Amos 8: 4-7; Luke 16: 1-13
Our gospel reading today has one of Jesus colourful stories about characters dealing with money. I love these stories. They remind me of the office gossip when I was a young investment manager, of entrepreneurs pulling off astonishing tricks of daring. One I recall in particular, an entrepreneur in Leeds who sold his software business, in which we had an investment, for a huge sum, just moments before it ran out of money. To the American buyers he appeared relaxed and supremely confident – they had no idea how desperate the situation was.
A colleague explained to me excitedly in the days before the deal: “two arrows are hurtling towards the target – one is a sale for £40m and the other is receivership – and it’s neck and neck!”
These stories followed a set pattern – in the same way as is true of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. In this genre the hero is a commercially artful deal-maker who despite impossible odds in the end walks off with the cash. The name of the game is money. There is no other goal, no other emotion. It’s very two-dimensional, but in its own terms colourful and entertaining.
So this is how I understand that group of Jesus’ parables that tell of people scheming in this way. They are the opposite of holy, the characters are only interested in playing the game, and the game is commercial survival.
Today’s reading is a great example of the genre. I picture Jesus telling the story with wit and brio, the group of disciples smiling as they listen. Here he takes the part of the manager, declaring, “Look at me, I’m not strong enough to dig! And I don’t want to beg, do I?” Somehow the listeners know that he won’t end up digging or begging, that he will find a way, like Jerry the mouse, to escape the trap. And so he does, conniving with the master’s debtors: “Here, quickly, just cross out 100 and put 50 and sign at the bottom – I’ll sort out the rest.”
And then there is the master, who had no scruples about sacking his manager purely on suspicion of being on the take, but then, when he realises that he has been outmanoeuvred, acknowledges the cleverness of the trick “he’s played me – the cheeky bugger!” It seems likely that what the manager did, whilst shameless, was not actually in breach of his contract, assuming he had delegated authority to settle debts.
What has this to do with Jesus’ message? Well, I believe it is a style of teaching used by Jewish Rabbi’s – that you find a scenario which seems initially to have nothing at all to do with your subject matter, but where there is an unlikely link, which you then use to illustrate your point in a memorable way.
We see from the end of the reading that the point Jesus is making is about giving away your possessions. You cannot serve God and money. And this applies not only to money but also to your time, your attention, your compassion.
So then, if, in the economy of the world, this wily manager, desperate to save his own skin, has enough native cunning to give away his master’s assets, surely then, you, who are children of light and so much wiser, can see that in the economy of heaven your life depends on putting money and possessions last, on also giving them away, that your entry to the heavenly banquet may be secured.
It is worth noting here that Jesus teaches on many occasions about giving away possessions. Far more than he does about sex, which he rarely mentions. I wonder how many people have been excluded from communion, or from leadership roles in the church, because they hoard their wealth?
Interesting too that when Jesus talks about possessions, often it is not because he has compassion for the poor and feels the urgency of their needs – although that is true. He does so out of concern for the giver. Give them away, he urges, because holding onto your possessions risks corroding your relationship with God.
And this is how I see much of the outpouring of feeling about our late queen: For all that she retained, the language of this past week has been about how much she gave, in steadfast dedication and self-control, in tireless engagement with people, in moments of connection, in prayer.
Our reading from Amos also talks about the dangers of holding on to our possessions. The wealthy “trample on the poor and needy.” But Amos’ insight is that they do so not out of hate or scorn, or even right-wing politics. They do so out of indifference. They are busy living their lives, worrying about when the grain markets will open, about the weather and the new moon, preoccupied, as no doubt all their colleagues and relations are. They simply don’t notice the poor, or when they do, fail to see their humanity. What is pernicious about wealth then, is that it can wrap itself around you like a bubble. It becomes easier to associate only with people in a similar position to you – and by degrees a certain busyness about managing what you own becomes completely normal.
In the parable of the sower, one of the seeds falls among weeds, which grow over the young plant and cut out its light. When he explains the parable, Jesus describes the weeds as “the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth.” It seems to me – and these reflections as you may have realised are aimed as much at my own life as anyone else – that wealth deceives by telling you that you are invulnerable, that you are in control, not dependent on other people, and with no need of God either, no space for him.
Our reading from Amos ends on a menacing note, with God declaring, “Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.” But in the gospel, there is no threat. When the rich young man walks away from Jesus, there is only sorrow. When we hoard our resources of money, time, compassion, when we build around ourselves a narrower life we can control, I imagine that God sees a tragedy of empoverishment, of a so much fuller life foregone.
Richard Young (Rector)