Readings selected from those set down for the Sunday closest to Waitangi Day in the “Lectionary and Calendar, 2013-2014: Year A – Matthew” (Methodist Faith and Order Committee, 2013)
- Deuteronomy 10:12-21
- Matthew 6:19-24
- 1 Corinthians 1:26-31
My confession this morning is that I have chosen to preach on something I barely come into contact with, and know about distantly, if at all.
My topic is – Money.
However, in these times, which values opinion over knowledge, ignorance is not something that prevents people from having and sharing their thoughts.
Here, however, we have something that the preacher needs to be especially wary of – that the balance of one’s bank account influences one’s opinion of money.
This temptation is one Kiwi writer Joy Cowley, describes well in her Psalm on this topic:
I am not sure where I am with money.
When I’ve had very little of it,
I’ve been full of theories about sharing;
but when I’ve had more than enough,
the money changer in my temple
tends to label the surplus “my” and “mine”.
With this caveat, I wish to focus this morning on Matthew chapter 6, verse 24, which in the New Revised Standard Version reads as follows:
“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
This, I’m sure is a very familiar text to you. It is also known widely outside the church, even in this age of widespread biblical illiteracy. Perhaps for the church it is too familiar; for the familiar is no longer news. This should concern us, for as the famous monk, Thomas Merton, warned: “if it is not news it is not Gospel.”
Let’s look in more detail at this familiar verse from the Gospel of Saint Matthew, especially this statement of Jesus:
“You cannot serve God and wealth.”
There is much packed into these six simple words.
To those who say the Bible is illogical or unscientific – we should observe that we have here a clear logical statement. Just as a person cannot travel North and South at the same time, one cannot simultaneously serve both God and money. Jesus does not suggest that we might not be able to serve both. Or that we may not serve both – but the emphasis is on CANNOT serve both.
A second thing to observe is Jesus’s assumption that we humans have to serve somebody. We are the slaves or servants of God or money. Servanthood is not something we can opt out off. We comfort ourselves that we are the masters, but we are not – we are servants. In his song “Gotta Serve Somebody”, Bob Dylan sings:
“Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody”
As servants we cannot master God. God never becomes our servant – God does not exist for us, serve us, and do our biding. Our prayers are not – or should not be – commandments for God to obey. If that were so then we would be god ourselves.
Rather we are to serve God. How do we serve God?
The service of God is to do what God requires of us. What this is is described in one form by the familiar verse of Micah 6:8:
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”
This verse from the Hebrew prophet Micah is justifiably famous as a statement promoting justice. But sometimes Christians too readily throw the word ‘justice’ around as if everyone knows what it means.
Doing justice has become a slogan with the assumption that everyone knows what justice is and what it demands of us, the church, and the government. Too often “doing justice” makes us avoid the difficult task of thinking through what God’s justice would look like in a particular situation.
With this in mind let’s return to our text from Deuteronomy, which also guides us to know what God requires of us, while helping us flesh out what justice demands. The text begins with the simple yet profound question:
“What does the LORD your God require of you?”
And it proceeds to answer in this way, possibly offering a more complete guide on what God requires:
“Only to fear the LORD your God,
to walk in all his ways, to love him,
to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul,
and to keep the commandments of the LORD your God and his decrees”
Later in the reading we hear that God’s justice means care for the widow and orphan, loving the stranger by providing them with food and clothing.
That is what the service of God looks like.
But what does the service of money look like?
Some of you might be surprised to learn that money is a master at all. You might say –
“hold on a minute, isn’t money something we master? Isn’t money a servant of humanity, being a useful tool for trade in the marketplace? Isn’t money something we earn, save, and spend as we will. It’s ours to dominate, right?”
Such a response is a common cultural assumption. A major NZ bank, for example, has the slogan “Be good with money”, suggesting that we are, or could be, in control of money. The bank and its helpful staff can help us save, borrow, and spend money. Money is to be managed, and something that we manage we are surely the master of. Right?
But consider how this notion becomes a system of both justification and condemnation.
