Sermon for Trinity 16
Sunday 19 September 2010
Money, Money, Money (Luke 16.1-13)
Karl Marx dies and goes to heaven and when he arrives at the gates he is confronted by St Peter who says: “Name?” “Karl Marx.” “The Karl Marx? Dialectical materialism and all that?” “Yes.” “Well in that case we would like to give you a choice. Where would you like to go?” Marx replied, “I am in some difficulty, never having seen or even believed in either place.” “Just go and have a look,” said St Peter. “Hell is down there. Try that first.” So Marx went down there, looked over the wall, and saw, sitting on a sofa with a luscious unclad blonde on his lap, someone looking remarkably like Karl Marx. “Well,” he said to himself, “so that is hell. What can heaven be like?” So he went to have a look. And there, as he looked over the wall, he saw, sitting on a sofa, with a luscious unclad blonde on his lap, someone looking remarkably like Karl Marx. He returned to St Peter. “I really do not mind where I go, I see no difference.” “No difference?” “None at all.” You, a master of dialectical materialism, can see no difference?” “There is none.” “But,” said St Peter, “there is a fundamental difference. Down there she is being punished. Up here, you are being rewarded.”
The reason I begin this sermon with a joke about Karl Marx is that today I am focussing on the theme of money. It has been wisely said that although political Marxism has failed, his theory that everything about human social life must be understood in terms of economics, in terms of money, is now universally accepted. Money is now the driving force behind all political policies and in many ways it is true that we ourselves have become mere cogs in a machine that is driven by money. The old saying that money makes the world go round has become truer than ever in our day and age. Is it not the case in so many areas of life? It is impossible for governments to succeed unless the markets approve of them. We have seen this in recent months even within Europe with the difficulties being faced in Greece. It has long been true in the developing world. When governments there try to introduce progressive policies they are time and time again stymied by the attitude of the markets. We have seen it here when popular political policies have been withdrawn for fear of a run on the pound. The education our children receive has become largely controlled by finance. When I was young the idea of education for education’s sake still largely prevailed. Now we expect education to have a cash value. And university education is ‘on sale’ to the highest bidder, the consequence being large scale indebtedness among the young. We even value ourselves in terms of money. We are concerned that because a person earns more than we do or has more money than we have, that person has more value. But if that were true then bankers or premiership footballers would be more valuable people than nurses or teachers which is plainly not true.
So how do we escape from this bondage to money? Perhaps we can be helped by looking at today’s gospel, which admittedly is a tricky one. It’s about a man who first squandered the property of his employer and then hoodwinked him out of goods that were due to him. In spite of that he is actually praised by the very employer he outmanoeuvred. He is praised not for his dishonesty but for his shrewdness. It is precisely this shrewdness or practical wisdom that Jesus holds up as an example to us. Like the steward, we are expected to exercise practical wisdom. He, however, was devious. We are to be trustworthy, even in worldly matters, for “the person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones.” This passage may be better understood if we look at the meaning of a key word. The word translated manager is the Greek word oikonómos, better translated steward. The key thing about a steward is that he cannot claim ownership of the goods of the household.
From the word oikonómos comes our word economy. This originally applied to the management of the household, but its meaning has broadened to include even the largest human communities. Our contemporary economy is based on principles of private property. But in its origins the word was connected with those who had stewardship, rather than ownership of the household goods. We need to get back to that way of thinking about money and economics. Money, together with all that we ‘own’ is only our property for the time being. We are its stewards and one day we will pass it on. Using the language of the Gospel, we might say that the earth with all its riches is the household; God is the householder; and we are the stewards. The question is: Just how do we manage the goods that are in our trust? Are we devious, or are we trustworthy? Do we manage these goods in ways that enhance the entire household and benefit all who belong, or do we squander them, thinking only of ourselves? Do we cling to the rights of private property, or do we recognize our responsibility of ensuring that the just needs of others are met? Jesus’ last words are very demanding. He tells us that we cannot be slaves to both God and money. The decision is left to us.
As I started with a joke I’ll end with one too: There once was a rich man who was near death. He was very grieved because he had worked so hard for his money and he wanted to be able to take it with him to heaven. So he began to pray that he might be able to take some of his wealth along. An angel hears his plea and appears to him. “Sorry, but you can’t take your wealth with you.” The man implores the angel to speak to God to see if He might bend the rules. The man continues to pray that his wealth could follow him. The angel reappears and informs the man that God has decided to allow him to take one suitcase with him. Overjoyed, the man gathers his largest suitcase and fills it with pure gold bars and places it beside his bed. Soon afterward the man dies and shows up at the Gates of Heaven to greet St. Peter. St. Peter seeing the suitcase says, “Hold on, you can’t bring that in here!” But, the man explains to St. Peter that he has permission and asks him to verify his story with the Lord. Sure enough, St. Peter checks and comes back saying, “You’re right. You are allowed one suitcase, but I’m supposed to check its contents before letting it through.” St. Peter opens the suitcase to inspect the worldly items that the man found too precious to leave behind and exclaims in amazement, “You brought pavement?!!!”
Trinity 16 | Sunday 19 September 2010