The Market Place
Over the last few years, more and more people have become interested in, even knowledgeable about, the dealings of the finance and stock markets. A number of reasons for that. Holidays abroad mean that exchange rates for foreign currency are of concern not only to those who manufacture, or to importers and exporters, but to ordinary citizens. The cost of the holiday may increase or decrease accordingly. Size of pensions are greatly affected by what goes on in the Stock Exchange. Charity funds, including Church accounts may grow or shrink because their assets have been invested in stocks and shares. Once it was love that made the world go round. Now, apparently, it is money that puts the universe into a spin.
But of course the financial markets are just a small section of innumerable types of market of a vast variety. I once made from time to time early morning car journeys, and switched on the radio for companionship. Before much of the country was awake, I heard announced prices on the fat-stock market, and the wholesale fruit and vegetable markets which preceded the news bulletins – a world of intense interest to farmers, butchers, restaurateurs and the like, but a closed book to many of us.
But the markets I’m most familiar with, and I suspect the same is true for many of you, are the open and the indoor markets to be found in nearly every town and city. I recall, like others in the congregation I suspect, wandering as a child round the open market stalls, lit in winter by hissing acetylene lamps, displaying and selling, as they still do, goods and foodstuffs of every variety. It is a fascination that has faded little with the passage of time.
There is a difference in atmosphere between the indoor and the open market. The indoor more staid, slightly introverted, a place where Vimto, Sarsaparilla and hot Bovril could once be bought, displaced now by Coca Cola, Pepsi and expresso coffee. Whereas the outdoor market is noisier, flamboyant, extrovert, constantly moving with an air of excitement. It is outside that the crowds gather round the seller of cure-all medicines, the gadgets that sharpen the bluntest of knives, the compounds that effortlessly clean the dirtiest of surfaces. And as ever was, I find the patter of the salesman difficult to resist.
Once, as a schoolboy, I purchased, on Ashton-under-Lyne market ground, for sixpence only, a week’s pocket money all at one go, a machine consisting of rollers between which one fed a plain piece of paper and from the other end emerged a genuine ten shilling note. Having made the purchase I soon discovered that whereas the salesman was sixpence richer, my gain was merely to be much the wiser. Nevertheless, I have a suspicion that I still could be persuaded by another salesman with similar magical goods to take up a similar unlikely opportunity.
Then, most compelling of all sights, were the pot stalls, where, in a Dutch auction, whole china tea services went, as the trader emphasised, not for £2, not for thirty bob, not for a £1 or even fifteen shillings, but half a guinea the lot. The crowd gathered round as cups were held against the light to show their translucency, and plates and saucers fanned out in magnificent display on a man’s arm, then collapsed back into a neat pile. We waited in vain to see a plate dropped or a cup smashed, and wondered how many dinner services had been sacrificed in acquiring such skill.
But no matter the type of market, financial, wholesale, rag-and-tag or whatever, the essentials are the same. Buyers and sellers come together, and agree to purchase or not, the one trusting, maybe foolishly, maybe not, in the integrity of the other.
The popular image of the “market trader” – the use of the word has a tinge of disapproval about it, coupled with a touch of envy – is of one who fiddles his taxes, drives a flashy car, and lives in an expensive house in which is stored his untaxed cash. Goods shower from the back of lorries into his path. He should be trusted, if at all, only as far as he can be seen.
That image may fit one or two, but I believe it maligns the great majority of decent folk, who are ordinary, honest citizens, hard-working, warm-hearted and kindly.
Markets are neither new nor peculiar to one country. They are universal and, as the saying goes, as old as the hills. They were certainly a familiar sight to Jesus as he walked through the towns and villages of his land. Very likely, as a carpenter, he had traded himself. Man of the people, and shrewd observer, he knew the ways of those who bought and sold. Two New Testament references to markets which come to mind seem apposite.
The first is the clearing of the Temple of the money changers and others. Jesus referred to the traders making the Temple a “Den of Thieves”, or, in another translation, a “Robbers’ Cave”.
