September 22, 2019, the Rev. Canon Richard Tombaugh
Sermon preached by the Reverend Canon Richard Tombaugh
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (track 2)
The Gospels include considerable talk about money. We often misquote one well-known reference about money being the root of all evil. The correct text in First Timothy is that “The love of money is the root of all evil.” The distinction is that there is nothing inherently bad about money or wealth itself. Wealth is a gift of God, lovely in itself and therefore to be treated with reverence.
I have a friend who inherited a great deal of wealth from her mother. Management of this wealth soon became a great burden to her and she complained to me about “This God damned money.” When I asked her if she had ever thought of her wealth as “God good money.” she was surprised and said “Actually, no.” Possessions, including wealth, that we have are God given and are to be used and enjoyed within the framework of God’s will. We are called to stop and look at all the things God has made, including wealth, and say “How lovely you are because you reflect a loving and lovely God.” We are to recognize God’s beauty in and around possessions and wealth and, to put this another way, we are called to care for them.
What is bad is an inordinate love of possessing money or in the words of today’s Gospel to be a slave to money. Today’s Gospel ends with the challenge “You cannot serve God and wealth.” which means we cannot be a slave both to God and money. We have to choose one or the other. Either we want so much to possess money we are willing to give money total power over our lives (become a slave to money) or we want so much to possess God we are willing to give God total power over our lives (become a slave or a servant of God). Because this want involves total commitment no one can do both at the same time.
Today’s Gospel story of the Dishonest Steward is one of Jesus’ stories about wealth and it is not immediately as clear as some of the other stories. It is not particularly edifying either. The steward’s initial conduct is incompetent. Fearing that his impending dismissal will imperil his ability to earn a living, the steward concocts a scheme by which he hopes to place a number of people under obligation to himself and thereby assure their help when he needs it. He invites his debtors to falsify their accounts. He acts like a slave to money, willing to induce others to lie and cheat to insure he will continue to have money. The passage ends with the admonition”You cannot serve God and wealth,” There is more to the text “You cannot serve God and wealth” than meets the eye or the ear. . In today’s Gospel story this phrase, “you cannot be a slave to God and wealth” refers to a steward. Stewards were persons who looked after the possessions of another, either well or poorly. Today’s steward was dishonest about his stewardship because he wanted so much to possess part of his masters wealth.
The opposite of being a slave to money is poverty, but not “financial poverty” as one might expect, but poverty of the spirit. Just as there is nothing inherently bad about money, there is nothing inherently good about financial poverty. The Bible is consistent in its challenge to care for the poor, to relieve their financial poverty.
Poverty of spirit means something different from financial poverty. When we read in the Beatitudes “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” we are talking about a special kind of detachment in which we both care and do not care. It is at this point, about caring and not caring, that we get a glimpse of the full meaning of today’s gospel.
The peril about being a slave to money is that one becomes greedy, wanting more than anything else to have money. As human beings we cannot help wanting things, it is our nature. What is important is how we want things and how we express our wants.
Part of the meaning of today’s message is that we should care for things and possessions, including money. Things, possessions and even money are not just means to some end, they are all God’s handiwork, lovely in themselves, and therefore to be treated with reverence. Because they are created by God we are called to care for them.
Another part of the meaning of today’s message is that we should not care for things and possessions, including money. On his death bed St. Dominic said to his followers: “Possess poverty.” He was not referring to privation, to financial poverty. Poverty, as he was using the term, was not about possessing much or little, Dominic was referring to poverty of spirit which is less a question of how much you possess than of how you possess it. Yes, all of our wealth is God’s gift to us and we should therefore care for it, but we are to remember that we are only stewards.
We are not to want to possess wealth. We are simply to be honest stewards of the wealth we do not ourselves own. We are both not to care and to care about wealth. We are stewards, entrusted with wealth for which we are not to yearn, and yet we are more than stewards; we are lovers as well – lovers of what God has made and entrusted to our use.
Most of us. No, let me change that to all of us can walk and chew gum at the same time. The more difficult question for us today is can we at the same time both care and not care about our money that God has provided for our us?