September 29 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Amos 6:1a, 4-7; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31
Theme: There are so many possibilities this week, none of them pleasant. After the GFC we might try the EGFC – "The Eternal Great Financial Crisis". Or "No More Wriggle Room", perhaps. I'm going for "Living in a Gated Community".
Introduction. For some time now we have been witnessing tougher and tougher teaching against materialism and today it reaches its inescapable conclusion. Amos blasts the society of his time – or at least the wealthy elite of his time – for their gross self-indulgence and their consequent lack of concern for the real state of their nation. St Paul is at his most explicit on the same subject: a love of material wealth is the root of all evil. And the gospel passage could hardly be clearer: the path to hell is paved, not so much with good intentions, as with self-absorption. However many chances we may be given along the way, the number is finite. One day there are no more chances. Those who are forever demanding that "someone (else) must be held accountable" may be assured that everyone will be.
Background. Last week I advanced the argument that the story of the Unjust Steward (a.k.a. the Dishonest Manager) forms the second of a trilogy of stories we find only in Luke's gospel, the first being the parable of the Prodigal (Lost) Son and the third being today's story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. On further digging I think we can see that in fact Luke started this theme even earlier in the gospel than that. Look again at the Parable of the Great Dinner (Luke 14:15-24), and particularly at the excuses offered for non-attendance by the invited guests. In each case their own interests precluded their acceptance of the invitation they had received. And even the teaching that immediately preceded that parable (14:12-14) could suggest Luke is beginning the big build-up of Jesus' teaching on the dangers of material wealth.
But again this week we start with that great prophetic satirist, Amos. Just enjoy for a moment his skill at painting the picture he gives us of the life of the elite of his time. In four sharp verses he attacks their idleness, their luxurious comfort, their food consumption, their musical choices, their wine consumption, and their cosmetic use! And then Amos gets to his real point: all this self-absorption comes at the cost of a complete lack of concern for the state of the nation as a whole. But, he warns in a wonderful phrase that sticks in my mind, "the revelry of the loungers shall pass away". Isn't that wonderful? Aren't we ready to shout "Amen, amen!"?
Yes, until we remember that we have to live in a real world where such prophetic flights of fancy come up against economic realities. Doesn't Amos understand that the Bed-manufacturing business pours millions of dollars into our economy – doesn't he realise how many jobs it creates? Okay, using ivory to make furniture these days is not acceptable, but gold would be fine – especially if it came from Macrae's. And we could go through his whole list on a similar basis. Why shouldn't we buy ever bigger beds and lie on them to watch ever more expensive boats on our ever flatter and wider T.V. screens? It's the economy, stupid, as some American or other is supposed to have said, though probably not in a debate with Amos. What sort of an economy would we have without rampant self-indulgence? What contribution to GDP did an itinerant preacher and loud-mouth like Amos ever make?
I could, of course, rant on like this for ever, but I'll round off with another example from my favourite feature in Time Magazine. The magazine unusually has about 4 very brief items headed by a number in very large, bold type, and underneath in much smaller print it simply states what the number relates to. The example that caught my eye recently was this: "$815 million – estimated amount Americans will spend on Valentine's Day gifts for their pets this year." And on the day that I am writing these notes I received an email from the Sojourners Community in Washington D.C. about a Bill that is presently before the House of Representatives, supported by one Stephen Fincher, a Representative from Tennessee. The Bill proposes two things of particular interest to Mr Fincher. It proposes to gut the food assistance programme that presently provides SNAP benefits (previously called food stamps) for nearly 4 million poor families, worth up to $133 per month for a family of four. Mister Fincher supports the removal of this assistance. The Bill also proposes to increase farm subsidies. Do you want to guess what Mr Fincher does for a living when he's not in Washington? Those subsidies are worth $70,000 to Mr Fincher per year. Since 1999 he has received $3,500,000 in subsidies from the American public purse. And why does Sojourners Community point the finger at Mr Fincher in particular? Because he is a self-proclaimed born-again Christian and cited the Bible in support of reducing aid to the poor.
Now staying with Time Magazine, a few months ago its feature article was on the so-called "Blade Runner", the South African athlete, Oscar Pistorius, who is charged with murdering his girl-friend. His defence, of course, is that he woke up in the night, heard a noise coming from the bathroom, and, thinking that there was an intruder holed up in the bathroom, fired his gun through the door. Well, the jury can sort all that out when the trial takes place; but the bit that came to mind as I reflected on this week's gospel story was the fact that the house in which all this took place was part of a gated community. He is a rich man and lives in an expensive house. Crime is rife so the whole community lives behind security gates and armed guards are employed as a further security measure. Think about that for a moment. Doesn't that exactly capture the folly of trusting in material wealth to bring us personal security? Can we really shut our neighbour out and live in peace with that neighbour? And the question is not only one for each of us as individuals – it is one for every society and nation in the world. What is Australia's policy towards so called "boat-people" but an attempt to turn the whole country into a gated community?
