Deploying Wealth

by Auriol Farquhar

(Based on Luke 16:1-13)

Every commentator I have looked at in order to get some guidance in interpreting this text starts by saying how difficult it is; one reflection that I read calls it ‘baffling’ and says that people have struggled to make sense of it for centuries. That gave me great confidence!

The story itself sounds quite modern. A dishonest manager is about to lose his job because he has misspent his employer’s assets. Because he knows that he is not suited to labouring and doesn’t want to be a beggar, he goes around to all the people who owe his employer money and reduces their debts. He does this so that they will be friendly to him after he loses his job. To our surprise, the employer commends the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. Why? Why does the rich man commend his manager for dishonesty?  Why does Jesus offer his followers such an unsavoury character as a role model?  In what sense are the “children of light” supposed to take a cue from the “shrewdness” of a self-interested scoundrel? 

Let’s look at some of the ideas on offer.
Perhaps the passage is ironic? Is Jesus saying this tongue in cheek?
Unlikely
Or, maybe when he reduced the payments, the steward may have been simply forgoing his own cut of the interest. In the world of Roman-occupied Galilee in the first century rich landlords and rulers were often loan-sharks, using exorbitant interest rates to amass more wealth and to disinherit peasants of their family land.  The rich man and his steward, or debt collector, were both exploiting desperate peasants. Maybe the steward was doing what the law of God commands, namely, forgiving all the hidden interest in the contracts.

Could it be that though the dishonest manager is a sinner who is looking out for his own interests, he models behaviour the disciples could copy? Instead of simply being a victim of circumstance, he transforms a bad situation into one that benefits him and others.
Or is it about being strong and practical? When the manager realizes that he’s in trouble, he springs into action.  He doesn’t wait around, he doesn’t despair — he hotfoots it out the door, a plan at the ready.  Perhaps it’s this sense of urgency, of single-mindedness, of creative possibility and cleverness that wins the manager such high praise from his employer.   He focuses on redeeming what he can out of the situation that he finds himself in.   

Or  what if the manager’s mismanagement is actually the fruit of his compassion?  What if we assumed that the manager spent years risking his job and his employer’s displeasure to ease the financial struggles of the debtors he managed?  True, his methods as described in the parable are dishonest; Jesus makes that abundantly clear.  But what if even in his imperfection, the manager embodies grace and forgiveness?  This would fit in with his last and drastic move in the story – he lessens the debts of those who can’t pay off what they own, even at the risk of further angering the boss he has already offended.

So there are a number of lessons that we might learn from this parable, but for me, and the one that I understand best, the focus should be on what Jesus says at the end of this passage – you can serve either God or wealth, but not both.

Jesus is describing a world we know only too well.  A world full of self-interest; of people striving to attain wealth, and not being too fussy about whom they step on, or use, or abuse in order to achieve it. Today ambition to ‘do well’, that is, to make money, is admired; honesty is often seen as weakness and much cynicism exists about the concept of being just and fair to all people. People worship wealth; society everywhere encourages us to achieve it.

I don’t believe Jesus is saying that wealth itself is a sin, especially when someone has worked hard to achieve it and come by it in an honest manner. Rather the sin is the desire to be wealthy for its own sake, at any cost; to believe that to be rich makes us more worthy, superior to other people, and entitled to use the resources of the world to increase our own affluence and prosperity at the expense of others and the dwindling resources of our world. It’s not only about how we may have achieved that wealth: it’s also about how we use it. Wealth should not become our idol. In Luke, Jesus repeatedly warns that we cannot be disciples while accumulating wealth at the expense of the poor. Martin Luther called wealth (or ‘Mammon’) “the most common idol on earth”.

It is how we use the resources at our disposal in this life that matters, even though our “true riches” can only be found in that place “where no thief can draw near and no moth destroy.”
“No slave can serve two masters … you cannot serve God and wealth.” This reiterates a central theme in Luke: the kingdom of God entails giving up all other commitments, including the commitment to economic security

As Christians we live in a world that is deeply interconnected — and deeply compromised.  Even the tiniest financial decisions we make — where to shop, how to invest our money, what to eat or wear in an age of corporate greed, child labour, climate change, and globalization — have far-reaching consequences.  We need to remember this and let it affect our actions when we make those financial decisions – do we buy Fair Trade coffee, do we purchase clothes made in sweat shops, or get drawn into changing our wardrobes each year to keep up with fashion? Do we stockpile goods in times of shortages, do we buy second and third houses and charge exorbitant rents for them? What contribution are we making towards helping the issues of climate change and sustainability? How are we helping to ensure a fairer distribution of wealth and resources throughout the world, or even our own community?

