Trinity 17 – You cannot serve two masters

Sunday 18 December

 Trinity 17

1 Tim 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13

Heavenly Father, as we come to hear your word this morning open our ears, open our minds and open our hearts to hear how you would speak to us. In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[Firstly I should say that it is a real delight to be baptising Freya this morning. It is a particular delight to be doing so during the 10 am service with the whole family of the church gathered together around the font and then gathered together around the table. And I also have to say that it is a particular delight baptising a member of the church family, as Freya and her family have been for many years, and it is especially wonderful when the desire to be baptised comes from the young person themselves. So, all in all, Freya it is a real privilege and honour to be baptising you this morning. Thank you.

When we attend a baptism we should not only enjoy the event but we should also try to remember our own baptisms. I don’t mean the event itself, because we may have been too young, but that we should try to remember the fact and the importance of our baptism. We should really take to heart the fact that when we were baptised we entered into a new family and into a new relationship with God. By doing what Jesus did in the river Jordan, and what Freya did here today, we become brothers and sisters in Christ and we become the children of God. We get to call the God who created the universe our Father.   And, just as God the Father did with Jesus, so he sends the Holy Spirit on us and he also says to us – ‘this is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased’.

You are God’s beloved, with whom he is well pleased.

Amongst everything else that goes on in Church, all the theology, the liturgy, the music, the prayers, the after service chatting and coffee there lies a simple and irreducible truth:

You are a child of God. You are his beloved. God is pleased with you.

We find that simple truth so hard to believe. We may convince ourselves that we are unloved and unlovable. We may try to work our way into God’s favour or, worse still, we may give up and believe that the gap between who we are and who God is is so large as to be uncrossable. But the whole point of Jesus is that the gap has been closed forever. Through baptism we are grafted into the family of God. We call God our Father but he calls us, he call you, his beloved child.

We sing frequently of the worthiness of God but perhaps sometimes we need to listen carefully so that we can hear God singing back to us, that God finds us, finds you, worthy of his love. And why does the creator of the universe find us worthy of his love? Not because of any great deeds on our part. But because he created us in his image, as any father creates children in his image, and because we follow his son he loves us like his children. Although we shall shortly be saying the creed together it is not our assent to the creed which makes us Christians, rather it is our common baptised identity in Christ which makes us the family of God. One to ponder for a moment before a little change of gear.]

I have just come back from a week’s course with the Diocese based at Sarum College in Salisbury. The Cathedral Close in Salisbury is a beautiful place and it was a real joy to spend the week living there, and joining in with the round of daily services going on in the Cathedral.

During the week we were asked to remind ourselves what it is about being a priest that we enjoy. Although it may sound obvious I wrote that I really enjoy celebrating the sacraments and preaching. I say it sounds obvious but, actually, as a Vicar, it is very easy to get distracted from one’s core vocation in many ways. But, I am pleased to say, that I felt called into ministry to break the bread and to seek to break open the word and that is still the central part of my ministry which gives me joy and which reminds me of my relationship with God.

Until, that is, I came to preach on today’s Gospel reading, which is the parable of the shrewd or the dishonest manager.

Believe it or not when I am preparing a sermon I look at commentaries and other sources about the text seeking to learn as much as I can before committing pen to paper, and I am lucky to have a faithful correspondent in the church sharing their thoughts with me too. The one thing that all the commentaries and my correspondent had in common is that they started off by saying that this parable is a difficult and confusing reading from which it is very possible to draw the wrong conclusions.

So let me start by saying that this is a difficult and confusing parable from which it is very possible to draw the wrong conclusions.

On a first reading, or a first hearing, it is possible to draw the conclusion that Jesus is commending to us the dishonest practices of the manager and is somehow holding up this manager as an example for us to follow. Of course, put in those terms, it soon becomes obvious that this is unlikely to be the right conclusion, given everything else we know about Jesus and his teaching. This therefore forces us back to the story to dig a little deeper, hopefully for the right conclusion, or to at least get a little closer.

And we should remember that this is a parable. It is not presented to us in any way as literal truth. There was no dishonest manager who wrote off the debts of his master, rather this is a story-telling way of Jesus seeking to make another point. Therefore, whilst it is important to study the words of scripture, it is also important to keep our eyes on the big picture and, ultimately, to look at the lesson being given rather than get too hung up on the illustration being used.

Having said that – very briefly: there was a rich man who employed a manager to run his affairs. However the manager had been wasting the rich man’s possessions and so he was going to be dismissed. The manager knew that if he lost his job then he would either be digging holes or begging on the streets and he didn’t fancy either of those options. He therefore decided to curry favour with all the rich man’s customers so that when he lost his job the customers would welcome him into their houses.

As we heard the manager then spoke to each of the rich man’s debtors and reduced the amount they owed – one by 50% and the other by 20%. It seems that this deception did not last very long because the rich master immediately commended the manager for his shrewdness. Having spent many years as an employment lawyer I can only say that this doesn’t look like a very likely outcome to that scenario.

The next line, v.9, appears to be Jesus’ commentary on the story: “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourself, so that when it is gone you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

So perhaps Jesus is making the point, not that we should use sharp practices to win ourselves friends on earth for their own sake – after all the parable of the prodigal son tells us how useless such friends are – but that we should use our worldly wealth in order to be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

To put it another way – Jesus is saying that the way we use our material goods is not simply a fleeting choice, but rather it has eternal consequences.

Remember the parable of the sheep and the goats? Those who have clothed the naked and feed the hungry go to heaven whilst those who have ignored the needs of others get cast into outer darkness.

This is a stewardship issue and even a salvation issue. Jesus is saying that the way in which we use the gifts and wealth and talents that we have been given in this life makes a difference. The depth and reality of our Christian life and conversion will be demonstrated not by what we say, nor by whom we condemn, but in large part how we use our worldly wealth. In short do we love money more than we love God or our fellow man?

No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

We do live in a world of huge inequality and injustice. The first world is struggling with an epidemic of obesity and food wastage whilst, according to UNICEF, around 18,000 children die each day from preventable sicknesses related to poverty. That is six 9/11s every day. Of children. Caused by poverty.

Many religious people seem obsessed with the sex lives of others but Jesus never said that sexual orientation was a salvation issue. But he says time and time again that how we use our money in the service of God and our neighbours is of huge importance. And here he say clearly, unequivocally, literally and non-parabolically: “You cannot serve both God and money.”

So whom do we serve? Whom do you serve? Who is your real master? Is it God the Father who sends God the Son and God the Holy Spirit to make us part of his family and to bring us home to our eternal dwellings? Or do we really serve the god of money, who encourages us to horde and increase what we have whilst thousands of children die each day from want?

Our verbal answer to that question is unimportant – the only true answer is the way in which we actually live our lives.