Some reflections on wealth and the Kingdom from Church Action for Tax Justice Chair Sue Richardson.
“it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:25)
This is the third in a series of short reflections for the Advent season exploring some gospel texts about wealth, its creation and its use, our relationship with it and how it causes us to relate to others, as an invitation to some faith-based reflection on our times and our response to them. The intention is to test various understandings of the spirituality of wealth to resource our actions as Church-based organisations seeking the Kingdom of Heaven.
What do we see?
We see positions taken up by contributors to our news media and our own social media channels about who among us is deserving and who is not; who is entitled to support in hard times and who should be not just ignored but publicly criticised, demonised and rejected. There is a pecking order for care and compassion.
We fear a threat to our security and way of life from the presence, the beliefs and the actions of others whether that is to our established rituals (Can we still say Happy Christmas?), or to our personal and communal safety. We make assumptions about others’ attitudes and proactively try to defend what we suspect is under attack.
Charity begins at home, we are told, but even at home former soldiers walk the streets, families press into temporary accommodation, some are isolated by age or disability. How do we decide whose need should be prioritised? Is it really a zero sum game with attention to one inevitably meaning that another will be ignored? Or can we structure a system where those who have gained more from the way our economics works can give more to ensure everyone benefits?
ECCR/CATJ has previously campaigned to raise concern about how some forms of taxation penalise those with least. Now we face an increase in National Insurance of 1.5% from next Spring, across the board, despite the disproportionate impact on lower earners. How do I feel when my neighbour suffers?
What do we believe?
In both the Old and New Testament there is an emphasis on the communal exercise of faith. The Mosaic Law, shaped for a people charged with creating a new society, emphasised the care for the most vulnerable in the community: the orphan with no family network, the widow with no male to grant status, the stranger lacking communal knowledge and neighbourly support.
Paul wrote about the believing community being like a body, with many parts but functioning together and suffering together if one part is wounded. The basic expression of a faithful life lies in loving God with all parts of your being and loving the neighbour as yourself.
We read: The parable of the good Samaritan Luke 10:25-37
What strikes you first from this passage?
Who are these people really? This is not a story about named individuals about whom we can learn and with whom we can identify. The victim never speaks, the Levite and the Priest are ciphers for a response which can be justified but lacks the crucial element of ‘mercy’ which defines the neighbour. The Samaritan carries a stereotype which the story systematically deconstructs and makes problematic for those who prefer quick judgement and safe boundaries. They can stand for any of us.
The expert in the law is looking for boundaries. He is not looking to be instructed in the faith, he is really looking for affirmation of his knowledge of the fundamentals and he does have them accurately. But in trying to make Jesus draw a boundary for him “Who is my neighbour?” “Where can my love justifiably stop?” he finds himself drawn onto ground which is swampy with ambiguity.
He discovers that neighbourliness demands more than seeing and then judging the impact of the neighbour’s need on your own well-being. He learns that neighbourliness is not just about who crosses your path (is part of your circle or network) but who draws you across the path to act on what you have seen and now cannot ignore. He is challenged by the alteration in status of the helped and the helper and the fact that the disparaged can respond from the depths of values that religious belief would ascribe only to the elect.
Margaret Thatcher, when Prime Minister of the UK, once commented on this parable: No-one would remember the good Samaritan if he only had pity for the beaten man but lacked the resources to help him practically. She intended to justify the possession of wealth as the means to neighbourliness. But we don’t know what resources the Samaritan had in total, Jesus only offers us a picture of someone who uses what is immediately at hand to give relief and then pledges to supply all that will be necessary to restore wellbeing.
Neighbourliness is also a gamble. It takes risks: the danger inherent in stopping at all, and the willingness to underwrite the other’s needs without pausing to do the sums.
And Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise”.