Jesus says, “The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”  In this context the disciples and us, you and I, are ‘the children of light’. Is the message for us that we can do a better job of engaging with the crises and failures facing us and facing our Church, facing our world, here and now?  Are we just waiting around instead of taking action?   Could we be shrewder, more clever, more creative, and more single-minded in our vocations as children of light?  If the manager in Jesus’s story can hustle so hard for his own survival, how much more might we contend on behalf of a world God loves?  

I guess most of us feel that, as individuals, we can do little to change things. We are not members of the Government, we don’t own big businesses, most of us don’t have a great deal of ‘wealth’. But I believe we can make small contributions to trying to ensure that resources are shared more evenly and at least not squandered, and not use more than we need.

We do a lot already in this community – providing the Op Shop, encouraging recycling, trying to help those who are less fortunate than ourselves, contributing to charities through our Church contributions, supporting our local voluntary organisations, giving money and goods towards disaster funds, supporting research into disease and the many other causes that are visible in our country.
But two things strike me. Firstly, do we do enough in our own lives to not squander the resources of our planet? And secondly, when we are giving money, goods or support to others, are we visible as Christians? Do we show others that we are trying to live unselfishly and to serve and support others because that is the Christian way? We do it because we love God and love our fellow humans as Jesus taught us to do, but do we emphasise that to others?

I need to consider these issues in my own life. I may not be able to pay my debt back 100% but I can try to repay as much as I can. I love clothes, but do I need so many? I keep trying to tell my husband that he needs new clothes – his response generally is, “but I don’t need them.” We find it difficult to give each other presents, as we recognise that we don’t have to squander money on things that we don’t need.

Do I need a new dresser for my dining room? No – I’ll paint the one I have.
Do I need new armchairs? No, I’ll get the old ones recovered.
Do I need more plates, more cutlery, more mugs? I’ll recycle ones from the Op Shop.
Do I need to go overseas on holiday? Actually, the answer for me is yes! To see old friends and family, to recharge my batteries; but at home I’ll only drive one car and not go out to restaurants for dinner every week

I do need to consider my energy use – mend that window where the heat gets out, use the draft excluder at the front door, consider my husband’s suggestion of putting up a ‘naff’ curtain at the foot of the stairs to keep the heat in the living area. Not have so many of those lovely baths, as they use up so much hot water. Make sure that the dish washer is loaded up to the gills before I put it on. . . . . .etc, etc. I’m even trying to persuade Bryan to investigate solar panels!

I can never repay all of my debt to God for the beauty of this Earth and for his love. But I can continually thank him for what he has given to me and others, do whatever I can to preserve it and use at least some of my resources in the service of my fellow humans. And proclaim the reasons why I am doing so. It’s all about love.

I’m far from perfect, but I am trying, like so many of you, and, maybe, like that manager, with God’s help, I can become more shrewd!

Faulty Signals

Communication was the theme at a recent meet-the-candidates meeting, prior to some local elections.  We’d all be more effective if everybody would communicate better, they were saying.

Many a confusion could be demystified if we learnt to communicate better.  Marriages could be safer, wars could be averted, the Minister of Finance might be heard to say he was abolishing taxes, and the All Blacks might start winning again.

I was returning from Whitianga with my family.  We got stuck behind one of these SUV four-wheel-drive vehicles, towing a massive boat.  The road wound back and forth, up and down hill – and we couldn’t get past this guy. I expected the driver to pull over – do the courteous thing and let me past. I sat on his tail.  Surely he’d see me in his mirror and let me past.  But he didn’t.  I began to beat on my steering wheel with my fists – thump, thump, thump – but to no avail.

“Settle down, Simon*,” said my wife at my side.

“Moron!” I hissed.  “No, not you, dear,” I added hastily.

I flashed my lights and muttered under my breath.  Eventually, as we slowed down at one particularly windy bit, I honked my horn.
The SUV slowed to a stop in the middle of the road, and this giant, angry sumo wrestler got out.  The guy was at least 150kg.  Shaved head, tattoos all down his arms, and UGLY ….  He stood there with his arms folded and his legs astride, daring me to get out of the car.