And how on earth did Luke lead us from a few guys turning down dinner invitations to Australia's policy on boat people? Is there really a connecting thread here?
Amos. This is written at a rare time of peace and prosperity for the people of Israel; and we know from our own history what tends to happen in such times. We tend to think in terms of financial bubbles – on the stock market or in the housing sector. What we refuse to acknowledge is that whatever form it takes in the economic and financial world it is a manifestation of a deep spiritual malaise. A friend once said that his real criticism of Rogernomics in all its various forms was that it gave us permission to be selfish. Amos would agree whole-heartedly. The so-called "good life" or "high life", pushed so hard by the advertising industry, is actually the selfish-life: self-indulgence is not a good basis for spiritual well-being. We might quibble over some of the details in this indictment; why shouldn't we indulge a taste for lamb or veal, have a bit of a sing-song, and strum a chord or two? But the thrust is clear: pleasing ourselves is not pleasing to God.
Taking It Personally.
- Do you consider yourself rich? Compared to whom?
- Sojourners Community argues that a nation's budget is an ethical document as well as a financial one. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
- Is your personal budget an ethical one or not?
- In what way does your faith influence your purchases?
- In what way will your faith influence the way in which you will vote in the local body elections? What about in next year's General Election?
- Are you, or have you ever been, ambitious? For what?
- Over the past few days what has concerned you most: the outcome of the America's Cup in San Francisco ; the terrorist attack in the Kenyan mall; the floods in Colorado; the earthquake in Pakistan; or none of the above?
Timothy. I can't resist pointing out that there has been some careful editing being carried out here by the authors of The Lectionary. This chapter starts off with Paul's exhortations to Christian slaves to treat their masters particularly well, even more so if their masters are also Christians. For some reason, despite their clear relevance to economics, we are directed to start at verse 6. Here we are assured that "there is great gain in godliness and contentment", which is a good deal safer as a topic than slavery. But Paul still does not spare our blushes. We should be content if we have enough to eat and wear. Most of us might want to add a roof over our heads, but beyond that I doubt if we could persuade Paul to go. Notice how in verses 9 and 10 those who are rich – or wish to be – are described in terms of victimhood – they are "trapped", he says, and they pierce themselves with many pains. Wealth can bite the hand that grasps it. The best thing to do with it is give it away to those in need.
Taking It Personally.
- A good opportunity for self-examination and, if necessary, confession.
- Do you have, or have you ever had, a desire to be wealthy? Why?
- Have you ever bought a Lotto ticket? Are you more likely to when the jackpot is bigger? What would you do with a big win?
- What do you really feel about the teaching in verse 17? Is this a "Yeah, right!" verse for you?
- What is the most you have ever spent on a "luxury" item for yourself? How does this compare with the largest donation you have ever made to a charity?
Luke. Once again, it is interesting to notice what we are not told in this story. We assume that Lazarus lay at the rich man's gate day after day; that he was clearly visible to the rich man; and that the rich man simply ignored him. But none of that is actually written. Now ask yourself, would the story be the same if Lazarus lay in a park across the road, or outside a neighbouring house? And what would you think if Lazarus was just one of many beggars targeting this particular rich man? So perhaps the story is not intended to be quite so particular as we are inclined to read it. The point is that this nameless rich man (in the real world he would be a Big Name, and the beggar would be nameless) has chosen to separate himself from those in need – from his neighbour in the Christian sense of the term. And, of course, this separation is replicated in the somewhat staged scene from the after-life, which is surely not intended to be taken too literally. The key point lies in the rich man's choice to live in a gated community – to separate himself from the needy Other. (The gate has become a chasm that cannot be CROSS-ED.) Recall the Lord's teaching in Matthew 25:41-46. At last, when all else has failed, the rich man thinks of his brothers, but it is too late. They have the same warnings as everyone else (from Moses and the prophets, including Amos). If people like those brothers will not heed the prophets, they are hardly likely to take any notice of a person who returns from the dead.
Taking It Personally.
- How do you really feel about this story?
- Do you have sympathy for the rich man?
- How would you feel about a beggar lying at your gate?
- Would it make any difference to you if the beggar lay somewhere else?
- Do you feel any obligation to "warn" other people, friends and family, before it is too late for them?
- Do you believe in a final accounting before God?