“I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” Luke 12:19
Wouldn’t the arrogance of the rich man Jesus describes have matched that of those who broke the banks? Wouldn’t he have made a perfect companion for those who took millions in bonuses while steering the country into bankruptcy? . “You fool!”, says God to the rich man; “you fools” he would say to those in our own time, “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God”.
The arrogance of the financiers has left us with numbers that are overwhelming— any number less than a billion seems small. In the midst of the overwhelming numbers, there is a danger of losing sight of people. In the announcements, in the debates, in the political conflict, there is too often a losing sight of the fact that numbers represent lives and families and homes.
“Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed”, says Jesus. How would Jesus respond to the papers, to the television and radio news, to the programme of austerity? How would he have responded to the fools whose life consisted in “the abundance of his possessions”.
At the heart of Jesus’ ministry, there is a concern for individual people. Repeatedly, throughout the Gospels he is confronted with large crowds; there are huge numbers with which to deal; yet, time and again, he finds time for individuals. The very people who are overlooked by our barrages of economic statistics are the very people with whom he identified.
Following Jesus in our own time means going beyond the numbers to being mindful of the people behind the figures. Would we not have felt sympathy for the thousands of ordinary people who were the victims of the system?
Jesus takes the side of the individuals, the ordinary people, but what does the church say?
In 2009, Vincent Browne in his column in the Sunday Business Post wrote, “I continue to be intrigued by those who profess to be Christians, yet are not embarrassed by the question of whether Jesus would think such vast disparities in wealth and income were fair. And if Jesus did not think they were fair, why then don’t Christians support doing something radical about it?”
It’s a fair question. If we believe in a man who condemned greed and arrogance and who was angry at those who said, “Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry”, how do we think Jesus would have responded to our own times?
I think there are clear pointers in the New Testament as to what might be the shape of Jesus’ economic programme, if he were finance minister.
Jesus is concerned about individuals and I think he would be angry at any government that stood back and watched as unemployment rose. Work would be the lynchpin of Jesus’ policy. Work is something good; work is not a necessary evil but something that is done for God. The Letter to the Colossians Chapter 3 says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving”.
In Jesus’ economic programme there would be jobs for everyone who was able to work. Jesus would have been mystified that when Ireland had full employment in 2004 and was having to recruit thousands of workers from overseas, there was still an unemployment rate of 4%. He would have been mystified that 4% of the workforce was caught in welfare dependency. In a biblical model of society, there would be work for everyone. The Second Letter to the Thessalonians Chapter 3 says, “For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” Leaving people simply doing nothing in the boom years weighs heavily on us now.
Would not a greater degree of equality would be important in a biblically-shaped economic policy? A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Luke Chapter 10 and the First letter to Timothy Chapter 5 say, “The worker deserves his wages.” If people are to be properly rewarded, then there cannot be the huge differentials between the top executive salaries and the weekly wage of the working man.
How can one man put in a week in the office and earn millions a year for taking his company into bankruptcy, requiring a bailout from taxpayers, while a man engaged in hard physical labour gets a few hundred a week for his efforts? If the worker deserves his wages, then the massive differences in rates of pay need to be reviewed.
Saint Paul would have become angry at measures that hurt the weakest in our society, particularly the cuts in health and education. In Acts Chapter 20, he says, “You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'” ‘Help the weak’ says Paul, not hurt them.
It is not something radical that needs to be done, it is something Biblical. A Biblical policy is one where people matter; where work is a mark of dignity; where there is fairness in reward; where no-one is left in want. It’s not a policy that would be welcomed by those who have done well at the expense of ordinary people, but they didn’t welcome Jesus either.
“You fool”, says God to the rich man. May God give us grace to cope with the fools in our own time.