Dependence and Destiny - The spirituality of Money?
What is the spirituality of Money? It seems an odd question doesn’t it? Especially when we read in the Bible that God and Mammon are distinct, opposing, conflicting, both in theory and in practice. You can’t serve God and money. You didn't hear it here first, but you did hear it just now, from someone no less divine than Jesus himself. So we have a problem.
The other day I was invited to give a lecture to that most august and slightly terrifying organisation known as the U3A - The University of the Third Age. My subject - shoes and shoemaking - a topic I know only a little about. That is to say, just enough to talk for an hour. I began by telling the gathered throng that I was sorry not to have issued a request in advance that everyone bring a pair of shoes with them. A flicker of dismay went round the hall until the penny dropped that of course everyone HAD brought a pair of shoes with them, rather conveniently attached to their feet. Which is where most people customarily keep at least one pair of their shoes, at least two thirds of the time. So then I asked everyone to remove a shoe, and after studying it for a minute or so, I reminded them that they were looking at 5000 years of history. And then we were off, as they say.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to remove a shoe, even though I daresay most of you have a couple about your person.
But I might ask you if you have any money about your person. Without asking you to prepare for coming to church by bringing some money with you, it is extremely likely that most of you have some money on you. If you don’t, then not only is that absolutely fine, but it’s also very interesting, because if it were the case that you had come to church today without any money at all, that would say something - to yourself if not to God - about the spirituality of your money. Rest assured, I’m not going to do this, but just as I could ask you to take a shoe off and contemplate it, I could ask you to take some money out and examine it. It is, after all what Jesus did when the Pharisees asked him an awkward question about to whom to pay taxes.
But I’m not going to go that. I don’t need to. You are all wearing shoes. And you are all carrying money.
And that’s my point. There are people who don’t wear shoes and there are people who don’t carry money. But for the sake of argument, we all do both. Both are natural, normal, instinctive, necessary things to do. Shoes protect our feet and money protects our independence.
That’s why I am interested in the spirituality of both. Shoes are all about the sole.... of the foot. The spirituality of money is a bit different, and concerns the other kind of soul – soul with a ‘u’: Your soul.
Why do you carry money?
What is it for?
How would you manage without any?
(Some of us here know how this question cashes out).
And then, as I began, what is the spirituality of your money? By that I mean something along the lines of ‘where does it come from?’ And ‘where does it go?’.
I had a conversation this week with someone who wanted moral advice as he changes jobs, knowing he is about to have unsolicited interviews with major companies who he believes will offer him between £150k and £400k a year. I did my best but it was a bit like an out of body experience for me who is paid £23k a year. His point was that everyone has a price and that if he were offered stupid money he would jack in the various charity and worthy work he does, at least short term because he could pay off his mortgage. He also figured that if paid stupid money - of which about half would go in tax and national insurance, while that might mean he would have to abandon a good cause of which he was a serious contributor in time and talents, he could resign but give them £100k by way of apology.
Interesting. On so many counts. Is anyone’s service, commitment and loyalty worth as little as £100k? Who knows, and to be fair he was talking about a high paid job for a couple of years after which he would be free to resume activities that involved time and talents, rather than money.
I suspect none of us are in similar positions. If you are - well talk to me afterwards! But what is your spirituality of money? If you are struggling to get to grips with the question, let me say what I am not asking.
I am not asking how you spend, or decide to spend your money. I am not asking you to consider tithing or putting more in the plate, or whether you are charitable enough. There are many people out there who are far less charitable than anyone here. Indeed when I have been to local schools to talk about our support of the Imagine project local children look me in the eye and ask ‘why do you do it? Why do you care about, or give money to people you have never met?’ Such is the poverty of our nation. They don't get it and they don't give it.
So please don’t feel got at. That is not my point. Nor is it what today’s gospel is about.
But what is today’s gospel about? It is a rather strange story, in which a steward is praised for being unjust and dishonest. The parable is like the one about the prodigal son in the previous chapter of Luke’s gospel. Both stories that Jesus tells are about an incredibly generous figure and a rascal who purloins and wastes wealth and then exploits that generosity once again. We might well be reminded of the overflowing love and mercy of God, even when we try and take advantage of it.
But then there is the sting in the tail, which seems to come out of nowhere: “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
The reason you can't serve God and money is because money gives independence and God calls us – desires us - to be dependent - on him, his love and his grace. Worship is the giving of worth, it reveals that about which we care and that which drives our life. We are called to worship and we come here to do so – to worship God – to offer him our sense of worth, and in praising him, to admit – to ourselves, each other, and to God himself, that we are dependent on him for all we have and all we are. Money mitigates against that – it always has, and always will.
If you have money, you have a say over your own destiny, both short and long term. Money helps you decide what to do today and tomorrow, and it helps you plan for next year, next decade, even the decades of your children to follow. That’s how it is. It’s not bad or good, it’s just how it is.
But what can be bad or good is the attitude we take towards our dependence and our destiny. Because money is all about dependence and destiny. And that is a spiritual issue, which locates itself at the heart of what money is: what it is and what it is for. How we handle money – no matter how much of it we do or don’t have – it is a discipleship issue – a spiritual issue.
Archbishop Rowan Williams once said this to a group of Stewardship Directors:
“What we do with our money proclaims who we think we are – whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not. All our actions in some degree reveal us; why should our economic life be different? Why should this too not be an area in which we help to shape our eternal destiny, a matter of our sin or holiness?”.
(Preston, John, ‘Money’, in Developing Faithful Ministers, SCM 2012, p.139).
Or as John Preston – the Church’s National Stewardship Advisor, who I happened to be at University with – as he puts it:
“one of the most telling insights into our personal values and priorities is the way we spend our money”. (ibid).
It’s obvious when you think about it. Perhaps less obvious to consider that the way we handle money says something about our attitude towards dependence and destiny. And yet, monks, nuns and others who take vows of poverty do so in order to submit to, and be disciplined by the utter dependence on God that such abandonment leads to. And yet - I can hear you thinking it – you can’t live without money – and those who do, are forced to have a terrible time. True, of course. That’s why the spirituality of money is so important. Because the spirituality of money, like so much spirituality in fact, is all about handling contradictions.
The interesting, powerful aspects of faith come into play where there is not a clear-cut answer. Faith is challenged but also grows through challenge, contradiction and wrestling with issues that if we let them, would simply lead us into an either/or dichotomy whereby we dismiss one aspect and wed ourselves to its opposite – the easy option that is.
And that’s why so many abandon God in the modern financial equation. You can’t abandon money, so you have to abandon God, because the two don’t add up together. It’s got to be either/or. Which is kind of what Jesus says. You can’t serve God and Money. I think a lot of people agree. But they choose money. Which means it seems that the alternative is to choose God and abandon money. Which is not practical, of course. So God goes out of the window. So, you can't be dependent on money and dependent on God: that is why we now live in a Godless age.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. We need, in a spirituality that is honest, generous and life-affirming as well as holy, to serve God without abandoning money. We can’t abandon money – it is the currency of life. But let us in the challenging, paradoxical mix that is modern life and faith, by God’s spirit, serve and worship Christ with our money, remembering always our dependence on God the Father, from whom all good things come, and to whom we offer all praise and glory, now and always.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 22/09/13