The beginning of the Bible on why we end up like thisJune 21, 2022
Strikes: to what end?June 29, 2022
In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-26), the rich man in hell pleads with Father Abraham to send Lazarus with some water to cool his tongue. The answer he gets is that this is impossible, because ‘between us and you there is a great gulf fixed’. I have often felt that, apart from the obvious meaning in the context, this is a true description of relationships in life. Those of us who are comfortably off find a great practical, social and psychological gulf (or, to quote the modern versions, chasm) separating us from the so-called ‘underclass’ in our society, and even more from the poor in other parts of the world. We cannot enter into their situation, nor can they enter into ours.
First, there is a huge difference of perception. We begin to feel worried if our savings are getting a bit depleted or if our credit card bill is a bit high. Poor people don’t have savings accounts or credit cards – their worry is the threat of eviction if they can’t pay the rent this week. We feel the pinch if we need to cut down on dinners out with our friends – they don’t know whether they will get anything to eat today at all. A pound to me is small change, but to some people it can be the difference between eating and starving.
Speaking personally, I am not a rich man by British standards. As a retired Baptist minister, I have a lower-than-average income. In my early days in the ministry, I struggled at times to pay the bills, and always felt I was poorer than most of my congregation. In the years since then things have changed. Unemployment, insecure jobs, low wages, and the strains on the Welfare State have brought about a society in which many people are ‘just coping’ or not coping at all. In the later years of my ministry, I came across many people who were much worse off than myself. And of course, in global terms, like most people in this country, I am among the rich.
There is also a difference of power. When giving to someone in need, I give what I decide to give. They may succeed in persuading me to give more, but in the end, it is my decision. The person receiving the gift has no choice but to accept what they are given because they need it. My money gives me the power and freedom to choose.
There can also be a moral and spiritual gulf. When a beggar asks for ‘change’ for a cup of tea or a sandwich, we suspect it may be spent on drugs or alcohol. We may take the moral high ground and lecture them or question them. If we give at all, we give grudgingly, and afterwards we may even search our conscience as to whether it was right to give. We tend to expect higher standards from poor people than those we apply to ourselves. We think they should control their appetites, while we ourselves are quite happy to overspend, overeat or drink a bit too much just to cheer ourselves up when we are feeling a bit low, or to unwind after a heavy day – a day that has actually been much easier than the day most poor people have had.
When I was living in a manse, I often had vagrants calling at the door. One of them came quite regularly, and I would often smell alcohol on his breath. One day when I told him I couldn’t afford to give him anything, he said he thought the church had a fund for that kind of thing. ’Yes’, I said, ‘but the church wouldn’t approve of me spending it on drink for you.’ ‘What’s wrong with drink?’, he said, ‘Lots of people drink. Vicars drink. The Archbishop of Canterbury drinks.’ ‘Yes’, I said, ‘but he doesn’t ask other people to pay for it.’ His answer came back with impeccable logic: ‘He doesn’t have to – wherever he goes they give it to him!’
Then there is the question of deceit. If someone asks us for a loan because they are threatened with eviction, we wonder whether they are telling us the whole truth – do they perhaps have a gambling problem? If people tell you they’re destitute, are they exaggerating their poverty? Is it a scam? But deceit can work both ways. Am I exaggerating my inability to give? When I say I can’t afford it, how truthful am I being? I may tell them my savings are low and I have my own bills to pay, but I don’t feel an obligation to disclose the details of my bank account or my income.
Then there is the question of motive. Am I giving because I really care about the person I am giving to, or because as a Christian I get a good feeling out of doing the right thing? Am I giving just because of the fear that I would have a bad conscience if I refused? Again, the ‘great gulf’ affects the relationship. If I was in difficulties and I thought a close friend was helping me out just because he felt obliged to do the Christian thing, I would be offended. Yet this is often the kind of motive we have in helping people of a different class or country. Is this truly loving our neighbour?
In addition to these psychological and spiritual questions there is the question of justice. Charitable giving is sometimes faced with the tension between the individual and the wider society. Many people disapprove of things like sponsorship and ‘twinning’ because they confer unfair privilege on certain individuals or local communities. It seems fairer to give to an organised charity, which looks at the whole picture and directs its funds to the areas of greatest need. At the same time, there seems to be something more human and less bureaucratic about making a personal contact with an individual, a family or a community. We can see for ourselves the difference our giving is making to their lives.
