RESPONSIBLE POWER (September 22nd )
Amos 8 :4-7 1
Tim 2 : 1-8
Luke 16 :1-13
Three contrasting but complementary readings. Lets see what they might say to us. Preachers should use personal references sparingly, but here’s just this one this morning. Some years back I had been asked to preach on a Sunday devoted in the Methodist calendar to ‘Mission Alongside the Poor’, that rather patronising way of reminding the Church of responsibilities it can so easily forget.
It was a flourishing church of the sort that perhaps needed to be reminded and I did my best in, as I want to remember, a gentle but specific way. People were polite afterwards but less than warm. The next morning their minister phoned me up. ‘Before the end of yesterday’, he said, ‘ I had been contacted by six members of my congregation objecting to religion being mixed with politics’.
Amos I think would have disagreed with them; Timothy’s correspondent (almost certainly not Paul – it’s neither his style nor his theology) might have sympathised with the phone callers; And Jesus as interpreted by Luke would have told them a story and left people to work out the moral of it.
Amos was a rough diamond. A poor man himself, an uncertified self-appointed prophet he was used to looking after the sheep and dressing sycamore trees rather than entering the sphere of public rule. This was more than seven hundred years before Christ and at a time of relative peace under the reigns of Jeroboam the 2nd and Uzzzia . But whilst many of the people were very religious, paying their tithes, attending religious festivals and making elaborate sacrifices, there was a lot of corruption and the few very wealthy families were supported by the landless poor and slaves. Amos denounces Amaziah who was priest of the sanctuary and castigates the wealthy and by inference the monarchy, for living indulgently; so he makes enemies with both the state and religion. For him there would be no sense of the two being separate, either being subject to the other.
They were two aspects of the same authority under which people lived; and the authority in both cases was being misused.
All of the prophets offered hope to the abused and punishment to the abusers. They had visions of a new tomorrow but they also had words to say to those who were destroying the peace and justice of the present day. They gave voice to the little people who were trodden down in a foreign land and once out of exile, by their rulers and religious leaders at home. Methodists of all people shouldn’t find that a novel idea. From the beginning our understanding of the gospel was learned amongst the poor. Wesley was an evangelist but also a social reformer, and the one grew out of the other. The determination of our Church and other free churches to speak positively today about the rights of the poor rather than demonising them as the government and the media do, is something we should support and be proud of.
And what do we make of the very different extract from the first letter to Timothy? It’s very strong, as the prophecy is, but it’s addressed almost exclusively to the church. We shall never know who the author was, apart from the fact that he was young, nor can we know how he received the advice, but this is more second century faith than 1st century. The Church is now becoming established, and rules and regulations have taken over from dreams and hunches. It is a very conformist document. There is much advice about ‘how one ought to behave in the household of God’. If we had followed on from verse 8 we would find women being told they should dress modestly, not braid their hair, and must be serious, not slanderous, but temperate, faithful in all things. ‘ I permit no women to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.’
There is a lot of advice for widows with the curious reference to those who are over 60 and have been married only once, being ’put on the list’. I wonder if that is a promise or a threat. And younger widows should not be ‘on the list’ because ‘their sensual desires would alienate them from Christ’. Similarly deacons are not to indulge in much wine or to be greedy for money and there is a job description for people who may want to be bishops who can only manage the church if they know how to manage their own household, which sounds reasonable enough. But the general tone of the letter is authoritative and directive. One feels sympathy for Timothy having to convey this tough agenda to his fellow Christians.
‘But the aim of such instruction’, says the writer, (chapter 1 v.5) ‘is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith’. So, there are shafts of gospel light in what is otherwise a decidedly doctrinaire set of rules and regulations. And there is some comfort in discovering that the church of a century or so old, seems to have had even greater relationship problems than us lot have today!
Written to advise a congregation, the letter to Timothy may envisage gender divisions which are foreign to us, but we warm to the idea of a community of faith where love is at the centre. Street pastors in our city befriend young people who are astray in the early hours of the morning, always hoping that their friendship will help to kindle faith; seeing the moment as an evangelical opportunity. What would such people find here in this congregation if they joined us one Sunday morning? Certainly a culture that would need decoding. All those strange songs, people standing up and sitting down, a person standing in front and talking for twenty minutes about religion; a bun fight afterwards with instant coffee and much talk as if people were released to be themselves again? All that perhaps they could cope with, but only if there was a pervading sense of love. That’s our greatest possession and gift. And purpose.
And now to the parable Luke has remembered. As far as we know Jesus used these little human stories to say one thing, but in the re-telling of them the gospel writers often expand them to say many things, often relating them to the social and local situations arising the time of composition. In this case, contradictory things. G.B.Caird in his commentary on Luke says of this parable that ‘it bristles with difficulties which have given rise to a great variety of explanations’, which gives me encouragement to discover at least one of them.
It is strange. If you want a story that makes it clear who are the villains and who are the good guys, you will be disappointed. It’s a perfect example of the way Jesus was near to the people – an observer of normal life and in this case, the realities of economic life. There’s the rich man who clearly doesn’t oversee his estate but leaves it all to his manager who is making money out of his mismanagement. He loses his job but he doesn’t want to lose his business contacts, so he does a deal with them, getting back some at least of the money his boss has lost. You can find all sorts of parallels in the business world of today where there has been so much unregulated fraud.
And the rich man is pleased and congratulates his steward for being shrewd (We’re not told if he gets his job back). There is a sub-text to the story which would have been understood by people who first heard it, and it has to do with the Pharisees. Usury – playing with money and using it to gain profit as happens in our culture – was forbidden by Jewish law. But the Pharisees got round it. Many of them had large financial and commercial interests and had found a way of evading the intention of the law without transgressing it. As we know Jesus distrusted their whole philosophy that religion was a matter of following laid down rules. So perhaps – perhaps! – he was giving them, a bit of a dig in the story.
Some commentators try to identify the rich man as Jesus, which is so uncharacteristic of the sort of simple, nomadic life Jesus lived as to be either wrong or if that was in Jesus’ mind, ironic. There are ample signs that he had a sense of humour (a camel getting through the eye of a needle, for example). But in his story the boss is as much a failure as his manager; he hasn’t been overseeing his wealth. Surely the original purpose of the story – despite the ideas that flow on from it afterwards, ending with the conclusion that you can’t serve God and mammon- is that the children of light must be canny, inventive, shrewd like the children of this age. Wiles not smiles are the message. No soft-centred Christianity – an outlook on the world as it is and not as we would like it to be. Religion with a hard centre.
Faith alone is wishful thinking, sectarian, sentimental. It has no roots in the real world in which all of us otherwise live. It takes us away from life in stead of redeeming it. All of Jesus’ parables are bedded into the world as he and his generation knew it. There are plenty of signs that we did him wrong, in the way that he was remembered, how his stories are retold, what sense of them and of him the community of faith makes out of them, turning them into moral tracts or otherworldly religion. So we use our intelligence as we handle our belief in him, we don’t escape from the world but live in it and meet it with our truth.