October 14, 2012

 

ON BEING POOR AND ON BEING RICH

                                                       Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                            at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 14 October 2012
 
                                                    Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures: Amos 5: 6-7, 10-15
                                                   Reading from the Gospel:                         Mark 10: 17-31

 

There’s a saying, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, and being richer is better than being poorer!”  And then there is a line from a song that affirms, “The rich get rich, and the poor get children!”  The implication is that it is better to be rich than poor.  Well, let’s think about that for a while.

There was a time when I was a millionaire – not in US dollars, of course, but in terms of Kenyan shillings, when we were living in Nairobi and the exchange rate was 100 shillings to the dollar.  And there have been times, not too often, when I have wondered where the money for my next meal was coming from.  I am not going to say which state of affairs was the better, just that they were different, very different.

What I do know is this.  While Forbes might publish the names of the top 500, it does not publish the names of the bottom 500.  So you don’t have to worry about falling out of the bottom 500, but the whole world knows when you have fallen out of the top 500, and how quickly you are slipping down the list.  There is competition to be richer than someone else or to stay richer than someone else – but there is no competition to be poorer than someone else!

As a parish priest I have ministered to some, a few, who are very rich, and I have ministered to some, very many who are very poor.  Both groups worry about money – but then who doesn’t, despite what Jesus said about the subject in the Sermon on the Mount.  The poor worry where the next nickel is coming from, while the rich worry about how to keep every last nickel they can lay their hands on.  Have you ever noticed that there are no tax loopholes for the poor, only for the rich?  Now I would be the first to argue that, since the loopholes were enacted into law by government, they are legal, and taking advantage of loopholes is not illegal, but you have to wonder about the morality of those loopholes.

I was brought up in a country which had a sliding tax scale.  At the bottom end people only paid what might be called the national health tax, a few pennies on the pound.  But at the other end of the scale there were those earning over £12,000, who were paying 97.5 per cent on everything over that figure.  The Government wanted to appoint the chairman of ICI – Imperial Chemical Industries – as the chairman of British Railways, and to lure him away from ICI the Government had to agree that his net annual salary would go up by £1000, which meant that he had to receive a gross salary of £125,000 or an extra £113,000!  Of course, those who travelled by rail had to pay for the chairman to receive such a salary even though the bulk of it then went to the Government in the income tax he paid.  You might say the ordinary commuters were the ones paying the rich man’s taxes.

That might be an extreme example but it reveals the truth that the rich get richer at the expense of the poor – and that is not a political statement, but a matter of plain economics – and since it has been enacted into law it is all quite legal, but is it moral, is it justice, is it righteousness?

This was the challenge Amos dared to cast down before the rich of his day.  He saw how the rich trampled all over the poor.  They took away their very food supplies when the poor could not pay back the loans they were forced to take out at usurious rates.  Today the equivalent would be the foreclosures that we have seen over the last several years. Amos condemned the wealthy for their luxurious life-styles, consuming fine foods and wine, living in expensive housing usually built by underpaid stonemasons, rather than in the barely adequate huts and tents of the working poor.  They took bribes and under-the-table  payments while evicting the poor from their lands and their livelihoods.  And they were the ones who passed the laws and sat in so-called judgement when the poor could not meet what the rich called their responsibilities.  And most people accepted a self-serving censorship of silence rather than criticize what the rich and, therefore, powerful were doing.  Of course, all this was happening twenty-eight centuries ago in a remote corner of the Mediterranean world.  It could never happen in our day, in our world, could it? 

Three-quarters of a millennium later, in the same part of the world, Jesus was confronted by a very wealthy, self-satisfied young man.  Unless he had been indulging in some nefarious skullduggery this young man must have inherited his vast wealth.  He could hardly have acquired it as a result of his own physical or intellectual labour. 

Now let us keep in mind that it is the consistent and solid teaching of the bulk of the Hebrew Scriptures that those possessed of material blessings must be good and virtuous and that such wealth was their just reward.  Although we find such a view frequently expressed in the Hebrew Scriptures, it was not true then and it is still not true today.  It is not for nothing that money is called “filthy lucre”.

