In recent weeks, the common lectionary, which we use to set our Bible readings for worship, has drawn our attention to money. On August 4th, the gospel set for the day, Luke 12:13-21, told the story of the rich fool who spent his time and effort organising barns to store his wealth, only to die without having enjoyed it. The next Sunday, we followed on with Jesus’ teaching the people to sell what they have and give it to the poor in order to gain a greater treasure. This reading also gives us a way to evaluate the state of our faith: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.? (Lk.12:34) So the following recent newspaper article was timely:
Rich-poor gap a $247b drag on our wellbeing
Matt Wade, The Age, 22-7-19
The income gap between rich and poor is a bigger drag on the wellbeing of the Australian community than previously estimated, a broad measure of national welfare shows.
The Age-Lateral Economics Wellbeing Index has lifted its estimate of the wellbeing cost of income inequality in 2018 by nearly $8 billion…
Debates about how to respond to economic inequality have emerged in many Western democracies over the past decade amid growing voter concern about the distribution of wealth and income. ( Rich-poor gap a $247b drag on our wellbeing – The AGE, 7:22:2019- Click here to read)
It is heartening to know this is a concern to people generally, as it should be, but what is the Christian response? When the church speaks on such issues it often polarises people, including its own members. Those who lean to the political left decry the inequality in our society, whilst the right-wingers emphasise one’s right to hold on to that for which one has worked hard, and the value of entrepreneurship in the provision of jobs.
One can readily quote biblical guidance on this, for money is one of the common topics in Scripture. It seems that God’s main competition for loyalty in biblical times, as today, was Mammon; hence, much was written about it. St. Luke tells us, in Acts, that the early followers of Jesus shared everything in common and to each was given according to need (Acts 2:44-45).
It is easy to imagine how our present capitalist society would be anathema to Jesus and the people of ‘The Way.’ Nevertheless, we live in a very different culture. We are much better off than those living in the Roman empire of New Testament times in so many ways (and perhaps worse off in some), and much of the credit for the improvement in our lot must go to the capitalist economy. We cannot simply import first century wisdom to the 21st century without consideration of the cultural differences.
Nevertheless, one part of the biblical witness that continues to be relevant today and everyday is the command to love God and our neighbour. No matter what arguments are put up about the best ways to run our society, if they do not have love as an essential consideration, they are, in the words of St. Paul, nothing more than a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1). Indeed, they are worthless, and sometimes worse than worthless.
Of course, everyone is entitled to the fruits of their labours, provided they have not been gained by taking unfair advantage of another person or through cruelty to another creature or have resulted in the depletion of the resources of our environment. It is not ungodly to be rich, and no one should feel guilty about their wealth, unless their wealth came at the expense of others or the earth. If love has been sacrificed for the sake of financial gain, then wealth is indeed something of which to be ashamed.
Given that the readers of this are undoubtedly among the ‘rich’ of this world, and probably among the relatively well-off in our country as well, it will not require much reflection to realise it is highly unlikely that all our wealth has been gained without sacrificing at least some compassion. As a nation, we Australians use about four times our fair share of the earth’s resources, create more greenhouse gases per capita than even the Americans or Chinese, more often than not are guilty of cruelty to animals and depletion of soil and water resources in our patterns of consumption, and we have supported, directly or indirectly, systems that empower the wealthy and are prejudicial to the poor in order to maintain our status. No matter how individually righteous we have tried to be, it seems that we cannot avoid having benefited personally from the unethical, unloving behaviour built into our society.
In addition to the damage that has been done to the health of our society and the strength of the nation, consider the deleterious, putrefying effect it has had on the soul of the individual. In most cases, without knowing, our life styles and our involvement in perpetuating the system have been separating us from God, simply because of the absence of love for others in our eating, buying, driving, voting and in many of our other life choices.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. We live in a democratic society, the shape of which we choose (in theory). The most obvious choice is the way we vote, but our most effective choices are in the way we live, which in turn, affect the choices of those with whom we share this community and nation, and very importantly, affect the way business is done in a capitalist economy.
I could write a book on the beneficial changes people like you and I can make to help restore balance and equality in Australia, but fortunately, someone else has already done it. Damon Gameau’s 2040 (both a documentary film and a book) is intended as a handbook for Australians who want to create a brighter, better nation and world. As a practical path forward for all people, I highly recommend it.
Please note, I am not suggesting the sort of communism practiced by the members of the early church. There is no need to take from the rich and give to the poor, and indeed, this type of arrangement tends to lead to resentment from the ones who have to give something up, as well as feelings of resentment and inadequacy from those who find themselves objects of charity. The most important and necessary change required for a fairer and more compassionate society is to remove the imbalance of opportunity, so that everyone is able reach their potential if they choose to strive for it.
Of course, removing such imbalances is, itself, revolutionary, but following Jesus is to follow a revolutionary path. To have a fair and just society, the role of the luck of one’s birth must be minimised. There is nothing we can do about the genetic attributes with which we are born, but we can make sure there are no social or economic structures that create advantage or disadvantage. For example, in a fair and just society the disparity in the quality of education would be removed; i.e. there would be no elite private schools for the rich, and all government schools would receive adequate funding. University education would be free and available to all. All children would have access to early childhood education, not just those whose parents can afford it. Bad parenting would be moderated by communal child care. All children would have adequate housing and nourishment. Expensive, you say? Not at all, because money spent on such things is an investment that would be paid back through value-adding to people, the greatest resource we have.
I also can imagine that the cost of removing prejudicial structures from society would be largely self-funded, in that one obvious form of imbalance has to do with our flawed and ethically questionable * notion of inheritance as a right. If we really believe in equalising opportunity, then not only should a person not be disadvantaged by the luck of birth, but no one should be greatly advantaged either. Large inheritances, which would usually go to a child born into a wealthy family, can be used to provide funding for the upgrading of education, medical care, housing, etc for all, and thus avoid much of the increase in other taxes that typically are a drag on the economy.
The changes required won’t happen overnight, but they will never happen unless each of us starts now to live differently. Buy wisely and compassionately, live sustainably, and do not support any structure, directly or indirectly, whether it be social, educational, economic or political, that gives more opportunity to some than to others. Yes, it might mean you will have to disadvantage yourself or your loved ones along the way, but “do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)