Following Greenbelt I've been off on the summer hols, but now it's nose back to the grindstone (ouch...) Here's this week's offering.
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Instructions concerning Prayer
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For
there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all
—this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.
The Parable of the Dishonest Manager
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 account 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.’
I’d like you to imagine a scenario. Let’s say I brought in five of your children or grandchildren. Here in front of you I give each one of them five chocolates from a big box of Quality Street. Does that sound like fairness to you? Of course it does. But what if I asked them to show you how many sweets they’d had in their pocket when they arrived?
What if, before the service I had already given ten sweets to one of them, five sweets to the second, three sweets to the third, one sweet to the fourth and no sweets to the fifth? In that light, do my actions in giving them five chocolates each during the service still seem fair? Wouldn’t it have been more fair if I had given more sweets to the one who had arrived with empty pockets and fewer to the one with more so that they all ended up with the same amount?
Or how about this? Many, perhaps all of us, have played monopoly at some time or another. The rules of the game are that everyone starts with the same amount of money, and then, through a mixture of chance and skill, one person gradually takes over until they have bought up everything and bankrupted everyone else.
But what if the game started with people having different amounts of money? Would that still be a fair game? Would you want to play with your children or grandchildren if you had twice the amount of monopoly money that they had? It’s just not fair is it.
Fairness is at the heart of the reading from Luke’s Gospel today, and it’s not an easy parable to understand. In a sense it reads as if Jesus is condoning a man for being dishonest with his boss’s belongings, giving them away. But what if there’s more to it than that? What if I suggest that it was the rich man in the first place who was in the wrong by charging interest, something that a Jew was prohibited from doing to a fellow Jew?
And what if the reason the manager was being sacked was because he wasn’t asking for enough illegal interest and so wasn’t making enough money for the rich man out of the people who owed him? And what if the manager’s actions, as well as being to look out for his own needs, were also to try and make life bearable for the poverty stricken who couldn’t afford the interest the rich man wanted to charge?
That would put a whole different face on it wouldn’t it. You see when it comes to fairness and justice we find it at the top of God’s agenda. Parables like this challenge our morals because they ask us to consider what is really fair. But even more challengingly, they then invite us to live that way.
Of course it’s not fair to give children all the same number of sweets in public whilst having favoured one or two with a lot more sweets in private. Of course it’s not fair to play monopoly with children if you have given yourself more money to start with.
So how fair is it to buy chocolate that’s not fair trade? How fair is it to buy really cheap clothes when we know that the only reason they’re so cheap is because they were made in a place where the owners can get away charging an ultra-low wage because in some places people will take any work for any pay. Is that fair?
Let me be a little more controversial. What about when politicians choose a minority to pick on so as to bolster their own position in society? Is that fair? In France there are fewer than 2,000 Muslim women, according to the Guardian, who wear full face veils as a part of their religion. In a population of more than sixty million people, why on earth did their parliament decide it was worth taking a vote, won by a majority of 335 to 1, to ban the full face veil?
What was the real message there? Or how about this? Again reported by the Guardian, in May 2008 the Italian interior minister, Roberto Maroni, reportedly declared: "All Romani camps will have to be dismantled right away, and the inhabitants will be either expelled or incarcerated." Two days later, when a mob of 60 razed a Romani camp in Naples with Molotov cocktails, Maroni quipped: "That is what happens when Gypsies steal babies, or when Romanians commit sexual violence."
Scape-goating, the art of finding a defenceless minority to blame for all our troubles, is rife in society. It seems it always has been. If you remember Nero blamed the Christians for the great fire of Rome because they were a minority group who nobody cared about. If we think what he did was so awful, and it was, then what about the unfairness of our society?
Let me be even more controversial. The role of a parish priest is not necessarily to give answers but to sometimes ask people the difficult questions. So how about a local business whose owners are trying to make a living and who have perhaps not always been too wise about their business practice? If they make enemies in their locality, is it fair that the wealthy and the intellectually astute should be able to gang up on them with their knowledge of how to work the system?
Is it a fair fight if they don’t have the same financial resources to fight their corner? Is justice in favour of those who can afford it? I don’t suggest I have any understanding of the deeper and more political issues. I stay out of that because I am called to be the priest to everyone in this parish, but I do find myself wondering what the Lord thinks about the route local politics takes.
You see it comes down to this. God, it appears, is always, always, always on the side of the powerless and the defenceless and the exploited. Always. God is always about trying to restore the balance and to look out for the needs of those who have even what little is in their possession taken by those with no sense of fairness.
So the question we have to ask is, if God is always on the side of the downtrodden, whose side are we on? And this is not at all about philosophical arguments. Whose side we are on will be determined entirely by how we live and how we actively treat others, not by what we merely think is right or wrong. Thought is cheap. Amen