The Challenge of Wealth

There aren’t many experiences in the life of the Church when Luisa and I feel like we are the senior citizens.  In fact our experience is largely the reverse: we feel like we are either the youth group or perhaps even the kindergarten.  When I was ordained in the Diocese of Perth, I was the youngest person in Anglican Holy Orders in Western Australia, and Luisa was the youngest wife of an Anglican clergy person in the whole of Australia.  And whilst those things have no longer been the case for many years now, nevertheless since then we have had to get used to the idea, that – by and large – at every Anglican gathering that we attend, we will be, if not the youngest, then nearly the youngest adults who are there.

But on Friday night, everything was different, and Luisa and I had one of the rare experiences of being at an Anglican Church event at which we were in the oldest group of adults and not the youngest.  At Newcastle City Hall, we were celebrating with the Year 12 students from our local Anglican school, Bishop Tyrrell Anglican College, at their Valedictory Dinner.  The table of us who were there as members of the School’s Board, felt very old as we watched those Year 12 students who were radiant in their frocks and suits as they celebrated the completion of their time in formal education at the School together.

As I watched those bright, creative young adults, I wondered how they would navigate in the years ahead, through all of the possibilities that lie before them: which of them might end up in politics, which of them might end up leading major companies and corporations, which of them might serve in caring professions, and yes, I wondered too, whether there might be a potential priest amongst them as well.  Of course, my aspiration for them, is that they will live long, happy, fulfilled lives recognising the joy and duty of being part of a wider community; and my hope for them is that having had a distinctively Anglican education, they will know that the unbridled pursuit of wealth alone, is not likely to lead them to the contentment that we desire for them in the years ahead.

It is often a great surprise to people, when they read the Gospel of Luke for the first time – the Gospel that we have been reading weekend after weekend this year – to find that Jesus says almost nothing about most of the topics that have become pre-occupations in recent years in the life of the Church, but that he does have a great deal to say about money and wealth.  Even though we do not often stop to think about it in this way, it is true to say that the Gospel of Luke is filled with references and teachings about how the followers of Jesus are to regard money and possessions.  Over and over again the writers of this Gospel, as they reflect on the life and teachings of Jesus as they are being understood in the lives of the earliest Christian communities, bring us back to this preoccupation with the challenge that money, and particularly the amassing of wealth poses for those who seek to follow in the way of Jesus.

The parable that we have heard proclaimed at this Eucharist is arguably the most difficult story about wealth to understand and to translate into our modern context.   I did wonder about offering coffee before Mass rather than afterwards this weekend, in order to give us all – including me – more of a chance to grapple intelligently with the drama of the story that Jesus tells, because it is not at all straight forward.  Biblical commentators are quick to point out that the various explanatory notes within the text itself, that follow immediately after Jesus’ telling of the story, are an indicator of the puzzlement – even in the first Christian communities – with which Christians approached this parable and sought to interpret it and find meaning it – so we are not alone today!

The story that Jesus paints for his hearers, as we have it recorded for us by the Gospel writers, is a story about a rich man who lives at some distance from his own properties. He has hired a manager, and given him a good amount of autonomy to make decisions about how his land and resources should be best used.

The back drop to the story, which is not immediately evident to those of us who are hearing it today at such a cultural and contextual distance from its original setting, is the whole question of how to be faithful to God in the keeping of the religious laws about not charging interest on loans.  Because in the time of Jesus, no good Jew, no devout child of God, would dare to charge interest on money or other goods that were lent to others.  It is one of the great anomalies of Christian teaching, that we have taken certain kinds of prohibitions in the Bible literally, and said that we can’t do certain things because the Bible says so; and yet at the same time have built who of Christian society through the use of interest-bearing loans which are entirely prohibited in the Scriptures.

But in the time of Jesus, where the usury laws (those are the religious laws which prohibit interest being charged) were still very much at the forefront of people’s minds it was a serious matter.  Because those laws pointed to the understanding that because nothing that we think that we possess actually belongs to us, it is simply held in trust by us for the short period of our lives, but it actually belongs – in its entirety – to God – because of that understanding, if you needed money and I had some spare, then the expectation was that I would lend it to you aware that it was only on loan to me from God in any case.

