A Sermon from Sherborne
The spiritual audit
A sermon for Holy Communion at Castleton Church, preached on Sunday 29 July 2018 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods
To understand a Bible passage, you should always try to read it in context. In today’s Gospel reading, the parable of the dishonest steward [Luke 16:1- 13], the context is not hard to find. It is in the very next verse. Jesus has been teaching his disciples, but the Pharisees have been eavesdropping. And they do not like what they hear: “The Pharisees also, who were covetous, heard all these things, and they derided him.” A modern translation helps here: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and scoffed at him. He said to them ‘You are the people who impress your fellow men with your righteousness – but God sees through you.’”
The clue to our understanding of this parable is the fact that the loans to which Jesus refers are expressed in terms of wheat and oil – a hundred measures of each. That’s about a thousand gallons of olive oil and a thousand bushels of wheat, which together must have represented a tidy sum. Now it is extremely unlikely that the rich man’s debtors had actually borrowed wheat and oil. It’s much more likely that they had borrowed cash. But the Jewish law of usury prohibited the charging of interest on loans, which of course was a major handicap to business and commercial life in Israel. The Pharisees, however, had large financial and commercial concerns of their own, and they had managed to find a way round the law. We would call it ‘money-laundering’. It worked like this. A man who borrowed money would write out a promissory note to his creditor, but the note, the IOU, would mention not money but commodities, and commodities to a value which would cover both the cash loan and the interest. From a legal point of view there would be no mention of money or of interest charges at all, and the law of usury would appear not to have been broken.
Here then, in Jesus’ parable, is a rebuke to the Pharisees, the guardians and teachers of the law, for actually being the ones to find ways round the law. It was as if in Saddam Hussein’s time the Bible Society had wanted to make a financial killing by importing oil from Iraq despite the sanctions, and had sought to cover their tracks by registering the transaction as the movement of bibles. Churchmen shouldn’t behave like that. The “children of this world”, as Jesus puts it, may be wiser in their own generation than the “children of light”, but we are the children of light and we have to live up to that calling.
At one level, this is a direct and powerful challenge to us to check how far we are living up to our calling as Christians. It’s not simply a matter of God on Sunday and then the cut and thrust of the market place or the office or the club for the rest of the week. Our faith has to be lived out in the context of our world, whatever that world is: the world of neighbourhood gossip or tax avoidance, of boardroom conspiracy or company perks, of family frictions or friends in need, of violence, tension and sudden death. It’s there, in 101 ways, that our faith is tested, our Christian lives measured. It’s there that being a Christian is hard – there, not here, in this lovely little church – and it’s there that the Gospel must have its cutting edge or be blunted and useless.
And there’s no formula, no set of rules, for being a Christian on Monday morning. Ours, thank God, is a religion of grace, not of law. As Jesus says a little later in the same chapter of Luke: “Until John it was the Law and the prophets: since then, there is the good news of the Kingdom of God.” Yet still people talk glibly of Christian standards and Christian morals without having the slightest idea what they mean. All too often what they actually mean is doing the decent thing … keeping a straight bat … playing the game … as if these ‘Officer & Gentleman’ modes of behaviour are somehow self-evidently and obviously what Christianity is all about. But Christian standards don’t work like that. They are not a set of club rules. They are about a radical conversion of life.
Let me explain. There is kept at Winchester a bar of metal called the Royal Standard Yard. In the Middle Ages it was the most accurate expression of the unit of measurement we call a yard that there was. But try using it in dress making or tailoring. It’s no use at all. It’s a bar of metal and it won’t go round. What tailors and dress makers did was to go to the Royal Standard Yard and from it produce a more flexible expression of a yard such as a tape measure, something that would go round the person. In other words, we have to work at the job of defining the concept of a yard. Then we have to work equally hard at finding a suitable expression of that concept, in order to apply it appropriately. In the same way we have to work at and agonise over being a Christian, and living to Christian standards at work and at home and in relationships. And what we must aim at is not a set of rules for living, but a Christ-likeness, a being-like-Christ: seeing problems and dilemmas and people with his eyes, and trying to reproduce something of the quality of his life in our own. And that means a personal surrender to Christ that only you can make: no-one can make it for you.
The dishonest steward of the Gospel had been squandering the company assets, and now he had been found out. Things don’t change much, do they? But at least in this case the steward acted promptly to cut the losses and to call in the outstanding debts, and for that his employer had to praise him. And with that gentle irony which he so often used to try to show us what poor blinkered people we are, Jesus says “Look – there’s a crisis in the firm, the auditors are in, the books don’t balance, and the company secretary has acted promptly to get the accounts out of the red. But when God looks at our spiritual accounts, and finds them full of debts and omissions, do we act with the same urgency? Do we make up for being spiritually overdrawn by using the countless opportunities which come every day to do good, to reflect the love of God in the way we respond to people and to circumstances, and by our behaviour in small matters show that in future we are to be trusted with larger responsibilities? Worldly wealth, for example, is given to us on trust; it does not belong to us. By our use of it we can show whether or not we are fit to be entrusted with real wealth, the wealth of the heavenly kingdom.”
And if the heavenly audit shows that we are morally and spiritually bankrupt, then fortunately we can call on the resources of God, and they are infinite (unlike those of the Bank of England!). The dishonest steward took a gamble by acting quickly to get the accounts out of the red, and his speedy action was commended by his master. How much more urgently we should act, to stake our future on God and on the resources of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Upon a life I did not live
Upon a death I did not die
Another’s life, another’s death,
I stake my whole eternity. Amen.