The Time Traveller’s Question
Every now and then the scientists astound us by coming up with an invention that seems to come from the pages of a science fiction novel. I am assured by some of my friends who are scientists, that one invention at least seems most unlikely to be achieved, at least in the foreseeable future, and that is the old favourite of a time machine. This does not prevent us wondering that if and when such a machine might become reality, how it might be used?
Would, for example, a time traveller perhaps want to go back in history to see some great event or meet some great figure from a previous age?
For me those with the reputation for wisdom have a particular fascination.
The Greeks like Socrates or Plato, the great scientists like Archimedes, Einstein – or my particular favourite, Michael Faraday.
Or what about meeting some great religious leader? –If it were you, would you choose Moses, St Paul or even Jesus himself?
The only problem would then become choosing what you should say?
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 his 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 his listeners 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. For example in a recent documentary in the US, Dr Gwen Sharp talked of studies showing that having wealth appears result in greed for more in a number of different ways. According to Dr Sharp, having possessions does not lead to a sense of fulfilment, rather it more appears to make individuals feel entitled to even more; research she quoted shows they not only feel less generous but also apparently more entitled to take resources they have been given to understand have been reserved for others. They are also more willing to cheat, and more accepting of unethical behaviour. Privileged individuals — even those who are informed rules have been rigged to ensure they win in an experimental situation — subsequently tend to believe they deserve their privilege.
Unfortunately too, if the studies can be generalised, then we might conclude that those in a situation of privilege might well be less caring and responsible when it comes to the needs of others. For example last month in a PBS News hour broadcast reviewing the way the amount of wealth can affect the kind of person you become, economics correspondent Paul Solman gave the example of a study that showed that although in California, drivers are supposed to stop for pedestrians on a designated pedestrian crossing , although some 90 percent of drivers did so, it turned out for those driving luxury cars, the figure drops closer to 50%. In the same programme Paul Piff, from University of California, Berkeley referred to studies showing that drivers of those BMWs, those Porsches, and those Mercedes were anywhere from three to four times more likely to break the law than drivers of less expensive, low-status cars.
Despite the common preconception that certain political affiliations might reflect such differences, there is plenty of evidence to show such undesirable patterns persist regardless of political orientation, and according to the previously mentioned studies such attitudes seem to affect both conservatives and liberals. 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. If privileged people often feel they deserve their position and justify 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 the fastest growing gap 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 6 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 conference 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 look at 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 publicise in our church sponsored letters to the editor? 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?
Surely the point of Jesus parable today is that focussing on our own wealth and possessions is ultimately doomed because it is irrelevant to what really matters. If we had the time traveller chance to ask Jesus a question about the most important issue we have been worrying about over the last few days and months, I wonder what that question should be.
(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.)