The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.
Our reading from Mark this morning has been very apt as today is the start of National Anti-Poverty Week. This is an annual event aimed at encouraging both discussion and understanding in the wider community about issues of poverty both here in Australia and abroad. During this week there will be over four hundred activities that will take place. Some will be what we might call ‘major league’ – such as the issuing of significant reports or the holding of well-attended orations on the subject; but there will also be many others, at the local level, that will also have profound impact – morning teas that will focus on poverty and how it can be alleviated, school art and essay projects and the like.
In our reading this morning we heard Jesus tell the rich young man:
Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. [10:21]
The rich young man had asked Jesus what he needed to do in order to inherit eternal life. On hearing Jesus’ answer, the young man became depressed and went away.
And as the young man walked away disconsolately, Jesus was led to reflect about the difficulty of a rich person entering the kingdom of heaven – that it would be:
… easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. [10:25]
These are difficult words for us to hear, for we live in a world where there are so many much poorer than us. And we wonder how we are to take Jesus’ comments. Are we to give everything away? Wouldn’t that then make us poor? Would that not then be some sort of economic roundabout occurring if everyone followed the injunction? But more importantly, was Jesus being antagonistic in his comments? Could I paraphrase his words this way:
Oh don’t give me all that stuff about you being a good man obeying the laws – prove it! Give everything away – then you can follow me.
And as the young man walks away:
Look at him! I knew he couldn’t do it – typical!
But such paraphrasing would be wrong; for there are two phrases in Jesus’ comments that demand our attention as we read this episode. The first was said after Jesus was told by the young man that he had obeyed all the commandments:
Jesus, looking at him, loved him …
And then the phase:
It would be easier …
In the first, Jesus was genuinely concerned about the young man – he was not simply wanting him to be stripped of all his wealth; he really wanted him to succeed in his aspiration to enter the Kingdom. And in the second, Jesus didn’t say it would be impossible; he simply said it would not be easy, that it would be very difficult. No, this was no antagonistic, in your face, conversation that Jesus had; he did not look upon the young man with disdain … he loved him.
Turning to a contemporary analysis of poverty and wealth, the Average Wage for a full-time employee in Australia is now $77,000 per year. According the calculator on the website globalrichlist.com, that means that such a person is in the top 0.31% of the world’s population. However, figures can be rubbery and, therefore, can be so easily misused. The average wage figure for a start incorporates very high income earners whose salaries distort the average. And, in any event, many wage earners most probably have at least one non-wage earning dependent, that would reduce the global comparative richness of each.
But my purpose this morning is not to play around with figures but to take us to the nub of the advice that Jesus gave and the motivation of the young man’s response. A response that led to Jesus’ eye of the needle conclusion.
Essentially Jesus could see that this young man was not empowered by his wealth but was burdened by it. There have been theologians who have suggested that the burdens he felt were his responsibilities to his immediate kith and kin. That may have been true in his particular case, but Jesus’ words are meant to speak to all of us; to speak to our individual condition, whether or not we have such other responsibilities. What role does our wealth play in our lives – does it empower or burden us as we proceed on our individual spiritual journeys?
That being the case, I believe that Jesus was warning of the traps that wealth can mean for all of us on our journeys. And as we enter into this year’s Anti-Poverty Week it would seem timely to consider such traps.
The biggest trap of all, I suspect, is the spiritual blindness that our wealth can cause us. Both for ourselves and for how we see others. On the first point, in Matthew 6:19-21, we read:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
In other words, our spiritual anchor may be where we define our treasure to be.
But an equally important point is that of how we see others. How we see the poor. The nineteenth century, American author Herman Melville wrote:
Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.
A few years ago a well-known Australian business person was quoted as having said this:
You could go out and give a million dollars to a charity tomorrow to help the homeless. You could argue that it is just wasted. They are not putting anything back into the community. It may be a callous way of putting it, but what are they doing? You are helping a whole heap of no-hopers to survive for no good reason. They are just a drag on the whole community. So did that million you gave them help? It helped them to keep alive but did it help our society? No. society might have been better off without them, but we are supposed to look after the disadvantaged and so we do it. But it doesn’t help the society.
