Sunday, July 01, 2012

The Case For Equality

2 Corinthians 8.7-15
Mark 5.21-43



On Saturday morning I heard the BBC’s Rome correspondent talking about how the Eurozone crisis had affected the Dolce Vita - the good life which Italians used to think they enjoyed. Life has got a lot harder for people, he said, but then he conceded that - compared to most of the world’s population - Italians are still rich.

Perhaps that’s something we need to remind ourselves about from time to time. St Paul certainly thought so. ‘You are so rich in everything,’ he told the Christians at Corinth.

Actually, the Christians at Corinth weren’t tremendously cash rich and there weren’t very many of them. We know they could all fit inside Gaius’s house, for instance, so either it was a very big house or - more likely - there were no more than fifty of them. Some would have been able to recline on couches in his dining and living space, others would have had to sit outside in the open courtyard around which the large town houses of the well-to-do were constructed. In summer this would have been nice and cool, and perhaps everyone might have crowded into the courtyard. In winter, the people sitting in the courtyard would have needed braziers to keep them warm. Perhaps that is where they sat, grumbling, while the better off members of the church ate a proper meal in the dining room before sharing holy communion with those outside. We know this was happening because St Paul roundly condemns the practice.

So some members of the church were quite well off. Gaius for one, Erastus who was an important local official - the treasurer of the town council, probably Crispus, a leading member of the Jewish community, and Chloe - who lived in nearby Cenchrae and was a leader of the church and also someone who helped to pay Paul’s stipend, although he earned most of his money as a tentmaker and only worked part-time for the church. These people were indeed rich.

But the rest of the congregation probably lived in one or two room apartments, and some were only slaves, living in the homes of their masters and mistresses. So in what sense were these people rich?

St Paul says they were rich in faith, speech, knowledge, diligence and love. In other words they were like the modern Italian bookseller who told the BBC correspondent last week that in the current period of austerity Italians had stopped buying books. ‘They never read much at the best of times,’ he said gloomily, ‘But I don’t mind because I don’t need to make much money. I can live like a monk and I’m happy so long as I have a good book to read.’ Which is fortunate, said the correspondent cheerfully, because he’s surrounded by quite a lot of unsold books.

What the bookseller was admitting, of course, is that there is more to life than money, and some of the best things in life are free, or almost free. His sentiment was echoed by an elderly woman who said that - although her pension buys less and less each month - at least she gets to live in Rome, and Rome is still a beautiful city.

Most of the Corinthian Christians might not have been cash rich, but at least they had plenty of the things that really count - faith, knowledge, diligence, speech - does St Paul mean inspired speech, or speaking in tongues? - and, of course, they have love. However, when St Paul tells people how fortunate they are, there’s usually a catch.. He wants something from them - and yes, the old song is true, ‘All the parson ever wants is money!’

St Paul is making a collection for the hard-up Christians in Palestine, who are being persecuted and who are also enduring famine. By comparison even the fairly modest wealth of the Christians in Corinth seems like riches. The Corinthian Christians have been kind to St Paul, (actually that’s a slight exaggeration, as his letters reveal), now it’s time for them to be equally lavish to their fellow Christians in the Holy Land. Not that St Paul dares to order them to empty their pockets, but he wants to encourage them to follow the example of their Lord and Master Jesus Christ who ‘was rich and yet, for [their] sakes, became poor, so that through his poverty [they] might become rich.’

You may think St Paul had a bit of a nerve, because this isn’t the first time he had sent round the begging bowl for the Christians in Palestine. This was his second collection. They are in Year 2 of what was obviously an on-going fundraising campaign. ‘You made a good beginning last year,’ he tells them, now I’m asking you to keep up the good work. ‘Be as eager to complete the scheme as you were to adopt it, and give according to your means.’

People had obviously been complaining that times were hard for them too, and St Paul seemed to be attempting to take what little they have left by writing what are, in effect, a series of eloquently worded Gift Day letters. But St Paul seeks to reassure them. God doesn’t ask for what we don’t have. There is no question of helping others at the cost of genuine hardship for ourselves. We are only asked to give eagerly, and in proportion to what we can afford.

