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Sunday, September 19, 2010

How to serve God with your ill-gotten wealth

Luke 16.1-13 

So here’s the perplexing story we’re confronted with this morning.  Jesus tells of a clerical type who works for a credit agency, a bank we might say, who is about to lose his job because the owner looks into his work and finds that he’s been a bit slack and idle with calling in the debts.  The fellow says to himself, “Damn, I’m about to lose my job!  That means that I could be out on the streets begging.  I’m not rough enough for a labouring job.  What can I do?”  Well, what he does is make himself some ‘friends’, that is, some people who owe him big-time, so that when he’s retrenched, he’ll at least be able to find a place to stay for a while.  So he calls in the boss’s debtors, one by one, and reduces their debts by up to a half.  He gets them to pay what they can, but makes it clear that they’re not really off the hook because they now owe HIM.  Now, the funny thing is that the when boss hears about this, he commends the fellow for his shrewdness, and our clerical type gets to keep his job after all.

A strange story indeed, a story that is very modern in some ways because no matter how hard you look, there is not a hero to be found anywhere!  The clerical type acts only to look after number one.  There is no trace in the story of any genuine altruism.  He reduces the debts to his boss only to make the customers indebted to him.  And the boss himself is clearly no saint, because he commends his employee for acting in that way.  Probably because that was how the boss made his own millions!  The rules of the game in the ancient world were much the same as they are in some circles even today.  In order to make new, more lucrative, business partners you sometimes have to rip off an existing business partner.  So perhaps the boss was commending the fellow because he was finally part of the wealth-creation club, having now discovered the cruel rules of capitalism, in all their naked ignomy.

Now, you can probably imagine Jesus telling this story as a bit of an object-lesson in how evil the evil can get, right?  But that’s not what Jesus does with the story.  Quite the opposite.  There is a sense in which Jesus then commends the shrewdness of the dishonest money-lender to his disciples as a modus-operandi for their own lives.  Let me quote:
The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.  So I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the tents of eternity.
Now what, in heaven’s name, is that all about?  Is Jesus telling his disciples to make wealth dishonestly, that is, by ripping people off?  And is he also telling them to spend that money within the community of faith in such a way that even heaven will owe them something in the end?  Isn’t Jesus therefore recommending a course of action which actually contradicts the example of radical grace and generosity at the heart of his teaching?  It certainly looks that way!  But before we come to any too-quickly gained judgements, let us consider two other pieces of additional evidence from the ancient world.

First, you need to know that there were two very different views of wealth in the ancient Near-East, the world in which both Jesus and Luke, who is retelling this story, lived.  One view was that wealth was a reward from the gods for the living of a virtuous life.  It is a view that was popular amongst the Romans who ruled this world, and because the Romans were imposing their culture upon the rest of the world, it was a view that began to take hold even amongst Jewish and Christian people.  There are churches, even today, who believe this.  One is the Hillsongs church in Sydney.  But I can assure you that this was definitely NOT the view of Jesus, nor of most of his compatriots in the rural towns of Galilee.  These people tended to see wealth as a sign not of virtue, but of sin.  From where they sat, in the agricultural and fishing industries, wealth was something that the powerful fellows who bought your goods extracted from your hard labour by playing your own price off against someone else’s.  Wealth, in other words, was gained through the exploitation of indentured labour and by clever manipulation of the market.  From the point of view of the rural periphery, from the point of view of Jesus, wealth was therefore a sign that you were dishonest and that you served not Yahweh, but Mammon or wealth.

That Jesus in fact saw things this way, himself, is made clear by the final set of sayings in our gospel reading today, in which he makes it quite clear that the disciple must choose between the service of God or the service of Mammon.  Mammon is an Aramaic word which means dishonest wealth.  If you really love God, says Jesus, you must also hate or despise that wealth which comes (necessarily, in this view) by dishonest and exploitative means.  You can see where Karl Marx learned his economics, can’t you!

 But here’s the other relevant information.  You must remember that the story we are hearing this morning is not, first of all, a word-for-word recollection of the story told by Jesus.  It is, rather, part of a sermon Luke the Evangelist is delivering to his congregation.  Now, if you read Luke’s gospel carefully you will find that Luke’s congregation is probably urban, probably Gentile in its culture, and that there are a number of very wealthy people in the congregation.  It may be that the church even meets in one of those wealthy person’s houses.  When Luke re-tells this story of Jesus, he is therefore doing it for a reason.  Perhaps to advise the wealthy converts to the faith—who, in Luke’s view could not have become wealthy unless they had been prepared to exploit others—what to now do with the wealth they have.  Perhaps Luke is saying, “O.K., so you live in the world, you do business with others and that means ripping someone off at some point.  Just like the shrewd manager who ripped off his boss in order to serve his own business interests.  I recognise that you can’t leave the world entirely.  I recognise that if you want to stay in business, you have to struggle with difficult rules and shonky arrangements sometimes.  I understand that.  Nevertheless, in all of this I want you to be shrewd.  I want you to use the ingenuity you formerly used to rip people off in another way.  I want you to find ways of using your Mammon, your dishonestly gained wealth, to help out the community of faith, and that means the poor and the widows and the orphans.  For here they sit amongst you.  Make friends with them, not in order to make them indebted to you, but because they need your help.  The injustice they have suffered needs to be redressed.”

