Preached on Sunday, 18.9.16
By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
Have you ever sent an email that failed to communicate in the way you wanted, because emails don’t carry a tone of voice? What left your computer as a tongue-in-cheek comment arrives at someone else’s sounding a bit, well, grumpy or contentious. It seems to me that what we read in Luke’s gospel about money, and how we deal with it, all lacks a tone of voice. And the tone of voice would, I think, be humorous, mocking even, heavy with irony. Without these things, this passage makes little or no sense.
We’ll come back to Jesus, but think first about Amos. Amos is mocking those who would rather not take a day off to celebrate a festival – because that’s a day when they can’t be making money, can’t be doing deals, can’t keep the wheels of commerce and profit turning. And, for Amos, the dealings of the wheeler-dealers, the operators, the duckers and the divers, never does anything good for the poor. His mocking quickly morphs into outrage and condemnation. It is, he says, the vulnerable who are always, always done down by the latest little wheeze in what passes for business, the ruses that slice a little off the product here, add a little to the scales there, fail to tell quite the whole truth, and all with the assurance that there’s nothing personal in all the cheating – ‘it’s only business’.
There’s a day of reckoning coming, says Amos; you cannot carry on forever in your dishonest ways; the anger of those whom you have done down will come back to haunt you; the anger of God will find you, and will find a way to put things right. And those who have thus ‘trampled on the needy’ will not be allowed to forget what they have done – because God has not forgotten, and will not forget. And I wondered, as I thought about those words, how many of the bankers who brought the world economy to its knees, who knowingly and wilfully cheated people of everything they had, have since been brought to account? How many have gone to jail? I think the answer to the last question is ‘one’: one person, relatively junior – because the really powerful, the really wealthy, the really, hugely, grotesquely guilty, walked away to count their assets and their crime-provided blessings.
The important point to note in Amos is that for him the measure of anything in society is how it affects the poorest and the most vulnerable. Never mind that there is an elite who can afford three cars, two yachts, a private jet, houses scattered around the world; never mind how many golf courses they have built, or skyscrapers, never mind how many millions they have made. None of that, says Amos, is of the slightest use at all if the poor have been trampled in the process, if the vulnerable have been cheated in the process, if the fragile lives of fragile people have been damaged or broken, or thought of as of no account. The end, Amos says, can never justify the means. The poor are the measure of any society – not the rich, not the affluent, not the well-heeled.
So let’s now return to Jesus and his story of a manager. Here is one of Amos’s wheeler-dealers; he’s running the show, because it’s useful for the really rich to have someone a little down the line to do their work for them – and, if necessary, take the blame for them (it’s known as deniability). This manager, however, has been less than clever in his dealings – mostly because he has been caught with his hand in the till. As we all know, nobody is ever punished for doing something wrong; they are punished for being found out. And this manager has been found out. And he is worried, terrified maybe, not only that he’s going to lose his job, but that he’s never going to get another; he’s going to be out on his ear, with no job and no friends and no future. So he does the only thing he knows how to do – he starts making deals, he sets about ducking and diving, buying favour where he can. And Jesus says: ‘there you are; that’s how to do it’. And can you imagine him saying that without a mocking, ironic, even sarcastic tone to his voice? You need the tone, and you need the emphasis in the right place:
And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
Notice that Jesus does not say that he will welcome them, not that God will welcome them, not that the hosts of heaven will welcome them; no, go down this road and you will be welcomed to wherever the wheeler-dealers are, for eternity – a place which, if you listen to Amos, might not be all that pleasant. These are the eternal homes for those who worship money – and that worship is quite different from the worship of God. And the difference is in the place of the poor. For those who worship money and the making of money, the poor are those without what they worship; they’re the losers, those who can be disregarded and ignored.
The opposite, however, is true for those who worship God. For those who worship God the place of the poor is central. Listen again to the psalm we read together earlier:
Who is like the Lord our God,
who is seated on high,
who looks far down
on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust,
and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes,
with the princes of his people.
That is who God is, what God does, how God acts. And that, therefore, is how the church that worships God is meant to be, do and act. The question, perhaps, is: how does that happen? How does the church put the poor at the centre of things? How does the church find ways to insist that the powers that be do the same? Do we go down the prophetic road travelled by Amos?
Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land.
Or is there another approach, a complimentary approach? Pope Francis said early in his pontificate: ‘How I would like a church that is poor and for the poor.’ So again comes the question: what might that mean, and how do you do that? Church Action on Poverty is an organisation with whom we have had links for many years; they have been trying to tackle that very question, trying to look at how the church puts the poor at the centre of all that it does, at the centre of all its concerns, at the centre of the life of faith.
It’s interesting to hear of the process they have begun going through in the course of this. They began by listening, listening internationally; they began by listening to stories from Rwanda, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, from Zimbabwe, South Africa, Eritrea. They listened to stories of horror, violence, and extreme poverty; to stories of rejection and exclusion. But they also listened to stories of hope and hospitality, of welcome and celebration. They listened to accounts of how poverty and inequality are covered and distorted by the media, to how the poor are demonised, blamed for their poverty, excluded from people’s concern by a twisted logic that dictates that, if you have little by way of resources, you are due little by way of attention.
They looked at how poverty links into migration, how it always has done, how the movement of people around the world has always responded to poverty – and always addressed it. And, they say, these discussions bore fruit in that they began to break down any feeling of ‘them and us’; ‘we all have all been there’ they heard, we are all one people. But it also left them with a realisation of the ways in which our country and our churches have, in the past, behaved in a way which denied any common history, common inheritance, or common life. We have, in the past, behaved as the ones with the power and also, therefore, we presumed, the ones with the wisdom, with the knowledge, with the hand of God somehow on our shoulders, blessing us, guiding us, consoling us. And so there is a time of reflection and confession and of seeking reconciliation required of us. And they put it like this:
We are called by the God who had nowhere to call home to let go of security and embrace a radical openness to each other. We are called by the crucified God to let go of power and embrace vulnerability. We are called by the resurrected God to let go of fear and live out a radical love, a new community, God’s kingdom here on earth.
And finally, as we know, this discussion is not only about the international inequalities we have fostered over the years, and seem intent on exacerbating in the years to come. It is also about our relationships, damaged and damaging as they are, within our own society – the models of church created in, by and for the affluent, and imposed on the poor by those who have believed profoundly that they were the ones with the knowledge and wisdom, but who may simply have been those with the power.
And that realisation ought to be a warning to those of us who are not in the poorer communities. There is a saying that has gained some common currency: ‘nothing about us without us is for us’. It is a reminder that the church of and for the poor desired by the Pope and many others cannot be another model of church created by the affluent and imposed on the poor. The impetus, the innovation, the imagination required needs to be allowed to arise within the poorer communities of our society themselves. What is required of the affluent is their support, their solidarity, and, yes, their financial assistance and patience.
But there’s also the society itself; there’s also the ways in which resources have progressively been removed from the poor. There’s the constant impression being given, not only by the media but often also by government, that the poor are the problem; they are portrayed as the instigators of poverty rather than as its victims. And that is not good enough; it never has been, and never will be, good enough. Those whom Amos attacked have not gone away, they’re still at it, still wheeling their deals, still trying to buy the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. The biblical witness is clear: there is a side to be chosen.
You cannot serve God and wealth.