has to manage money, however limited or plentiful it is.

The Cathedral itself has to wrestle with a financial deficit and ask questions about endowment income, the balance of income and expenditure, prudent use of resources, the fostering of generosity.

There are plenty of good Christian disciples who are faced with the challenges money brings at work and at home, and many, I know, wrestle deeply with issues around the ethics of money, endowments, dividend yields, implications of low-interest rates and personal debt.

This is where the word ‘mammon’ comes back in. Mammon is corrupted, corrupting wealth. It is the blind pursuit of wealth hanging the consequences for the poor. Wealth becomes mammon when it is pursued for its own sake, when little corners are cut or small deceits begin and inevitably snowball into bigger ones. That is the deceit and corruption of mammon, that money is worth chasing for itself and not what it can do for others.

So then, this parable holds a mirror up to us to ask do we seek to serve God or mammon? Managing wealth with an eye to the Common Good for the building up of the Kingdom of God is one thing, blind pursuit of wealth for its own sake is quite another.

This parable moves us to ask where true riches are to be found. We need constantly to move from serving mammon to wealth that serves; from worshipping mammon to wealth that worships and is used to honour God

This is where a reading of the parable that says it is not an example but an examination actually gives us space to hold together commitment to justice, equity and fair dealings with the demands of making money and appreciating its value.

The binary choice: God or mammon has always been, and will always be, a demanding one. Our very presence here today, and the offerings we make financially and the bread and wine presented, point us away from mammon and to the pursuit of true riches and wealth which is receiving the inexhaustible riches of God, given without price and yet everything given.

© Andrew Bishop, 2016

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