A sermon preached in Halifax Minster on Sunday 8th March 2015, the Third Sunday of Lent
In today’s Gospel reading Jesus says about the Jerusalem temple that ‘it should be called a house of prayer, but has been made into a den of thieves’ [John 2:14-17]. This is not original – he is quoting from the prophet Jeremiah who had been called to give this message to the Jews 600 years earlier [Jer. 7:11] (and Jesus hearers would have recognised that).
Christian Aid recently issued a report [Having it All and Wanting More, http://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/file_attachments/ib-wealth-having-all-wanting-more-190115-en.pdf] in which they claimed that in the next few years the richest 1% of the world’s households would own a half of all the wealth in the world. It is tempting for us to respond angrily to this, much in the way Jesus did about the Temple, suggesting that they have made God’s world a den of thieves and should be driven out.
But on examination of the evidence we can also say that already the richest 6% own over 80% of the world’s wealth, and the richest 30% own nearly all of it – 95% [Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook, Shorrocks/Davies/Lluberas http://www.oecd.org/site/worldforumindia/DAVIES.pdf].
Thomas Picketty, a French Economist, has recently published a book [Picketty T, 2013, Capital in the 21st Century] in which he traces the history of the distribution of wealth in the world and shows that the twentieth century was unusual in the reduction of the gap between rich and poor, and that there are signs in the 21st century that the gap is reverting towards its more normal long terms trend.
Should we then remember that Jesus said that the poor would always be with us [Matt. 26:11, Mark 14:7, John 12:8], or do we feel that all these rich households are thieves and should be driven out?.
Clearly there are some disadvantages to being poor – life can be a miserable grind, struggling for survival, with little opportunity to enjoy the wonders of the world. But there are also some disadvantages to being rich – it cuts people off from those around them because it makes it difficult to know who really is a friend, it can lead to a feeling of control of life that it is startling to discover doesn’t apply to everything (e.g. health), and it can generate fear, the fear of losing the wealth.
The Bible has much to say about wealth. The New Testament has little to say in its favour – but then most of the early Christians were poor, so that is to be expected. The Old Testament sees wealth as a sign of the blessing of God – but has some caveats about the dangers of wealth –
Wealth can be a distraction from living the life which we were created to live:
it can cut off the wealthy from their surrounding community,
it can lead to a feeling of superiority and of self-reliance,
it can give power and access to power, making it easy to abuse others
once acquired it can lead to a fear of its loss and excessive defensiveness, as seen in immigration policies of rich nations
the pursuit of wealth can undermine the blessing that wealth could bring, and
it can become a goal in itself.
The danger is that wealth can take the place of God and tempts its possessor into playing God – a role in which humans will necessarily fail. This would explain Jesus reported saying that it is harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven [Mt 19:23]
What would Christ say about the gap between rich and poor? I think he would probably be against it, but not from the point of view of the politics of envy but because both poverty and riches hold people back from realising their potential with which they were created of being fully children in the image of God.
So what does all this might mean for us?
When we investigate world wealth and income a somewhat startling finding is that we (in the UK) are rich.
To be in the top 30% of households which own 95% of the world’s wealth you need assets of £7,500, to be in the top 6% which own over 80% of the world’s wealth you need assets of £75,000 [Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook, Shorrocks/Davies/Lluberas http://www.oecd.org/site/worldforumindia/DAVIES.pdf]. The average household wealth in the UK is £200,000 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Income_in_the_United_Kingdom. You might be thinking that is ridiculous, but a pension of £20,000 a year is worth that. If you have a pension and a house you could find yourself in the top 6% in the world.
The average world household income is £2,000 a year, in the UK it is about £30,000 [http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/was/wealth-in-great-britain-wave-3/wealth-and-income–2010-12/stb–wealth-and-income–2010-12.html#tab-Results]
. If your household has a state pension for a couple of about £10,000 a year you have 5 times the world average household income – in world terms like having an income of £150,000 in the UK [https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/get-involved/how-rich-am-i].
We are rich and we would rather not be branded as thieves and driven out. Is there any good news for the rich?
My reading of the Bible and economics come together in the concept of blessing.
Abram was promised by God [Gen 12: 1-3] that he would be blessed: he would have a multitude of descendants and through them all the people of the earth would be blessed. It was not that the Jews were to be God’s chosen people because they were better than everyone else, or richer or more privileged. They were to be the means by which God blessed all his creation. Abram received this blessing as a free gift, not something to which he was entitled or which he earned.
The same can be said of the predominant attitude to wealth (especially in the Old Testament, but also in the New): it is a gift from God and to be used responsibly.
To attempt to use wealth in this way can never be easy – there are so many temptations and distractions – but it can be approached
by careful thought,
by a community that challenges the wealthy on the use of their wealth,
by prayer and
by deliberately walking with God 24 hours a day.
Meeting this challenge can do none other than help to grow closer to God – a richness of life that is beyond measurement in financial terms.
If we, in this Minster, however we might feel, are the ones on the wealthy side of the gap between rich and poor, then this is our challenge. The growing gap between rich and poor will continually remind us of it.
And we must thank God that in understanding and using our wealth as blessing there is good news for us (who are the rich) which will further enrich our lives:
The Gospel of Christ.
Reverend David Simon, Lecturer, Halifax Minster