We find many ways to rationalise our personal response to Jesus’ extensive teaching on wealth and possessions. We assume his warning over ostentatious wealth must apply to the neighbour who earns more than us. They in turn think it applies to the friend who earns more than them. The friend thinks it applies to an acquaintance that has just come into an inheritance. The acquaintance is convinced it applies to a colleague whose parents are big landowners and so on and so on until you reach Roman Abramovich who may assume it applies to Bill Gates. We compare ourselves to those who are better off than us, rarely thinking to look at those who are worse off. And so we end up with neither a realistic attitude to how well off we are nor much gratitude for it.
It is socially acceptable to make lots of money today in a way that was perhaps less true a generation ago. We have moved from a society where a person’s status is governed by their class to one increasingly governed by their wealth. That Britain is wealthier than before is a source of blessing to most of us. Yet we have been slow to take to heart the warnings of Jesus about acquisitiveness. As a shared Christian view of the world recedes from public life we are left with media glorification of stupendous wealth and a culture which holds little shame for those who spend ludicrous amounts of money on themselves.
Most of us, caught in the morally ambiguous world of the unjust steward, want to do the right thing by our family but are at risk of denying the needs of others. I think there are three values to guide us through the maze that lies in front of us every week.
The first is to be thankful for our possessions. Nagging guilt over what we own cripples the response we are called to. In fact we often permit residual guilt as affordable cost to pay for not putting something right. By contrast, a grateful heart is transformative. What we own is a gift from God. It is tempting for us when we make money to think we deserve the credit for our success but the picture is more subtle than that and the role of the creator is pivotal. Deuteronomy reminds us that it is God who gives us the power to make wealth and that we are most at risk of forgetting this when we are cushioned by it.
A second way of handling our possessions spiritually is to appreciate the social dimension of wealth. We talk of owning stuff but scripture sees us as stewards, not owners of this stuff. Ownership, with its historic and legal connotations, suggests what we have is entirely at our disposal and that we need take no-one else into account. This gives us a small domestic glimpse into the wider risk of depleting the earth’s resources for our own gratification, leaving the next generation to figure out a solution to the losses we bequeath them.
If we can see our possessions through new eyes as gifts from God we are more likely to put them to good use. This social dimension of wealth has been squeezed today as we tend to use up our disposable income on ourselves rather than to enrich others. Any understanding of the teaching of Jesus on money must make room for the fact that his ministry was resourced by wealthy benefactors like Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Suzanna. They were not condemned for being wealthy, but commended for using their resources wisely.
A third way of handling money spiritually is to demonstrate some self-awareness and humility. To succeed in life we depend heavily on the sacrifices of other people: families, friends and strangers; a reliable infrastructure of education, health and transport; a sound economy which preserves value and supplies jobs; a government which protects social freedom; and a lasting national peace which enables us to build on what we have. Once these – and other blessings – are taken into account, we can start to think about our own personal contribution to where we are in life. And those gifts, which many of us this week will use to express ourselves at work in exchange for money, were given by God himself.
In his parables about wealth, Jesus does not give the participants a name, except for one: Lazarus. There is something subtle here that we easily miss. In life the poor are often nameless while the rich are celebrated; yet here it is the poor man who has a name and the rich man who goes nameless. The worst thing about an addiction to possessions is the way we end up privileging them over personal relationships. In disregarding Lazarus the rich man forfeited his own name because it is in our relationships – not in what we own – that we find our true status and our salvation. We cannot carry our possessions out of this world but there is one precious thing we can carry – a relationship with Christ. Jesus’ words: ‘you cannot serve both God and money’ is screaming for us to put this right.