Season of Creation
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The curse of affluence
by Rev Dr Rachel Mash, environmental Coordinator of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa
Texts (Revised Common Lectionary):
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
1 Timothy 6:6-19 (Roman Catholic, too)
Luke 16:19-31 (Roman Catholic, too)
The story of Lazarus and the rich man is a living parable for South African Society. According to a report just released by the World Bank South Africa is the most unequal society in the world.[i] “After nearly two decades of progress following the abolishment of apartheid, South Africa’s societal gains are now deteriorating. While overall the country’s poverty levels have fallen since 1994, at least 2·5 million more South Africans since then have become poor. Over half the population lives under the poverty line. Unemployment stands at a staggering 28%. Most worryingly, the gap between the rich and poor has worsened for this upper-middle-income country—71% of wealth is now held by a 10% elite; the bottom 60% of the population hold just 7% of assets—making South Africa the most unequal country in the world. The triple challenge the report describes—poverty, unemployment, and inequality—is a toxic mix for health. The warning signs for a future health crisis are here: 39% of South Africans live in overcrowded housing. Food security, stunting, and child malnutrition are worsening since 2012”. [ii]
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table.” Luke 16:19-20
Hearing the Word
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
For those who live in comfort, complacency is a special temptation. We can sink into a lethargy that says all is well, or at least not too bad. Meanwhile the environmental situation is rapidly deteriorating with huge implications for the poorest of the poor and vast numbers of God’s creatures. The starting point for those who are affluent is to open our ears to God’s voice and our eyes to the real world around us.
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 gives us a divine perspective on possessions. Jeremiah is being held prisoner by King Zedekiah. Jerusalem is under siege and Jeremiah is unflinchingly prophesying God’s coming judgement. And then Jeremiah’s cousin comes to him with a business proposition. He is being given the opportunity to buy a piece of land from his uncle in his home village.
Israel had property laws (Leviticus 25:25) which aimed both to prevent extremes of wealth and poverty, and also to protect family inheritance. And so, Jeremiah was asked to purchase a field from his uncle. Even though he is prophesying destruction, he purchases the land in a powerful symbolic action that shows Jeremiah’s faith in God’s future plans. He believes that judgment is coming, and yet he also believes in redemption beyond the disaster. From this we can draw hope.. While corporate greed, corruption and individual greed are the prominent characteristics of society – there is little hope of ecological flourishing or the wellbeing of all. And yet God also promises to renew the face of the earth. We must challenge economic and environmental injustice, but we are also working and living the redemption of God’s Earth
Comments on Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
This beautiful Psalm reminds us that whatever our fears may be, God will protect us. In Cape Town the fears of Day Zero woke many people up to the reality of environmental challenges – they can change your life completely. Many people now feel anxious about the future of the Earth. The Psalm has a wonderful picture of a chick being kept safe under the shadow of its mother’s wings. One imagines an eagles nest high up on the mountain. The chick may fear being left alone and being attacked by a predator, but once their parent returns they feel safe and secure. Just as with the story of Jeremiah who bought a field trusting in future redemption, we know that God’s plan ultimately will be fulfilled “I will show my salvation”
Comments on 1 Timothy 6: 6-19
1 Timothy 6:6-19 also speaks into the danger of setting our hearts on wealth as a life goal. Instead we should aim at contentment (6-9). Our current economic system creates insatiable demand and continuous consumption. Happiness does not come from having more, but from desiring less. Consumerist materialism in a world of limited resources is destroying the planet. There is enough for our need, but not for our greed. Rather than aiming for more and more, those who have assets are encouraged to use them creatively and generously, “be rich in good works”(17-19).[iii]
The story of Lazarus and the rich man has a similar warning to the rich. The rich man displays all the characteristics that 1 Timothy condemns – pride and living the ‘good life’ through luxury and selfish ease. He ignores the poor man living at his gate, hungry, ragged and sick. After he dies, he still has no respect for Lazarus, he asks Abraham to send him if he were his slave (24, 27).
This is a very harsh story. The rich man had no excuse of saying “I didn’t know” for Lazarus sits at his very gate. In the afterlife he will suffer endless pain. Why can his family not be saved? They also know the situation, they are rich and know of the poverty of others and do nothing. They know the words of the prophets about poverty and injustice. If Lazarus was sent back to them, they would only chase him away.
We often like to focus on the love of God and find this story jarring, and yet it is true to the key message that runs through Scripture that God is on the side of the poor. Society tips the balance the other way.