It also usually results in our giving more than we otherwise would, and that is surely good. If we are feeling the pinch, it is relatively simple to cut down our giving to charities, but it is much more difficult to say no when you are face-to-face with someone and you can see that their need is far greater than yours. This face-to-face way of giving means entering a relationship, which brings us back to the problem of the ‘great gulf’. Is a real, authentic relationship possible where there is a gross inequality of wealth and power?
There are also practical issues. Giving to an individual can sometimes be a bit complicated. If we give enough to visibly improve their life, we run the danger of making them more vulnerable to the envy and hostility of their neighbours. We may also be in danger of setting up a dependent situation and robbing them of the incentive or ability to tackle their problems themselves. In this way we may not be doing them as much of a favour as we think. When our immediate reaction to seeing people’s need is to give them more money, is this just another example of the worship of Mammon – the belief that money is the answer to everything?
As Christians we cannot get away from the radical challenge of the teaching of Jesus:
‘Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you’ (Mt 5:42)
‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth’ (Mt 6:19)
‘Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry’ (Luke 6:24-25)
‘… go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ (Mk 10:21)
‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God’ (Mk 10:25)
There are other parts of the Bible that sound a bit more like common sense. The Book of Proverbs has a prayer: ‘… give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, or I shall be full, and deny you, and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God.’ (Proverbs 30:8-9)
There are laws in the Pentateuch that command the better off people to deal justly with their servants and workers:
‘You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy labourers … You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt’ (Deut 24:14-15)
The prophets, too, are very stern in their condemnation of people who become inordinately rich by stealing or by cheating others:
‘The Lord enters into judgement with the elders and princes of his people: it is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? says the Lord God of hosts.’ (Isa 3:14-15)
‘Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches … who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp … who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph’ (Amos 6:4-6)
The use of the expression ‘Joseph’ to mean the kingdom of Israel is a reminder that Israel was a tribal society. The ethic expressed in the law and the prophets was based on the idea of family. Anyone who found that one of their family was in difficulty was obliged to take responsibility for helping them, and this principle was extended beyond the close family to the whole tribe and the whole nation. It was also extended to aliens living in the community, on the ground that Israelites should remember that they themselves were once slaves among an alien people.
There are also laws that enjoin generosity to those in need:
‘Do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbour. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.’ (Deut 15:7-8)
There is a commandment that may sound a bit quaint to us today but is worth noting in these days of intensive farming for maximum profit:
‘When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.’ (Deut 24:19-20)
The Book of Job is interesting in its attitude to wealth. The introduction says that Job had ‘7000 sheep, 3000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 donkeys, and very many servants’. His sons, too, enjoyed a life of luxury – they regularly held feasts in each other’s houses. Here is a man who would certainly not pass the eye of the needle test! And yet the theme of the book is the question of why bad things happen to good people, and so it is integral to the plot that Job should be portrayed as a paragon of virtue. He is described as ‘blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil’.
In lamenting the loss of his former way of life, Job says things like: ‘I delivered the poor who cried, and the orphan who had no helper. The blessing of the wretched came upon me, and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy… I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy, and I championed the cause of the stranger.’ (Job 29:12ff). These, in the teaching of the Old Testament, are the moral obligations of a rich man.
In the Old Testament generally, and in most of the New Testament, inequality is recognised as a fact of life. Outside the few sayings of Jesus we have quoted, it is not suggested that there is anything wrong with being richer than someone else. Jesus himself had rich friends, accepted their help, and had no compunction in enjoying their hospitality. In the general view of the Bible, it is not wealth that is condemned, but only greed, cheating, and exploitation. Jesus, however, went further. He took the Old Testament commandment to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ with radical seriousness, urging people to extravagant and reckless generosity.
