The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
E. Bevan Stanley
September 5, 2021
Proper 18, Year B
From Proverbs: The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all. In the Name of the one, holy, and undivided Trinity. Amen.
I am deeply concerned about wealth inequality in our country. This is not about Democrats and Republicans. It is not about conservative and liberal. It is not about specific people holding office. It is not about specific policies. It is about our common life as a country. The level of inequality between the very rich and everyone else is similar to that at the end of the Roman Empire, France at the end of the Eighteenth century, and Russia in 1917. I am frightened for the future of our country. It is appropriate to reflect on what our Christian faith and tradition have to say about how we participate in the public life of this nation.
We have a systemic problem in that money determines too much of the policies and laws enacted or not enacted. The fact is that elections are very expensive. Law makers have to find enough money to get elected. Large corporations and those who lead them spend billions of dollars in campaign donations and on lobbyists so that the legislators will pass laws and spend public money in ways that advance the agendas of the corporations and big donors.
Here is an over-simplified case. The vast majority of Americans would like to see more gun control. Over seventy percent of the members of the National Rifle Association would like to see more gun control. And yet the NRA spends huge amounts of money lobbying for no action to be taken. Why? Because most of the NRA’s money doesn’t come from its individual members; it comes from gun manufacturers. They want as many people as possible to be able to buy as many guns as possible with as few restrictions as possible. The result is that it is all too easy for a mentally unstable person to get his hands on an automatic weapon and mow down a class room of children.
Over the last fifty years hardworking people of both the working class and middle class have not gained from the huge rise in wealth that our nation’s economy has seen. Their incomes have remained stagnant or even declined, when adjusted for inflation, since the 1970’s. On the other hand, executive compensation has risen to astronomical heights. Forty and fifty years ago a CEO’s compensation was likely to be 30 0r 40 times that of the average employee. Now it is over three hundred times. CE0 total compensation is often 20 to 30 million dollars per year while pensions and health benefits for employees are going the way of the dinosaur. Lawmakers are put in office by the dollars donated by the corporations and extremely wealthy individuals, and they are then pressured by lobbyists to pass laws that protect the corporations and executives and leave the workers vulnerable to exploitation. In the 2016 election corporations gave 3.4 billion in campaign contribution; that is 160 times the 213 million that labor unions gave. We have a national holiday tomorrow to honor those who labor, yet for fifty years many have not seen a raise.
When big corporations get in trouble, the government acts to bail them out. AIG received $180 billion in bail out money. That is more that all federal welfare paid out in the sixteen years from 1990 to 2006. Corporations have been the largest recipients of federal welfare, not poor people. The same was true in the bailout of the banks in 2008. I am not saying that corporate executives are bad people. I am saying that we have political system that is broken and does not adequately meet the needs of the working class and the middle class who make up the vast majority of the electorate.
The Bible has two complementary views of wealth and one consistent mandate. The Hebrew scriptures generally see wealth as a blessing or a sign of blessing. It also notes that the wealthy and powerful can oppress the poor. The New Testament has more doubts about the value of wealth. Jesus says the poor are blessed and that it is very difficult for the rich to get into the Kingdom of heaven. The entire Bible says that we all, and especially the wealthy, have an obligation to help those who are in need. The less fortunate are not to be oppressed. The laborer is to be treated fairly.
The theological basis for caring for those in need is the fact that we are all God’s children. Everyone is kin to us. We need to take care of each other. There is no one on the planet who is self-sufficient or entirely a self-made person. We all had parents who gave us life. We were fed and nurtured by somebody. We were educated in some way by someone.
If we got a job, someone hired us. If we have our own business, somebody makes the product or produces the services we sell. We all depend upon each other. The welfare of each of us is dependent on the welfare of all of us.
We are children of God, and God loves us. God calls us to love one another.
When Jesus goes to the seashore for a little vacation, a local woman with an afflicted daughter comes to him seeking healing for her daughter. Jesus at first rebuffs her, on the grounds that his responsibility is to Jews not gentiles. She shifts the paradigm from those in and those out of the people of God, to differing levels within the household. Essentially, she says, ‘’It’s not that I am not part of your community. I and my daughter are still part of the family even if we are dogs and not children.” Everyone is part of the family. Jesus takes this perspective with him when he travels next to the gentile territory of the Decapolis where he heals another gentile. Every one is inside the field of our compassion. No one is outside our obligation to help.
In the words of Proverbs, the rich and the poor have this in common:
the LORD is the maker of them all.
Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity,
and the rod of anger will fail.
Those who are generous are blessed,
for they share their bread with the poor.
Do not rob the poor because they are poor,
or crush the afflicted at the gate;
for the LORD pleads their cause
and despoils of life those who despoil them.
God is on the side of the poor. As Christians, will we align ourselves with God or not?
James says, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
Is our faith alive? What then shall we do?