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25th September 2016 Social Justice Sunday
19th Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 6.1a, 4-7
1 Timothy 6.6-19
There are certain spots around this prosperous city of ours where you’re likely to find people sitting on the pavement with a handwritten cardboard sign asking for help. One such location is at the Canberra Centre, where the upper floor of the building crosses a road, forming an overhead shelter of sorts over the pedestrian crossing. Occasionally you might see a person like that outside Tuggeranong Hyperdome, or the Erindale shops.
When you see someone begging, how do you react?
I have to confess, I have a struggle. I’m uncomfortable to be confronted with someone in such need. My mind throws up excuses to avoid dealing with them. But ever since my friend with MS told me how one of those men at the Canberra Centre had helped her get to her car with her walker when she was having a struggle, I’ve been conscious of trying not to look the other way on the few occasions I pass there. I feel convicted that I should be doing more, but at least now I don’t pass them by without even noticing them.
That was what the rich man in today’s Gospel reading was doing. Today, the Anglican Church worldwide observes Social Justice Sunday. As you probably noticed, our readings today have a common theme – the problematic and difficult issue of wealth and the responsibility it brings. Not that wealth is itself an evil thing, but that the attitude of the wealthy is all important.
Continuing Luke’s focus on what could be called “Rich Men and the dangers of Money”, and following on from last week’s teaching about the rich landlord and his sacked steward, we have another parable about a rich man, extravagantly dressed and “feasting sumptuously every day”. His eating habits are reminiscent of yet another rich man in Luke chapter 12, the one who decided to build bigger barns to store his wealth while he planned to “eat, drink, and be merry”.
This parable isn’t about life after death, though it has sometimes stirred up passionate debate about heaven and hell and eternal punishment. Instead, it’s about living in such a way that God’s justice is served. It seems likely that the basis of this parable was a common folk story which reflects a popular view of the afterlife among many Jews and non-Jews of the period, that we know about from other sources. Jesus took this story and twisted it to make his point about life in a just, transformed society – the kingdom of God on earth.
With its vivid journey to the afterlife, and its exaggerated imagery of contrast, this parable fits the literary form known as an apocalypse. An apocalypse serves as a wake-up call, pulling back a curtain to open our eyes to something we urgently need to see before it’s too late.
The exaggerated apocalyptic contrasts are many – the lavish meals of the rich man’s table in life contrast with his unquenchable thirst after death. The deathly poverty of Lazarus is reversed as he rests in the bosom of Abraham, as the old African-American spiritual quotes this passage, coyly translated in modern Bibles as being at Abraham’s side.
These contrasts underscore the parable’s function as urgent warning. The audience is encouraged to see themselves in the story, not as the rich man in his luxury, nor as the destitute beggar Lazarus. It’s in the position of the rich man’s brothers, who are still living, and able to take heed of the warning the parable offers. It asks, will we heed the warning, before it’s too late?
Jesus reminds his listeners that their Scriptures have all that people need to know what God’s will is for them in how they should live. Several of the Old Testament prophets warned against the self-indulgence of the rich who ignored the suffering of the poor. It was a common theme, demanding justice and a fair share of the earth’s bounty for the majority of the people who weren’t rich. Amos, from a humble background himself, never minced his words. In our reading today, he warned the rich and powerful that their comfort and extravagance wouldn’t last, while they ignored the suffering of the oppressed population. Amos’ point was that the leaders of God’s people have been invested with power and authority in order to fulfil a mission – to tend the faith of God’s people, so that God’s people can fulfil the mission that God had given Israel. But instead of using their authority and power to look after the welfare of God’s people, those in power had used their privilege to seek their own comfort and prosperity.
The theme here isn’t that wealth in itself is evil, but it is very risky. It can blind its owners to the reality of the world most people inhabit.
The rich man in Jesus’ parable isn’t portrayed as an overt evil-doer. His crime is his preoccupation with himself, which blinded him to the needs of others around him. He’s very rich and very privileged. Wearing garments of purple suggests some link with royalty. Having a gate and a wall implies a large mansion. Yet Jesus doesn’t give this powerful, wealthy man a name. The poor man is named – Lazarus – which means ‘God has helped’ – no one else was going to! The picture Jesus draws is one of abject poverty and humiliation. The detail about the dogs licking his sores graphically shows that his place is among the feral scavenging dogs. As a beggar, his patch was outside the rich man’s gate, but he was no more noticed by the rich man than the dogs were. Like them, he’d have been satisfied with the scraps tossed on the floor by the wealthy diners, but none came his way.
Affluence can desensitise us to the rights and needs of other people. I would think that, more often than not, rich people hardly notice the poor, and if they do, it’s with a sense of irritation: “They’re wasters. They deserve what they get.” Our readings tell us that when money gets a hold on people, other human beings cease to matter. Most shareholders of big companies don’t know, nor do they want to know, how much human misery pays them their handsome dividends.