So when I lent you the money the expectation was that you would give it back to me at the agreed time, but that I would not add an interest payment to it.  I would lend to you, to help to meet your need, in recognition of the fact that nothing that I had was really mine anyway, but that I could meet your need out of the abundance of what God had given me.

That kind of an understanding has been by and large lost in our world.  Very few of us have lived without a mortgage, or a loan or a credit card at some stage in our lives, where the understanding has been that we will have access to money that we could not find ourselves, and in return we would pay interest to the company that let us borrow it.  But that was not how things were in the time of Jesus – or at least it wasn’t how things were supposed to be.  And that is really what this parable that Jesus tells in our Gospel reading today is all about.

 

It is likely – and we can only know this by reading between the lines of the story – that the rich owner has in fact been charging interest through his property manager, below the religious radar.   Money or land has been lent out to people that needs to be repaid, and alongside it gifts of oil and wheat have been expected as a kind of interest charge. And the property manager, taking his lead from his boss, has also been adding an extra charge in oil and wheat to each of the tenants as well, and has been keeping this for himself.  So, although it might seem from a distance that the landowner is abiding by the religious laws by not charging interest, he has in fact been gaining interest for himself by other means.

His property manager, acting on his behalf, has in turn been adding on a kind of service fee, to look after himself as well – and this whole arrangement has probably served both the owner and the manager quite well.  Until the crisis comes – and for whatever reason the owner discovers that his manager has been either wasteful or incompetent in carrying out the task that he has been given, and he is given notice that his job is coming to an end.  Suddenly this manager is faced with a crisis.  In the picture that Jesus paints, this man knows that he isn’t strong enough to dig as a labourer, and he doesn’t want to end up begging, so he very quickly has to set up a new future for himself.  He goes to each of those who owe his boss money, and he removes from what they owe the additional oil and wheat not only that he has been taking for himself, but also that the land owner has been adding, knowing that the land owner can’t do anything about it, because he should not have been doing it in the first place.  By reducing the debt of all of these customers, he hopes that he has set up for himself a future, where they in their gratitude will welcome him into their homes when he loses his job and becomes destitute.

His master, the landowner when he hears what his employee has done, can do nothing but commend him for the shrewd and clever way in which he has acted.  Just like all of the parables of Jesus we never find out what happens in the end.  We are left wondering whether the manager, because of the clever way in which he has acted, actually gets to keep his job, or, if he loses his job, whether he is looked after by those whose debt he reduced in order to try and create for himself a future.  Because, as I have said before, that level of detail is not really what parables are about.  The point of the story is not to get to know these characters intimately, they are after all made up for the purposes of the story – they didn’t actually ever exist – the task is to grasp the point that Jesus is teaching behind the story.

I meet people every week who are facing a similar crisis to the property manager in the story.  Either because a relationship has suddenly ended, or a health challenge has emerged, or a job is coming to an end – for whatever reason – the future has abruptly been completely altered from what they had been planning.  And there is a need to re-evaluate and re-prioritise.  Like the employee in the story, they are suddenly in a situation where they have to evaluate the whole of what life means for them.  What the man in the story has been doing, by adding an extra cut for himself, is not entirely wrong – he did after all simply follow the lead of what his boss was doing – but it wasn’t faithful to God’s vision.  And at that moment when everything is changing for him, he realises that he has to change himself as well.   God does not call us to be successful, although it is great when we are.  But he does call us to be faithful.

Through this story Jesus says to those who first heard it, and to us today, that there will come a day of reckoning for all of us, when we will either be grateful that we have had the strength to be faithful, or when we will lament that we have not.  That is true for those Year 12 students at Bishop Tyrrell Anglican College with their whole lives ahead of them, and it is true for us gathered here today as well.  Jesus says, “whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much… you cannot serve God and wealth.”

In the words of our Collect prayer this morning, we pray that God will “show us the treasure that endures, and when we are tempted by greed, he will call us back into his service and make us worthy to be entrusted with the wealth that will never fail.”