Luke, chapter sixteen, verses one to thirteen:
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.”
When I read today's gospel to prepare for this service I was immediately struck by the idea that Jesus might well have been talking about British politicians, especially those of high office such as prime ministers and chancellors of the Exchequer. Politicians from all the major parties, I would hasten to add, although, I must admit, a certain, particular globetrotting former prime minister did stick out in my mind as being most like the manager who ingratiated himself with influential people whilst he was in his post so that he could profit greatly from his connections after he had left it.
I do not think I am being particularly cynical in making this link. In fact, I think Jesus wanted his listeners to come to a similar conclusion. Of course, he was not referring specifically to English members of parliament, there was no such thing back in the first century A.D., but there were politicians within the systems of the day, both in secular and religious administrations, and there would have been, most definitely, officials, of all levels of authority, who used their positions to get in with the right people.
My second reaction to today's gospel was one of confusion. It appears that Jesus is recommending that his followers behave in a way that is immoral according to his own teaching. He seems to be telling people to play the system for all it is worth, even when this means being dishonest to the point of thievery. We know that Jesus does not approve of such corrupt activity. For example, he does not call tax-collectors sinners because they collect taxes but because they were renowned for skimming off the top, for charging people more than they owed and keeping the difference for themselves. Could Jesus really be telling his disciples that the unscrupulous ways of the world are also the ways of the kingdom of God?
No, that cannot be the case. Either this is a fiction that has been invented by somebody other than Jesus which has somehow ended up in the "Gospel of Luke" in error or we are not meant to take the words of Christ here on face value. Personally, I believe that it is the latter that is true.
We are always in danger of having so much reverence for the divine Jesus that we forget that it is absolutely crucial to our faith that Jesus was also the God who became human. This means that we are prone to read the Bible with Christ's voice in our head being very serious and proclamatory, like the voices of BBC newsreaders used to be back in the days of the Queen's English and appropriate behaviour. But Jesus was simply not like that. He was a human being who spoke just the same as the ordinary people he walked among, who used the same idioms of speech that they did, who was serious sometimes and flippant at other times like they were, who laughed and who cried just the same as everyone else.
Bearing this truth in mind let me suggest to you that Jesus is being sarcastic and satirical here, that he is using humour to lessen the offence of what he has to say so that his listeners listen to him and remember what he has to say to them.
I think that Jesus is using satire to have a dig at two groups of people. Firstly, rather than applauding their behaviour, Jesus is actually condemning the book fiddling, ingratiating officials. Their actions show clearly that they serve wealth, primarily their own and, as Jesus says at the very end of today's reading, "You cannot serve God and wealth." If you are not serving God then you are serving a false idol and that, as we all know, is a big "Do not do!" on the list of God's primary commandments.
Secondly and more specifically, Jesus is having a dig at his own followers. I believe Jesus is telling his disciples that not only are they persisting in the practice of the corrupt ways of the world but they are, in fact, no good at it. They are pathetic. They cannot even get being bad right so how on earth do they expect to be able to achieve the much more difficult goal of being good? At least the pocket-lining managers are proficient in their dishonesty. They, his disciples are just rubbish at everything and it is time that they either stop procrastinating and commit full time to his teaching or walk away and put their lot in with those who care only for this world and their prosperity within it.
You cannot serve two masters. You cannot serve God and wealth. It is God or Mammon, it cannot be both.
Now, as Shakespeare used to say, here is the rub and you all know what I am going to say.
Those of us here today who profess to be Christians are disciples of Jesus Christ so, ipso facto, when Jesus addresses his disciples back in the year 29 AD he is also addressing us now in the year 2016. To be brutally honest with ourselves I think we have to adit that the shoe fits better today then it did back then. I suggest that we are far more tempted by the wealth of the world today than Christ's disciples were during their lives for the simple reason that there is a lot more wealth around to tempt us. Even within our own lives we have seen an incredible growth in the number of things that are available for us to possess. When I was young there was far less available for me to absolutely must have than there is nowadays and I'm getting old and set in my ways. What it must be like for young people who are bombarded with advertisements for all the new technology day in day out I just cannot imagine.
Worse still, those who wish to sell us luxuries, have managed to persuade our societies that a person who does not have everything is a failure or a weirdo. This has led to the primary concern of most people becoming that of making money. Society places the accumulation of wealth above all else. Above happiness, above human rights, above a place to live for everybody, above fair pay for everybody, above justice, far above the love of neighbour. Our government is judged on its economic performance not its social or cultural achievements. We consider ourselves bad parents, failing parents, if we cannot afford to buy our children the latest must have gadget when they demand it of us.
The temptation to scratch and claw our way to more and more wealth, not caring too much, if at all, about the morality of how we achieve our ambitions, is very great nowadays. To make it easier for us to buy into the zeitgeist of our modern times those who would profit from it have pretty much persuaded those who are even slightly well off that there is no God so making the choice between God and wealth very easy indeed.
This means that the decision to become or remain a Christian is a tough one to make. Okay, it is easy enough to be a weekend Christian, fitting in with the ways of the world during the week, and then popping into church for a sing song and a cup of tea on Sunday morning. Easy, that is, if we can reconcile ourselves to the blatant hypocrisy of our lives. But if we believe that a real Christian is someone who at least tries their best to live their lives according to the teachings of Jesus Christ then we are going to find serving God in what is now the household of mammon very difficult indeed.
No wonder we are tempted to put off choosing which master to serve, to pretend, even, that choosing one or the other is not necessary.
But it is necessary. It is necessary for our very salvation and, beyond us, for the salvation of the generations that will follow us.
If we have truly and honestly decided to follow Jesus then it is time for us to stop being rubbish at being good and for us to step up to the mark. We need to be wise in the ways of the world only so that we can rise way, way above them. May the wisdom of God help us to do the right thing, follow the right path and, more than anything else, serve the right master.