Saturday, 8 March 2014

Greed vs. Need

I attended the launch of End Hunger Fast campaign for lent at St Phillips Cathedral in Birmingham on Wednesday afternoon. I am not a big fan of this giving up something for lent since I believe we should always be living with an attitude of “enough is enough” but the issues raised by the End Hunger Fast campaign deserve our attention. In what is claimed to be the seventh richest nation in the world, why do we have so many people relying on food banks for their basic survival? Why is it that the wealthy continue to increase their wealth while the numbers in poverty continue to increase?

A Quaker speaker stimulated my thinking. She talked of Jesus feeding the five thousand (Matthew 14:13-21) without concern for their status or whether they were hungry or whether they had a supply of food. I agree with the emphasis that she placed on the story but it says something more profound to me.

The disciples where concerned that there was inadequate food to feed the people and were seeking for Jesus to send the people away. Get them to go and find their own food. Jesus tells them to feed them but they plead that they have inadequate supplies. However, after Jesus insists, the people eat and the baskets gathered in exceeded what was originally distributed.

The usual assumption in interpreting this story is that there was a miracle in which the quantity of food multiplied. I have another take on the story. The people who sat there including the disciples were all concerned that they may not even have sufficient for everyone and possibly for themselves. They didn't want to share because that would mean they wouldn't have enough to eat. However, once the loaves and fishes began to be passed out, people realised that they needed to satisfy need rather than their own desires and so brought out what they thought were meagre supplies. When it was all pooled together not only was there adequate for everyone, there was an abundance of food.

The story speaks strongly to me about our attitudes especially in the Western world. We are so busy trying to protect what we have and what we think we might need that we are making resources scarce for everyone. Despite what we see in great celebrations of giving, the overall emphasis in western society is hoarding and protecting for self. Even more so by the increasingly small percentage of people who possess the bulk of the wealth in the world. If we were to see the basic message of the feeding of the five thousand as meeting need and ending with abundance then maybe we wouldn't have the scarcity that is argued to exist. We might also look for alternative for those that are not renewable.

This isn't the only story that I see emphasising this theme. Jesus told a parable of the labourers who were hired at different times during the day but were paid the same amount by the land owner at the end of the day (Matthew 20:1-16). The difference between this story and our economic thinking is easy to illustrate. The labourers had the same need and this is what the landowner satisfied. He never sat down and worked out what each labourer was worth. He knew that if he didn't pay the workers a denarius, they wouldn't be able to pay for what they needed to live so he made sure that they were all paid the denarius. In our society, we would then argue that those who worked longer or who had the greater skill level should be paid more but in reality we neither practice what the landowner did or practice what we preach ourselves. In reality, we believe that it is fine to pay someone less that what they need for a day's work and to reward some more simply because of their status. Our system is designed to generate inequality. Hard work by the lowly paid will never enable them to overcome the disparity in how they are paid. Add to this that we are actively pursuing a policy of making the least able pay more when they don't have any resources nor are we providing them with the opportunity to obtain the resources to do so. It is about time that we heard Jesus' message and began to ensure that basic needs are meet and not that our own greed is being satisfied.

Jesus did tell some other parables that appear to contradict what I have just said. Possibly the most notable is the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). Here, the master is praising his servants who earned more with the gold that he had entrusted to them and takes away from the man who doesn't utilise what he was given. I don't see this as a story of making riches for ourselves but rather a story of utilising what we have been given. What I mean is that we shouldn't expect to be able to sit around and do nothing and be given what we need. We need to utilise the skills and resources we have been given for the work of God's kingdom. We should note that in our society there is much essential unpaid work done by people who have inadequate incomes. Unpaid work is not the same as meaningless work that many are actually paid to do. That doesn't mean that we should judge others and remove from them what they need to live because we believe they are not working in the best interests of the society that we want to create.

The key issue I believe of these stories is that we should not build our society on greed or accumulation of assets and resources. Rather we should focus on need, ensuring that needs are meet, and enabling people to fulfil their potential. This is both locally and internationally. If we do this, then I believe our management of resources will be more sustainable as the focus on growth for improved profit will vanish. As a result, we may find that the earth brings forth abundance.

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