Proper 13C / Ordinary 18C / Pentecost +11
August 4, 2013
Psalm 107:1-9, 43
The Gospel reading for this week features the story of a pompous rich man having a conversation with himself about his wealth. Jesus tells the parable of a man whose land “produced abundantly,” who thinks to himself “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods'” (Luke 12:16-18). The rich man goes on in his interior dialogue, “And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry'” (vv.19). Jesus, however, reveals the foolishness of the man’s self-prattling:But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God. (vv.20-21).
While it is easy to personalize this Scripture as a commentary on individual attitudes toward wealth, we should remember that Luke’s community still had the fall of Jerusalem seared into its collective memory. Jerusalem – the city built on a rock (Zec. 12:3) – was thought to be inviolable, and its Temple priests made a sumptuous living off of the Temple tax and the economy that was built around money-changing, and the buying and selling of sacrifices. Herod the Great expanded the Temple through ambitious (and costly) investment projects, paid for by onerous taxes. But by 72 CE, Jerusalem was a smoking ruin, overrun by the Roman army under the future emperor Titus. This Gospel was an explicit commentary on ultimate futility of hoarding collective wealth and walling it off from the poor. The fact that the rich man would not even discuss his wealth with anyone other than himself shows that crass individualism is, in the long-run, doomed to failure.
When people object that poverty and economic policy have nothing to do with the intent of the Gospel for us today, they are evidently unaware that the majority of Americans are either poor or on the verge of poverty. Four out of five Americans recently surveyed by the Associated Press stated that they have recently been in economic difficulty, including unemployment, needing food assistance, or nearing the poverty line (CBS News, “80 percent of US adults face near-poverty … “). 46.2 million people (15% of the population) are currently below the poverty line, which is a tiny $23,021 for a family of four.
Economic punditry, however, has a way of talking that makes the actual suffering of poor people disappear into a nebulous haze of statistics. When economic experts talk have talked about recent US jobs growth, they typically use words like “disappointing” and “tepid” (Washington Post, “A summer stock rally is barely dented by news of weak jobs growth … “) The article goes on to describe a jump in stock market trading (“on a streak of six weekly gains”), as the owners of capital who buy and sell shares seem completely unaffected by the misery of those who continue to live without work. When work is found, it tends to be menial: “Low-paying industries have accounted for 61 percent of jobs added this year” (Washington Post, “US Economy adds modest 162K jobs in July … “)
On Capitol Hill, the status quo has been failure to act. The Farm Bill, which contained a critical provision for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – formerly Food Stamps), recently failed to pass. “The main elements of a high wage strategy—re-directing capital from short-term speculation [i.e., the stock market – my emphasis] to long term investment [i.e., creating jobs] and sharing the returns to rising productivity more broadly [i.e., social programs]—are clear. But the influence of the richest ‘one percent’ has blocked government’s capacity to shape our common future, no matter which party is in power” (Jeff Faux – founder of the Economic Policy Institute, The Servant Economy). The stock market today is the direct equivalent of the bigger barns in Luke’s Gospel, where wealth is perpetually circulated among a tiny circle of buying-and-selling investors without ever being plowed into new and better jobs for the mass of poor people.
The $700 billion bank bailout bill that was passed on October 3, 2008, was a desperately-needed measure for an economy that had seen the worst downtown since the Great Depression. What has the country gotten for that massive investment? After bank repayments and interest earned on money loaned to the banks, the government is still (as of last month) $58.1 billion in the hole. The job growth that was supposed to come out of the bail-out has been “disappointing” and “tepid”, and in the meantime, bank profits are doing just fine: “Each of the six major U.S. banks beat second-quarter earnings estimates, propelling the market to its best month since January 2010 [as of August 2013]” (Seeking Alpha, “Why bank profits are good for stocks“). These profits are obviously not going into living wage jobs – they are going into the stock market Big Barn.
Jerusalem in all its splendor did not last forever, and in the end, its wealth ended up in Roman coffers. Wall Street is not immortal either. If anyone thinks that the economy can continue to play its ever-shrinking game of musical chairs for a tiny investment class without investing in the people, just ask the foreign governments who own 46% of the public debt (8% of which is held by China) (About.com).