St Saviour and St Mary Cotham
Trinity 14 2019
Canon Bruce Saunders
This morning’s sermon is probably one of the few places this week where you’ll hear Boris Johnson and Jesus of Nazareth mentioned in the same breath. Keep the current political situation in mind as you recall the Gospel story we’ve just heard
It’s not the only parable in Luke’s Gospel that begins ‘There was once a rich man…’ Luke’s Gospel was, as you know, written for civilised, well-educated, high-status Greek-speaking people. Rich men and rich women too. The writers understand what Jesus had so often said about how worldly wealth doesn’t go easily with faithful discipleship. So the Gospel includes several stories, like this one, about money and our attitude to it. The story is a warning but it also plants a radical and revolutionary idea.
A man who owns a business hears that his manager is ripping him off, ‘squandering his property’, not calling in people’s debts in time, or maybe creaming off a little too much for himself. The boss fires him. Ever known that to happen? ‘You haven’t met your performance targets.’ ‘For the sake of the company you need to be tougher on your clients.’ ‘Cut a few corners.’ But before he hands in his keys, this manager calls in his boss’s debtors, slashes their debt and settles with them for what they can pay. He does so not to please his boss or save the company. He does it so tomorrow when he’s jobless and quite possibily homeless, he’ll have a few grateful friends who will help him out.
And for this deft bit of footwork, the boss unexpectedly commends the manager. And so does Jesus!
Luke adds a few verses trying to extract some sort of moral, some spiritual meaning. But the final verses read like a preacher trying to wind up a sermon to which he’s lost the thread.
Jesus wasn’t saying we should use unjust tactics to obtain a desirable goal; nor, since keeping clean hands isn’t an option in the real world, was he advising pragmatism. And he wasn’t saying ‘Play the capitalist game and try and beat the system’.
The people of occupied 1st century Palestine, the Jesus mixed with, were loaded with unrepayable debt, taxed beyond their means, they and their families were bought and sold like animals, the blind, the lame, the diseased were left quite literally lying in ditches because they could not support themselves – all of which have clear equivalents in our world. Our earlier reading this morning tells us that Amos had seen it generations earlier – the powers that be fiddling weights and measures and fixing exchange rates to their own advantage. When Jesus commented on what he saw, he wasn’t looking to tweak or redeem the system or find some ethical way of living within it. He was doing something far more original.
He commended the Steward because the Steward recognised that the only way out was to change the game. Instead of playing by the rules of the market, he reverted to an older way of ordering society. It’s been called a community model, or better still, a family model.
When your next-door-neighbour asks to borrow your lawnmower, you don’t say ‘Well there’ll be a £50 deposit, a £20 damage waiver and then £10 an hour’. You lend it because he’s your neighbour and needs it, (and because next month you might need to borrow his stepladder).
When your son or daughter asks you to lend them something toward a car or their first flat – you don’t discuss interest rates and the RPI. You hope that one day they might be able to repay you, but if life is hard for them and they can’t pay, you don’t take them to court. It’s not how you run a successful business, but it’s how you run a successful family. And it’s how Jesus envisages people working and relating to each other in a Kingdom-like community.
A different set of values from the world then and now. More human, more generous. The economy of grace.
I’ve made this point in other sermons when I’ve been preaching on Gospel stories about money – how Jesus changes the game, turns power upside down, answers a question that wasn’t even asked, points to a better way. There are always been plenty of current examples in the news of the normal way of doing business against which to contrast Jesus’ approach. This time I was going to say something about how there’s very little that’s gracious or generous going on with Brexit. Boris Johnson’s populist approach has boiled down the immensely complicated issues involved in Brexit to the question of economic self-interest. Will we be better off in or out of Europe? As if the other cultural, collaborative, enriching aspects of community, the bigger picture, don’t matter a bit.
But since putting these thoughts on paper earlier this week, I heard Jo Swinson from the Lib Dem Conference talking about some of these other non-economic values – she summed them up as human well-being. In a Lib Dem Government, she said, there might even be a minister for Happiness. And the day after that, the senior economist on the Financial Times said capitalism was failing to deliver for too many people and needed to be re-set. Too much wealth and power in the hands of too few individuals and corporations, and too little benefit for people at the bottom of the social food-chain. And then of course Friday’s astonishing youthful climate change marches worldwide. Encouraging voices, I thought. Prophetic in a positive sense.
But I’m not going to hold my breath until the Lib Dems win a general election. Nor can I envisage the world’s richest and most powerful, the bankers, the arms dealers, the pharmaceutical companies, the internet and media moguls, saying ‘Oh sorry, let’s change the system.’
Which is why people like us have to hold on to that notion of an economy of grace – because we can, if we choose, live it out.
‘Yes, that’s all very well in theory’, says a voice in our head, ‘but if people like us behaved like the man in the parable, the banking system would collapse overnight, businesses would fold, I wouldn’t have a job, my pension would dry up, my family would suffer.’ So we park the vision, pick up our metaphorical briefcase and plod back into the ‘real’ world, where the bottom line is not happiness, job satisfaction, good relationships or the wellbeing of workers, customers or the planet, but protecting our own interests.
I don’t exclude myself from this conundrum. I’d love to believe that Jesus meant us to find a comfortable little niche where we can live happily with our compromises. But he doesn’t. Whenever we open the Bible, we hear him saying ‘There is a better way’ – he preaches about it, tells stories like this about it, and demonstrates it in his own behaviour and relationships. Kingdom living is about generosity; about giving, without counting the cost, as you would to someone you love. His values are softer but far more demanding. Which is why we find it so difficult to live his values outside our own family unit.
It’s not an issue for the poor. They have little or no choice in the matter. But for the people Luke was writing for, people like us, it’s harder because we do have choices. The challenge is so tough that Luke seems to suggest that it will not be resolved until the Kingdom comes. But maybe we can begin to live the economy of generosity and grace now – not just in our homes and with our neighbours, but even and especially in those places where the world’s economy rules – the workplace, the institutions and systems of our time. Here at Cotham and at St Pauls, I understand, for example, you have a particular opportunity at the moment about what you’re going to do with your buildings and your cash
I’ll say no more about that, but I know that however we rationalise and justify ourselves, however much we squirm and wriggle, Jesus won’t let us off this particular hook. Ordering our lives by an economy of grace and generosity. Can’t you just feel your muscles relax at the very thought of it?