A sermon preached by Nikolaj Christensen on 22 September 2019.
Until a few months ago, if you went over to the Templars Square Shopping Centre you might have come across a big shop, right in the middle, called BrightHouse, with some extraordinary prices on what they call ‘big brand’ items: such as a Sony 75” Smart TV for only £15.09, or the newest iPhone with the maximum specs for only £13.99. Of course, there’s a catch: this is the price you have to pay every week for three years, by which time your new item is probably hopelessly dated. You end up paying the equivalent of 69.9% interest per year on your purchase. And if you don’t pay, they will track you down.
But BrightHouse recently had to close a number of its stores including the one in Cowley because of new rules from the Financial Conduct Authority that say customers must not end up paying more than double the actual price for their rent-to-own products. In other words, for every pound you pay, you’ll get 50p worth of flat-screen TV. That’s still a pretty rough deal.
I’m mentioning this as a modern-day equivalent of how the prophet Amos described wheat being marketed to the poor and needy in our first reading this morning, namely by making ‘the shekel great’. That is, the sellers would cheat by weighing the silver against a heavier weight in order to charge more. It even says that they would sell ‘the sweepings of the wheat’, the bits that were left over after the sheaves had been gathered up, which actually belonged to the poor by right, according to the Law of Moses.
Today there are also global corporations that make huge profits from selling goods that are naturally free, like spring water and breast milk. The extortioners in Amos’ day were longing for the sabbaths and the feast days to be over so they could do more selling – and of course in today’s consumer society they have almost entirely got their way.
Against this social injustice Amos presents a very particular picture of God. The Lord has absolutely no patience with this nonsense. The Lord is a strict and righteous God of the poor. The rich are expecting business as usual to continue indefinitely, but Amos says: this is your final warning before your world will be shaken. And it was only a few years later that the northern tribes of Israel were conquered, deported, and disappeared. And yet, Amos concludes his book by saying God is merciful: he will save and restore a remnant of Israel.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the story of a rich landowner who is similarly strict: he does not tolerate any of the nonsense that the manager of his estate has been up to, and so he fires him on the spot. But it seems the manager notices a little hint of mercy in that the rich man doesn’t do any more than that – he doesn’t try to put him in prison. And so before the word gets out that the manager has been fired, he hatches a plan: he quickly calls in his master’s tenants and tells them that the amount of rent that will be due at the end of the harvest has been reduced by 20 to 50%.
We can only assume that people suddenly have very warm feelings towards both the manager and his employer. So the rich man has a dilemma: will he go back on what his ex-employee has promised his tenants, and risk turning those new warm feelings into very angry feelings? No. He realises that the manager has outsmarted him, and he even commends him for it. The gamble paid off: the master was merciful after all.
So that’s an amusing little story, and it would certainly have delighted Middle Eastern peasants to hear about an ordinary guy getting the better of the big man. But what does it mean, we’re keen to ask. Well, the dishonest manager started out as a self-serving maximiser of his own benefit – it says he ‘squandered’ his employer’s money, no doubt on purposes of his own. But when that fails, for the sake of his self-preservation he changes instead to being generous to others – with the master’s money. He starts doing the very opposite of the oppressors that Amos railed against. And it turns out that this serves his true long-term self-interest. We can sense Jesus saying: how much more should you, the ‘children of light’, be generous with the money entrusted to you.
The manager suspected that his master might show mercy – but we know that God is generous and merciful. Sunday after Sunday we gather to proclaim all of God’s gifts to us. We affirm our trust that God will provide for us. And yet our surrounding culture of consumerism, of ‘squandering’ money on instant gratification, of pursuing our narrow self-interest, has invaded our lives as well. We buy our cheap clothes, turning a blind eye to what conditions they were made under. We go on our exotic holidays, conveniently forgetting about what happens with the CO2that the planes emit in order to take us there. We may even drive cars we can’t afford with payments that we can afford even less, harming our own future selves.
Jesus calls us again and again to change our perspective on money, or even to get rid of our money altogether. But it was neverjustabout money. He says, ‘If … you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?’
The parable of the dishonest manager comes at the end of a row of parables where Jesus is defending how he is treating people, and how a spiritual leader should be caring for people. So he talks about a shepherd who has sheep, a housewife who has coins, and a father who has two sons, and what each of them would do to get one of these back if they lost them. Then finally he talks about a rich man who has a reckless, wasteful property manager. The first three parables were addressed to the Pharisees and scribes, but this last one was addressed to Jesus’ own followers: The scribes think you people can’t possibly be managers of that which belongs to God, but if you go out and do what I do – show people some kindness, share freely of all the things you have received from God – you’ll prove them wrong, and God will commend you for it.
Jesus claims that how we are with trivial things like money will reflect how we treat other people as well. If at heart we are consumers of stuff – as the squandering manager was before he was fired – then we also become consumers of people, seeing them as things to be used, or disposed of if not of any use to us. We judge people based on what they can contribute to our lives, or to our community, rather than judging our own actions based on how we’re serving others. We even start thinking about God in the same way: how can I get as much benefit out of my faith as possible with as little effort as necessary? We forget that nothing we have is our own – all things come from God.
But there is hope for us. The dishonest manager used the little time he had left in his role to do something good. We too are only on earth for a brief time in the great scheme of things. So start showing some grace to others. God will honour it.