God and Mammon
St. John’s Convent, November 8, 2014
St. John’s Convent, November 8, 2014
I sometimes feel that I should preach homilies that are more pastoral and less political. And then the lectionary goes and throws things like today's Gospel. Because really, one of the things we perhaps don't acknowledge often is that the Gospels are overall more political than they are pastoral; especially if we understand political in the larger sense, as being about the great questions of how we organize our common life. Besides which, I've recently been meeting with a national church task force trying to develop resources on the theology of money, so it's not a good day to try to dodge this challenge.
“You cannot serve God and wealth.” The old translation, “God and Mammon,” though a bit obscure, might actually take us closer to the meaning, because, by using the name of a minor Roman god of wealth, it makes it clear that what Jesus is talking about here is that core sin of idolatry. We may not consciously worship money, not quite – but we do, for the most part, allow money, the systems of finance, to govern our lives, to make our choices for us, to tell us the way in which we should go. I feel reasonably sure that the average Christian, and the average congregation, think and talk about money far, far more often than they think and talk about God. And in many – most? -- of our churches, a platter full of money sits on the altar through the eucharistic prayer, along with the bread and wine, along with the body and blood, and we think that this is a good thing.
But there is little point in blaming individuals. We are all enmeshed in a gigantic, global economic system from which there is very little possibility of escape. Every choice we make is made within the boundaries of an unjust economic order, built on debt and interest and speculation in imaginary wealth, built on cheap consumer goods and slave labour and hunger, built on an endlessly turning wheel of false desire and fear. I participate in it constantly and unconsciously by having money in banks which invest in socially and environmentally destructive projects, by buying a harmless cookie which contains palm oil, the production of which is devastating the rainforests. There is no easy way out.
We need to look back at that very weird bit at the beginning of the Gospel passage, though. I have no idea why the lectionary editors did this, but they've attached, at the start, a throwaway and obviously sardonic comment which Jesus uses to conclude one of his strangest parables, the story of the unjust steward, whose cleverly devious financial manoeuvres save his job and his life. The story, in fact, of someone trapped inside a system of injustice, compelled to play by the rules of injustice, who, for reasons which are not particularly good or worthy, finds himself undermining the system and accidentally driving it towards grace. He doesn't get out of the system; but he bends it a little, faithful – really entirely despite himself – in this little thing.
It would be better if we were a bit more consciously faithful. And we can be, to some degree, even while acknowledging our inescapable complicity. This Sisterhood is actually an outstanding example of the degrees of escape which are possible, a community which foresakes the principles of individual ownership and endless consumer desire upon which our system is built, a community built on a rethinking of human nature more radical than it may, on the surface, appear. And, because you are a community, you can do more than most individuals can to, say, generate some of your own electricity, reorganize your investments, all those things which you are doing. It is not very dramatic in the terms of the world, and it does not solve our great problem of being enmeshed in Mammon's world; but it is that little escape from idolatry which can let the rest of us know that some escape is possible.
Mammon isn't getting out of our lives, or our churches, any time very soon. But accepting that we can only be faithful in relatively little does not mean that we settle for being faithful in as little as possible. At the very least, those of us who are not part of this Sisterhood should be more mindful of the real and important challenge the Sisterhood poses to us. Pray, and choose, and renounce, and care. And allow ourselves, little by little, to be welcomed into that great community, before which all the values of the world fall down.