2014-05-18 by George Kaplan
Preacher: Christopher Adams
18th May 2014
Today is our second sermon in our series about the Bible and money. Last week we heard Symon Hill deliver a cracking introduction to the topic, ranging from the economic system under which we live, to the use and abuse of usury, to an uncovering and subverting of the ever popular — but as Symon pointed out — frequently misunderstood parable of the talents. We now move into the series proper, which will cover several “How we…” questions. The topic given to me today to discuss is: “How we earn.”
The sermon today is one of those odd instances (Divine intervention?) of sermon and life meeting. On Thursday we were suddenly called into the director’s office in the English department where I work. As my colleagues and I were walking to the director’s office, I joked: “Oh ha ha maybe we’re all getting fired!” I really need to stop making jokes like that — no sooner had we sat down than the normally reserved director (he’s Belgian) broke down in tears and told us our department was being disbanded, effective 1 August. It was quite a shock, and it still is quite a shock, but we’ve been ‘promised’ there will be no redundancies — we’ll be shuffled to another department, but possibly on less favourable conditions. Maybe.
Thus the last few days have been filled with thinking about ‘How we’ or how I earn. Telling people about my job situation has prompted more conversations about work than I think I’ve ever had. People from other departments are coming into ours, bearing cakes and flowers and strawberries, to condole with us and chat about work, though frankly it’s getting a bit like Mr Collins from Pride and Prejudice, who visits the Bennet sisters to condole with them, though he’s ever so thankful that he escaped the catastrophe by not marrying Lizzie. Needless to say, I would have preferred to have had far less raw, ‘real life’ material to work with in preparing for this sermon. Or, if I had to have the real life experience, I would have preferred if the title of the sermon for today could have been: ‘How we win the lottery’.
There are several ways in which we earn money. We can inherit it, for instance, and I know there are some of us who have inherited from parents, or are set to. The idea of inherited wealth has been on the economic and cultural back-burner for a few generations now, since so much family wealth was either wiped out or taxed in the world wars. But as the French economist Thomas Piketty has recently pointed out in his phenomenally popular and hugely influential book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, growing concentrations of wealth, especially vast fortunes made possible by the stock market boom in the 1980s, are set to be inherited by a new generation, leading to levels of inequality not seen for nearly one hundred years. And as Piketty said in an interview with Jeremy Paxman: ‘Inequality matters because our democratic institutions cannot work properly if inequality becomes too extreme’. Indeed, we may even question whether inherited wealth comes under the purview of ‘how we earn’ since earn itself implies a worthy-reward relationship: we work and therefore we earn the reward (namely, wages).
Inherited wealth is not earned, in this sense—one simply is fortunate enough to have been born into a family that has already earned, or acquired by other means, enough wealth to continue to pass it along to their children. Luke 18:18-30 records the story of the ‘ruler’ who comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to be saved. It’s worth pointing out that in Matthew he is called a ‘rich young man’ and, in all three gospels where the story is recorded (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the rich young man asks what he must do to inherit eternal life, and I think it’s not a wild stretch to think that the man in the story didn’t become so rich so young by, for instance, founding the first-century equivalent of Facebook, nor did he likely become a ruler through hard application of his leadership skills and rising up the ranks of the civil service: both ‘young and rich’ and ‘ruler’ imply inheritance—either inherited wealth or inherited title, or, likely, both. And what did Jesus tell him to do? ‘Sell all you have, and distribute it to the poor…and come, follow me’.
But I’d like to move on from inheritance, though I will return to the idea briefly later on, to discuss by far the most prevalent way in which we, in modern Western society, earn (money): work.
I ran a concordance search of all the instances of the word ‘work’ in Luke’s gospel. I limited the search to Luke because, well, you have to limit these things, and the Jesus in Luke, as Symon Hill demonstrated last week in his comparison of the parable of the talents in Matthew and Luke, seems more subversive, more concerned with undermining the economic order of his day. I performed this search across all English translations, and the word translated as ‘work’ appears in a few contexts — and it’s a far rarer word than you would expect. Luke uses the word ‘money’ far more often than he uses the word ‘work’. But the contexts are these: in the early chapters of Luke, ‘work’ is associated with vocation or mission. Luke 1:8: ‘One day Zechariah was doing his work as a priest in the Temple’.