In the New Testament outside the Gospels, we have a glimpse of how the early Church attempted to put this into practice. We read that ‘no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common … There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need’ (Acts 4:32-35). This statement is followed by the example of Barnabas. Perhaps this single example implies that not everyone did this. There follows the story of Ananias and Sapphira, who betrayed the principle by lying about what they had received and were severely punished. From what Peter said to them, it seems that there was no assumption that they were compelled to sell their property or even, after selling it, to give up the whole of the proceeds. It was the deceit and hypocrisy that brought the anger of the community upon them.
It soon became clear that this sharing was not as simple as it first appeared. As the community grew in numbers, it developed into a regular distribution of food to the widows, but this led to some tension between two parts of the community, the Hebrews and the Hellenists, so a structure had to be created. A group of people, a kind of committee, was appointed to make sure the distribution was fairly and properly organised (Acts 6:1-6).
The Apostle Paul was engaged in a collection for the impoverished Christians in Jerusalem. He suggests to the Corinthian church that on the first day of the week they put aside whatever extra they earn and keep it for him to collect on his next visit (1 Cor 16:2). In his second letter there is a passionate fundraising sermon. First Paul appeals to the natural human spirit of competition, urging them to follow the example of the churches of Macedonia, but then he ramps up the challenge by pointing to the example of Jesus who ‘though he was rich, yet for your sakes became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich’ (2 Cor 8:9).
There are signs that from a very early time the church had to deal with people who took advantage of its generosity. In the second letter to the Thessalonians there is a reference to believers living in idleness and expecting the community to keep them. ‘Anyone unwilling to work’, it says, ‘should not eat’ (2 Thess 3:10). This, of course, has sometimes been misused by right-wing Christians as a political principle, but in its proper context it was no doubt quite a reasonable thing to say to certain people.
In the Pastoral Epistles we can see that the care of widows was becoming problematic. A distinction was beginning to develop between the deserving and the undeserving. Young widows were exhorted to remarry, and families were exhorted to provide for their relatives rather than expecting the church to do it (1 Tim 5:3-16). Meanwhile, the rich are commanded ‘not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches’, but ‘to be rich in good works, generous and ready to share’ (1 Tim 6:17-19). There is no expectation that they will give up their wealth altogether. Clearly, the Christian Church soon ceased to insist that its members should literally follow the teaching and example of Jesus and his first followers. This radical vision of a Kingdom way of life came up against the reality of everyday life for most of its members.
This perhaps had something to do with a change of setting: the Gentile Christians of the second and third generations were predominantly in an urban setting and an economy rather different from the rural life and subsistence economy of Galilee.
In our global capitalist society today, we face a different, and in some ways greater, challenge. To begin with one simple difference: in the Galilean setting in which Jesus spoke, most of the poorer people were day labourers. They offered themselves for work in the morning, and at the end of the day they were paid a wage that was just enough to feed their family that evening – with, if they were lucky, a little money left over for other things. Even the slightly better off people, like Zebedee and his sons with their fishing business, were largely dependent on their catch from day to day. Jesus exhorted people to practise faith by living for the day and not worrying about tomorrow. He taught his disciples to pray ‘give us this day our daily bread’. But most people in our society get a wage packet once a week or a salary cheque once a month. Perhaps today Jesus would say ‘take no thought for next week’ or ‘next month’.
Does this perhaps mean that the challenge for us is to give away whatever surplus we may have at the end of each month rather than saving it? But then, we have to consider the security of our homes and families, as well as various annual bills. How much we really ought to save is not a simple question. There is a thin line between the greed that is obsessed with accumulating wealth and the wisdom most of us try to practise by sensible planning.
The greatest difference between our situation and that of Bible times is that we live in a world of instant global communication. In the biblical world the commandment ‘love your neighbour’ referred to people who inhabited the same space and met each other face to face. The beggar Lazarus in the parable sat at the rich man’s gate. The rich man saw him every time he went in or out of his house. The Good Samaritan was an individual who happened to be faced with another individual in dire need.
Today, because of instant communications, we know about the needs of suffering people all over the world. We hear statistics about them, and we see some of them dying on our television screens. In this situation the commandment to love your neighbour is of infinite scope – the neighbour is everybody in the world.