It surely was not trading as such that so angered Jesus. What he found intolerable was fraud. Fraud is the antithesis of trust, of respect, of a regard for the dignity of others, in summary, the converse of the love of one’s fellow man. Cheating sits ill with a commandment to love one’s neighbour.
The other reference is that of giving good measure, well pressed down, when dealing with others. Jesus marked out the honest trader and spoke with affection of her. Generosity in deed marks a spirit of charity.
The material aspects of the world in which we live operate, largely, if not exclusively, in markets of one kind or another. Labour is bought and sold, goods are purchased or bartered, services are offered and exchanged, promises are made, bargains struck. We buy and sell, we offer and accept services, voluntarily or for reward, that we might live our lives. But it is, and arguably more importantly, in the market place in its widest sense, that our Christian credentials are tried and tested.
The classic picture of the hypocrite is of the man or woman, Scribe or Pharisee, who separates worship from living, who mouths the faith and acts, what is sometimes euphemistically described, pragmatically. John describes such a one as having faith without works. Jesus’ most cutting words are reserved for he who preaches, but intentionally fails to practise.
In the ultimate, we are what we do, not what we say we are. We are not asked to absent ourselves from the market place. How could we do that when life revolves round it. But our behaviour in that market place might be a rule of thumb guide as to how far we are from the Kingdom of Heaven. There is the crucial test of whether or not our professed faith is translated into everyday living, or is simply for public display, like a framed certificate displayed in a prominent place on the wall.
Jesus saw that the Temple was being desecrated not because trade had been conducted there, but because in the conduct of that trade, deceit supplanted honesty, duplicity replaced trust.
Over the last decade or so, we have heard much of the merit of market values. It is in the market place, it is said, that worth is tested. The cynicism many feel towards this philosophy is not because markets are wicked places in themselves; on the contrary they may be exciting, exhilarating places, where good men and women come together.
It is because the ethics of the temple traders have so often appeared to take precedence over those of the woman whose measure was well-pressed down and over-flowing. Do the others, but don’t get done yourself.
The trader who tricks the customer, the customer who steals from the trader, illustrate the worst features of market values. Conversely, the fair trader and the honest customer illumine an aspect of love and trust to which Christians aspire.
Jesus was incensed by men, who in a Temple built for the worship of the highest, sought to defraud their fellows. So too, if in our professed beliefs we expound the truth, yet live the false, we deserve the scorn of our contemporaries.
Jesus pointed out that what he titled the Kingdom of God was not some far off place, but was present in our daily lives. When truth replaces falsehood, then trust will dislodge misgiving. When measures are pressed down, full and brimming over, we demonstrate in a practical fashion our love for one another.
The hymnist reminds us that “… who sows the false shall reap the vain”.
The test God obliges us to sit, as to who and what we really are, is a practical one, set anew every day. It is not a theoretical written paper, answer any four questions from eight and complete only on a Sunday. The practical examination occurs in the markets of everyday life, rather than in the cloistered setting of the Church or Chapel.
To paraphrase Paul, I may have faith enough to move mountains, my attendance at worship may be exemplary, but if I give short measure, if I cheat my colleague, then my profession of Christian beliefs will sound pretty hollow.
True market values are about human behaviour rather than those which control monetary exchange. In the vocabulary of the market, competition is said to loom large. But under the same initial letter of competition may be found other words beginning with “c” appropriate to a good life.
Words such as compassion, concern, co-operation, Christianity, and charity. These are the words one associates with true living. The words criminality, cheating and calumny should have no place in our relationships one with another.
The extent to which charity replaces cheating will determine whether the market place is to be applauded or condemned. The market is not merely a commercial forum.
It is a crucible wherein faith is put on trial. A crucible which separates the precious metal from the dross.
C.J. Rosling 15 November 1987
Revised 5 January 1991, April 1995, September 2003
Fulwood 15 Nov. 1987; 23 April 1995
Mexborough 22 Nov. 1987; 24 September 1995
Upper 6 Jan. 1991
Hucklow 3 September 1995; 21 September 2003
Chesterfield 13 April 1997
Doncaster 7 December 1997