Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 17 2016

Amos 8:4-7
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

“Money, money, money/Must be funny/In the rich man's world.” So sang Abba, back in the day.
And money is rather funny, if you think about it. Coins whose scrap metal value is far less than the amount stamped on them. Paper money, which is technically just promises to pay; credit and debit cards which work in a similar way. And all connecting to invisible electronic numbers stored and transferred between computers.
And yet these ephemeral things, of little value in themselves, can be swapped for goods and services, the things we need to live, and for luxuries, little and large. And the more you have of it the more choices and power you seem to have.
Given our innate human tendency to desire what other people have got, the corrupting power of money is obvious. And the Bible has been clear about that from the beginning. We heard part of the Prophet Amos this morning raging against the greed and injustice that so easily arise from the misuse of money.
Today’s Gospel reading too turns on the corrupting power of wealth. But it is a difficult and obscure parable. Is Jesus really commending a dishonest manager for defrauding his employer? When I preached on this reading three years ago I suggested that there may be an element of humour in it: perhaps the rich man and his manager are the Del Boy and Rodney of their day, dodgy dealers involved in crafty schemes.
That’s something to bear in mind, but there is more to the story than that. The situation that Jesus describes would have been a familiar one. A rich man has lots of debtors, and they are farmers – look at what they owe, olive oil and wheat.
At the time of Jesus Roman taxation in Palestine was heavy, and farmers with smallholdings often got into debt and had to sell their land. This led to a small number of rich people owning more and more of the land. Their tenants, effectively bonded labourers, had to pay them a proportion of their produce, so the land owners got richer while the tenant farmers were trapped in subsistence living.
So people would have recognized the situation that Jesus describes, a situation of injustice and inequality.
But this is a parable, and the parables of Jesus always have something odd about them. Parables tell us what the Kingdom of God is like, that is, what God’s rule, perfectly enacted, would be. God’s kingdom is odd – compared to the world as we know it. Of course really it’s the world that’s odd, and God’s Kingdom is where everything is how it should be. The parables are about changing our perception so that we can start living according to God’s kingdom ourselves.
Another thing about the parables is that the Kingdom of God is always described as something happening. Jesus never gives us a still life image of the Kingdom. It is always a story of change and transformation. And that is what we would expect, because God is living, active, dynamic and creative.
So we need to read this strange story with that in mind. This is a story of change, which reveals to us something of what God’s Kingdom is like, and something of how the world is getting it wrong.
The change at the heart of this story is that of the manager – he changes sides. He starts the story on the side of the rich landowner, operating his economy of debt and oppression. But he ends the story on the side of the oppressed poor, inhabiting a new economy of generosity. That change makes life better for him and for his fellow debtors. It is a story of repentance, turning around and making a new start.
The old economy of debt and oppression is how the world works. But God’s Kingdom is completely different, founded on generosity, forgiveness freely given. And in Luke’s Gospel, as in other parts of the Bible like Amos, forgiveness of sins and forgiveness of material and financial debt are bound together, you can’t separate them.
Generosity is the key to living in the world without living according to its values. Radical generosity, generosity like that of God who so loved the world that he gave his only Son. It is generosity that enables us to use the things of the world, wealth, possessions, power, without becoming trapped by them.
Jesus warns us that we cannot serve both God and wealth. “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.” If we are generous with the things of this world, if we do not cling on to them, then they will not cling on to us. But if we are not generous then they become a snare in our path.
Generosity with material things is bound up with generosity of spirit, forgiveness of sins, praying for our enemies, the life of grace. This is what Jesus calls the “true riches” that we will be entrusted with, if we pass the test of the “dishonest wealth” that passes away. 
And, like the manager and the debtors, a spirit of generosity changes things both for ourselves and for those around us. We live in a nation, and a world, in which there is huge inequality. We need to be aware of issues of justice, of inclusion and exclusion, and we need to play our part in changing them. This is true Christian political involvement, which is not tied to any particular party, but is about getting alongside the poor and reminding those in power of where their priorities should be.
And also in our own lives we are called to be generous. God’s generosity to us is not trivial. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. Forgiveness of sins, eternal life, indeed our very existence, are the gift of God in Jesus.
If we are going to live according to God’s kingdom, then our own generosity too must not be trivial – with our time, our talents and our money. In our families and homes, in our society, in our church.
The Church of England recommends that all church members should give away 10% of their disposable income, 5% to their church and 5% to other charities. What this means in practice will vary greatly, but the key thing is that it is not trivial generosity. It is sacrificial giving, for the sake of others. And the same principle can be applied to our time and talents.

Radical generosity like this makes a difference – to us, by reducing the choices and options that we have; and to others, by enlarging theirs. It is an act of repentance, crossing over from one side to the other, taking the preferential option for the poor, and so discovering God’s economy of generosity and freedom. By imitating God’s generosity we can be trustworthy with dishonest wealth, and so find ourselves entrusted with the true riches, the free gift, of eternal life.

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