Sunday 31st July 2016
Year C, The Tenth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Luke 12.13-21


How are your barns doing?

I suppose there was a time when prosperous farmers met at agricultural shows and asked each other about how their barns were doing, how big and full they were, but the age of the barn is surely passing after almost 4,000 years.

We can see as far back as the story of Joseph in the Book of Genesis what an effect barns had on public policy. Before them, the only form of food storage was the domesticated animal but barns, together with their necessary precondition, irrigation, and the invention of bricks, completely transformed The Middle East into the place it was at the time of Jesus. Even so, the owner of a barn then would be a millionaire now.

The problem with our story from Luke is that we think that the answer is obvious. What a silly man he was for placing any reliance on his great wealth. But before we enjoy our sense of moral superiority, we really need to ask ourselves how our own, 21st Century barns are doing.

For a start, insurance against misfortune is compulsory in many spheres; we have to insure against motor accidents; if we want a mortgage we have to insure our house. We are legally obliged to contribute to National Insurance and, through taxation, to health insurance; many of us are obliged to take out private pensions; and we are all encouraged to save as an individual and national virtue. And so, it's highly likely that most of us have some kind of barn-like assets. Indeed, since Brexit one of the great talking points has been the effect of it on our investments, pension pots ISAs/ and other financial instruments.

So we must see the question coming. How justified are we in accumulating wealth against a rainy day over and above what the law forces us to save?

The first part of my answer will be most difficult to hear. Jesus always ranked community obligation above family interest and ranked the building of the kingdom above family interest which inverts our usual model which ranks family above our immediate community and that community above the global community. Granted that it is really difficult to go against the political and social consensus, that we won't break laws requiring certain kinds of saving, and that we won't want to die leaving nothing to our children, we need to put our affairs into proper perspective. We, as a Diocese, are very near the bottom of the league table when it comes to contributing to Kingdom Building; and we as a Parish are failing so badly to meet our obligations that we will very soon be in the midst of a financial crisis unless we take immediate action. If we conclude that the man with the barns was against kingdom building, we need to ask ourselves where we stand.

The second part of my answer is more fundamental: we are not the owners of God's creation, we are its stewards. We are not entitled to more than we need particularly when there are others clearly in need. My teacher of political theory at Harvard, John Rawls, developed a concept known as the "Difference Principle" which said that the only justification for some people to be much richer than others was if this was to the benefit of the least advantaged; in other words, if a wealthy man used his wealth to create employment or to undertake great philanthropic works, that was fine; but wealth was not justified if it was simply personally consumed or hoarded away. This is an important idea because there is a theory, with a number of variants, held by many Christians, that there's nothing wrong with being rich and that, indeed, richness is a sign of God's blessing. Ironically, this view tends to be held most strongly by people who want to take the Bible literally. Well, I've got news for them which they won't want to hear: if we take the Gospels literally, there's no justification whatsoever for being rich and every need to be generous to the poor.

In the past half Century we have more or less willingly accepted two pieces of economic theory which are totally bogus but which have been used to justify a situation in which the rich people of the Western world are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and the people in the middle are now beginning to get poorer. The first piece of theory was that if we lowered taxes for the rich, their wealth would rise so rapidly that they would generate economic growth that would 'trickle down' to the poor. It never did. The second theory, much more foolish, was that economic growth was not a zero sum game but produced win/win situations. In other words, people came to believe that my cheap watch was his high wage when we all know that my cheap watch is his low wage. Furthermore, the way that the poor have been kept from revolt is through the provision of cheap credit and Government borrowing which we should not have allowed if we really love our children and grandchildren who will suffer for our selfishness.

Now I don't say these things so that we will be wiser about economic theory but because the device of using bogus intellectual arguments to justify greed is simply unacceptable. Christians have an amazing track record of leading philanthropic movements and, as conditions get ever worse, we will be called upon for our time and talents as well as our money to help put the situation right, as we are doing, for example, with our contributions to the Food Bank. But the Food Bank is supposed to be a temporary response to a crisis, not part of our permanent welfare landscape.

It is time for the consolation of self inflicted discomfort rather than waiting for it to be heaped upon us as it surely will if we go on as we are. Kingdom building was never supposed to be easy, so let us get on with it; cheerfully.