Then there are a few references to Jesus and his ‘work’, by which is meant mission or broader purpose/vocation. Luke 3:23: ‘When Jesus began his work, he was about thirty years old’. Note that Jesus had been presumably ‘working’ as a carpenter for some twenty of those thirty years but his real mission, his real ‘work’ started when he was thirty. Jesus uses ‘work’ in this sense in Luke 13:32: ‘Go tell that fox that I will force demons out of people and heal people today and tomorrow. I will finish my work on the third day’, and Luke 4:43: ‘this is the work God sent me to do’ (The Message).
I would argue the Bible, and Jesus, have a positive outlook on ‘work’ in the sense of vocation — a person has been called to fulfil a certain task, and they go about their lives completing it. Call and response are aligned, and both the mission is fulfilled, and the person is fulfilled in the completing of the mission. But what about ‘work’ in the sense we most recognize—that of working for pay?
Slave to the wage! goes the saying and is used for any number of excuses as to why we are unable to do that which we want to do. Life for several of us is a balancing act of working to be able to pay the rent (or mortgage), cover food costs, cover bills, and be able to afford a decent holiday every once in a while. We exchange our time for money so that in the time we have remaining, we can have (some degree of) autonomy and independence.
For a lot of North Americans, the idea of ‘work’ is built into the national character and is seen as an inherent good. Our forefathers and foremothers went to America to ‘work’ the land, through hard work and determination they subjugated the land, they built homes, they educated their children and they made America into the prosperous society it is today. This is the American narrative, and at its heart is the value of (hard) work, and the link between work and success. American society and literature, until recently, had little problem with ‘new money’ because if you had money, you must have earned it, and you were enjoying the just fruits of your labour. America saw itself in opposition to the values of ‘old money’, expressed in Europe and depictions of Europe as a corrupting influence (all those Henry James novels!), as a place where someone could have money without having earned (or earnt!) it, where a commitment to work for work’s sake is strangely suspect.
But here’s the thing: I think Jesus is anti-work. As I said, Jesus addresses money with frequency, but in the major instances in which he talks about work in the sense of labour, his attitude is entirely dismissive. The two key passages of Jesus on the subject of work are the ones we’ve heard today: Jesus chiding Martha, and Jesus’ declaration not to worry about food and clothes. ‘Think about how the lilies grow. They do not work or make clothing. But here is what I tell you: Not even Solomon in all of his glory was dressed like one of those flowers’. In verse 30 Jesus even uses a word that strikes at the heart of modern-day capitalism: ‘Don’t spend time thinking about what you will eat or drink. Don’t worry about it. People who are ungodly run after all of those things’.
Jesus in this passage is undermining a fundamental narrative we tell ourselves about work and the value of work: It’s an interesting contradiction in Protestantism (especially American Protestantism) that we definitely cannot ‘work’ to ‘earn’ our salvation—that’s a free gift of God’s grace — but we sure as heck better work as hard as possible when it comes to the rest of life. Our system makes a direct connection between those who work hard and those who deserve rewards. Conversely, ‘idle hands are the Devil’s workshop’ as the saying goes.
The political implications of this attitude are wide-ranging. Our system is increasingly suspicious of people on welfare or benefits of any kind. If people refuse to work (and it must be that they are refusing to work — other, more nuanced possibilities get neglected in this narrative), it is their fault. Somehow we have managed to link not working or the inability to work, with moral failure. One’s work status is a moral category. As UKIP has so lovingly reminded us, all those immigrants coming into this country (guilty!) must only be coming here in order to take advantage of our hard-earned benefits system. We are always hard-working, the other — the immigrant, the unemployed, the ill — they must be lazy.