Christians cannot look at the current state of the world, the inequality, the climate challenge, loss of biodiversity, and claim ignorance. If we refuse to accept our complicity, then we will find the hardest judgement of God. There are real challenges here for all Christian churches and this is not a ‘feel good’ message.[iv]
Interpreting the Word
We live in an inequal world. Eighty two percent of the wealth generated last year went to the richest one percent of the global population, while the 3.7 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world saw no increase in their wealth, according to a new Oxfam[v] . The rich and getting richer and the poor and getting poorer. South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world. [vi]
Into this situation these passages are very important. They make it clear that it is not ok for churches to accept the status quo. We must be on the side of the poor and disadvantaged and be the voice for the voiceless. As followers of Christ, we are challenged to make a preferential option for the poor, namely, to create conditions for marginalized voices to be heard, to defend the defenseless, and to assess lifestyles, policies and social institutions in terms of their impact on the poor.
Preaching the Word
How can we then be ‘rich in good deeds’ – how do we hear the “Cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor “in the words of Pope Francis.
Jeremiah reminds us of the Biblical view of wealth – there were laws in place to prevent the build-up of wealth over many generations. The Jubilee principle was a way of redistributing wealth. In South Africa the rich have become richer and some people from previously disadvantaged communities have joined the ranks of the super-rich. But the reality is that life for a huge number of South Africans is harsh, they are living the life of Lazarus. The capitalist society makes is worse, the rich gain interest and the poor pay interest.
The story of Lazarus shows us that in our culture we separate ourselves from suffering, we build security fences and keep poor people away. But the reality is that we are locking the suffering out and also ourselves in. The richest communities are the most isolated. These patterns are destroying community. Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in South Africa.
Lazarus is the only person in all of Jesus’ parables who has a name. And that is significant – poverty is not “them out there” it is people with names, and children and stories and talent and resources to enrich others. The rich man is not given a name. We know he is a religious man for he does call out to Father Abraham for help, but he had locked the poor out of his life. The challenge for us is to rewrite the end of the story, to break down the barriers and to get to know the names and faces of those outside of our comfort zones.[vii]
When Jesus says ‘the poor will always be with you” (John 12:8). He is not saying – there will always be poverty so we don’t need to worry about it. He is quoting from the Torah :”If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be … For the poor you will always have with you in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’ (Deuteronomy 15:7-11). What he is saying is the poor will always be with you – so open your hands to give. The poor should always be with us, in our prayers, in our giving, in our decision making, in our social networks. If the poor are not part of your life and ministry and parish priorities then Jesus challenges you – the poor should always be with you.
Living the Word
So how as South Africans can we address the inequality issue? The reality is that the income gap has widened since 1994. The Bible principles of Jubilee encourage us to look at what does restitution mean for us. Inequality has developed over many generations. The children of the rich inherit: a good education, access to transport, networks of influence which makes job seeking easier, access to resources such as internet , and wealthy relatives who can assist with down payments or inherited money from family members.
According to the Restitution Foundation “restitution involves seeking to set right the generational ills of inequality by engaging those who have benefited from the system, directly or indirectly, in transferring wealth and social capital and reinvesting in communities that are still suffering.
We need to also recognise that often our wealth (from stocks and shares) came with an environmental cost, often borne by those in the poorest communities. A share in a coal mining company contributes to air pollution related health issues to townships in Mpumalanga. Our consumerist society has produced vast swathes of plastic pollution in the oceans.
Restitution is a key component of justice, which we understand as the restoration of right relationships between ourselves, other people, and our environment, in which there is enough for everyone and no one goes without, and the dignity of every human being is revered.” Our actions through generations have increased patterns of injustice, increased poverty and caused great environmental degradation. For this we make restitution, following the Biblical Jubilee principles.
Many churches are involved with great love and compassion in acts of charity: food donations, winter clothes drives, Christmas gifts. These actions are often: once off, non –relational, giving of surplus, giving what the giver things the person needs. Charity does not look at long term solutions. Restitution is long term, relational, potentially costly and developed in conversation with those to whom restitution is being made. Restitution, unlike charity, is: – “Highly relational; – Potentially costly; – Long-term; – Developed in conversation with those toward whom restitution is being made”[viii]
by Rev Dr Rachel Mash, Southern Africa
[i] Overcoming Poverty and Inequality in South Africa. The World Bank. March 2018
[ii] The Lancet , Volume 391, April 2018
[iii] Eco congregation Scotland Creation Time 2013
[iv] Eco congregation Scotland Creation Time 2016