Do you remember the scene in Mary Poppins when the father takes his children with him to work? If not, he’s a banker. It takes place in London – at the bank he works. Mr. Banks wants his children to invest their coins in the bank, but Michael wants to give his money to the woman who feeds the birds on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral (I plan on worshiping there this coming Sunday) , and sets off a near riot at the bank as a result. Putting the money in the bank is probably a wiser choice, and yet Michael sees the world with different eyes.
If you’re like me, this passage from Luke is not only a bit odd, but difficult to decipher. Is Jesus encouraging us to use dishonest financial practices to benefit the realm of God? If so, wouldn’t that make Bernie Madoff (at least until things fell apart) a hero? We live in interesting times, when the financial structures of our society are extremely fragile. A tussle over tuppence (two pence) might be all that’s needed to ignite a financial panic.
Money is, the Scriptures say, the root of all evil (1 Tim. 6:10). The wealthy young man comes to Jesus and seeks to know what he must do to inherit the kingdom of God. Jesus tells him to see everything and give it to the poor and then he’s to follow Jesus. He walks away, because his wealth is too great. The Proverbs seem to suggest at points that wealth is a sign of divine blessing, but Jesus seems to take a rather dim view of it. My sense is that we wink at Jesus’ words about money. We read a text like this and wonder what to make of it.
The first part of the text seems to exude admiration for those who make friends with dishonest gain. Make friends with it, Jesus tells the crowd, and then when it’s gone you’ll be welcomed into eternal homes.
The second half of the passage, the one that speaks about stewardship is a little more understandable. Jesus speaks here about being faithful with the gifts entrusted to our care. If you show wisdom with a little, then you will be trusted with more. Michael’s desire to use his tuppence (two pence) to feed the birds might not provide a good example of faithfulness in a little. Perhaps investing it in the bank would make more sense – it would provide the opportunity to create more resources for the kingdom. John Wesley said something like (or so the quote pages suggest) “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”
But, we need to hear the entire text. Yes, there is this encouragement to do what you need to do to get ahead and yet in the end, there is this warning – you can’t serve two masters, money and God. Justo and Catherine Gonzalez offer this word of wisdom to us as we contemplate the power of money.
Those who seek justice need to realize the power of wealth. It is not a neutral power. It is used either for God’s purposes that are just or for other purposes that are unjust. What we do with the wealth we control – however great or small – is of enormous importance. We either are servants of God or servants of money, ever seeking more. (Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year C, p. 399).
We need the divine assistance to discern the way forward. The pursuit of wealth, whether we are rich or poor, can take control of our lives. Michael insisted that the tuppence were his to do with as he pleased. His father tried to convince him otherwise, but without much success. We too believe that these material things we have gained belong to us, but do they really? What eternal value do they have?
What is the nature of our faithfulness in a little? Are we ready to receive the fullness of God’s gifts, so we might make good use of them for the benefit of God’s realm – both here on earth and in heaven as well?