Sunday, 19 October 2008

A timely perspective on God and Money?...

22nd Sunday after Trinity - Year A

Preached by the Revd. Martin Jackson,
Vicar of St. Cuthbert's

Lectionary: Isaiah 45.1-7; 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10; Matthew 22.15-22

In an attempt to catch him out, the Pharisees - conniving with the government party of the Herodians - ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?...” And Jesus replies, “Show me the coin used for the tax.” They bring him a denarius. And Jesus looks at it and says, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”

Most people will know this story well. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?” If Jesus says “yes”, then not only will he lose popularity with the people… He will also be seen to cause offence as a religious teacher who advocates the acknowledgement of foreign pagan sovereignty. He will lose credibility and authority. But if he says “no, don’t pay the tax,” then he can be portrayed as advocating rebellion against the imperial power – and Herod’s lackeys are there to report what he says. Now Jesus is supposed to tell the people what he thinks.

Of course Jesus could vacillate. He could try pointing to the benefits of imperial rule with its possibilities for trade, its advantages of law and order, the political stability that it has brought – the jobs it has created with all those wonderfully straight roads, viaducts, acqueducts and the rest. We might expect him to. If we don’t like paying Council Tax, we’ve still got to acknowledge that it pays for services that we need.

But Jesus knows that this isn’t a matter for debate. It’s treated by his opponents as a basic issue of allegiance. Is Jesus really a religious teacher with authority, preaching a message which can set people free? - or is he an advocate of subservience to foreign paganism?

Of course we know the answer Jesus will give. Take a look at the coinage you use to pay the tax. Whose head is on the coin, what’s the inscription? To which his opponents have to answer “The emperor’s.” So, he says, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

I don’t think many people today have a problem with the idea that the use of our nation’s civil currency requires us to be any less Christian in our attitude than the use of some alternative - after all, what is the alternative? St. Francis of Assisi might have refused to use money - and ordered his followers to put it where, for him it belonged: on the dung heap. But how else do we pay for all the things we need? Who can grow their own food, make the basic necessities of life, and then barter the goods they have produced for others which they need? How are you going to get your gas or electricity without a cheque or a standing order? How are you going to put fuel in your car without a credit card? They’re all forms of money. And “money makes the world go round…”

But perhaps we need to take more seriously the idea that our attitude to money is about our basic allegiance - that it says something about where our loyalties truly lie. In the time of Jesus it was about whether Roman currency could be used, whether you could use a coin which had the head of an emperor who claimed divine status - and if you used that coin it might be argued that you were devaluing the God you should worship. Now we have a monarch whose coins bear the inscription, “Defender of the faith,” so the problem may seem to be solved for Christians. But perhaps the financial uncertainties of the last few weeks should make us think again… Have we simply trusted too much in money? Get enough and everything will be alright. Build up your savings and your pension fund, and you’ll be able to live without anxiety. As banks crash and mortgages disappear and falling shares reduce the value of pensions invested in them, it seems we need to think again.

Here’s a prayer which forms part of Psalm 17, and which I found myself saying at Morning Prayer on Friday of last week:

Deliver me, O Lord, by your hand •
from those whose portion in life is unending,
Whose bellies you fill with your treasure, •

who are well supplied with children
and leave their wealth to their little ones.

In other words, “don’t rich people get you down?” We’ve heard that refrain especially over the last few days - that the people who’ve been running our banks have been out mainly to make big money for themselves, that no longer must they be allowed to award themselves fat bonuses… Their portion in life really does seem unending and they’ve got the belly for more. But we need to be careful. On Thursday morning, we used Psalm 15 with its understanding of what makes for a godly life:

Who does no evil to a friend •
and pours no scorn on a neighbour…
Whoever has sworn to a neighbour •
and never goes back on that word…

All this is fine, of course - but then the Psalmist continues:

Who does not lend money in hope of gain •
nor takes a bribe against the innocent;
Whoever does these things •
shall never fall.

I hope we don’t take bribes against the innocent, but isn’t the whole basis of the western banking system the idea that we lend money not merely with the hope but with the intention of gain? And you can’t avoid it. With very few exceptions, every newly-born child in this country is given £250 to be invested in a “Child Trust Fund.” He or she receives another £250 at the age of seven. And the money can’t be touched until they’re 18. The whole idea is laudable - it’s to give them a “good start” in life, and it’s an investment which will gain interest. But at the same time it means they’re going to have to learn to use money “in the hope of gain,” as the Psalmist puts it. Perhaps we need to ask again where that is getting us.

The fact is that the government invests money on behalf of each child because they’re soon going to learn how much they need money. If they go into Higher Education they’ll face filling in forms which will commit them to years of debt to cover university fees and loans. And they’ll find financial advice that they should take out bigger loans than they might need, because they might be able to invest that money at a higher rate of interest than the loan repayment will require. Then when they get a job they can perhaps find themselves with more money and still more credit so that they can take out a mortgage. And from there they can join every other house owner in the country in taking pleasure at rising house prices or finding despondency and anxiety as the market falls. No one is immune, because those of us who don’t own houses wonder if we’ll ever be able to afford to.

Nearly everyone has become caught up in the pursuit of material things - and especially money. If you had money in a building society that turned itself into a bank, you suddenly found yourself a shareholder. I’d never wanted to own shares, but when I found myself given some and plotted their rise in value from £7 or so to more than £12 it felt good. When they fell back to the original level, I told myself they’d rise again. And now they’re worth less than a pound each. I should have got out sooner, I sometimes think. But actually I think the experience has been good for me. It shows what an empty thing money is. I’d never bought the shares in the first place. They just happened. Someone said they were quite valuable. And now they’ve been found out… They’re simply dust, and in dust there is no hope.

At Morning Prayer on Friday, having said Psalm 17, the prayer that followed asked this:

Generous Lord,
deliver us from all envious thoughts,
and when we are tempted by the desire for wealth,
let us see your face;
for your abundance is enough to clothe our lack;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

“… when we are tempted by the desire for wealth, let us see your face…” We talk about the “face” of a coin - and the profile of the monarch, whether the Emperor in the time of Jesus, or our Queen today, is her face from the side. But when we consider where true wealth is to be found we need to seek another face, the face of God. When the notional value of your house falls, but it’s still probably quite a bit more than the amount you paid for it, you need to ask - what makes me truly wealthy? If the fall in house prices has left you trapped in negative equity, then you’re in really difficult circumstances - and it’s a reminder to us all that money doesn’t merely help us acquire what we want; it can damage people’s livelihoods and families.

There’s no escaping the use of money, and here perhaps we need a reminder that the verse in the Bible which goes to the heart of our dilemma over its use is not “Money is the root of all evil.” What you find if you look up the First Letter to Timothy is that we’re warned: “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”

Where do we direct our love? Where is it worth investing our energy for the greatest return? Jesus was challenged with the choice between God and money. And each has their place. But the final words need to be those of Jesus: “Give to God the things that are God’s.” We need to recognise the illusory nature of worldly wealth and the hollow claims that so much of life’s busy-ness makes upon us. From the beginning we are God’s creation, his children. We are called to recognise his love and forgiveness, and his grace to support and strengthen us day by day. And we are called to give back to him what he truly deserves. We need to discover again that this requires effort on our part and time: to make time for prayer and worship, to be ready to listen to him and learn from him. And if we make that sort of investment, we can expect to see the return.

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