Holy Communion 22nd September 2019
Making money work
Luke 16. 1-13
When you get to a certain age, your start having interesting conversations about pension planning. You can tell I’m at that age because, a few years ago, I would never have put the words ‘interesting’ and ‘pension planning’ in the same sentence. Wouldn’t it be brilliant if you could go back in time, say 20 years, and start paying money into a decent pension scheme, rather than spending it on whatever you were actually spending it on? Where did all that money go? What use is it now? How many people really have the financial foresight to plan for the future in that kind of way?
You will know, I hope, that Jesus preached about money and possessions more than any other earthly subject – certainly more than about sexuality, or the gender of clergy, or whether churches should have pews or chairs. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus talks about money almost exclusively in relation to crisis and ultimate salvation, and he does it a lot. Money is eschatological. What we do with it matters eternally.
As ever, it’s worth reading the Gospel in one go, to get the way in which the the pressure is piled on relentlessly. Last Sunday the readings were from the early part of Luke 15, and were about God rejoicing when the lost is found. The parable that follows is the Prodigal Son: the one who takes his inheritance and wishes his Father dead, only to squander it. In losing it all, and being lost, he knows that all he can do is rely on his father’s grace. He discovers he is found. The parable which follows today’s reading is that of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The rich man finds that the money which defined him in his life is of no use after his death. There was no reliance of God, and the consequences are stark.
The parable about the steward – the Estate manager - in Luke 16 is sandwiched between those two parables. Some say it’s the most difficult piece of teaching about money Jesus ever gave, manly because it seems Jesus is commending dishonesty. A respected commentator says: “The parable of the unjust steward has always been disturbing. Preachers, writers, interpreters and teachers of the Bible often avoid it like the plague”. That’s why it’s good that the lectionary puts it right in front of us, and this preacher has no choice. I love it, actually. Think of it as interesting pension planning on an eternal canvas. The core message is simple: use what you have now wisely to make sure your future is secure.
The steward has been found to be bad at his job, almost certainly lining his own pockets by lending his master’s money at interest. Faced with this he indulges in some dodgy dealing, and aims to give his creditors a good deal. Lending money at excessive interest was against the law anyway, so, in reducing the amount the creditors have to pay back, the steward wins three ways: he gets his master’s money back intact; gains some credit in the eyes of the law by ending up lending the money fairly; and has some very happy clients who will presumably look after him in return. Everybody wins, it seems.
That same commentator who says that cowardly preachers avoid the parable takes us to the heart of the steward’s thinking. The steward takes a calculated risk that his master is generous, loving, and gracious. Rather than contest his dismissal, or do what even the prodigal son did and try to earn a basic living, the steward continues his shrewd financial dealing in order to trade on his master’s grace. The master sees, in the words of our commentator, that the steward “is smart enough to know that his only hope is to put his entire trust on the unqualified mercy of his generous master.”
What Jesus commends here is not dodgy dealing, but the underlying principle of using what you have now to ensure your security in the future. Kenneth Bailey, our commentator, commends the steward for recognising that his only hope is on the master paying the price, out of sheer grace. The steward is an illustration, not an example! He is forced, in a crisis, to make the best use of the things he has. This is hyperbole and irony, with an underlying message about what we can trust eternally. A clue: its not money!
The parables and incidents in the chapters around this story – the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son, the rich man and Lazarus – are about crisis, about decision, about salvation, about rescue and new life The theme is clear: the Christian life is about living well, righteously, now, in a way which will also ensure our life eternally. “So,” says Jesus, “You know how money can take you captive. If money uses you, your eternal future might not be secure. Who’s your real master? If you are serving God as your master, you will use your money wisely and righteously.” Look at the end of our reading. Be faithful with what you have. Make sure you know who your master is. Whose grace are you throwing yourself on?
What’s great about living in Hampstead is how multicultural we are. A great cultural marker is about what we find it uncomfortable to talk about. This Brit is not good at talking about money. It may be that you are. Whoever you are, have a conversation with yourself, and ask yourself what you have, and what you want to do with it. Jesus is stark here: you will either serve God, or you will serve your money, your possessions. Ask yourself: is what you have dragging you down or is it leading you to glory? Are you making a difference with it now, or is it running you? And where is your ultimate security? I don’t think this parable is advising us not to plan financially for our future; we need to be wise, and ideally not be a burden on others. But we can get so fixated with being secure financially that we forget where our true security is to be found.
Make friends for yourselves using the unrighteous things you have, says Jesus. Make it work for you, not you for it. Do good with it. And be absolutely sure that the only way you can lose what is secure for you in heaven is by showing God that you trust your possessions more than you trust him. An eternal home is ours when we live according to that challenge. Amen.
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