It’s odd isn’t it. We can claim to have the best set of beliefs, but our words and our actions give us away every time. Saying we are Christian for example might be a start but what if our words and actions don’t quite match what we say is important in our lives. We can certainly spot the fake in other people’s actions.
To use one extreme example: I understand Adolph Hitler claimed to be a Roman Catholic and had his storm troopers go into battle with “Gott mit uns” – in other words “God with us” engraved on their belt buckles, yet subsequent history with its story of hundreds of thousands Jews and gypsies murdered in concentration camps gave a lie to that claim.
Well, I would imagine not many of us are ever likely to be accused of setting up or operating a death-camp, yet there is a much more common and insidious way of misusing the way of Christ.
Each election for example we look at various policies and politicians and decide which ones fit with what matters to us. Had it ever occurred to you that even more important that whether our political parties are offering us policies which give us a better deal – or leave us a bit wealthier, surely if Church means anything perhaps we should be asking which policies fit with Christian ideals.
The least stressful way to start thinking about this sort of thing is to start with someone else’s election. Right now in the United States we have just witnessed the end of the Republican Convention. Donald Trump had been running a campaign in which he repeatedly highlighted his success in making money. He is for example quoted as saying: “The point is, you can never be too greedy” He wants Americans to get richer and he wants those who get in the way to move aside. He doesn’t even want them in the same country. He has talked of improving trade in favour of the US and to the disadvantage of potential rival trading partners.
Certainly you could argue Trump is not is not the same as the people. Surely the people have higher principles. Yet if they vote for Donald Trump, aren’t they really saying he’s nailed it, and what he promises represents what they really think. Don’t forget recent polls show that 38% of the US voting public say that they would vote for Trump – which presumably means there is a good portion of the public who share his values and I guess his prejudices. If, as Donald Trump keeps telling the public, being rich is the measure of success – there appear to be many who agree with him.
I simply don’t know if the same sort of thing would happen if we had a Donald Trump-like figure in this country. I know I have certainly heard some Christians here saying that they approve of the US Republican choice for President because Trump deserves the Christian vote. And the fact is that a recent poll shows that lots of Church goers in the US support Donald Trump. During the week I read of one nationwide poll that claimed Trump now has a 20 point lead for those who attend Church more than once a month.
Now it is easy to become judgemental at this safe distance. American values develop in an entirely different community to our own.
But what if what happens in the US is not just a sideshow for New Zealanders? What if we too are influenced by the same sorts of issues. I think at the very least we need to be thoughtful about how our political choices line up with our values particularly if we want to give some sort of priority to following what Jesus said was important.
Would Jesus agree with the notion that rich is good and very rich is really what it is all about? What did Jesus actually say? Luke Ch 12 verse 15 “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). You probably remember that Jesus once had a more colourful way of saying the same thing. Remember in that parable with the rich man ignoring poor Lazarus the beggar at his gate, it is the beggar who goes to heaven while the rich man suffers in hell (Luke 16:19-31).
Jesus also reminds his listeners of the dangers of wealth in his parable about the rich farmer who acquired sufficient wealth to secure a comfortable retirement. Jesus doesn’t muck about. He actually calls him a “fool” at his death. And in case anyone misses his point he says, “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16-21). Then he goes on with his call for his would-be disciples to deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow him, What was his question again? “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36).
On reflection I suspect we don’t come across the truly wise very often – so here is an interesting speculation. If we only once in our life had a chance to meet a truly wise person – someone up there with Jesus in the wisdom stakes…only one meeting … a question…what would we ask the wise person.
Since in real life most folk rarely make the most of their fleeting opportunities to learn from the wise, I guess there is a fair chance we would mess up.
Certainly the man in the crowd in today’s reading from Luke apparently messed up big time. Instead of using his once in a lifetime opportunity to ask Jesus some insightful and profound question, the man merely wants Jesus to take his side in an inheritance dispute. Perhaps the best that can be said is that his question revealed to Jesus what was uppermost in the questioner’s mind, just as what we put our focus on in our thoughts, our conversation and choice of activities during the week ultimately shows what we really count as important.