So, how are we to receive this sermon for ourselves?  Well, it’s not too difficult really.  There is a sense in which all of us, in the class and part of the world we live in, live off dishonest gains.  Simply by living here, we live off and benefit from the unjust economic patterns and structures which keep the world as it is:  the rich living off the labour of the poor.  Now, there’s a sense in which we cannot change that overnight.  And getting all high-and-mighty in the boardrooms of BHP-Biliton, or on the floor of your plastering factory in Richmond, or whatever, is unlikely to achieve a revolution.  Let’s face it.  But there are still things you can do to right the wrongs.  You can use the relative power of your position to make yourself the friend of those who have less power.  Be shrewd.

I have a friend who used to work in a plaster factory in Richmond.  The boss would put the same product in different packages and sell one at a much higher price than the other.  But my friend, if a customer came in who was clearly not made of money, would always recommend the lower-priced package and get away with it, because there was a loop-hole in the ordering system which didn’t distinguish between the two.  I have another friend who works for one of the world’s worst corporate citizens, BHP-Biliton.  But she is there because she wants to make a difference for the poorer people of the world.  In the boardroom meetings, she tries to convince the company that paying the workers fairer wages will make good economic sense in the end because a happy worker is a loyal and hard-working worker.  She usually loses, but sometimes she wins.  And she redistributes some of the big cash she earns in the process to a poor community in Indonesia.  

What Jesus would say to us all this morning is this, I think.  If you are faithful in doing what you can with the Mammon, the ill-gotten wealth, you all receive whether you intend to or not, then God will entrust the real, less illusory riches of life to you as well.  If you can learn to redistribute your wealth and power towards God’s poor and vulnerable one’s, even though it is difficult to do so, then God will entrust you with the joy that comes to a person when you give, but require nothing in return.  For this is what Christ did.  He took the power that was his as a male Rabbi in a society which privileged such people, and he gave it away for the sake of those whom that society excluded.  Not in a silly, head-strong way.  But carefully, and shrewdly, so that his small, incremental, efforts would actually make a difference.

God calls all of us to do the same. 

This homily was first preached at Monash Uniting Church in September 2010.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

God who searches the Wasteland

Texts: Jeremiah 4.11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1.12-17; Luke 15. 1-10

Midway this way of life we're bound upon
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
where the right road was wholly lost or gone.

So begins Dante's great story of the soul's journey towards God, The Divine Comedy. And it continues, a few stanzas later, with this:

How I got into it I cannot say,
because I was so heavy and full of sleep
when first I stumbled from the narrow way.

Dante is certainly not the only person in the history of the world to have woken to find themselves in a strange and unfamiliar place. It is so with many of us. To all intents and purposes, life seems well enough. 'Well' in the sense of 'can't complain'. 'Well' in the sense of 'comfortable'. 'Well' in the sense of 'uneventful'. But these are adjectives which betray a terrible forgetfulness. A forgetfulness about the call to follow Jesus. A forgetfulness about the possibility of pain and risk on mission with God. A forgetfulness about the ecstatic moments of joy and celebration in the embrace of God's love. Forgetfulness is like being asleep. In sleep we dream of the life unlived, the heroic life filled with daring and courage for the sake of love. But it remains a secret. Only very rarely is it made real.


Dante awoke from his slumbers to find himself in a very scary place, an unfamiliar wood. He was lost. Have you ever felt like a stranger in your own life? Have you ever woken up and asked 'how on earth did I get here?' 'Here' is not a place, of course, but the life we're living. Suddenly the truth hits us, and we can see our life for what it is: unreal, a lie, a wasteland of lies. We begin to question the value of everything we've ever done, the purposefulness in what we've slaved so hard to become. Have any of you seen the Scottish film called Trainspotting? It's about a group of heroin addicts who party their way through the most appalling lives imaginable. As the film's observers, we can see their lives are a waste. But they can't see that themselves. They just keep on trashing themselves and their friends and their families for the sake of that little rush of heaven called heroin, all the while pretending that life is grand. But there comes a wake-up call about half-way through the film. One of the girls has a baby, but she's neglected the little fellow awfully. One afternoon she wakes up after a particularly crazed trip to find her child dead. He's simply died from neglect and starvation. The scene is one of the most harrowing I have ever seen. She wails and wails and wails, and her partners in crime are shaken to the very core with shame. Suddenly they are confronted with the truth they've made: their lives are garbage, a wasteland of garbage.