You see, he hadn’t heard me right.  When I’d tooted I’d only been saying, “Toot, toot, excuse me, Sir, but would you kindly please let me sneak by?”  Whereas he’d thought I’d said, “PARP, PARP!  Get off the road you great yuppie ignoramus and make way for a REAL driver!”
He’d misunderstood my message.

Anyway, fortunately I was able to drive our car between his legs, and we managed to escape.  But it just goes to show how miscommunication can have dangerous consequences.

Sometimes Person A says something to Person B, but Person B hears something quite different.  It’s particularly common in family situations.

While we were at Whitianga we were staying in a caravan.  About nine o’clock one night I was sitting there reading and my wife decided to go outside, and she left the door open.
“Oi,” I called.  “You’ve left the door open.”  Note, no exclamation mark.
You see, what I meant was, “Lucy*, dearest …. sweetest thing.  Would you mind terribly if I got up and shut the door that you’ve inadvertently left open?”

But she thought I meant,
“You hopeless, useless woman!  You’ve deliberately and maliciously left the door open, just to annoy me!”

Just a little miscommunication, see ….
Well, she appeared instantly.  And I understood her meaning, full well.  Then she didn’t speak to me again for …. well, the next words she said were, “Settle down, Simon,” as we sat behind the sumo wrestler with the boat.

Our words can get us into trouble.  It’s about agendas, I reckon.  Person A speaks according to her agenda;  Person B hears according to his agenda.  And sometimes there’s a total mismatch of agendas. 

What’s to be done?  Well, I’m no expert, as you’ve read.  There must be some counsellors or psychologists around with some answers! But I think you have to be ready to back down – be prepared to accommodate the other person’s agenda.

I’m reminded of the medieval scientist, Copernicus.  He declared to the world, in 1530, that the sun was the centre of the universe, not the earth.  But the Church, very powerful in society at that time, wouldn’t have it.  Church policy was that the earth was the centre of the universe.  (Churches have policies like that.)

“Recant, or we’ll burn you at the stake!” said the Church.
“Fine, fine,” said Copernicus.  “I was only kidding.”
He was prepared to forego his own agenda, for the sake of peace …. and survival.

There’s wisdom here somewhere.

Ken F

* All names changed to protect the author.
(Not Copernicus’s)

Reflections on F D Maurice

by Bishop Bruce Gilberd

This reflection scripts a presentation on the controversial nineteenth century theologian Frederick Denison Maurice, given by Bishop Bruce at St Francis Church, Tairua, on Sunday September 11th. Given its ‘seminar’ origin, it is denser than our usual weekly reflections.

We have in Maurice a priest, a theologian, a philosopher, a socialist, a Christian, a pastor and preacher.
He was ahead of his time, and still inspires those who grasp his truths.  He influenced archbishops of Canterbury throughout the twentieth century – notably William Temple and Michael Ramsay.

Maurice walks us through a critical period of nineteenth century theological debate: where is God present and to be found?

The Man and his Life

Briefly … born in 1805.  (Napoleonic Wars in progress.)  Father a Unitarian.  Religious divisions in the home handled gently.  Attended Cambridge University but unable to graduate, as he did not yet belong to the Church of England.

A diffident and shy person.
Felt the call to baptism and ordination at 29, and wrote, “I not only believe in the Trinity in Unity, but I find it the centre of all my beliefs.”
Served as a curate for two years in Warwickshire, then went to Guy’s Hospital (central London) as a chaplain; then rector of St Peter’s at Lincoln’s Inn (one of four ‘Inns of Court’ in London to which barristers of England and Wales belong).
Wrote his seminal book The Kingdom of Christ (1838).

Married in 1837.  Two children.  Wife died eight years later.  Remarried in 1849.

Became Professor of Ecclesiastical History at King’s College London in 1846.  Published many sermons and several books.
Was always looking for involvement in society.  Established and headed up an enterprise called the Working Men’s College.  He was wanting to deal with the real issues of society.  [At King’s College there were complaints about his ‘socialism’.]

Conflict also arose from his 1853 publication Theological Essays.  He had written, “How can a loving God consign most of the human race, made in his image, to eternal punishment?”

He was asked to leave.

He then became Professor of Moral Philosophy at Cambridge University, having a significant teaching and pastoral ministry there, continued to work as a theologian and philosopher.

Maurice died in 1872.

