Trinity 12 Proper 14 2018 ~ Loaf and Debt
It’s five years now since Archbishop Justin Welby declared what the press decided to call the ‘war on Wonga’. You probably remember – Wonga were in the habit of advertising short-term unsecured loans with their 2 little old people saying in their cartoony way that this was the solution to all their problems. Ironic that they were shortsighted, and if you had been to the opticians recently and peered closely at the small print at the bottom of the TV screen for the right fraction of a second you would have spotted that the interest was a mere 5900 per cent.
I say ‘mere’, because it is still the case that an unauthorised bank overdraft from a High Street bank can cost even more. Which is not to say Wonga was cheap – far from it – but more importantly, it was enabling folk to get short-term loans which they had little chance of repaying. Wonga – and others like them were raking it in – a barely legal version of loan-sharking. Archbishop Justin called them on it, and has subsequently written a book called Dethroning Mammon: Making Money Serve Grace.
In it he makes three claims or pleas:
- Firstly that the UK outside Europe must not be built to a design drawn up by Mammon – that is to say – materialism is not the solution to the challenges we face.
- Secondly, Mammon (the personification of the rule of society by financial power) – Mammon needs to be dethroned, because Mammon is a deceiver.
- And Thirdly, how we structure society in the future must be shaped by something other than Mammon.
A society that lives by money will die by it, to coin a phrase. Or as Archbishop Justin puts it:
“The regeneration of our position in Europe, or elsewhere must be one that starts with the authority of Christ, not mere calculation of dubious material advantage.”
It’s a good book and I commend it to you. It’s not my purpose today to discuss it particularly, but rather to indicate how far we have come in the last five years since our leading churchman, the first one in living memory qualified to do so, pitched in to the financial melée with something positive and coherent to say. And we know he is basically right – we know that living your life simply in search of more dosh is pretty soul-destroying. For Mammon is a soul-destroyer – a drainer of life. Wonga have experienced downturns in profits every one of the last five years, and more folk are more aware of the thin ice that so many of us skate on. Half the population have less than £100 in savings and a third cannot cope if an unexpected £300 bill comes in. If this is incomprehensible to you, consider yourself lucky. Universal Credit is being rolled out, and whatever the politics of it are, it is going to cause all sorts of confusion and transitional difficulty as people’s financial circumstances change. No-one will be better off – and why should they be – but most people’s financial circumstances will change, and adaptating will be awkward and painful, and an unfortunate consequence for some will be the necessity to go into debt. Others go into debt anyway – the new phenomenon of funeral poverty is rearing its head – a funeral is not an optional luxury – and of course comes at the worst possible time – that is when someone dies. With the average price of a funeral just over £4000 now – and note that in London it is double what it is elsewhere, which affects the average – given that half the population don’t have £100 to hand, so many people are turning to lenders to pay for a loved one’s funeral. In Enfield, the average cost of a funeral is £6141. This, you are probably not amused to know, makes our Borough the second most expensive place to die in the country. It is a fantasy to simply assume that the estate pays for the funeral – that is only true if there is an estate. Thousands of people die every year bequeathing only debt. And of course, if there really is no-one to pick up the tab the Council will provide a no-frills low cost public health funeral, which means of course that as ratepayers we are paying.
Money – the food of Mammon – is not Manna. It doesn’t fall from the sky. And there simply isn’t enough of it, and what there is is not spread evenly or accessibly on the ground. The Wonga business reminds us that it is absolutely true that the poorer you are, the more expensive it is to borrow. Only rich people can access low interest rates. The former finance minister of Greece, Yanis Varoufakis has written on this and points out the blindingly obvious fact that when hard times come, heavy-handed institutional and self-protective responses crush the poor.
Jesus said that the poor are always with us – there will always be those who are poorer than others – it is a mathematical inevitability I suppose – and for sure, he was not wrong. Yet he presents himself as an endless, heaven-sent source of spiritual nourishment. Bread is not a luxury, but a necessity. It is our daily bread that we need, and which, in the Lord’s Prayer he taught us to seek. ‘Give us our necessities’ he said – and then, in today’s gospel, he basically says – ‘your necessities - that’s me’. Referring to the necessity of bread – or manna – which wasn’t actually bread, but rather a starchy substance produced by the terebinth tree - he makes the point that that was a literal food, which ran out and didn’t give eternal life. He is speaking metaphorically of course – he is making parallels about human needs of soul and body. In subsequent years the church has delved deep into the significance of Jesus as ‘bread of life’, and we have inherited traditions that want to help us understand how the bread on the altar is truly the body of Christ; that we are the body of Christ, which means to some extent that by eating the bread of communion- the body of Christ – we become the body of Christ – which means to some extent the bread eats us. It’s all very clever and even makes us smile. And behind it all is the idea that our spiritual connection to God comes through partaking of a meal which Jesus himself gave us to celebrate, precisely in order to remain connected to his saving life and work. It is both simple and very complicated.
But as well as giving us communion, he gave us prayer – access to God – teaching us not only to call God ‘Father’ – which marks relationship, but it also honours God as ultimate provider. It may not be true now that the father-figure is the provider of everything, but it was then. And it is the provider of everything whom we are taught to ask, for, simply, daily bread. We also say sorry to him for the ways we have hurt or damaged others, and ask for his help in forgiving those who have hurt us. So it is perhaps ironic that in some translations of the Lord’s Prayer, it is the word debts that is used, in place of sins or trespasses. Forgive us our debts, we might say. And the one who has taught us to say this is Jesus our redeemer. And redemption is all about paying debts too. The debt of salvation – the price of sin – the atoning cost of Christ, who on the Cross, ‘redeems’ us – settles our bill with the loan sharks from hell.
The loan sharks from hell are very much still with us of course. So many lives are damaged or even destroyed by debt. And if the Lord’s Prayer says, ‘forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors’, then there is a lot of work to be done.
But it’s not going to happen, is it? No-one is going to start shelling out money to relieve people’s debts, no-one is going to hand out cash so that folk don’t get into debt – the money isn’t there – it doesn’t grow on trees like manna - and even if it did, no-one would want to hand it out, because those who have it want it for their purposes. Mammon is in charge.
Here’s a thing: years ago I was at a conference on a university campus, and a fellow delegate was having extreme difficulty getting about. I suggested to her that we go to the reception area, and knowing that such a thing existed, we asked if she might borrow the university wheelchair. She was roundly told that this would not be possible because – I quote – ‘someone might need it’.
I won’t end there, but with words from today’s the Epistle, which, I think, reflect St Paul’s understanding of the Lord’s Prayer, and which underpin everything I have been saying:
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another. 26Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27and do not make room for the devil.28Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 12/08/18