25th Sunday of the Year GSC
My friends, I have a guilty pleasure to confess to you. You know those machines you get in arcades by the seaside where you put two pence pieces in and they all pile up until they come cascading over and you win whatever comes through? Well, I love those machines! But then I worry: is that gambling? It probably is because through a game of chance I’m trying to accumulate more than what I put in and through that I could lose everything and that sounds like a bet to me. Is there anything morally wrong with that? In moderation, no.
The Church has never condemned betting or gambling, though some Christian communities have grappled with whether, for example, they would accept money from the National Lottery because it is the fruits of gambling. It becomes morally wrong for us to have flutter or a bet or to gamble when we can’t afford it or when it becomes something detrimental to our relationships with others or our duties to God. If we become addicted to it, as with anything, it skews our priorities such that it becomes sinful. It is not wrong therefore for there to be betting shops on our High Road, but it is surely detrimental to our community for there to be so many as they seem to be magnets for particular types of unsuitable behaviour. It is not wrong for us to work in betting shops, there it may well be God calls us to shine brightly as a light.
Cheating when we gamble or bet is wrong and the attempt to sway the markets to ensure our own gain is condemned by the prophet Amos in our first reading: “lowering the bushel, raising the shekel, by swindling and tampering with the scales.” The image is one where individuals could get an extra amount of money for the same item sold by fiddling with the scales. On a small level, this could be things like taking the extra sweet we’ve not paid for or if someone gives too much change in a shop keeping it for ourselves. On a large level, this condemns the practices of those who control the world’s financial systems and who adjust measurements so that they can profit unfairly from others, “trampling on the needy.” We are to gain what we have contributed towards.
Our looking after what we have materially is not to be the detriment of others or of our worship of God. But it is admirable and indeed commendable for us to look after our possessions. The possession of things and land by individuals is seen by the Church as a natural consequence of God’s instruction to work, to till the land, to name the animals as God gets Adam and Eve to do. The consequence of labour will be a reward as we see in the parables the Lord gives us about setting a day’s wage (Matthew 20:1-16). The promise God gives to His people of old is to possess a land (eg. Genesis 13:15).
The Parable Jesus told us in this evening’s Gospel teaches us that all that we have is a gift: the rich man can remove from the steward all that had been his. All that we have, even our life itself, can be lost if we are careless with it. Jesus addresses the crowd elsewhere and says to them, “What will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Mark 8:36). The danger that we can fall in to is that we can strive to accumulate things, or status, or reputation, and thereby tarnish the image of God within us through the ugliness of our sin.
There seems to be a selfishness and a manipulative streak in the steward’s actions in that he is cancelling debts so as to win favour. His astuteness is praised however because he is helping others and building up relationships with those he had otherwise presumably not sought to be kind towards. He’s clearly meant to be on a journey towards realising that all that he had was a gift and he needed to behave accordingly in terms of how he used what he had. Our relationship with Jesus will similarly change our relationship with what we have, what we do for work, what we possess, what we have to do each day to survive. In part because we will see the reality of these things as being a gift.
When we read the first chapter of Genesis and of God creating everything, that is not simply an historical nicety, like discovering the name of the Tudor knight who first lived at Bruce Castle, Sir William Compton. Reading of God’s creativity means we’re to know His generosity and His sovereignty and He we come to worship this evening: to praise Him for the world He created, to say, ‘Yes, Lord, we know that you have created this and that you have set a path for me to walk and I do not need anything else, none of these riches, none of these things we see other people reaching for and relying on.’ No, God has given us all we need. “Consider the lilies of the field how they grow;” after all as Jesus says, “they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all His glory was not clothed like one of these” (Matthew 6:28-29).
“It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” go the lyrics of the song which are about adolescent humiliation at a birthday party. I fear though it typifies the spirit of the last fifty years: this thing is mine and therefore I can do with it what I want. It leads to selfishness, be it people thinking they can end their lives when they want, be it changing their genders, be it lazing around in bed all day, be it inventing their own morality and religions, be it a hedonistic pursuit of pleasure. But more profound than all those consequences is we forget that God loves us so much that He gave us this life. This talk of gift will expand our hearts to make us more generous. We see these first steps in the steward’s movement in the parable, being willing to be generous because he begins to see that he has been shown kindness. The Christian might rewrite the song lyrics: “It’s my party and isn’t God amazing for giving it to me?”
The movement of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt through the Red Sea and then to take possession of the land of Canaan was a gift from God. God often had to remind the people of His generosity: that they ended up “living in houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant” (Deuteronomy 6:11). It was all gift. Our labours will cooperate with God’s generosity and as such though we work hard for what we have, it is all from God. It often strikes me that sickness, weakness and ill health towards the end of our life are preparations for us to lose all that pride-filled independence and self-help we furnish for our life here on earth, and it prepares us for the day when we will realise ourselves to be recipients and dependents of God’s justifying grace. Come, then sisters and brothers, to the fountain of God’s mercy, come to the altar for the Lord is rich in mercy and generous in kindness and gives to us that we might share in His gift giving.