On the one hand, the wealthy can believe that they are rich solely because they have mastered money, and manage it well. They are justified by the money system to think themselves more worthy or blessed.
On the other hand the poor are condemned to be poor because they don’t manage their money well. And because they are bad with money, they only have themselves to blame for being poor. This is the dark side of this notion that money is ours to control. And if we fail to control it well we deserve the consequences.
To all this Jesus says, “No!, Money is a master”. Money can enslave you. And if we are servants of money, we are not serving God. In fact we begin to serve a different god altogether.
Money can appear to be god-like. In our capitalist economy, money is all powerful, and everywhere at once. It alone appears to have the power to create and to destroy. Almost nothing gets done without money.
Yet despite its omnipresence, money remains a mystery. Who knows where money comes from? Who creates money? Where does it go when wasted?
These days most of us have our money in banks and know how much they have by seeing a line on a bank statement or computer screen. But we cannot see, touch, or smell this money as we can cash. It exists as entries in computers somewhere.
These are modern mysteries to many people – even bankers. The global financial crisis happened in part because bankers invented sophisticated products that they themselves did not fully understand. Truly enslaved to money, some bankers were so controlled and disciplined by money that it ultimately had the last word, with devastating consequences. Perhaps linked to a financial downturn are the last week’s spate of banker deaths in the world’s financial capitals.
In light of this, those who maintain that money is still merely a tool are fooling themselves. As the Catholic social critic Ivan Illich once said:
“A tool can grow out of man’s control, first to become his master and finally to become his executioner”.
How many people have been killed by money or been sacrificed to it?
Closer to home, how many children live in poverty in New Zealand because to provide their families with adequate wages or benefits would be fiscally imprudent? It could be said that we are sacrificing our children in service to the demands of money.
This is an election year. By the end of the year we will most likely have a new government of one form or another. People have told me that key election issues for them will be how money is distributed in society. And I think it’s fair to say that issues of poverty and inequality are very likely to be issues in this election year.
Those who advocate a more equitable redistribution of wealth are sometimes accused of holding to a “politics of envy”. They are accused of being envious of the rich and this envy translates into a desire to redistribute the wealth which, as the theory goes, the rich alone have created.
Those seeking a more equitable distribution of wealth aren’t always envious, they might be simply concerned with the direction of society and giving a fair deal to all.
But we should not dismiss this accusation of envy altogether. We can appreciate the warning that we should be careful of being envious. Envy is one of the seven deadly sins and can destroy our very soul.
But we should also remember that other deadly sins are gluttony, greed, and pride. Those with wealth need to remember that money will tempt them to display their wealth in a prideful manner, and by doing so encourage the envy of others. As Christians we need to be careful that our actions do not lead our brothers and sisters into sin.
Such care for our neighbour is counter-cultural in an age of the cult of celebrity which promotes the accumulation of wealth in order to emulate movie stars and corporate high-fliers.
Such imitation of the wealthy are acts in the service of money – money becomes upheld as the way to gain acceptance, fame, influence, and as the quickest way in which to enjoy the good life.
These are, perhaps, extreme examples. Closer to home we can be tempted to think that once we have enough money, either as a household or as a nation then, and only then, can we afford to serve the needs of the poor in our midst.
Another way in which money is a false god is offering itself a medium of justice. Money can nowadays be used to buy justice, but never God’s justice.
This last week we saw how money can be used to try to attain justice for Maori. Whether you think Treaty settlements are too low or too high, the idea that justice for Maori means monetary compensation buys into the notion that money can do the work of justice. The focus on money risks ignoring issues of Maori sovereignty, iwi autonomy, and the protection of taonga. Money alone can never bring justice to Maori.
But where there are signs that past wrongs are being acknowledged and new relationships built, we can celebrate these as steps towards a fuller notion of justice.
In our own lives we are called to serve God in joy and in serving God we find our freedom and true human fulfillment.
We can, each and every one of us, serve God and our neighbour directly and whenever we encounter them.
This is our calling today.