Sermon on Luke 14: 25-33
When Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister – it seems like only yesterday to me – one of her sidekicks, Norman Tebbit, made some remarks about the parable of the Good Samaritan that made quite a stir.
Mr Tebbit wasn’t and isn’t a noted New Testament scholar but anyone of course is entitled to have a view. His take on the parable was that the Samaritan would not have been able to help the man who had fallen among thieves if he hadn’t had money in his pocket.
His point was that it’s wealth creation that enables society to help its least fortunate members. Mr Tebbit was in effect saying that capitalism, market forces etc are good things. Whether you agree with him or not I think you can at least see where he was coming from.
Well, let’s as it were park Norman Tebbit in a side road for the moment and consider the case of St Francis of Assisi. He was a wealthy young man who gave all his wealth away and espoused a life of poverty, extreme poverty. And he founded a religious order – the Franciscan order.
Now Franciscans were a mendicant order, which means that they begged for the wherewithal to keep themselves alive.
That seems to tie in very well with what Jesus says in our gospel reading: none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. There are two big words there: none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. No exceptions.
The thing that has always worried me about mendicants is this: if everyone were a mendicant, there’d be no-one left to give anything. Mendicants rely on other people not being mendicants. They rely on other people producing food, making artefacts, making a living, having money – and giving away the surplus.
But, if we take him literally, it’s the same with what Jesus says. In the happy event that everyone in the world became a disciple of Jesus, if we took his words literally, we’d all be giving away our possessions to each other. It would in effect become a gigantic game of pass the parcel. We’d all be rapidly passing on parcels to other people and they’d be doing the same to us, because none of us would want to possess anything!
Taken literally, it doesn’t sound like it could possibly work.
Most of us here today are reasonably well off – at least in global terms, compared with the poorest of the poor. Some of us here are no doubt very well off, so what are we to make of Jesus telling us to give everything away if we want to be his disciples?
Well, I’d like to park that question, along with Norman Tebbit, in that side road for a while, and turn to the first part of our reading. Jesus tells us we should hate our father and mother, wife and children and so on if we want to be his disciples. And you may well have been thinking to yourself: hang on, that’s going a bit far.
There’s another story in the gospels where Jesus criticises the Pharisees for creating loop-holes by means of which children are able to avoid their obligations to their parents. It’s perfectly obvious from that story that Jesus expects people to obey the Old Testament injunction to honour your father and mother.
When Jesus tells us to hate our parents, he cannot mean it in any literal sense. He’s exaggerating. He’s saying something provocative to shake us up. And it’s a method he uses frequently.
Now, the danger is obvious: once we’ve noticed these bursts of rhetorical exaggeration, we can get to thinking that, whenever Jesus says something inconvenient or that we don’t like, he must be exaggerating. And then we can safely ignore it.
So let’s bring that question out of the side road – the one about Jesus telling us to give everything away if we want to be his disciples. If he exaggerates about hating our parents, he could well be exaggerating when he seems to be telling us to give all our money away. So can we just ignore what he says, perhaps pay some kind of lip service to it, and then get on with our lives as though he’d said nothing at all?
Well, the last thing I want to do is to let you off the hook! Just because Jesus uses hyperbole – another word for exaggeration – in order to get his point across doesn’t mean that he’s an easy touch. Even taking into account his exaggerations Jesus is very demanding. Maybe not demanding exactly, he just tells it like it is
But the fact is, as far as I can see, Jesus doesn’t seem to have a hard and fast rule about wealth, although I can’t emphasise enough that he makes it very clear on many occasions that wealth is spiritually dangerous. Wealth puts us in extremely slippery places.
Looking at the gospels, indeed the Bible, as a whole I think we see that there are three sides, as it were, to wealth’s coin. Three sides – wealth is a very strange coin.
Firstly, what we acquire should be acquired justly.
Secondly, what we do with our money is important. If we have lots of money and spend it all on unnecessary luxuries, that doesn’t indicate a very profound love of neighbour.
And thirdly, it’s a question of priorities. Our ultimate priority has to be our relationship with God. That may just sound conventionally pious, but it’s gloriously and profoundly true. And if God is our priority, everything else (including money) falls into its proper place.
And so we come back to Mr Tebbit whom we left parked in that side road. Whatever ethical problems capitalism has – and in my view it has many – wealth creation in itself is not a bad thing. Without at least some wealth creation, our lives, as Thomas Hobbes put it, would not only be poor, they would be nasty, brutish and short.
Tempted though I sometimes am, I think we must resist the temptation to despise wealth creation as somehow innately immoral – but it is immoral if its primary purpose is that we might sip martinis on a luxury yacht in the harbour at St Tropez. No Christian attitude to wealth creation can obliterate from our minds the world’s poverty and need – or those who lie injured by the side of life’s highway.
The great danger for us as individuals and for society in general is that wealth encourages a kind of apartheid between those who are wealthy and those who are not. If we look, we see that kind of apartheid all around us. And from no perspective is it of any true benefit to anyone.