Reading(s): Luke 16:1-13 and Amos 8:4-7. This sermon was given by Sally Kerson at St Mark and All Saints.
The days since the Queen’s death have been tinged with so many mixed emotions for millions of people here and around the world. Some have felt the need to go to Edinburgh or London and soak up the moving scenes in those places. Whilst most of us have watched on television as her coffin has made its journey, by car, plane and gun carriage to the various venues, and many more thousands have queued for hours to go into Westminster Hall to walk past her coffin. All very regal and moving, and I would imagine there are moments that have touched us more than others, for me it was when she departed Buckingham Palace for the last time with her family following behind. But you may have other such moments that have personally touched you.
Tomorrow after a State funeral Queen Elizabeth II will be laid to rest with her beloved husband, the late Duke of Edinburgh, which of course will be a private occasion. The royal family have had a very public grieving process and it’s easy to forget that they would no doubt have preferred to have been left in more solitude than was afforded to them over these last 10 days. We all know that when someone close dies, we need that very precious space to mourn with those we love around us and not have to be part of the world outside, which seems to be moving in a different direction as we are stuck in our timeless grief. People of this nation and those in other parts of the world have felt a great need to mark their grief for her majesty in so many ways, from signing books of condolences to the laying of flowers. On a light-hearted note, there was an announcement made on breakfast tv at the beginning of the week asking people not to leave anymore Paddington bears or marmalade sandwiches in the parks - only the UK could make that sort of announcement! There have also been thought provoking comments about the number of flowers that have been purchased and would the money have been best spent on helping those struggling to pay bills and buy food, not to mention the huge amounts of plastic wrappers from the floral tributes which have not been good environmentally. But this is how the people wanted to remember and pay their respects to a much-loved long serving monarch. What we have witnessed in the UK over this time is that people have been very respectful, there has been a bit of excitement at times when people were aware of being so close to history, but the poignancy of the occasion has touched us all. We remember a beloved monarch who ruled with dignity and fairness, and the passing of Queen Elizabeth II has left a huge gap in our lives.
Today’s Old Testament reading and Gospel readings seem poles apart from fairness. In the Old Testament reading the prophet Amos takes a very righteous stance against the unfairness of it all, against those who wheel and deal without a care for either honesty or the poverty around them. “Hear this, you who trample the needy, and do away with the poor of the land…skimping on the measure, boosting the price, and cheating with dishonest scales”. But watch out, says Amos, because God sees what you are doing, and won’t forget. He doesn’t approve at all. All around us there is unfairness and cheating in many guises, cheating on an individual basis, embezzlements, benefit fraud, tax avoidance, cowboy builders and so on, not to mention scams when people take our money on false pretences, add to that those who cheat on a corporate scale, multinational businesses that manipulate loopholes to avoid paying tax, legal they maybe, but surely cheating in spirit? I guess what all of these have in common is that someone loses out, someone, unfairly, pays the price. When benefits are falsely claimed, or taxes aren’t paid, it’s those of us who do honestly pay our taxes that carry the burden.
In our gospel reading Jesus tells the parable of the dishonest or unjust steward, as it’s sometimes called, or the shrewd manager, there are lots of titles, but the teaching seems quite shocking, because it’s all about a man who puts himself first. This manager is sacked for his dishonesty, his whole future is in jeopardy, and so he uses his remaining time in his position to reduce debts owed to his master, to cheat his master so it seems, so that those who benefit will then help him after he’s been thrown out on his ear. It’s a sort of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ situation, it’s unfair, and the master loses out, and what amazes and confuses us is that Jesus seems to condone this behaviour, and to suggest that if we buy friendship in the same way, it will secure our future too, that we can buy our way to heaven. This parable, this story that Jesus tells, is strangely different, and notoriously difficult to interpret, and there are all sorts of theories. That for instance the rich man had been ripping off his debtors in the first place and therefore the manager was doing a just thing, and the master couldn’t complain, or that the manager took his own cut on top of his master’s debts, and so all he was doing was letting off what he would have received himself, not diddling his master at all. But Jesus isn’t commending what looks like the man’s theft, and neither is his boss. Both are just acknowledging that the man knows how to navigate life to his advantage. He knows how to read the situation he is in and act as such that he comes out relatively unscathed. Let us also consider who these words of Jesus were meant for? He was talking to his disciples but also the Pharisees, the leaders of the Jewish church, resolutely law-abiding, eminently respectable but completely without compassion, and totally aghast at Jesus’s behaviour. As far as they are concerned, there’s another rogue operating here, and that’s Jesus himself. He breaks the Sabbath, he mixes with villains and outcasts, and now he is going round forgiving debts too, but debts of a different kind, he forgives sins. As the Pharisees see it, only God can forgive sins, and Jesus is therefore acting without authority, acting as if he were God himself, these are the accusations they level at him.
So, it seems possible that what Jesus is doing here is to take a popular story about a rogue manager and uses it to confront his opponents and critics. He is like a disreputable manager who they accuse of being unauthorised to forgive debts, but, he insists, he does so with God’s approval. He shows that grace does not come through respectability, but through care and love and generosity. And just as the master praised the sacked manager, much to our surprise, so God approves such radical and undeserved mercy, it’s all part of bringing the lost home, of forgiving and not condemning, but there is more. Listen again to what Jesus said, “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.” In other words, the people of this world, those who do not believe in God, consistently demonstrate a trait that is sorely lacking in many children of the light those who do believe. The people of this world, are those like the shrewd manager, consistently demonstrate a single-minded focus, an unshakable zeal, and determination to serve their god named Mammon, or money. The shrewd manager only had concern for himself, and he was going to make sure to use whatever resources he had at his disposal to achieve his goal. But you can’t be divided when it comes to your devotion and God sees everything whatever is going on behind the scenes! To sum it up these are the words from The Message a modern translation of the bible and the last few verses of the gospel reading
Verses 10-13: Jesus went on to make these comments:
If you’re honest in small things,
you’ll be honest in big things;
If you’re a crook in small things,
you’ll be a crook in big things.
If you’re not honest in small jobs,
who will put you in charge of the store?
No worker can serve two bosses:
He’ll either hate the first and love the second
Or adore the first and despise the second.
You can’t serve both God and the Bank.
Who do you and I serve?