Rev. Dr. Loraine McKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, September 22, 2013
Some time ago, I was introduced to someone from a different culture in a public setting. As we were exchanging initial greetings with the appropriate questions of nicety that one asks a stranger, this person asked me how old I was. Now—I’ve never minded people knowing my age. But to be asked this in front of others by a total stranger was a first for me. From my surprised reaction, this person realized he had committed a social faux pas and I quickly learned that age-related questions of adults are only considered impolite in our culture. There are other cultures that expect you to ask age-related questions of someone to whom you’ve just been introduced.
I have had the same experience with money. Imagine being introduced to someone and their response to you is, “I am very pleased to meet you. How much money do you make?” What would your reaction be? This is actually an appropriate, even expected, question in some cultures. In our culture, of course, personal questions pertaining to money are generally taboo. Yet, our Bible is full of passages about money and it forces us to talk about it.
As many of you know, our scripture selections come from the lectionary, which most mainstream denominations follow. And so, we are in good company this Sunday morning with Roman Catholics and Anglicans, Lutherans and Presbyterians as together we try to make sense of what some scholars say is the most challenging parable in all of Jesus’ teachings.
In this parable, a rich man heard rumour that his manager was squandering his resources, and so he called him in to account, threatening to fire him. The manager was desperate. He had no other options. Losing a job would be tantamount to losing any hope of income. And so, he decided quickly on a crafty plan. He called in all of those who were indebted to his master and lowered the amount each one owed. They were amazed and began praising the master’s generosity. Now here’s the kicker to the parable. When the master heard about this, he didn’t fire the dishonest manager, in spite of all the money he lost. Rather, he commended him because he had acted shrewdly.
What in the world Jesus was trying to teach, for the purpose of a parable is to teach something. Surely he wasn’t commending dishonesty? As you can imagine, there has been a myriad of various interpretations of this passage as people try to figure it out.
I think that the interpretations, which rest on the reputation of the master, make the most sense. One preacher has suggested that the puzzle hinges on the extraordinary bet the dishonest manager is willing to make on his master’s character. Will the master enjoy his reputation for generosity more than he will enjoy his money?
Luke, himself, tries to understand this parable of Jesus by writing that the children of light—in other words, the followers of Jesus—need to act as shrewdly or prudently as the children of this world. But, Luke concludes, you cannot serve two masters. If you serve money, you cannot serve God and if you serve God, you cannot serve money.
Or, as a contemporary scholar writes, money is to be used shrewdly, but not worshipped. Money can serve faith or faith can serve money. One will dictate how the other is used or practiced. Does our faith determine how our money is used? Or does our money determine how our faith is practiced?
We might consider these questions when deciding upon our ministries at Westworth. Do we begin with the question of how much money we have or do we begin with discernment of our collective vision? The two go hand in hand, of course, but where we begin makes all the difference.
Luke’s parable commends shrewd management of resources, but what does it mean to use money shrewdly? The church has a history of not trusting shrewd money managers and business owners. Our scripture, for the most part, disparages wealth and money-making. Except for this passage. Perhaps it is making room in our Christian faith for a business sense, for trade and commerce, for investment portfolios. Perhaps the Christian faith is not calling us to give all that we have to the poor. Perhaps we are called be prudent and wise stewards of our money.
But Luke gives us one condition—in our money-making, profit can never be the bottom line, for money will then become our master. Our Christian faith must be the bottom line. And what is the core of our Christian faith? What is the most important teaching of all? Jesus tells us that it is “to love God with our heart and soul, our strength and mind and to love our neighbour as ourselves.” If loving our neighbour as ourselves is our bottom line, then trade must be both shrewd and fair. We will have to take into account a fair living wage for the farmer and protection of the earth and its natural resources. Yes, fair trade coffee costs us a little more, but it gives the 3rd world farmer a lot more.
Now, I’m a proud Scott—and a highlander to boot. All that you’ve heard of the Scotts is true. We really do like saving money to the penny. I will bargain my little heart out and proudly declare how much I brought down the price of our car. But my little Scottish heart has had to accept a challenge—if the cheapest that I demand is at the expense of someone else or of the land, the Christian faith may not be my bottom line.
The same follows with our investments. We will have to take into account what our investments support, for they must be both prudent and ethical. The next time you receive one of those annual reports from your investments, take the time to read what your money is actually supporting. Do our investments support the arms trade? Companies that depend on third world sweat shops or child labour?
One of the good things that came out of the tragic deaths in sweatshops in India is that brand name companies are finally being forced to uphold fair labour practices and working conditions. Time will tell how well they do.
When I was on holiday in Greece a few years ago, working through my guilt on how I was spending my money, I overheard a conversation that took me aback. We were in a small restaurant with only one other table occupied. One person was speaking for some time in a fairly loud voice. Not only was the volume annoying, the subject was disturbing. He was bragging at how much more money he was able to make by setting up a factory in a country which had lax environmental and labour laws.
When I heard this, I turned around with a stunned expression on my face, amazed that someone was actually boasting of owning a sweatshop. Someone else at the table saw my expression and said to the man that not everyone thinks what he is doing is a good thing. But in my self-righteous judgement, I realized that I might be just as guilty, because I buy clothes and products, which may well have been made in this man’s sweatshops.
How we choose to both make and spend money might have more impact on our world than we realize. But it’s complicated. And for this reason, we need to be shrewd and ever-vigilant money managers, truthful about our own motivations and bottom lines. Does our faith serve our money or does our money serve our faith?