Servants, Stewards – and lovers.

May 25, 2008

( Is. 49, 8-16a; Matt 6, 24-34 )

“How do I love thee, let me count the ways”. Most of us will know the first line of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem. But how many of us know how it goes on? “ I love thee to the breadth and depth and height my soul can reach”; “ I love thee to the level of every day’s most quiet need”; “I love thee with the breath, smiles, tears of all my life –  and if God choose, I shall but  love thee better after death”.

 

The poem describes a deep, committed, human love, the sort of love that is sealed in the covenant of marriage. But the poem contains echoes of another covenant, the covenant described in our Old Testament reading, the covenant between God and his people, which although defined by laws, is also a covenant of love.

 

And how do you show your love in a concrete way? Well, if you are a modern celebrity you may have the name of the people you love tattooed on your body. I understand David Beckham has the names of his children tattooed on his back, and his wife Victoria has David’s initials tattooed on her wrist. But it’s not a modern phenomenon. We can all recall pictures of servicemen with the names of their girlfriends tattooed on their forearms – and our Old Testament reading suggests it was done even in ancient Israel. The prophet Isaiah imagines God saying to his people; “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands”.

 

But as the rest of the passage makes clear, it is not body art which is the real demonstration of your love – it’s how you behave. The passage describes God’s devotion, God’s constancy, God’s faithfulness, God’s commitment to his people. The whole passage is a promise that, in spite of appearances to the contrary, God has not deserted his people, and that, although things are bad at the moment ( the Jews are in exile in Babylon) when the time is right God will bring his people back to their land and they will prosper.

 

A covenant relationship has to be one of trust and faithfulness on both sides. And although it appears on the surface that the passage we heard from Matthew’s Gospel is about how we use our money and possessions, it is really about our covenant relationship with God. We enter into a covenant with God at our baptism – and when we are confirmed. In that covenant God offers us salvation, adopts us as his children, and strengthens us by his Holy Sprit. On our part, we commit ourselves to a life of worship and service and to sharing the Gospel with the world. We affirm that we believe and trust in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and that we will remain faithful to God throughout our lives. But how do we demonstrate that trust and faithfulness in practice?

 

In his letter to the Corinthians, St Paul tells us that we are called to be faithful servants and stewards of God’s mysteries. We are to protect what God has given us, and to share it with the world.

 

The Sermon on the Mount, from which our Gospel reading comes, tells us how. It is one of the most important guides to living out our covenant relationship with God. Matthew’s Gospel lays great emphasis on the importance of the choices we make in this life, because they will have consequences in the life to come. In this passage, the emphasis is on what choices we make in the use of the money and possessions we have been given. Can we trust God enough to use them in ways which serve the Kingdom, rather than building up our own position in this world, and bolstering our own security?

 

We human beings tend to stack up resources against a rainy day. This is something which the Bible approves of – the book of Proverbs, chapter 6, encourages us to be like the ants, busily gathering supplies before the winter. Jesus doesn’t condemn this – what he condemns is accumulating riches for their own sake. In his terms, this is placing your investments in the wrong place – for earthly riches are always insecure. The only secure place for a Christian to invest is in the Kingdom of Heaven.

 

His remark that a servant cannot serve two masters tells us something we already know – that people’s emotions tend to follow their material possessions. So we expend a lot of energy – physical and emotional – in protecting what we regard as ‘ours’. Investing our resources to promote the growth of the Kingdom of Heaven is an acknowledgement that the resources are not really ours – they are God’s, given to us to use for a while as his stewards.

 

Jesus uses dramatic language to make his point. Are we really not to make any more effort than the birds do to clothe ourselves or the plants do to  find our food?  I am sure  the language worried those who heard Jesus, as it worries us. We have the example of the rich young man, who asked what more he needed to do to gain the Kingdom – but when he was told to sell all his possessions and follow Jesus, said “No way! That’s much too hard!” and went away.

 

And he didn’t live in a consumer society! He was constantly bombarded with advertisements which told him this or this was essential to his happiness or well-being or that ‘you deserve it”. How much we need to counter these blandishments with Jesus’ instructions to look at the natural world, and see what is really necessary for our survival.

 

Jesus uses the typical exaggeration of Semitic prophet to make his point, to bring us up short, and to make us look again at our actions. Of course, life would be impossible if every Christian gave up work and relied on the charity of others for support while they worked for the Kingdom. That may be a vocation for the few; but as Paul demonstrated in his own life, most of us are called to work to provide sufficient to provide for ourselves and our families, and to support the growth of God’s Kingdom through the work or the Church and other charities. And, of course we are not expected to go through life with no insurance to protect ourselves and our families if problems arise. We are expected to be as wise in such matters as ‘the children of this world’. 

 

The Bible does not condemn or advocate any economic system – it just insists that whatever is produced is shared fairly and is used for the good of all, not accumulated for the benefit of the few.

 

Jesus is not concerned with what we do with our money and possessions for its own sake – he is much more concerned about what it reveals about our attitudes and attachments.  That is why he places so much emphasis on what we worry about. That shows what really comes first in our lives. Living in the relative prosperity of a society like ours, it is easy to let concern about money and possessions dominate our lives. It takes a disaster like 9/11 to remind us that, when the chips are down, what really comes first is those we love.

 

How right he is that worrying doesn’t achieve anything ( the Greek word that is used indicates something that causes sleepless nights – and we all know how little we achieve if we’re not sleeping properly. ) People who have sufficient for their own and their families’ needs don’t need to be anxious. They will achieve far more for themselves and the Kingdom if they make whatever basic provision is necessary in the society they live in, and live their lives in a contented and trusting partnership with God.

 

In the marriage ceremony, the couple promise to share all that they have. In our covenant relationship with God, God endows us  with all the material and spiritual resources of this world. Our response as faithful servants, stewards and lovers of God must be to put that covenant first in our lives, and to use those resources to seek and build God’s Kingdom.

 

 

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