I returned from holiday in southern Italy a couple of weeks ago. I’m not sure whether it’s a feature of southern Italy or things are just bad there at the moment but barely a day went by that we didn’t encounter beggars in the street. I have to admit that I am never sure how I should respond to beggars and they always leave me with a deep sense of unease about what to do. One bit of me thinks: didn’t Jesus say that we should give to anyone who asks of us; didn’t he tell the rich young man to sell all he had and give the proceeds to the poor; and aren’t we told in Hebrews that in showing hospitality to strangers we entertain angels without knowing it?
But then there’s another bit of me that argues like this: it’s unrealistic to give to everyone who begs and how am I to make a choice; I’ve now idea who these people are and how do I know their need is real; even assuming their need is real, is money the answer (and I’d need to spend time finding out the answer and I’m on holiday); and aren’t there other, more effective ways of helping such as giving to charity and helping out at the cold weather shelter? And so on, and so on, and so forth.
To some of you all this will sound all too familiar. To others it may come as a source of amusement, this great burden of middle class guilt. Either way, none of us can be in any doubt that the whole question of money and the responsibilities that attend our making it and spending it is fraught with difficulty, and it’s this that is the reason for the money season that begins today at St. Mary’s.
But why have a money season now, you may ask. Well, money is an urgent issue for all sorts of reasons. For one, we are indebted as both a country and as individuals as never before. Personal debt in this country stands at a staggering £1.452 trillion. The average annual debt per household stands at £55,000, including mortgages. Just bear in mind that the average annual salary in Britain is £26,500. Debt is on the rise for one simple reason: despite an improving economy inflation continues to outstrip wage growth for all but the privileged few, which means that people are borrowing just to maintain their standard of living.
These figures are hard to get your head around, but make no mistake that they mask personal tragedies. For instance, one home in Britain is repossessed for mortgage arrears every 21 minutes 29 seconds. Little wonder the Archbishop of Canterbury struck a chord when he launched his campaign about payday loans.
But underlying all this – and in part explaining it – is the financial crisis that began in 2007/8. You will recall that the collapse of just one investment bank – Lehmann Brothers – led to global mayhem such that for a time it looked as if the entire world banking system was going to collapse, taking our livelihoods with it. Once the dust had settled it became clear that the banks had engaged in some highly dubious practices, from taking excessive risks with creditors’ money, particularly in mortgage lending, to mis-selling financial products on a massive scale, witness all the fines still being meted out to them. All this behaviour – and more – was informed by an attitude that said that the sole measure of business success was short-term profit. To put it another way: greed.
But lest we come too judgemental, let’s not forget that the banks were only successful in so far as someone was willing to buy their products, and the truth is that we have, all of us, become hooked on credit. I am old enough to be the child of parents who fought the war. That generation believed that being in debt – other than taking out a mortgage – was simply wrong and nothing less than a disgrace. But then along came the credit card in the late 60s. Some of you will remember that it was introduced as “your flexible friend” who “took the waiting out of wanting”. And so successful and all-conquering has that slogan been that it now seems as perverse to save up and wait to buy something we want as borrowing money seemed to my parents. But like it or not, our economy is dependent on credit with all the problems that brings.
So the money season aims to do two things: firstly, to aid careful, personal reflection on this issue that affects us all, with the aim of helping us to be clear how far our attitudes to making and spending money are consistent with the faith we profess; and secondly, to identify some practical ways in which we can help address the money issues that exist both within this congregation and within the wider community.
I’ll say a little more about the season in a moment but firstly I want to clear away some misunderstandings about the Christian faith and money. You often hear people thinking they are quoting the bible saying “money is the root of all evil”. That is a misquote. What the first letter of Timothy actually tells us is that “love of money is the root of all evil”. Those two extra words make a world of difference. In reality, what we find in the bible is subtle and nuanced and therefore does not lend itself to easy, straightforward answers.
