In September I was honoured to preach at the St Matthew’s Day service of Christ’s Hospital school in the presence of the Lord Mayor of the City of London, Alderman Fiona Woolf CBE, and many other civic dignitaries. It was a splendid occasion and the school choir were on great from.
After the service, 400 senior pupils, led by the School’s impressive band, marched from the Church of St Andrew, Holborn to Guildhall wearing their distinctive Tudor uniform. At Guildhall, they were guests of the Lord Mayor and each pupil was presented with ‘largesse’, a coin fresh from the mint, the amount according to his or her standing in the School.
And so I preached about money.
This is the sermon:
What’s money for?
I wonder whether you are surprised that I am going to spend this sermon inviting you to think about this question. Surely, some of you will be thinking, the point about that story of the call of Matthew is that he left the tax booth – the little stall piled high with coins which gave him all the opportunity in the world to cream off a nice bit of extra for himself. The point is that he left it and embarked on the financially unrewarding venture of being a disciple of Jesus.
There is truth in that. But it’s a particular truth, not the general truth. What I mean is that it is Matthew’s truth that he had to leave the tax booth to follow Jesus. But that does not mean that there is something wrong with money.
Indeed money on its own is neither good nor bad. Money is, however, important. I don’t mean that it is important to have a lot of money. I do mean that our attitude towards money matters a lot. In fact, our attitude to money can define who we are and shape our lives more profoundly than almost anything else.
There are clergy who often say that Jesus had far more to say about money than sex. I don’t say that very much, it seems to me to be too obvious a point to labour. I am prepared to underline it, however, and to say that Jesus probably spoke about money as much, if not more, than any other subject. So if I speak about money today I will be following the example of Matthew in that I too am following in the footsteps of Jesus.
What, then, is money for?
Historically I suppose it’s a way of allowing people to exchange things of value when they can’t just swap them. It means that if we have a lot of potatoes we can sell them and get money which we can spend as we wish. If it weren’t for money, a potato farmer would have to persuade people that they should take a few potatoes in return for, say, some equipment needed to be a potato farmer. This ‘barter’ system can work up to a point, but it has real limits. First, for the farmer who may want to buy something from someone who has no use for potatoes, and second for people who want to have some potatoes but have nothing that they can offer that is of the remotest interest to a potato farmer. The other problem, of course, is that each and every transaction would need to be worked out from scratch. How many potatoes for a rabbit skin? How many for a pint of milk? How many for a pair of clogs? And so on. The other problem with a barter system – if you are a potato farmer – is that potatoes are both large and heavy, and going shopping with a sack full of them is never going to be a very easy experience.
What is money for? It is to allow us to exchange things easily and fairly.
But as we all know money, can do other things too. Unlike potatoes, money can be saved up indefinitely. You can also loan people money so they can do something with it and then repay you at a later date. You can’t do that with spuds. They deteriorate, and once they have been made into chips they have literally had it.
One of the great things about the religious traditions of the world is that they spotted long ago that money, while necessary and important, also has a problematic side to it. Their view was that money needs to be kept in its place as an inert thing that allows people good opportunities that they might not otherwise have. Like buying something from someone who doesn’t want your particular garden produce.
One thing that the religions have often stressed is that money should not be allowed to behave like something living. In particular it should not be allowed to breed. And it is for this reason that Judaism, Christianity and Islam have been, and in some cases still are, so against usury. The argument is that it is unnatural – that is improper and immoral – for money to breed. That’s one way of putting it, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the problem of money for people today, and it is the heart of that problem which is my real concern in this sermon.
The problem with money breeding is that when it does so it becomes powerful. And I don’t here mean powerful in the sense that you can do more things with more money but in the sense that money which breeds has an especially attractive power over human beings. They are attracted to it and so gradually come under its influence. Or, one might even say, under its spell.
What I am talking about here is the danger that money becomes not a means to an end, a way of doing good, but an end in its own right. When that happens, so the spiritual traditions tell us, we are getting life wrong because we are treating a thing – money – as if it were a person.
And the religions in general, and Christianity in particular, is adamant that this is unhelpful and inappropriate and ultimately very destructive indeed.
That is why St Paul wrote that the love of money is the root of all evil.
It’s really important to note that point, but also to note it carefully. Paul did not say that money is the root of all evil. It’s the love of money that’s the trouble. You see how this is connected to the idea that money is a thing, a means to an end – not an end in itself, not a person.
To love money is to make two huge mistakes. It is to make a mistake about money – ‘cos guess what, money can’t love you back. ‘Funny isn’t it’, as a billboard I once saw in Time Square New York said, ‘that there are no great money song while there are thousands of great love songs’.
The second mistake is a mistake about love. This is obvious from what I have just said but the point needs to be emphasised. Love has many wonderful aspects to it. But if you feel that you love things or objects, money or possessions, you haven’t really grasped the truth that human beings are genuinely made in the image and likeness of God; are genuinely loveable and lovely (even if we don’t actually like everyone all the time).
I want you to take this next point to heart. It is not that Christianity has arbitrarily declared that money is bad. No. Money is fine. It’s okay. It’s just a means to an end. It is however not the sort of thing that you can love without diminishing and demeaning yourself as a person.
On the other hand, money is strangely attractive. Breeding money is the worst, but money in any shape or from soon catches our eye and distracts us from the best things in life.
People sometimes say that time is money. That’s another serious mistake. You can’t put time in a bank, and, despite the figure of speech about spending time, you can’t take it to a shop.
There are few things more important for a human adult person in the western world to do today that to work out their attitude to money.
If we get money wrong, we get life wrong. Sorry to put it as starkly as that but that’s the world we live in today. Money is genuinely one of the most important subjects we can possibly discuss. So I do encourage you to talk about money as much as you can – and with the wisest people you can find; and these may well not be people who are themselves in love with money.
Let me repeat: the easiest way to get money wrong is to love it – and to expect to get happiness, fulfilment or salvation from the accumulation of money or the taking out of loans. It isn’t going to happen. Happiness, fulfilment, flourishing and salvation are not financially created. But misery often is.
Today, many of you will be given ‘largesse’ in the form of a special coin. Let that be a reminder to you of both the practical importance, and spiritual danger, of money. Treasure it for what it is. But don’t give in to the powerful temptation to think of it as more than it is.
Value money, but don’t love it.