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What is money for?
The Reverend Mark Birch Minor Canon and Sacrist
Sunday, 22nd September 2019 at 11.15 AM
Over the last four years or so, I’ve been taking Holy Communion to someone who was a regular member of the 8 o’clock congregation here, until she became physically too frail to attend. She died earlier this month at the age of 101. She worked for much of her life in the Fire Service, most notably as a fire watcher here at the Abbey during the Blitz, spanning 1940 and 1941.
For most of the last four years she has been unable to leave her little flat, in fact unable to leave her chair or bed, and has relied entirely on others for her physical care. Uncomplaining and stoical, she has coped with numerous stays in hospital, with carers who she couldn’t understand and who didn’t much understand her, and has remained remarkably cheerful, always trying to persuade me to join her in a glass of Baileys, which she drank like medicine, in a single shot.
She was blessed with a small number of extraordinary neighbours, who took her to their hearts, who offered their time and attention, and did regular battle with hard-pressed and underfunded state authorities to make sure she received the care she needed. Despite their efforts there were numerous failings – and there remains a question whether her final illness wasn’t in some part due to inadequate care.
She never had very much money, and so had no choice but to rely on state support in an age of austerity; an age she didn’t quite manage to outlive.
‘He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ashes’ wrote the psalmist – so may she rest in peace and be raised with Christ in glory.
What is money for? A useful means of exchange, for sure, but one with unfortunate side-effects when placed into the hands of anxious, fallible, and sometimes down-right greedy human beings like you and me.
If we think the financial excesses that led to the crash of 2008 are a modern phenomenon, listen to the words of the prophet Amos, where he parodies the wealthy: ‘When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale.’
Regulation of market activity was being resisted even then!
‘We will make the ephah small and the shekel great’
An ephah is a measure, most commonly used for grain – an actual commodity, a physical thing that answers physical human needs.
A shekel is, of course, a unit of currency, a form of money. So making the ephah small and the shekel great prioritises money over the commodity, and puts power in the hands of those who have wealth above those who produce the actual thing that human beings rely upon.
There was a time when money, coinage, had a significant intrinsic value – it contained precious metals. The Pyx chamber, here at the Abbey, was the place where, from the 13th century, coins were tested, to reassure everyone that it wasn’t just worthless metal – the so-called ‘trial of the pyx’.
But money today is almost entirely virtual. A piece of paper, or increasingly, plastic. A number on a screen; a digital ghost in a global machine. Yanis Varoufakis, in his book ‘Talking to my daughter’, describes modern economics almost as a pastiche of religious faith. ‘Credit’, Varoufakis reminds us, comes from the Latin verb ‘credere’, to believe. Bankers are the miracle-workers of our age, conjuring money out of the future into the present, which is fine, until people stop believing that the future money will ever transpire. A financial crisis, it turns out, is rather like a crisis of faith – based more on sentiment than anything clearly demonstrable. I’ll leave you to decide which sentiments are likely to be in play here – suffice to say that compassion, especially for the poor, is unlikely to play a large part.
Amos talked about: ‘buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals’,
So not only is money/silver prioritised over the commodity/the sandal, but both are prioritised over the poor and needy – it has been ever thus.
Money is a useful means of exchange, and financial credit essential for those with good ideas to realise their ambitions, but when money becomes the focus in its own right, divorced and elevated above actual commodities, and above the actual needs of actual human beings, then it does become something akin to a god – a god we have created, and therefore the most alluring and dangerous thing imaginable – a false god, an idol.
‘You cannot serve God and wealth’ – Jesus taught his disciples. As Christians we must be constantly alert to the danger of idolising the financial, the bottom line, especially in a world where for many people money is the only god left standing, though they might not couch it in those terms.
What does it mean to idolise money? We have already considered the way invisible, virtual money becomes elevated above physical commodities, the things we need, and, more importantly, above physical human beings and their needs.
It is interesting, in the parable that Jesus told, that the dishonest manager is commended for being shrewd with his master’s debtors, in order to curry favour with them. Having lost all hope of financial gain (he is told categorically that he is to be dismissed) at least he is prioritising human relationships; reducing the demand for the commodities themselves, the oil, the wheat; effectively increasing their unit value and deflating the underlying currency. It is fraud, but it is also a rebalancing away from money and towards the commodity, and, most significantly, towards the person producing it. Mammon is dethroned, at least partially.
But perhaps we have to look closer to home to understand what it means to idolise money. For instance, if we listen to the financial experts we should all be accruing the most enormous private pots of money in order to have a ‘comfortable retirement’, especially given the crisis in social care, which my centenarian fire-watcher experienced at first hand. This accrual of wealth, for those who can do it, is fed in large part by anxiety; fear for an unknowable future. A large pot of money gives us hope; hope that we won’t be left alone in a little flat, relying on people we can’t understand, our needs met only unevenly, if at all.
And the key word here is hope; and this may be how we keep ourselves vigilant whether we are serving God or whether money has become our god. Where, if we are completely honest, are we putting our hope?
Chances are we will always find that our hope is sliding away from the altar and towards the bank balance, the financial pages, the lottery, the ailing elderly relative, or wherever we think money might come from. The key thing is honesty, and we can dare to be honest because in Christ we are always already forgiven.
Where, in all honesty, are we putting our hope, today?
Putting hope in money is understandable – it feels more reliable than other people, let alone God; it gives us a sense of power and control – but if it is being pursued for its own sake, it ends up devaluing actual things, and actual people. Serving this idol ultimately devalues us.
If we put our hope in God, as God has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ, and if we use money, rather than pursuing it, then we just might value one another and the good things of this creation rather more than we do – which could be good for us, good for the planet, and good for the poor.