Jack collected lots of money from ‘trick-or-treat’ and he went to the sweet shop to buy some chocolate. ‘You should give that money to charity,’ said the salesgirl. Jack thought for a moment and said, ‘No, I’ll buy the chocolate. You give the money to charity.’
Money is a tricky subject for a sermon. On the one hand, we all need it (money, not the sermon); on the other hand, today’s gospel concludes with a clear message: ‘You cannot be the slave both of God and of money.’ Surely, there’s an inherent conflict between the Christian faith and material goods, represented by ‘money’. Or is it?
I think we need some clarification. Firstly, money is among the greatest inventions of humankind. It revolutionised the exchange of goods and services by making the process extremely flexible and convenient. I remember when I was a student in the seminary, each autumn we would travel across the diocese, far and wide, to collect tatties and other vegetables donated by farmers. It involved long hours of travel followed by hours of unloading the lorry and storing all those goods. This precious time that as students we should have devoted to our studies was somehow lost, not to mention the additional costs of transport, pollution and so on. Of course we were grateful for the donated food, but it was an ineffective system of supporting trainee priests. Here in Scotland we support our seminarians by donating monies, used then at the Scots College in Rome to provide for their needs; we don’t send them tatties, eggs, flour and other foodstuff – it’s obviously much easier to buy all the products locally. So, money as a concept was a truly life-changing development.
Money morally is neither good nor bad; it’s neutral. As with virtually every invention, it can be used for good or misused or exploited for nefarious purposes. A good example of that is dynamite, invented by Alfred Nobel to make mining easier. Unfortunately, dynamite was also used as a weapon and subsequently he was labelled ‘The Merchant of Death’. In response he bequeathed 94% of his wealth to establish prizes for developments in various scientific areas; we know them as the Nobel Prizes. So, like dynamite, money can be used in a good or a bad way, and that’s what we read about in today’s first and gospel readings.
They cast light on two aspects regarding money. The first reading, from the Book of the prophet Amos, is an accusation of dishonest merchants, set on making profits in unfairly ways, by cheating, abuse and exploitation. Making money in such ways is clearly morally wrong and incompatible with the Christian faith. Which is quite astonishing to think about as the slave trade was carried out by people who often perceived themselves as good Christians. There’s anecdotal evidence of places in the world where organised crime donated huge sums of money to churches. It’s a mind-boggling perverse of the faith! So, it’s important to consider how we make money, or how we earn it.
Today’s gospel clarifies our attitude towards money. The story of the steward and his dealings with his master’s debtors could raise a few eyebrows. However, the message of this parable is contained in its conclusion and the following comment made by Jesus: ‘The children of this world are more astute in dealing with their own kind than are the children of light. And so, I tell you this: use money, tainted as it is, to win you friends, and thus make sure that when it [the money] fails you, they will welcome you into the tents of eternity.’ Jesus tells us to make good of the riches we are fortunate to have. He refers to his famous vision of Judgment Day (I was hungry, and you fed me, and so on…) and many other instances when Jesus talks about caring for others. The conclusion of today’s gospel is very clear: ‘You cannot be the slave of both God and of money.’ Each one of us must make our own decisions about how to make money, and how to use it.