One of the privileges of being vicar of the city centre church and parish is that it brings me into fairly regular contact with our civic leaders and politicians. The tie-in with the cathedral strengthens that and brings a number of opportunities together. It makes me aware of some of their struggles and the issues they face. There are public occasions when I am on show, but it is the quieter conversations that are the real privilege. I therefore have a ready connection with Paul’s plea that we ‘make prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings for everyone, not least those in high positions’ (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Praying for those we elect matters. It shows our concern for the weight of the responsibility they have placed on them and shows our longing for the main themes running through our readings this morning.
The central themes running through the core of those readings were trust, justice and honesty. I have said before that I believe the primary purpose of government is not defence, as some are keen to say, but justice. Poverty and hunger were seen by the writers of the Bible as being primarily a failure of justice, a failure of governance by the political leaders. They had not ensured that the hungry were fed, those who were most vulnerable were cared for. They had not ensured that the society was structured in such a way that it worked for the benefit of all and not just the few. I’m sure I’ve heard someone else say something about that recently. This was expressed powerfully and clearly by Jeremiah (8:18-9:1). The cry of the poor from far and wide was heard and it made the writer ask if this meant there was no king; ‘is God not in Zion?’ Surely if those in charge had done their job properly this would not have been the case.
It is a cry we hear when we look at poverty and the pressure on welfare services today. Many of the solutions and causes are complex, but the cry down the ages is to remind those whom we elect that their job is to serve the needs of those who can least assist themselves. It is not to enjoy the rich and privileged lifestyle for themselves or to make their mates rich, but to ensure that what is needed is there. To do this they clearly need a peaceful society, not at war, not under threat, not corrupt. So there are struggles against aggressors, struggles against organized crime and oppression, and these seem to require constant vigilance and we know this only too well. The reason for this protecting is to ensure justice.
Threats from corruption were present in the gospel reading (Luke 16:1-13). That said there is no suggestion that recompense was required of the agent, so the parable may be more about neglect than misappropriation of funds. Squandering, defined as wasting in a foolish or reckless manner, covers the spectrum from failing to do the job to what would be called culpable negligence, that is knowingly failing to do what we should have done. For those of us who are trustees we are acutely aware of this. Where there are failures to look after the property entrusted to our charge, it becomes necessary to give account of whether we have been duped by another, whether we have misplaced our trust, or been negligent in our duties of oversight and management. The Charity Commission and Church Commissioners for churches can take an interest. Being a trustee means we are deemed trustworthy of the assets committed to our charge.
Jesus used the story of the negligent agent as a parable of an eternal charge. The setting in Luke began with the scribes and Pharisees who grumbled at Jesus because tax collectors and sinners flocked to hear him. He told parables about joy in heaven when sinners repent using lost sheep and misplaced coins as his examples, which we heard last week (Luke 15). This is followed by the parable often referred to as the prodigal son, but better named the loving father, emphasizing its point about compassion and love that delights in repentance. The Pharisees, whom Jesus accused of failing in their responsibility to draw people closer to God, were accused of being the negligent agent. They were distracted by laws which just made it harder for everyone else to draw closer. Jesus in contrast was the one the penitent went to for words of liberation and nourishment.
It is a concern for the church at the moment struggling with crises of cash and keeping inherited structures serviceable and functioning. Behind these structures lies a gospel, a message of good news to set us free from the oppressions of the mind and spirit. There is a purpose, there is hope, and that purpose and hope comes from God and rests in God. Our confidence for this is found in all we see and learn in Jesus Christ. As the former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, who died a week ago, was keen to say, “God is as he is in Jesus Christ and therefore there is hope”. Self-giving, loving, forgiving, calling and sending, redeeming and transforming, in Jesus Christ we see purpose and goal.
So Jesus’ parable about a negligent steward is a reminder of the hope at the heart of our faith and the church’s calling to proclaim it. Part of this is to make prayer, intercessions and thanksgivings for everyone, not least those in high positions, for justice is their primary concern.
Sermon preaching in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 18th September 2016