So the young man had lucre, but he also was not too sure about how to live his life, even though he had all this wealth.  We do not know much more about this man.  Was he a Sadducee taunting Jesus with a reference to “eternal life”?  The Sadducees and many Jews even today do not accept the concept of eternal life.  Was he a Pharisee, also taunting Jesus on the minute details of the law?  For a Pharisee and for many Jews today, and for many Christians too, we might add, it’s the minute details that matter.  Whether he was a Pharisee or a Sadducee, Jesus has a moment of fun, suggesting that he knew the man was not truly sincere with his question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  (Incidentally, did you notice the verb there – “to inherit”?  The rich young man did not want to pay for it, he did not want to earn it, but he expected to inherit it, just as he had inherited his other blessings.)  And Jesus cites some of the Ten Commandments, excluding the one about coveting.  (Was Jesus aware that the young rich man, like so many other rich people coveted other people’s wealth to add to his own?  As Paul was to say much later, “It is the lust for money that is at the root of all evil.)  

The young man claimed that he was keeping all those commandments, and Jesus seems to have believed him, although Mark does not say so.  So Jesus reached out to him with advice that he needed to hear, although it was not advice that he wanted to hear.  What this particular young man needed to do was to divest himself of all his wealth giving the proceeds to those in real financial need.  Once he had done that, he should look for Jesus again and walk the walk that Jesus walked – and he did not want to do that, at least not then. 

We do not know who this young man was.  Personally I like to think that it was the man who was later to be called Barnabas, who was very wealthy and later sold all that he had and gave it to the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem before taking Mark as a companion and going out as an apostle of the risen Christ.  I like to think that, but I cannot prove it. 

Whoever he was, he went away sadly, because he was indeed very rich and did not want to give up those riches and the prestige and reputation that went with them.  And his departure prompted those well-known words of Jesus about how difficult it is for anyone who is rich in this world’s goods to become a participant in the next world’s blessings.  It was an amazing truth in Jesus’ day, but it was still the truth.  It was the truth then and it is still the truth today.  So many people still want to be rich in this world’s goods. 

For the last several months in this country there has been talk about tax breaks for the middle class, so-called.  One party puts those earning $250,000 in the middle class.  Another party argues that those earning a million dollars are middle class.  I don’t know about you, but if we follow the first figure I am hardly in the middle class at all, and if we are to follow the second figure I am definitely numbered among the poor.  And in what category should we place a church secretary, a single mother, who receives $10,200 per annum before social security deductions?  Incidentally, her contribution to the Social Security funds in this country represents a higher percentage of her income than those who gross more than $110,000 per annum, since they do not have to pay anything in the way of FICA contributions on their income over $110,000.  That is the law.  It is, therefore, legal; but is it moral, is it righteous, is it just? 

When my Daddy died in 1951 he was earning £771 a year, or roughly $2158.  Our family was comfortably middle class by the standards of the day.  Maybe the value of money has gone down so much that we should multiply 1951 figures by, say, 20 to get an equivalent figure for today – we could say he was earning $43,000 and change.  These days surely that is lower middle class, where I think my Mum would have put us in the 1950s.  (She maintained that if your father went out to earn his pay your family was working class – but “working class” is considered by many in this country to be infra dig!) 

Over the last six months or more we have seen men and women of all political persuasions raising thousands, millions, even billions of dollars in order to run campaigns to get themselves elected to political office, often, indeed usually, using expressions of sheer calumny against their opponents, and all for jobs the salaries of which fall in what they call the middle-class bracket.  I wonder just how many of the Ten Commandments these candidates for office have broken during their campaigns – certainly the one concerning false witness.  How hard it is for those who have wealth (or access to it) to enter the Kingdom of God!

What Amos had to say two and three-quarter millennia ago, what Jesus said two millennia ago are still words of truth.  It is easy to cite politicians and candidates for high office in this context, but the same is true right across the whole spectrum of human activities.  If your interest is in gaining more of this world’s wealth than you really need, then you are missing out on the blessings of the next world, which you really do need.

Jesus made a promise to Peter and the rest, and he is making it to all of us.  “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life.”  Forty years ago, as Paula and I started out on married life, we realized that we would never be really wealthy in the material terms of this world, but we can vouch for the places all around the world that we can count on where people will say, “Make yourselves at home.”  We have spiritual brothers and sisters all over the place, and there are some women who love to mother us, given half a chance.  And we have known, as Archbishop Mannasses Kuria in Nairobi was wont to remind us, some share of persecutions.  The first part of the promise that Jesus made we have experienced and continue to experience, even the persections, and, if we are honest, we know already that he is keeping the second half, that bit about “in the age to come eternal life” because that too is part of our experience even now.

We all of us need to dispose of whatever it is that is impeding us from following Jesus in this life so that we may follow him down the way in this life that leads to being with him in the age to come where we may experience eternal life.  What did Jesus say in the Sermon on the Mount?  Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness and all that you need shall be added unto you.

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