Where money and possessions are raised to the status of a god, people don’t matter. As we read last week, wealth can become a god that governs everything people do – the god Mammon.
In Biblical times, the common belief was that misfortune, poverty or sickness, were the result of sinfulness on the part of the unfortunate sufferers. We see this expressed in chapter 9 of John’s Gospel, when on passing a man born blind, and therefore a beggar, the disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” It’s a comforting belief for the more fortunate members of society, because it means you can blame the poor for their own poverty, and be absolved of any responsibility in caring for them.
It’s still an unspoken belief today, particularly in the more prosperous sections of the population. It shows up in the way politicians talk about welfare recipients as “leaners”, as opposed to “lifters” – a divisive concept that assumes a moral superiority in the ranks of the employed, and some sort of moral culpability among those who can’t – or as they claim, won’t – work.
I read an article this week, written by Dr John Falzon, the chief executive officer of the St Vincent de Paul Society of Australia. He was responding to statements by the Social Services Minister that unemployed people and welfare recipients need to go out and get themselves a job, and the Government needs to encourage this by reducing welfare dependency – for their own good, of course. Young carers were specifically mentioned, as if making life even more difficult for a young person already overburdened with responsibility is in their best interests. It’s a popular theme, but it overlooks the reality of structural poverty in this country as in all others. Never mind that there aren’t enough jobs, that people from depressed areas find it extremely difficult to break through the economic and educational barriers. The social divide is as absolute for most people from low socio-economic backgrounds as the gulf Jesus describes in his picture of heaven and hell.
This parable targets the violence of apathy and neglect which is widening the chasm between rich and poor in our modern world. The trouble is that such abstract ideas become easy to ignore if we’re not confronted with them first hand. We’ve got enough problems of our own. We can also find we’re suffering from an overexposure to the suffering around the world through news and television, and feel we’re helpless to do anything about so much human misery. It seems overwhelming. What can we do?
Sometimes, we need to engage in active imagination of what it really means to be poor, to be a refugee, to be caught on the wrong side of the chasms which vested interests maintain. Sometimes stories that people active in social justice tell can open our eyes to see ways in which we can make a difference.
I’m reminded of an enlightening experience described by Sister Jane Keogh, whom some of you have met. She’s a Catholic nun, an ex-school principal, who works with refugees, some of whom have lived in her house from time to time. She described on Facebook her experiences navigating Centrelink with one young man, a recently arrived refugee with very limited English, and some serious mental health issues as a result of his experiences. He was required to go onto Newstart, despite the fact that he was incapable of getting a job in his present state of health. Even she found filling out the extensive paperwork, and trying to meet the requirements of the application process, extremely difficult. The people in the Centrelink office were as helpful as they could be, but there was apparently no flexibility in the system to allow for this young man’s particular problems.
Sister Jane also introduced a number of us to the program she’s started, to make a difference to some of the refugee men in detention on Manus Island. The group who’ve responded here in our parish have now sent several parcels to refugees who hadn’t received any supplies for the more than three years they’ve been in detention. Simple things like new clothes and sneakers, hair trimmers, phone credit, even a few tasty snacks, have made their lives a little more bearable.
Part of the power of this “Manus Lives Matter” initiative is that it enables us to see refugees the Government has tried to demonise, as individual human beings caught in an intolerable situation, made worse because it is done supposedly for our sakes. We have names for these men, and lists of what each of them specifically requests. If you’ve gone shopping for tea shirts or socks in a particular size for a particular person, you can’t think of him any longer as “just” an supposed illegal asylum seeker, however much the Government tries to tell us that’s what they are. When we see the humanity of a refugee or a beggar, it calls out the best in us.
Our reading from the letter to Timothy reminds its readers that a heartfelt profession of faith in God is incompatible with the longing for material abundance. Any object of desire that overshadows a primary allegiance to God endangers not only our faithfulness to the call of Jesus, but also our sense of wellbeing and contentment. Among these distractions, the desire for possessions is seen as particularly corrosive.
This warning is especially timely for us nowadays, as we live in a culture that keeps telling us happiness comes from spending and having. Here we’re offered an alternative recipe for well-being. Although human well-being requires only a minimal economic basis – “if we have food and clothing we will be content with these,” as it says in ch6:8 – the transition from basic food and clothing to nice food and clothing, and from there to stylish clothing and rich food, can sneak up on us. Whereas having our needs met is basic, our “wants” produce an endless dissatisfaction, as the letter to Timothy tells us.
The much miss-quoted phrase in verse 10 – “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” warns of the distraction a yearning for more of what signifies wealth can be. It narrows a person’s field of vision, creates a sense of dissatisfaction and anxiety, and blinds the person to what a contented and fulfilled life truly means. In the process, we lose sight of what God calls us to – life in his kingdom, loving and caring for each other, and for those less fortunate that we are, who are also beloved of God.
I’ll give the last word to Amos:
Let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.