Key Features of Maurice’s Thinking and Teaching:

In no particular order …

  • Maurice articulated seminal thoughts about God, the status of humankind, the nature of the catholic (universal) church, of which the Anglican Church is a part, and the relationship of the church to society, and to the state.
  • His sources were the Old and the New Testaments, the wisdom of the ages, God-given reason, and his own mind and faith.
  • He sought to define the principles and constitution of what it means to be the Church – its roots (downward) and its fruits (upward).  And to do this, how we need to look back, look around, and look forward, to distil key principles.
  • Contemplation of all this must lead to action; this involved him in educating and pastoring working people of London.
  • Wherever we find costly love, and truth (reason, scientific, theological), there is God, doing his work, directly and through people.  God is in both the secular and the sacred.  How can we split what God embraced in his incarnation?
  • Maurice had a deep yearning for unity – in the church and in the nation.  He had no time for “parties” in either.
  • The fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of men (this was the nineteenth century!).
    The Bible is about the history of God’s actions towards humanity, not men’s thoughts about God.
  • Christ is King of the human race.  He is the unifying person.
  • So he sought a just society.  He thought socialism was an expression of this.
  • He (to me) over-equates the ‘Kingdom of God’ with the Church.  Jesus did preach the Kingdom of God, God’s reign amongst us, and brings us into it.  I also realise Paul wrote God “loved the Church and gave himself for it”.
    Is there not a case therefore for the Church’s mission to be the establishment of the Kingdom?
    [But I find it hard to sing the line in the hymn which runs: “The Church of God a Kingdom is”!]
  • The Church is human society in its normal state.
  • Maurice understood that humanity had a diseased will; the Gospel and public worship heals and matures our personal and corporate will, and our reason, which he regarded as including sense, understanding and imagination.
  • Then he emphasises the point that Christianity without a church exercising spiritual authority is vanity and a delusion.  No place for ‘solo Christians’!
    [Some say Maurice’s writings are a peculiar mixture of the conservative and the radical!]
    He writes that Christ comes, in the incarnation, into the world he made, so it readily makes itself his home; and he lights everyone coming into the world (John 1).  All are made in God’s likeness and image.  But our “condemnation lies in us not owning this truth.”
  • Maurice refused to define the church’s boundaries.
  • He saw one of his roles as being to uncover the faith which so many of its defenders buried.  He had a great reverence for truth.  Truth is not relative.  (Compare with today’s views.)  Propaganda precludes a zeal for the truth – about God, humanity, life.
  • He understood Christ’s self-offering on the cross as not our substitute, but as our representative.  Christ’s crucifixion is about … love, obedience, sacrifice, liberation, burden-bearing, triumph, disclosure, revelation, …
  • Maurice viewed the Church not only as the home of the redeemed but as the sign that God had redeemed the whole human race, and the whole human race was, potentially, ‘in Christ’.
    His call to all was, “Become what you are.”
  • We are to live ethically.  Not from dread of punishment or to achieve favour – but because we are profoundly thankful.
  • A right relationship with God inevitably leads believers, and the Church, to the pursuit of justice.
  • Our study of God – theology – must affect our hearts and our consciences.  Yet, dogmatism and secularism are both signs of unbelief.
  • In Christ, on the cross, what humanity most needs has been completely given – a reliable eternal bridge, a relationship, between God and us.
  • There’s nothing created which Christ has not redeemed, he says.  And, sins hinder but do not quench the life of Christ in us.  Like the dark stains on silverware, our sin can be ‘polished off’ the silver beneath.
  • The Inspirer of the Bible writers is the same One who now dwells in and inspires the reader.

Relevance to Today’s Church and Society

Drawing on these thoughts of FD Maurice, I suggest the following for today:

  • Wherever truth and costly love are found (in the ancient but unattributed maxim), thus:
    In essentials: unity … In non-essentials: liberty … In all things: charity.
  • In life, in science, in other faiths, in people … look for truth and love.
  • The Church is a pivotal sign of what humanity is called to be, and must be engaged in service to society – personally and as Christians together.
  • We serve out of our thankfulness.  No other motive is worthwhile.
  • Christ inaugurated the Reign of God and, in the Sermon on the Mount, enunciated its roots and principles.
  • Go beneath ‘parties’ and differences and structures to the unifying taproot – Christ redeeming all humankind – he is King of the human race.
  • Worship, prayer, contemplation must lead to action.  We seek a just society.
  • … and so on …

There is both anchorage and freedom in Maurice’s theology, echoed in James K Baxter’s poem Song to the Holy Spirit (see here).

Corollary

Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsay wrote, “Maurice loved his fellow men (sic) and walked humbly with his God.”

