Sunday, 18 September 2016

Slaves to Mammon

People complain that our Church talks too much about money, but Jesus talks about it without blushing and often. Today is one example. “You cannot serve both God and wealth,” as our translation puts it. But Luke’s Greek, carrying on the theme from the sentence before, is rougher and more explicit: what he wrote was, “you cannot be a slave to both God and wealth.” We are in the world of the Romans, not of Downton Abbey, and there is a great difference between those paid to live in rooms below the gentry and those who are private property, owned. The Lord says that you can choose only one Master: not one squire, one liege, one employer, but one Master whose slave you are.

As much as we may protest that Britons never, never. never shall be slaves, that is what we are warned against becoming today. Slaves to that of which we naively think ourselves the masters. We say jokingly that we “slave away,” whether to buy the things the salesmen say we need or just to earn our crust and shelter; but we know the joke is not really very funny. It is easy for the rich and poor alike truly to become slaves to their finances. As the 17th-century Anglican priest and poet George Herbert put it, “Wealth is the conjurer’s devil, Whom, when he thinks he hath, the devil has him.” With it or without it comes stress, infighting, jealousy, and always the insatiable lust for more. We think we own it, but whether through the mortgages or the bailiff, or just through simple greed, it can end up owning us.

And yet our Lord does not counsel most of us to give up all our worldly gain and its pursuit, and get off to a monastery. For some, this radical response will of course be right, according to God’s calling, and serves as an example for us all. But for most, Our Lord’s words here apply. The temptations and the dangers of money - or whatever else it is we crave and truly serve - are our chance for discipline: to show our faithfulness in such trifling, material things and so prove our worthiness to be entrusted with far greater, spiritual treasures. It is a question not of abandoning wealth and the world with all its pleasures, but of what we do with them. Again, to cite George Herbert, the poet-priest, “Gold thou mayst safely touch, but if it stick Unto thy hands, it woundeth to the quick.” Wealth and worldly goods are given not to be kept and coveted, but used for God’s higher ends. So it is that our church here is trying (with some difficulty) to acquire a licence to sell drinks at our concerts, not to store it away in the bank for a rainy day, but to spend on our mission in Camden Town - the new homeless advice service, for a start. So as we approach the licensing hearing a week on Tuesday, please pray for success.

The principle of putting what we have to good use applies to more than just money, though. I have said before that Christianity is not a religion of “either-or,” however much it may be portrayed as such. It is a religion of “both-and.” Not “scripture or tradition,” “faith or works,” “grace or nature,” but both together. Yet in each case there is a priority. This can help us make sense of today’s Gospel, where Jesus tells us on the one hand, that we cannot be slaves to both God and Mammon, and yet that we can use Mammon to further the ends of God. There are Christians who reject, for example, the use of statues, or rings, or Christmas trees, even the use of incense or the making of the sign of the Cross, because they see in these things something in common with the practice of other religions, something even pagan, and think that to take the Christian path we must block off any other route which happens to cross our way. I think that today’s Gospel is one of the many which shows that whatever God has made and given us in his Providence can be used - baptised by the Church, as it were - for the furtherance of his Kingdom, where at the end of time it is written that all things shall be all in Christ. After all, if a Cross of torture can be turned to the vehicle of eternal life, then even filthy lucre can be a sign of purer riches to come. So while some may frown at us using the church for some secular entertainments, we can stand firm in the conviction that it will bring new people through the doors, across the threshold of a building which, believe it or not, the uninitiated often fear to tread, especially the young. If you’re not used to it, just going into a church building can be intimidating. We can make that entry easier, and what’s more, later on, we can use the equipment and experience to put on festivals, drama and music exploring themes of the Christian faith.

None of us, I think, really wants to be a slave, to money or to anything else. Yet Jesus tells us that we must be, and that the choice is stark. We can choose either to be slaves to the attractions this world holds on us, or slaves to the God whose service, as the old prayer says, is perfect freedom. If we freely choose to give all that we have, and all that we are, our money, our memories, our will, our imagination, to God’s service, then we will paradoxically find ourselves liberated from all that enslaves us. If we seek the joint treasure of God’s peace in this world and eternal life in the next We will see truly how little any thing else really matters. We will see that we never really owned any of it anyway, because it was only ever on loan from God, and certainly it has no place owning us. Rather, look to what God has given you - what riches of character, what kindness, or intellect, or bravery, or strength, or sheer will, or sexuality, or even time and money - and as at the altar you receive the immeasurable gift of Christ’s sacrifice for you today, your redemption won by his body and blood, choose how you will be a faithful steward and use what God has given you to help his Kingdom come.

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