Make no mistake; in all that Jesus said and did, Jesus assumed money to be essential to the workings of society. If he had few possessions and lived the life of an itinerant preacher, he clearly didn’t expect others to do the same. His teaching was rooted in the workaday world which assumed the production of goods and services and their sale, so you find him telling stories of builders working out their estimates, vineyard owners hiring day labourers and landlords entrusting servants with their money to see how they’d fare in generating a return. Christianity emphatically does not call us to some utopian, money-less world or the life of a hermit. Jesus did indeed advise the rich young man to sell all he had and give the proceeds to the poor, but that is an event unique in the New Testament. Were this to have been his advice to all of us you would expect it to feature rather more widely than this one instance.
But while Jesus assumes a world in which money plays its proper part he is equally clear that it carries with it profound moral and spiritual risk. No story illustrates this more clearly than the parable of the rich man in Luke’s gospel. You’ll recall that this man had done so well for himself that he had riches aplenty, so he decided to build bigger barns to hold all his possessions and to then relax, eat, drink and be merry, living off his accumulated wealth. The only problem he faced was that the very day he decided to do this his life was taken from him. This story illustrates one of those brute facts of life that any worthwhile faith helps us find a way of accepting, namely that we are subject to often unseen and unwelcome forces that play havoc with our lives. One of the great problems with money is that it breeds in us a sense of pride and self-satisfaction that is no more than a dangerous illusion.
But there is a still greater risk with money, and that is that in creating this illusion of self-sufficiency it cuts us off from other people in the most damaging ways. This is a real problem in a society such as ours in which inequality is growing. You see this in the many swanky new blocks of flats going up around here. Planning law insists that any developer intending to build more than 12 apartments must reserve some of them for social housing. The response of some developers to this demand is to create a beautiful entrance for those who can afford to buy – a plush entrance hall with sweeping staircase – while forcing those in social housing to use some mean-looking side entrance to their apartments. Truly, I scratch my head to understand this. Just how awful would it be for some privileged young professional who is lucky enough to afford a mortgage to rub shoulders with someone in need of social housing? Clearly, this is a material consideration, otherwise developers wouldn’t do this.
Researchers at Princeton University in the USA have studied the impact that encountering the poor can have on the rich. They carried out MRI scans on some students’ brain activity when they were show images of different kinds of people. Pictures of homeless people or drug addicts failed to stimulate those areas of the brain that are usually activated when we think about others or about ourselves, with the more affluent students tending to react to such images “as if they’d stumbled on a pile of trash”, to use the words of one of the researchers.
Against all this we find some very clearly stated biblical principles, not least in our reading from Philippians today:
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”
We should each of us ask ourselves the question of what the world would look like if we truly lived our lives according to this principle of interdependency. I’ve already reflected on how the banking crisis was caused by selfish ambition, but how far does your organisation – be it public, private, not for profit or whatever – really seek to serve its customers or users, or is it really self-seeking, serving more the needs of those who work within it or those who have a vested interest in it?
And what of what you do? Do you take pride in the way you earn your money by virtue of the quality of the service you give to others? Or do you see it chiefly as a means of earning money and not much else? And what of the money you have? Considering this principle of interdependency, how comfortable are you about the balance between what you keep for yourself and what you share with others?
None of these are easy questions, as my agonising over Italian beggars shows, but that’s precisely why they are worth asking. For how well we answer them will in turn help determine the quality of the world in which we live.
So I really hope you will want to take part in the money season. During week commencing 6th October we will begin three weeks of discussion groups in which, over a meal with others, you will be able to discuss some of the issues I have raised. Then, on November 2nd., David Barclay from the Contextual Theology Centre, who has been working with the Archbishop of Canterbury on the payday loans issue, will be our guest preacher. Immediately after the service he will facilitate a church-wide discussion on what the local needs are that we might help address. Some churches have decided to begin or host credit unions, while others have organised money advice sessions – who knows what will come out of our discussions? Please make a date to be in church on that Sunday and be prepared to stay on for an extra half hour or so to make your contribution, for what makes this place so special is our collective commitment to taking the gospel seriously enough to be committed to applying it to life as it’s lived not just on Sundays, but on every day of the week, whether it be in our homes, at our workplace or out in our communities.