And (finally) St Augustine wrote, “We would not be searching for God unless he had already found us.”

Finishing

by Pat Lee

(Based on Luke 14:25-33; Deut 30:15-20)

Bruce Gilberd in his book One Thought for Today, on the subject of ‘Questions’, writes, “It is worth noting a question indicates we are on a quest – a journey into knowledge, into achievement, info, self-realisation, into awareness of God. Jesus asked a lot of questions. And, yes, he also made pivotal statements.”

Today’s readings involve a lot of those things. But first, I want to ask you some questions. What brought you to Tairua? Why did you come here and not somewhere else? Have any of you always lived here?
God has brought each of us here for a reason.

Michael and I came to Tairua for four days at the end of 1989, through New Year, and then back to Auckland. We had passed through several years before, on a very stormy Anzac weekend, on our way to Hahei. I don’t remember Tairua even registering because of the thundery weather at the time. However, we came back for those four days, to Enid Bennett’s bach, and fell in love with the place and decided we wanted to retire here.

After looking carefully into our finances, we bought a section in Hornsea Road and started building our house in 1992, but only the top part because that was all we could afford then. We came over here quite a lot, while we were living in Christchurch, before Michael died. When that happened, I had to decide what I was going to do.  This is the place I came to, because it was where my still unfinished house was, and the only placed I owned (because we lived in a vicarage).

So what is the connection between this passage and Luke’s. It took me a while to see it, but then I read a piece written by Thomas Conley1. He says, “Both of these passages are talking about finishing the job.”

I thought that it was my decision to come here, but through the 23 years of living here, I have discovered that it was where God wanted me to come and serve him. We are all here because God wants and needs us to be here. God has a task for each of us in this place.

Moses was in the exact place God needed him to be. Today’s Deuteronomy reading has Moses telling the Israelites that they need to obey God’s commands, keep his laws, and persevere as they are about to enter the Promised Land. It’s taken them forty years to get to this promised land, because of their constant grumbling, moaning and disobedience.
Moses is quite blunt because he knows that God does not break his promises; but they need to obey because there will be consequences if they don’t. “But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray and bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.”
Strong words.

Moses was encouraging the Israelites to persevere and obey God’s commands to finish the job as they enter the Promised Land, and possess it. There were going to be many difficulties to face but as long as they persevere and obey God’s commands, they would be all right. Many of them, sadly, didn’t.

Conley says, “Jesus is saying the same thing. Taking the cross, being a disciple, counting the cost, finishing the tower or, in the case of the king, having enough soldiers to complete the battle plans, are all related to Moses’s final instructions to his people.”

 As we come before the table by which we are reminded symbolically of Jesus’s dedication in completing the job he started, what comes to the fore? Is it the matter of perseverance?

Moses says, “Persevere in the principles (laws) that have brought you to the lip of the Promised Land.” And Jesus says, “Persevere in toting the cross and finishing the ‘tower’ you have begun. Both of them say, “Work hard at what you have started and persevere to complete the task.”

My first task here in Tairua was to finish my house. I enlisted Ray who was a retired builder with whom I had become friends, to give me the help I needed, as I had no idea even where to begin. We married in 2002, but even before that, God had given me a second task which was to help Ray, because, as our friendship grew, it became obvious to me that he needed help and support. He had quite a few health issues. As time went on, his health deteriorated, but you seldom heard him complain. Since his death late in 2015, God has given me other things to do, like writing reflections.

But let’s go back to the Luke reading for a moment. Does God really want us to hate our families, as verses 25 -27 state?
I don’t think so. I think these verses are telling us that within our own families there will be misunderstandings and conflicts because, as Christians, we need to follow Christ and obey his teachings.
Many of our family members do not have a personal relationship with Jesus. This causes them to live very different lifestyles to us. Some of them may even think that those of us who go to church are wasting our time when we could be out doing all kinds of other things on a Sunday morning. I know many in my family think it’s all about the must not do’s or must do’s, and cannot see that there is freedom in following God’s laws, and do not understand how much Jesus did for me, and all of us.

I see this as one of the costs I have to pay for following Christ. I love my family. But I know Jesus’s way is the better way and that is my choice.

How about you? Are you doing what God brought you here to do, or are you still just going about doing the things you like and enjoy? Have you been willing to pay the cost of giving up things that you like doing to follow what God really wants you to do instead, and persevering with it until the job is finished?

1Thomas H Conley – The Ministers Manual, 1987 Edition, edited by James Cox