Sunday, 22 September 2019

Good stewards of a Common Home

First preached as a sermon at Croydon Minster reflecting on the 'Dishonest Steward' on the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity as we continue to focus in prayer and reflection on the Creation and Care of our Common Home. The readings were Amos 8.4-7; Luke 16.1-13


In a world of ethically murky financial dealings - of tax avoidance and tax evasion on colossal scales by individuals and corporations; of pay day loans that escalate debt at eye watering rates; of the exploitative business model of the gig economy – in that world, the parable that we have heard this morning holds a mirror up to the ways in which money is used, is moved and is acquired.

Money is a delicate subject. It’s particularly delicate in church. And yet Jesus frequently speaks about money. The Bible as a whole - our reading from the Prophet Amos being a case in point - speaks more of money justice and distribution of wealth than it does about other matters that often preoccupy religiously minded people.

The parable touches on the way in which human beings relate to money. For a start the rich man has someone else dealing with his money. So he is detached from the consequences of what his money is doing for good or ill.

The problem with wealth is not the wealth itself, there will always be disparity in income and accumulated wealth, what is a problem is when the rich subcontract the management of the wealth to others. They lose the connection with what wealth and money is and how it can be used.

As the parable shows the behaviour of the rich man opens up the possibility of a careless approach to money by his manager. And his manager, or better translated ‘steward’ has done just that. He has been squandering the rich man’s money and property.

Once found out, the steward feels shame. Money seems hardwired to our shame reflex. Is that why we squirm when money is talked about? And closely associated to shame and money is embarrassment and guilt: I am generous enough? Can I afford this? Should I pay for that? Am I wasting my money?

In the parable the steward addressed his sense of shame, and potential to be ostracised, by turning to what one commentator has called ‘ethically murky’ practices. He settles debts quickly by knocking off some of the debt.

But it’s not his money to do that with. And don’t we see that in the way in which financial systems and economies work? Other peoples’ money: in pension funds, do we know what’s going on with our money ethically, or not? And so often it is the poor who suffer. The words of the prophet Amos don’t need a huge amount of updating; human nature is absolutely recognisable in sharp practices of short selling and getting a fast buck.

So it’s little wonder perhaps that the master, the rich man, commended the dishonest manager: because he had a casual relationship with his money he wasn’t bothered by justice and probity.

So where does all that leave us? Well, read on. Read on because Jesus gives practical wisdom and sets a higher vision and standard which he links to faithfulness in financial matters to service of God. You have to engage with the world of money: don’t be so heavenly minded that you’re of no earthly use! In a murky world be faithful, in small things so that the true treasures, the riches of heaven will be yours.

In his Encyclical Letter to all Christians, called Laudato Si’, Pope Francis speaks about our Common Home. He makes the point that we human beings inhabit a Common Home with all God’s creatures. The Greek word for ‘Common Home’ is oikomene. From the word oikomene we also get the English word economy. Pope Francis recognises in Laudatio Si’ that the environmental crisis of our times cannot be separated from economics.

The economy is not just about money, it’s much wider than that. A Christian vision of economics is more than money: it is about the good running of our Common Home, the oikomene; about being good stewards of the earth, of human society, of our household budgets and our church budgets. The steward in the parable – in Greek oikonomos - failed at that. He was not a good steward, and in that way he mirrors the poor human stewardship of the earth. And faced with his own crisis he used unjust means to get out of it, not unlike the way the rich trade carbon emissions without reducing it from their private jets.

We are stewards of the earth not possessors of it; we are stewards of wealth and money not possessors of it, and when we think we possess money without realising it possesses us, then are then we are serving wealth not God.

That’s where this parable takes us. So what we seek is not mammon but the Kingdom of God, and as Jesus promises, if we seek the Kingdom of God first then everything else we need will be given to us. And faithfulness in the little things will replicate in faithfulness in the big things. In other words small acts of generosity make a big transformative impact; small acts of caring for the creation – like fostering habitats or cutting energy usage - make a big impact when added together.

This is why we should be talking about money, the economy and the Common Good in church and not be bashful about it. What we do with our money tells us about what we value: ‘where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’ (Luke 12.34). That’s why praying about and pondering our giving to the church is important and should be talked about – and will be in the coming weeks – as a response to God’s generosity. That’s why we should encourage our children in church to think about and plan their giving.

As stewards of the riches of creation - the teaming seas and the fruitful land - may we be faithful in our enjoyment of them not exploiting but tending, and may our use of money be to the glory of God as we spend, invest and plan. Amen.

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