Editor’s note. This sermon is the first by three visiting preachers in the Priory’s Lent sermon series in which we are reflecting theologically on the theme of ‘Business and the Kingdom’. Cal Bailey is a Reader at St James Woodside in Leeds. He is both a Chartered Accountant and National Engineering Scholar and is sustainability Director for NG Bailey. Cal is also Chair of Trustees for the Thinking Faith Network. and has a particular interest in exploring how business can better serve the Kingdom of God.
12 March 2017
10.30 Parish Eucharist
Second Sunday in Lent
Romans 4. 1-5 & 13-17; John 3. 1-17
Is Business part of the Kingdom of God?
This is a question I find many Christians answering with puzzlement – what has God’s kingdom got to do with business? At the same time, it’s important for those of us who have spent our lives in business to ask what our work means in the end. I’m going to answer it by asking two smaller questions.
The first is: Did God anticipate business when he created the world? I’m going to quote to you the most insignificant verse in scripture – in most translations, it’s in brackets: it’s in Genesis chapter two, in which the narrator is talking about the garden and one of the rivers running through the land of Havilah where it says there was gold. And verse 12 says, in a very offhand way – The gold of that land is good. There is also aromatic resin and onyx there.
The writer assumes God’s people are interested in gold. And good gold means relatively pure gold; easier to mine and refine.
The creation story tells us that God created a world pregnant with potential for development; and he created people to develop and use this potential in practice. Verse 12 suggests that the writer believed this includes mining and refining of metals; and by implication manufacture of products, transport to markets and selling. So God did anticipate business when he created the world. And gold, aromatic resin and onyx are all luxuries – God meant us to enjoy life!
So to my second question: Is business today doing God’s work? Businesses certainly weren’t doing God’s work in the Old Testament prophet Amos’ time: he tells rich businessmen – You trample on the poor, and force the poor man to give you corn [5:11]. The problem appears to be about greed and injustice; oppression and fear; about loving wealth more than justice. Jesus famously summarised our obligation to God saying: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and love your neighbour as yourself.”
Well, I know many business folk who certainly give heart, soul, mind and strength to their work: but are they loving God or mammon? That is our question.
I think it will help us to answer this in two ways: what is the purpose of business? And what is the pre-occupation of businessfolk?
The purpose of business in society is to generate the wealth – which enables its people to buy a home and food, investors to pay pensions, and government to provide schools and hospitals, roads and defence and so on. And businesses are mostly started by people with genuinely generous objectives – to serve customers better, to enable employees to develop and grow as people, to treat them fairly. In principle, I think most businesses are established to serve people and so to serve God’s kingdom.
What about the pre-occupation of business leaders? I wonder what your observation is about what business folk spend most of their time desiring and doing? Mine is based on the time spent in board meetings. What is its focus? Which report is a ‘must’ for every meeting? The report of the sales director? Or the human resources person? Or the procurement lead? Or the finance director?
My observation is that the pre-occupation of most business leaders is profit. And while profit is necessary for survival, and for wealth creation, it is by no means the only good of business. It doesn’t deserve the whole-hearted focus it receives from chief executives, or other directors, or boards, or shareholders. For example, if we were to report to God about our business – or to bring Him business concerns in our prayers – I think most of us would talk to him about many things, of which profit was only one.
I think business should be focussed on many goals. The good society is more than a rich society; and a good business is more than a profitable business. It is also loyal, and fair, and cohesive, and beautiful, and sustainable, and ethical, and faithful. Which of these issues is given regular time in board meetings?
I am suggesting that a Christian view of the world is multi-dimensional; and that a financial view of the world tends to narrow our vision of what is good. A business view leads us to say that the problem with such and such a business is that it is running out of cash and may shortly go bust when a wider view may see the amalgamation of its customers through acquisition leading to a concentration of power which enables a bullying culture towards customers or suppliers which some ruthless business leaders will exploit. And their shareholders may congratulate them, and vote through another above inflation pay increase to the directors. But society may be poorer as a result, not least because the supplier business disappears, and all its people go through the trauma of joblessness.
I am suggesting that Christians need a different motive in business than making money. The spirit of Jesus and his kingdom is a spirit of service. Here’s a quote from Roy Coad’s biography of John Laing – he was the founder of the famous construction business, who was a Christian, about what service meant to him:
I find that the selling of shares to make a profit develops a mercenary habit which is against the spirit of Jesus Christ….. the latter is a spirit of service, the former a spirit of trying to get gains which are not a result of service.
As Christians, I think we should challenge our options carefully. Supposing the option facing us was a little richer, and a little nastier? Or a little poorer and a little nicer? Or a lot poorer, and a lot nicer and a lot longer lasting? Which would you go for? Which is most like God’s kingdom?
Our gospel today talks about God’s saving love for the world. The word for ‘world’ isn’t a small idea – the few fallen believers who will hear a call and follow – it is the cosmos – the entirety of God’s creation. God is saving his entire creation. I have suggested this includes business. God wants good kingdom business. And he wants it to be redeemed from its fallen, narrow, selfish way of working to serve a much larger purpose. And He calls us to follow him.
How will we do this? We will do it by adopting the mind of Christ and the behaviour of Christ. Jesus came to serve us – he did not stand on his dignity or his wealth. The same mind should be in us as was in Christ [Phil. 2:5], and that is a humble mind. But is humility not totally opposed to the very idea of wealth creation? Apparently not. For we are told that the meek will inherit the earth.