The prophet knew about rubbish lives. He announced the fact to the people of Jerusalem around 600 BCE. They'd forgotten about God. They'd forgotten about love and care for one another. They'd gotten into ripping each other off for the sake of making money and becoming powerful. But Jeremiah declares the truth in a devastating picture of the fruitful land gone to desert:

I looked to the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
and to the heavens and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and lo, there was no-one at all,
and all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord,
before his fierce anger.

These images are not just about the coming historical disaster known as the exile, when the noble classes of Jerusalem would be captured and taken to Babylon. More primally, they are about the condition of the people's hearts and souls. Their souls are a wasteland, made desolate through greed and that numbing forgetfulness about God and the ways which bring life. When you awake to a wasteland of your own making - as Dante did, as the Hebrew nobility did, as the apostle Paul did - life can become very scary indeed.

For many, that is where life effectively ends. Some try to run from the wasteland by denying its existence. By blowing their life savings on a hedonistic trip.  Or having an affair.  Or buying a red sports car. Or drinking themselves back into the stupor from which they came. For others, the wasteland is just so terrifying that they take their own lives. I guess that's how it was for Kurt Cobain, idol to millions of disaffected kids all over the world. Shortly before killing himself with sleeping pills, he penned the words 'Jesus don't want me for a sunbeam, Jesus don't want me at all'. Either way, the sense of waste remains because you can never escape from yourself.

Ursula Le Guin tells the story of a young wizard named Ged who gets too big for his boots by trying a spell which is way beyond his years to control. The spell goes wrong and Ged succeeds only in releasing a shadow into the world which immediately begins pursuing Ged. The shadow is terrifying. It succeeds in stealing all the young wizard's zest for life, and weighs on him a heavy sense of shame and dread. The shadow pursues him to the edge of the world where the young wizard seeks the help of a dragon to defeat his foe. The dragon guides him toward a terrible truth. The shadow is his own self, a shocking externalization of Ged's own darkness and conceit! Running, he learns, will never effect an escape because you can't run from yourself!  In Le Guin's story, the dragon functions as the paragon of hope: a Christ figure who advises the young wizard to stop running and acknowledge his shame and guilt.

That's what Christ does for us, too. As in the parables we heard this morning, Christ is one who searches for us in the wastelands of our own making. We are like sheep who get lost on the mountain slopes, who turn aside from the narrow paths which the shepherd has forged for us. Yet the shepherd does not abandon such sheep to their foolishness. He leaves the ninety-nine more level-headed sheep, and searches for the lost one until he finds it. The apostle Paul reports that when he was lost in the wasteland of blasphemy and violence, 'the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus'. Christ is the guide you will find in your own wilderness, too. The guide who reminds us that life is still possible. He appears in many forms: the shepherd, the peasant woman, the poet or the young lover (as in Dante's Comedy), but he is the same Christ. He is always there in the wasteland, because he represents the love of God for all who get lost, for all who lose their way to the garden of God. Remember, he knows the wasteland well. That is what Good Friday and Holy Saturday are all about: Christ's journey of solidarity into the wasteland of human misery and sin, there to share our shame for the sake of becoming our guide toward a new way, a way that leads to life in all its fullness.

Remember, though, that life in all its fullness - symbolized in the parable by the joy of heaven's angels - comes not only because of the guide's love, but also because of our own repentance. There are two sides to any rescue operation, are there not? You've heard the joke I'm sure: ‘How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb? Only one, but the lightbulb must want to change!’ So it is with the pilgrimage toward life. The guide may appear in the midst of the wasteland, calling our name and offering forgiveness. But unless we are willing to leave where we are and follow, we shall remain in our misery. The biblical word for wanting to change is 'repentance', which means, literally, turning right around and setting out in a radically new direction.

Perhaps you have woken in a strange place recently, a place that scares you to death. A place populated by demons and hobgoblins and terrible, nagging questions about the ultimate value of everything you've even been and done. If so, Jesus comes to you this morning and says, 'don't be afraid. You need to face the truth of your own life in order to be reborn. That will be painful. It will even mean putting to death the self you're accustomed to being. But don't worry. I will be here to guide you into resurrection. You are forgiven your sin and your foolishness. When you pass through the waters and the fires, I will be there. Trust me, listen to me, and together we will walk the path to your only true home . . . in the heart of God'.