When these words were reported in the media, he claimed that he was misquoted; and to be fair, this man, notwithstanding his negative perceptions, is very generous in support of charitable causes. His claim to be misquoted is somewhat difficult, however, as the cited words were taken from a chapter he wrote as a contributor to a book on current social circumstances. I am not going to give you his name, because I hope the time will come when he will realise how wrong his prejudices were.
Implicit in his statement and in Herman Melville’s criticisms of people like him, were the following prejudices:
The poor are lazy
The poor lack entrepreneurship
The poor are, at least in part, authors of their own circumstances
As I seek to comment on these, let me first relate something of some of the rubbish dump communities that I have visited – in particular those in Pnomh Penh and Manila. During my time with World Vision I visited the Stung Meanchey rubbish dump in the capital of Cambodia and the Cavite Dump on the outskirts of Manila.
These communities were Dante-esque, with noxious smells and dust in the atmosphere and masses of people of all ages scrambling after each new truck delivering rubbish to the growing mountains of garbage already there. In the case of Cavite, the dump abutted a cemetery. In the Philippines, cemeteries consist of small mausolea, little houses, each with a sarcophagus in the middle. The rubbish dump, due to the expanding population of Manila and the increased per capita consumption of its population with consequent growth in rubbish output, was bursting at the seams. The result being that mountains of rubbish slowly encroached on the cemetery, onto the mausolea. But there had already been an invasion of sorts from the rubbish dump before the cascade of society’s debris, namely the garbage pickers who made their living from the dump had moved into those little structures. The graves of the dead had now become homes for the homeless who would use the sarcophagi as tables around which the families would eat, in the breaks between their scavenging.
From these sepulchral houses, the poor families would rush to the dump every time a garbage truck came in with a new load of society’s detritus. Crowding around the new deposit, they would seek to salvage what they could that might have some value. Not that they could take just anything. A gang-enforced hierarchy determined just what each strata of this rubbish dump society could take; with the poorest of the poor left to scavenge only from what remained of the much-picked over rubbish.
Were these people lazy? No, they would work from dawn until well after dusk in order just to scrape enough value from that which others had deemed worthless – namely rubbish – to survive to the next day. I have never had to work so hard; nor, I believe, if you don’t mind me saying so, have any of you.
Did these people lack imagination, creativity or entrepreneurship? Certainly not; I saw them creating skerricks of value from the merest bits of rubbish. That which appeared to have absolutely no value to me became, through their desperate imaginings, the possibility of some meagre income.
My comments might lead to the conclusion: “Oh yes, I get that people such as these are poor who merit our compassion – but what about our own dole bludgers who feed off my taxes?”
Having lived and worked in for nearly a quarter of a century in a lower economic area here in Adelaide, I have observed much economic hardship here in our own country. Were there some who could be labelled ‘dole bludgers’, undoubtedly; but such labelling very often masked important issues of cause – issues where circumstances, such as in three generation unemployed families, where living off the system was now the only means of survival that they knew. A toxic functionality had evolved. But, on the other hand, from personal experience, in these same areas, I also saw myriad examples of hard work and resilience in the midst of severe economic pressures. Time does not permit me to tell their stories – but I encourage you, in this Anti-Poverty Week, to find out more about them.
So what are we to take from all this? Jesus’ advice to the rich young man was not a solitary Biblical commentary on the poor. Jim Wallis of Sojourners said this about an exercise where he and some colleagues literally cut out of a copy of the Bible every reference to the poor:
One of our first activities was finding every verse of scripture about the poor, wealth and poverty, and social justice. We found more than 2,000 texts that we then cut out of an old Bible. We were left with a “Bible full of holes,” which I used to take out with me to preach.
A holy Bible indeed – is the Bible of our faith equally as holey?
When asked what were the two greatest commandments, Jesus said:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. [Matthew 22: 37-40]
It was precisely this foundational approach that Jesus was saying to the rich young man who sought to enter the Kingdom. To enter the Kingdom, to proclaim your love for God, requires that you also love your neighbour – and anything that impedes your doing either, will narrow the opening in the gates of the Kingdom to the width of a needle hole. Let not the good fortune of our wealth blind us to the misfortune of those who are poor in our world.
Jesus wanted the rich young man to love God and his neighbour; precisely because Jesus loved him.