Another factor that makes our situation different is that we live in a democratic society. Other people’s poverty is not just a fact of life we can do nothing about. Love for the neighbour demands that we get involved in the struggle to change the whole system that makes the majority of people in the world poor while a minority are rich. Political activism was rarely an option for people in the biblical culture, but in our situation it is an integral part of what it means to be a disciple.
Having said that, there is still the immediate need of people in front of us. We cannot tell desperately poor and suffering people to wait until we have changed the world. We must do what we can for them now. The problem is that none of us as individuals can possibly help everybody. Our giving goes into a bottomless pit, and we can never escape a feeling of guilt.
In practice, poor people are often more realistic, and even forgiving, than we realise. Faced with someone who is homeless, I may think of that spare bedroom at home and feel that if I was a true Christian I would offer it to them: any expression of sympathy short of that seems hypocritical. However, in practice homeless people don’t seriously expect us to take them into our homes. All they ask is some friendly human contact and maybe a little bit of money to see them through the day. If we beat ourselves up about not meeting all the demands of poor people, we inevitably begin to resent them, and we can no longer be cheerful givers. How can we love the neighbour we resent?
This brings us under the challenge of Paul’s statement: ‘If I give away all my possessions … but do not have love, I gain nothing’ (1 Cor 13:3). It is evident here that the word ‘love’ is not used simply in the sense of practical loving actions: giving away all I have is surely the biggest practical action possible. ‘Love’ here seems to mean loving feelings, or at least a warm holistic relationship. This points us back to Jesus. The Jesus portrayed in the Gospels is not only a serious radical preacher or an angry prophet, but also a warm-hearted, sociable, loving person who enjoys life. He is as much at ease as a guest in a rich home or receiving the attentions of a woman pouring an expensive jar of ointment on him, as he is when surrounded by poor people. His love was not just general but personal. John’s Gospel even talks of a particular ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’.
Jesus supremely manifests the love of God. This surely means that his teaching is in a loving spirit too. According to Mark (10:21), before inviting the rich man to give up all his possessions, he looked upon him and loved him. When we read the sayings of Jesus about entering the kingdom of heaven, we are still a bit stuck with the traditional idea that it means going to heaven when we die. So, when Jesus says it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven, we interpret it as meaning that if we are rich we are in danger of eternal condemnation. But this is probably not the meaning at all. The preaching of Jesus was an invitation to a quality of life. He often represented the kingdom as a feast, a jolly party. The more we practise the kingdom way, the more we shall experience the blessings of the kingdom. Living a reasonably good life like the rich young man did will make us reasonably content and bring some reward, but the further we go on the road to self-forgetfulness and generosity, the more we shall know of the joy of the kingdom.
When the disciples asked Jesus, ‘Who then can be saved?’, he gave the answer, ‘For mortals it is impossible but not for God; for God all things are possible’ (Mark 10:27). The biblical concept of salvation is tied up with the grace of God. Perhaps what Jesus meant here was that it is the grace of God that makes all things possible – even making it possible for a rich person to experience the joys of the kingdom. The teaching of Jesus is not just another law to make us feel guilty – it is a gracious invitation. This doesn’t of course mean that we can let ourselves off the hook. We are not allowed any moral security in the sight of God. The challenge is still inescapable, but we are always sinners saved by grace.
To end on a practical note: in the whole history of the Christian Church there are very few examples of anyone literally following the teachings of Jesus about wealth and poverty. The monastic vow of poverty is not, of course, poverty in the sense in which most poor people experience it. Those who enter a religious community give up their personal possessions, but then they have a roof over their head and plenty of food and drink for the rest of their lives. The essence of real poverty is insecurity – not knowing where your next meal is coming from or where your bed will be tonight. Apart from a few saints like Francis, examples of someone literally giving up everything to follow Jesus are very few. In my own experience I only know of one or two people who have done something like it.
However, it is undeniable that Christianity has made the world somewhat more generous and humane than it would otherwise have been. An enormous amount of good has been done in the name of Christ.
In down-to-earth reality, none of us is perfect, but we can all be better followers of Jesus than we are. Perhaps the realistic challenge for us as affluent Western Christians today is to stop giving our small change to the poor and rise to another level of generosity and sacrifice.