Taking Responsibility

Sunday 24th July 2005
The Ninth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
BCP Communion
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 16:1-9

One of the more comforting phrases amongst the self avowedly virtuous is that there is no honour amongst thieves. Sooner or later, the comfortable logic goes, if the good hold firm to their resolve, the wicked will betray each other and be put into prison; and all will end happily ever after.

The issue which today's Gospel raises is that the division between the good and the wicked, as I have described it, is not so clear cut. Here we have a master, intent on keeping good order, who threatens to fire his steward; but the steward discounts the bills of all the debtors, realising immediate cash instead of hoping for full payment in the long run and; this dishonesty or shrewdness - and therein lies our dilemma - pleases his master who agrees to keep him. In the course of his dealings he also makes friends amongst the debtors through the discount. If ever his master cuts up rough again, the steward will always have some chips to cash in with these friends, always supposing, of course, that they will be honourable and remember the favour he did them. Which I doubt.

This story reminds us that our morality is not very straightforward. Every day, as masters, we make deals with all kinds of stewards. We might call the steward a local council which treats refugees and asylum seekers harshly; we might call him the politician who signs the letter of credit allowing dictators to buy guns from British factories; we might call him the broker who drives a hard bargain and regards the fate of those who go to the wall as collateral damage.

Imagine a world where this did not happen. Imagine a Council which said: "If you don't like refugees and asylum seekers, you go and turn them out of their lodgings into the street; you watch the mothers and children cry instead of hiding behind your neatly trimmed hedges." Or imagine a politician saying: "No. I won't sign that letter of credit so that leaves you two choices: either 20,000 people in the gun factory lose their jobs or we can put up taxes; you choose; and if you don't want to put up taxes, you go to the gun factory to break the bad news." Or imagine your financial adviser telling you that your pension will be less than expected because the brokers have stuck to a set of rules that protect others from unfair competition.

In the first two cases, we are only too happy to let other people get on with it, leaving ourselves the luxury of grumbling about the wickedness of councillors and politicians; but, to use the old cliché, we only get the elected representatives we deserve. I am not saying we should not have representatives; without them there would be a vigilante culture; but what I am asking is that we remember that we are the masters and they are the stewards; and we must take our responsibilities seriously.

The last example is more interesting because, of course, in tolerating the existence of brokers who sail too close to the wind, many of our own mortgages and pensions are lower than we were led to expect.

Of course, we make a distinction between our various stewards and really wicked people who will get their just deserts because, as we remind ourselves, there is no honour amongst thieves; but do we not run the risk, every day of our lives, as with the pensions mis-selling scandal, that those shrewd operators whom we employ, like the steward in this story, might one day turn on us in our weakness. If we give them permission to bite, might they not bite us?

That, of course, is a pragmatic warning but it is underpinned by a much deeper message, spelled out in today's reading from 1 Corinthians. We who are born into God in our Baptism, who die to the world of the flesh, we who are children of the Resurrection, have no need of this sleight of hand in our lives. No matter how improbable it may seem, no matter how much we leave ourselves open to the scepticism or even the ridicule of our friends, no matter how we feel that we are sticking out like a sore thumb when we refuse to stay silent in the face of prejudice or blasphemy, no matter how hopeless the situation might seem, St. Paul tells us that God will not ask anything of us without giving us the strength to persevere.

What we must not do - in overseeing our earthly lives, deciding on how far we can afford to be ethical and how far we really need to be ruthless in order to enjoy the life style we have set for ourselves - what we must not do, compounding our efforts to strike moral compromises, is to think that we can make a deal with God. God's love for us is without limit, His Grace is without limit, His support is without limit; with all this unlimited love, Grace and support, what kind of bargains do we think we could strike? Let us then, be wary of our stewards but if they do ill in our name, let us be clear where the responsibility lies.