Certainly as far as Jesus would have been concerned, the man with the inheritance problem would not have been asking an unexpected question. At that time the local rabbi was expected to be the instant arbiter on practically every legal and moral dilemma. However Jesus shows almost no interest in giving a direct answer to the man’s question. As far as Jesus is concerned, an obsession with possessions is an irrelevance when it comes to the important things of life. His story of the rich man gathering more and more riches – building more and more barns for his wealth, and then at the very last, finding none of his wealth counts for anything against the real issues of life, certainly at the very least reminds us even today that nothing owned counts for much when facing one’s death.
The parable also suggests that whatever else Jesus might have been, he was a least an acute observer of the human condition. His parable of the rich man finds plenty of modern equivalents. It is intriguing that in the centuries since, although the trappings of wealth may have changed, the same self-serving and ultimately ill-fated desire to accumulate more than we need is almost built into our society.
The insidious effects of the wealth gathering personality have been well studied by the psychologists and sociologists. In experimental studies they are often more willing to cheat, and more accepting of unethical behaviour. The underlying implication is that whatever good intentions we might believe ourselves to have, unfortunately the experience of being wealthy risks affecting us in ways we might not readily notice for ourselves. I guess we have all heard well off people explaining why the rich deserve their position which of course justifies behaviours that consolidate even more advantages, we should take note.
For example in most nations where there is a distinct difference between the incomes of the rich and the poor, the rich often use their influence to ensure tax structures make it possible for the richest to pay less tax than would be expected for the size of their incomes. Some achieve this by setting up family trusts which have the advantage of safeguarding the family fortunes for members of the family to inherit, thus putting them even further ahead from their poor neighbours from the date of their birth.
In this country (New Zealand), for example, the United Nations statisticians have noted that of the developed nations, New Zealand has one of the fastest growing gaps between the rich and the poor – and although I am not sure that the figures I have are the most recent available, New Zealand is now number 5 in the disparity between rich and poor where the bottom 10% have approximately a 2% share of income and expenditure while the richest 10% have 27.8%.
The Methodist Church in New Zealand at their last three conferences drew attention to the plight of poor children in the country but despite vague promises from the nation’s decision makers and some tinkering with social services, month by month and year by year the gap continues to grow wider.
Since wealth also brings more personal security we can hardly blame those who work hard to improve the well-being of the family. Nor can we do much about the fact that when one is born into a country with plenty of natural resources and a comparatively sparse population that there will be a disproportionate number of wealthy individuals. The problem rather is retaining our sense of care for others as our advantages accumulate and together finding ways to work towards a society where the key human values are safeguarded: like ensuring justice for all, like expressing compassion in a meaningful and tangible way, like not exploiting others within one’s own nation in order to increase one’s personal, and like caring that others at a distance are living in grinding poverty so that we can enjoy our advantages.
It is all too easy to get ourselves into the mind-set of the rich man in Jesus parable.
We are assured by those who are supposed to know these things that if the food of the world was shared on an equitable basis there would be more than enough food for everyone. As things stand there are still many who are very hungry indeed and as people who claim to accept, value and live the principles Jesus taught, this should matter to us. Prayers dissociated from action will hardly help the problem.
As a church we should continually check what we are asking our politicians to do. The advantage of living in a democracy is that the people can persuade their political masters to follow the will of the people. The disadvantage of living in a democracy is that if the will of the people is merely to improve their personal situation (if you like…. building more barns) then nothing in the ideals of religion we claim to follow will ever be accomplished.
As a church we should be looking to how our current policies reflect our ideals. What proportion of our church income to we allocate to helping others? What issues do our leaders publicize in our church sponsored letters to the editor? There is always Touchstone. Do we invite speakers from organisations dealing with the serious public and moral issues and have we got the balance right? Are we fund-raising first for ourselves and almost as an afterthought, merely pretending that we reflect Jesus’ principles because we give token amounts away and placate our consciences because we also pray for the refugees, the poor and the down trodden in our prayers of intercession?
I guess most of us would be anxious to say we are not like Donald Trump.
Very well then…In terms of following the teaching of Jesus, what are we like?
(The aim of this sermon, as with the other sermons on this site, is to provide a lectionary based resource to encourage people to think about their faith. If you have found the sermon to be helpful in this respect please share the website with others. If you disagree with the points made, or if you are aware of key issues which are missed, please share your thoughts in the comments section.)