Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity 2019
22nd Sep 2019
The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
Luke 16.14 “You cannot serve God and wealth”
This morning’s parable introduces us to a dishonest man who is yet cunning and practical. He excuses his master’s debtors a huge percentage of their debt as if with one bold brush stroke. He is adept at covering up his tracks and admits that even though he faces the sack, it will be worthwhile to excuse the debtors so that he might still curry favour with them. All this is done not with his own money, but with his master’s! He is the original ‘crafty Harry’ and the text remarks drily that “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light”. Even his own master seems to have a sneaking respect for him.
Parables like this one can often be read through their last line, which normally contains a pithy instruction. In this case it is, ‘You cannot serve God and wealth’. The purpose of this story is not to amuse but to instruct. ‘God is before all else’ it says, ‘and wealth is ephemeral’. In the words of the Beatles song ‘Money can’t buy me love’. In Jesus own time, as with our time, the contrast between the wealthy and the poor was all too painfully experienced. And there are many parables in the New Testament about the rich and poor : the widow’s mites, Lazarus and Dives, the rich young man who must sell all he has, and the man who built barns and was rich but the following day was dead, and so on…
There may never have been a time when the rich and the poor did not live side by side, at least before some kind of monetary or capital based system of living was being practised. Last week’s feast of St Matthew reminds us that Matthew was called as a rich man. Rich because his job was to fleece the poor people with heavy taxes imposed by the Roman Empire and to ‘take his own cut’. Hence all tax collectors were hated by the people at large. But in calling Matthew to be his disciple Jesus takes a very pragmatic view of Matthew’s wealth. He knows Matthew’s true worth and is not offended by his lifestyle, but rather sees God in him and chooses him.
My great uncle on my father’s side was a Canadian who had served in the First World War and been gassed and wounded. Unlike his British counterpart, my uncle was awarded a large sum of money in compensation for his injuries and with this capital sum, married my father’s sister and bought a farm in Cornwall. Many years later I remember him speaking with my own father in one of his fields and asking my father how much did he think he was worth? I can’t remember what my father replied but it was a sorry sort of question. The following week , however my uncle died and so the question of his monetary worth was no longer either real or necessary. This goes to the heart of the question. You cannot serve God and wealth. Money has been a curse to some but for most it’s a vexation. In some cases of course, great sums of money have been given for the greater good. There is the Bill Gates Foundation and in the last century great monies donated by John Passmore Edwards to provide libraries for the poor in the east end of London and in Cornwall. His famous one liner was “Do the best for the most”. Then there were great public benefactors like Andrew Carnegie, who provided for the establishment of concert halls and parks. It has only lately been discovered that the singer George Michael discreetly donated many millions of pounds to various charities.
The ‘other side of the coin’ is of course the present state of the world and the broad divergences between the rich and the poor. Often overlooked is the poverty in our own country which is all too close at hand, and the prevalence of loan sharks, food banks and indebtedness, often owing to gambling and at the extreme end of the scale, drug habit. We must consider the purpose of a Parable like the one we have heard this morning to provide some kind of Christian pointer to the way in which any relationship with God must invariably relate to my (poor) neighbour. Churches like ours are all too aware of the need to account for the financial and material resources at our disposal, and we have spent the last year and a half considering our future course and of drawing a balance between our financial accountability and our desire to commit to a charitable mode of existence. We hope that our new tenants, offering acting skills to young people, some of whom will come from poorer backgrounds, may go some way to fulfilling our Christian brief. With the establishment of room space alongside the drama school, Holy Cross will in the New Year, be able to offer community space to local groups who themselves help to enrich our sense of local community and develop their outreach through the auspices of the local church.
The Christian Churches seek to embrace an economy in which the love of God and the love of neighbour, especially our poor neighbour, are interrelated and indispensable parts of God’s view of things. The parable today draws a distinction between the existence of God and prevalence of wealth but the distinction is not a neat or convenient one. But what emerges is the real state of things and of a God who seeks us out and knows us, not primarily for what we bring to the table, or even our own estimation of ourselves, but for the love he has for us and the hope he wishes for a present and future which finds its true worth in Him.