But Jesus says:”‘No”. The pursuit of work for work’s sake isn’t just bad, it’s ungodly. I was reminded of how much this attitude is an affront to the current system when I heard around Christmas time that one of London Catholic Worker’s volunteers (an American) had been denied entry into the UK. The border agent didn’t believe that the volunteer could exist in a community that paid no wages and earned no money. In a system in which work is wholly good and shows the moral strength of the person working (no matter if that person is, say, selling weapons for instance), and which poverty is labelled both a choice and a moral failing, Jesus commands us to re-examine our attitude.
And perhaps that’s what Jesus was going for in his encounter with Martha when he tells her: ‘You are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better…’. Now, I’ve had problems with this passage because I always end up thinking: what’s wrong with Jesus? Doesn’t he know that Martha’s just expressing herself through her ‘love language’ of feeding? When a guest arrives, you put food in front of him, or her. Preferably lots of food. Really one of the worst sins I can imagine is having a guest go away merely ‘satisfied’. I’m sure Martha was exactly the same — doesn’t her sister Mary know the rules about hosting? Someone is coming for dinner and that means you need to get the custom-designed place-mats made, and fold the napkins just right, and choose the right wine to pair with your meat course, and you need to chop the limes for the gin and tonics so you can hand your guest a tumbler when he or she walks in, and all of this needs to be done before the guest arrives so that it looks like you’ve taken no effort whatsoever to prepare the meal.
The art of hosting, of course, is acting like you haven’t just spent the last several hours of your life preparing to be a host. DOESN’T JESUS UNDERSTAND THE RULES!? Clearly not. So yes, Martha, I feel your frustration, I really really do. But defensive rant about Martha aside: I take Jesus’ point. Verse 40 uses the word ‘distracted’ — work caused Martha to be ‘distracted by all the preparations that had to be made’. How much of the work that we do is pointless? How much is unnecessary? How much is done out of a fear of being perceived as ‘lazy’ or ‘idle’ or not contributing to society?
I’ll draw to a conclusion with a few thoughts. First, as Symon Hill reminded us last week, however much we can see the flaws in, and can critique the political-economic system under which we live and labour, we are ultimately a part of that system, that is, our lives, to greater or lesser extents, are governed by it, we cannot pretend that to stop working would be an option for most of us. Second, there is also the acknowledgement that not having enough work or not being able to work legally is crushing in its own cruel way. And please note that I am not advocating that everyone go on permanent holiday: in looking at the word ‘work’ as used in Luke, we see two main threads: work that is done for pay and basic survival, of which Jesus has a negative attitude, and work that is somehow bigger, more closely aligned with calling, with purpose, with vocation.
So given the constraints of needing to earn our daily bread, perhaps what I’m advocating is a ‘minimal work’ position. What is the absolute minimum amount of work we need to do to live, or to live in such a way that enables us to do those activities or pursue those goals that we find meaningful (‘work’ in the larger sense)? Symon Hill last week spoke of the unchecked drive toward maximization of profit—it is of course not necessary for any business activity to be done with the principle of maximum profit adhered to, but it is a generally accepted, and unchallenged, practice. Shareholders want to make as much as possible from their share, otherwise, they will take their investment elsewhere, and given a simple choice between earning a ten pound profit and earning a five pound profit, most people will choose the ten pounds. But nothing says we have to. Similarly, ‘hard work’ or ‘the hardest work’ is seen as a goal in and of itself, as an unquestioned good. What happens if we question that good? What happens if we say we will only work at a minimum instead of a maximum?
Or another idea: how much money would it take to keep the eight to ten members of this church out of work all together? The economist John Maynard Keynes wrote that in the future work really wouldn’t be necessary because compound interest would simply create enough wealth that in a few generations everyone would have enough to get by. He was right, in a way — there is certainly lots and lots of wealth in the world — unfortunately, it’s concentrated in far too few hands. But if we pooled our resources, and interest rates went up a bit, could we all stop labouring, or reduce the amount we had to work? I don’t know — it’s just a thought — but I would push us to look for ways in which we can become less and less dependent upon labour, freeing ourselves from ‘work’ in the labouring sense in order to be open for ‘work’ in the positive sense that Jesus meant: vocation, mission.