Jesus in the Polling Booth

Sunday 4th August 2013
Year C, The Tenth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Ecclesiastes 1:2; 1:12-14; 2:18-23
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

One of the minor but surprisingly frequent irritations of contemporary life is listening to people complaining about the burdens imposed on them by their second homes on the continent. "Well, if it's that bad," I think to myself, "Why don't you sell it?" but of course they can't now as the property price has collapsed. Poor things.

Now I know I should be more sympathetic, not only because good Christians should be but because these people might have been advised to buy such homes as an investment, or because some aspect of their physiology requires warmer weather in Winter, or because there's an aged Aunt who likes to see them now and again but only lives in a tiny cottage without a spare room. One can think of thousands of good reasons why people might have second homes on the Continent.  As I say, it's not that I mind possession, just the moaning.

Nonetheless, this is just my small helping of the much larger menu of complaints by the rich and the famous about their lot: film stars complain about the media; bankers complain about personal taxation; industrialists complain about health and safety regulations; and all of them complain that they are hard done by living in this miserable country and they would be much better off in a tax haven with no media and no rules and no press. And you know, I just wish they'd go.

Such thoughts are hardly surprising in the context of today's first reading where the richest King in the history of the Chosen People, Solomon, ruler of the combined 12 tribes of Judah and Israel, bemoans the shallowness of earthly goods although, of course, he's the opposite of the contemporary celebrity in that he claims not to want to have any truck with such trash. After all, he's known for his wisdom; but, then, if the Books of Kings and Chronicles are to be believed, he gives up nothing at all, in spite of his high principled moaning, and has multiple palaces, hordes of wives and concubines and so much earthly wealth that the Queen of Sheba, no frump herself, is sick with envy. In short, this is mannered, self-conscious, posturing, pseudo-wisdom that simply won't do. There's a certain weary artifice and glib attractiveness but this text as a whole doesn't bear close examination: after all, there is a time to be born and a time to die but I think this passes for a platitude; and there is a time to heal but I'm not sure there really is a time to kill. And, as all too many of us know, you can cast an awful lot of bread upon the waters and get nothing back at all.

Just a final word about Solomon. The First Book of the Kings is so constructed that precisely at half way there is the line: "King Solomon loved many foreign women" and you know it's going to be all downhill after that because, without wishing to get into gender stereotyping, you know that the foreign wives, in the tradition of the Old Testament, are going to lead Solomon to idolatry which, again, rather damages his world weary credentials; but it is idolatry that is surely the point of the Epistle and our Gospel reading where Jesus tells the lovely short story of the man who had so much grain that he needed to expand his barns but was confronted by the grim reaper before he could complete the project. Now doubtless there's a good deal of satisfaction to be had by the poor in similar circumstances; there is something satisfying about the sad celebrity or the tortured plutocrat. We read of divorces and suicides and sigh into our Jacob's Creek that money doesn't make people happy after all but, still, the unsaid rider is that we wouldn't mind just a bit more of it ourselves and that would make us a bit happier; and, indeed, there is good economic evidence that improved financial stability does increase happiness up to a certain point past which increased wealth makes little or no difference. There is, incidentally, no evidence that more wealth makes people less happy!

I think that our problem with wealth is that most of us don't think we are well off and we certainly don't think we are idolatrous. We don't after all, worship mammon but, then again, we're much too sophisticated to fall into that sort of morally coarse behaviour.

On the first point, we only have to look at wealth from a global perspective to see how well off we are. That is not to diminish the hardship of some pensioners who have to decide between food and fuel but, then, that is simply a scandalous denial of moral obligation by the better off and so perhaps it's better to say that as a community in the most prosperous corner of one of the most prosperous countries on earth, we are wealthy by any objective standard. I mean, how many different lines of produce do we want our major supermarkets to stock and how many days of foreign holiday is enough?

The second point is, I think, more interesting because it presents us with a much more subtle challenge to our spiritual integrity. We don't, as I said, put our wealth on a pedestal and tuck Jesus away where he can't be seen - we are far too self-schooled to do that - but, all the same, when it comes to establishing the Kingdom on earth which is, as Jesus points out again and again, a matter of establishing social and economic justice, we are pretty good at making out arguments for hanging on to what we have. This is, as I said in my recent sermon on the Good Samaritan and so-called 'medical tourism' not simply a matter of voluntary giving but also of how Christians view the tax and benefits system. The great theologian, Karl Barth, said that we should read with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other; my variant is that we should take Jesus with us into the polling booth.