What should be made of our readings for today, what are they trying to tell us? They all seem to be pointing in different directions. Firstly, I think we should consider the Gospel reading from Luke:
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave 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.”Luke 16:1-13
Some have thought that Jesus was condoning sharp practice in Business, but Jesus was not applauding fraud; he was telling a story where the master was commending his steward because he acted cleverly, not because he acted dishonestly. How can we sort all this out? The first thing to do is to understand how the story works. It would seem that the master in the story had himself been acting in a somewhat underhand manner. Jews were forbidden to lend money for interest, but many people got round this by lending in kind, with oil and wheat being easy commodities to use for this purpose. It is likely that what the steward deducted from the bill was the interest that the master had been charging, with a higher rate on oil than on wheat. If he reduced the loan in each case to the basic sum that had been lent, the debtors would be delighted, but the master could not then bring a charge against the steward without owning up to his own shady business practices. Thus, when the master heard about it, he could only admire the man’s clever approach. We know, as many lottery winners have discovered, that money can’t buy true friendship. This manager decided that by helping his master’s debtors, he would at least put them under an obligation to himself. He ‘made friends’, by writing off their debt; and his action recalls in part, the ancient Hebrew law of Jubilee when every fifty years debts were cancelled.
We should remember that the best that any of us can be or become is one of the ‘friends of Jesus’. He calls you to be his friend, and writes off all that you owe. He promises aid whenever you need it – all with no strings attached, and also gives us – to each other – for ever.
But we should also realise, that the story is a parable, and not just a piece of moral teaching about money, and how or how not to use it. We are faced with a first-century Jewish story about a master and a steward, so we should realise that the master is God; and the steward is Israel. Israel is supposed to be God’s property manager, the light of God’s world, responsible to God and set over his possessions. But Israel – as can be seen in so much of Luke – has failed in the task, and is under threat of imminent dismissal. What then ought Israel to do? The Pharisees’ answer was to pull the regulations of the law even tighter, to try to make Israel more holy. But this had the effect that they were excluding the very people that Jesus was trying to reach. Jesus, in this parable, indicates that if Israel is facing a major crisis the answer is rather to throw caution to the winds, to forget the extra bits and pieces of law which the Pharisees have heaped up, and to make friends as and where they can. That’s what ‘the children of this world’ would do, and ‘the children of light’- that is the Israelites, ought to do so as well, learning from the cunning people of the world how to cope in the crisis that was coming.
Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, saying, “When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?”- skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat. The LORD has sworn by himself, the Pride of Jacob: “I will never forget anything they have done.”Amos 8:4-7
The reading from Amos is also warning about unfair trading and social injustice. To have good law and justice in a country you must have a good government to make those laws and then see that they are obeyed. Amos is advocating that the Jewish state return to the teachings of the prophets and obey the laws that God gave them so that they would prosper as the people of God. I think that today, when we look around at the problems in our country, many of us feel that our Parliament, as a whole, has let us down very badly.
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time. And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle – I am telling the truth, I am not lying – and a true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles.1 Timothy 2:1-7
In the reading from the epistle, Paul is giving Timothy instruction about how to be a good pastor, and his teaching on prayer goes straight to the point. It is normal to pray for those close to us, but in this passage he strongly urges that we should start, as it were, at the other end. We should pray for the people who hold the world together by their rule, leadership and authority. A few years ago people were more or less happy with our democratic institutions, and our system of government. We voted every few years, we answered opinion polls from time to time, and we had a sense that we lived in a free society. Are you aware that since the reign of Charles II, prayers are said before each day of parliamentary business? The Speaker’s Chaplain usually reads the prayer:
“Lord, the God of righteousness and truth, grant to our Queen and her government, to Members of Parliament and all in positions of responsibility, the guidance of your Spirit. May they never lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind; so may your kingdom come and your name be hallowed.”
You may not be surprised to hear, considering their recent actions, that in January of this year, some MPs have called for an end to the practice of holding prayers in parliament before the start of official business. This motion, backed by the National Secular Society, says “religious worship should not play any part in the formal business of the House of Commons”. And we think we are in a Christian country!
I remember that not so long ago, in every Anglican service there was a prayer for the Queen, but just not the queen but for all those in authority under her; this included all those in government, national and local, the armed forces, police and civil servants. When I was in the Royal Air Force, I liked that prayer because I felt it was also for me. I held the Queen’s Commission and I was part of all those ‘in authority under her’. That prayer was not just for the Queen but for the good governance of all in our country. We rarely hear it today!
Many Christians who were reasonably content with their country have been tempted to think that praying for kings and governments is a rather boring, a conformist thing to do. It looked like propping up the status quo. But now we have an unstable government, unable to find solutions to current problems and tending to divide rather than unite the country. We have knife and drug crime rife amongst our young, an under-resourced police force, a judiciary who appear weak, and there are other injustices affecting the less able and weak in our society. Our tackling of climate change and pollution can be said to be only half hearted at best.
No, this is not another chapter of Project fear, but a call to action for all Christians. The teaching given to Timothy is correct and just as meaningful now as it was then. Should we not all be joining together and praying for good government on a worldwide scale, for the United Nations and all who seek to influence the rulers of the nations?
This train of thought brings us exactly to the point the Jews had reached in the first century. They had suffered under persecution and unjust rulers for many generations. But they trusted in the one true God, and that God had sent his Son Jesus into the world to act as a ‘mediator between God and humans’. The fact that this view of God is centred upon Jesus, who died as a ransom for the sins of the whole world, means that the news of this one God, this one Saviour, must now go out and spread into all the world.
As so often in the New Testament, the call to prayer is also the call to think clearly about God and the world, and God’s project for the whole human race. Try praying for your rulers instead, and watch not only what God will do in your society but also how your own attitudes will grow, change and mature. So, if we want Justice for all, if we want a better government, if we want the best outcome from the current situation, if we want to see our nation united and thriving again in the future, then we had better start praying for it now.
“Oh Lord, the God of righteousness and truth, we are in a mess. Grant to all those responsible for our government, both in this country and to those who speak for the European Union, the wisdom and the guidance of your Spirit, that they may reach solutions which benefits all and brings the unity and wellbeing for which we all long; For yours is the kingdom and the power; and to yours be the glory now and for evermore.”