God and wealth

22 September 2019

Readings: Amos 8.4-7, 1 Timothy 2.1-7

by Ros Miskin, Reader

In the final sentence of today’s Gospel reading we are told clearly and simply:‘You cannot serve God and wealth’.  This sentence appears to conflict somewhat with the earlier narrative.  Here, the master commends his dishonest manager for acting shrewdly in currying favours with his master’s debtors by remitting some of their debts.  This has led some scholars to believe that the final passage of the Gospel, which condemns this shrewd behaviour, may have been added on to the earlier text to uphold the virtue of honesty so you may receive the true riches of the kingdom of heaven.  As J. C. Ryle, the Anglican theologian, wrote in 1859: ‘where there is no honesty, there is no grace’.  Or, you might accept the Roman Catholic view that the manager is repentant and so asks the debtors to pay what they owe the master but not him as well.  My view is that the manager is desperate to remain welcome in people’s homes and hopes that his swift action will ensure this welcome.

Whatever our response to the conflicting viewpoint in Luke’s text may be, we are left with the powerful final sentence that you cannot serve God and wealth.  That is to say that you cannot be devoted to God and to wealth – it is one or the other.

This prompts me to consider what might our attitude be towards wealth in the Christian life.  If we make the teachings of Jesus a starting point we can say that he does not call upon us to avoid the subject of money for the sake of worshipping God.  As he declares to the spies in chapter 20 of Luke’s Gospel they must pay tax owing to the Emperor as well as giving to God that which belongs to God.  We might, though, conclude from this that if we pay our dues this will demonstrate that we are not devoted to wealth.  How also may we avoid such devotion?  In chapter 18 of Luke’s Gospel we find an answer when Jesus  is confronted by the rich ruler who assures him that he has done all he can to keep the commandments of God in order to inherit eternal life.  Yet Jesus replies that there is still one thing lacking.  He must give up everything he owns and distribute the money to the poor.  This saddens the rich man greatly.

I am sure that most of us would find it very, very hard to give up all we have but we can at least do what we can with what we have to help the needy.  As the Jerome Bible Commentary expresses it: ‘the Disciples must convert mammon into healthy capital by sharing with the needy’. In doing this we can surely avoid devotion to wealth.  We can do so because money becomes the good servant rather than the bad master.  The table is turned and it is up to us to put what we have to good use for the benefit of others.  This way, as Martin Luther was later to express it, ‘we can avoid attachment to possessions which distracts our hearts from God’.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul advises them that there is no need to promote themselves through money and power as they have been made right with God through the Crucifixion.  No need for devotion to wealth here, then, nor when we consider, as Jesus asks us to do, the lilies of the field that do not toil nor spin to acquire their glory.  There is no need to worry as God provides for us.

It is this provision which I believe we need to appreciate to avoid a Puritanical worthiness in our attitude to wealth.  To steer clear of greed and to give what we have a missional purpose does not mean that we cannot enjoy what God has provided for us in abundance.  As Sean Doherty writes in his book ‘Living Witness’ God’s provision for us does continue, even though after the Fall work became a ‘burden for minimum return’. He writes that although there is an immense danger of money in Scripture, we only have to look at the first two chapters of Genesis to be assured of the goodness of the world and God as the abundant source of material gifts.  Also, let us not forget that Jesus himself enjoyed a good party! It is just that, as Sean reminds us, wealth is perilous if loved too much.

Nowhere is the sense of joy in this abundance more keenly felt, I believe, than in the Harvest Festival which we celebrate today.  In past times, church bells could be heard on each day of the Harvest and a corn dolly made from the last sheaf of corn harvested was placed in honour at the banquet table and kept until the following spring.  The horse that brought the last cart load was decorated with garlands of flowers and colourful ribbons.  Then a magnificent Harvest feast was held at the farmer’s house and games played to celebrate the end of the harvest.  An early harvest tradition was loaves of bread given to the church as the Communion bread.  This ‘loaf mass’ giving became known as ‘Lammas Day’.  There is a precedent here in the Old Testament in Leviticus when an offering of grain and oil, with frankincense added, was made to the priests who would then turn the token portion of it into smoke on the altar.  An offering described as ‘an offering by fire of pleasing odour to the Lord’.

In 1843, the British tradition of celebrating Harvest Festival in church began with the Reverend Robert Hawker inviting parishioners into his church in Cornwall.  The nineteenth century also saw the emergence of the great harvest hymns such as Matthias Claudius’s ‘we plough the fields and scatter’ and Henry Alford’s hymn of 1844: ‘come ye thankful people come’.

Before we leave the Victorian era and look to our own era, I feel I cannot do so without mentioning the poet Keats’s ‘Ode to Autumn’.  I say this because, to my mind, his opening verse is such a wonderful description of the abundance of God’s provision for us.  The opening lines that read: ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!  Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun’ give us a connection to the universe in the relationship of the processes of autumn to the sun that, and I quote: ‘conspires with autumn how to load and bless with fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run’.  This connection to the universe is also found in the Harvest Festival, its date being on a Sunday near or on the Harvest moon which is the full moon closest to the autumn equinox.

What, though, of the celebration of Harvest Festival in today’s world?  It is true to say that hymns and prayers have continued but as there is less reliance in the modern world on home produce, the emphasis has moved towards concern for people in the developing world.  Development Relief organisations produce resources for use in churches at Harvest time.  Here at St Mark’s we collect provisions for the Simon Community to help the needy.

The Christian hope in such Harvest giving is that the abundant provision of God can be spread to include those near to us and beyond.  In order to keep this hope alive we must, I believe, continue to be charitable in our doings, particularly in the current climate of economic turbulence.  We must do our best to remain confident in our future and not allow that confidence to be dimmed by the stresses and strains of modern life.  We must stand firm in the knowledge of the love of God and trust in his loving purposes for mankind.

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