The trouble with this argument, of course, is that what we can afford to give is a very subjective judgement. The other people going into the Temple felt they could only afford to give a little, but Jesus observed one poor widow putting into the collection everything she had.

So here St Paul introduces an interesting idea which he appears to have shared with biographer his St Luke. We should think about giving as a matter of making things more equal between us and other people. At the moment the Palestinian Christians are desperately hard up, whereas the Corinthian Christians apparently have a surplus. And, at the moment, the surplus income of the Christians in Corinth is meeting the need of their poorer Palestinian brothers and sisters, but one day the situation may be reversed and they may be the ones who need help. It’s a concept which goes back, St Paul says, to the time of the Exodus from Egypt when God sent manna from heaven. ‘Those who gathered more’ found that they did not have too much, ‘and those who gathered less’ found that they did not have too little.

It’s not quite clear why this was, except that hoarding the manna - if you had more than you could eat - did you no good because, by the morning, it had gone bad and was no longer edible. And there was always enough to go round, so it worked out that everyone was pretty much equal. No one had too much manna, at the expense of others, and no one went without. In the same way, St Paul seems to be suggesting, we should aim to have just enough to meet our needs, and we should be willing to give away the rest.

Of course, all of this advice comes before saving for our retirement was first thought of. Until modern times people didn’t save money for their retirement, they had children whose duty it then was to look after them if they survived into old age and could no longer work.

As we’ve  already noted, the notion of equality comes up too in the writings of St Luke, who insists that the early church in Jerusalem followed exactly the same principles and pooled at least their surplus wealth, if not all their belongings, to create a hardship fund to help those in need.

It’s also an idea that lies behind St Mark’s interlinked stories of Jairus’s daughter and the woman who suffered from haemorrhages, because surely it’s no coincidence that their stories are woven together instead of being told separately. At one level, of course, interrupting Jesus’ pressing journey to see Jairus’s daughter heightens the tension and makes the narrative more interesting. Will he or won’t he get there in time? Will Jairus’s daughter be beyond help by the time he reaches her bedside? But at another level the story is about equality.

Jairus, like Crispus in Corinth, was an important member of the local Jewish community. Doing something to help him will raise Jesus’ standing and help his mission. Someone like Jairus could be a powerful friend and backer. The woman, in contrast, is at the bottom of the social pile. An outcast because of her haemorrhages, she has also spent all of her money on quack remedies. She has nothing left to offer. Jesus would be well advised to ignore her touch or push her aside. But he doesn’t. He makes a point of stopping to confirm that she has been healed and to commend her faith. She matters to him just as much as Jairus and his daughter.

And there is another level at which equality is operating in this story. Jairus’s daughter is acutely unwell. Jairus and his family believe that she could die at any moment. It’s a blue light and sirens job and the crowd impeding Jesus’ progress is at best a nuisance and at worst a dangerous liability. The woman with the haemorrhages, who is an anonymous member of that crowd, has only a chronic illness, something which may be very nasty and debilitating, and whose social and religious consequences are undeniably devastating, but whose case could easily wait until tomorrow, or next week, or the week after. Jesus could easily make an appointment to see her at his next surgery. But God’s grace doesn’t work like that - it is offered in equal measures to everyone.

Two or three things which have affected our church in recent weeks come to mind as I read these stories. The first is that Gift Day was tremendously successful this year. Times are hard but the giving has gone up. Contrast this with the last recession in the mid-1990s, when we had more church members but giving to Gift Day stagnated. All we can say, like St Paul to the Corinthians, is thank you for your willingness to give.

The second is that the General Church Meeting and the Church Council have both considered a request for funding from the Portobello Community Forum and the new Christians Against Poverty debt counselling project in Wakefield and the church council decided, after careful consideration, that we should be challenged - like the church at Corinth - to try to come to the aid of those less fortunate than ourselves by raising £1,000 a year for each of those projects for the next three years.

Like St Paul’s fundraising campaign it will be a challenge because it’s not a one-off effort but a sustained programme that will mean holding events or special collections every year, not just once. But, in St Paul’s words, it’s a chance for us all to give eagerly according to our means to help those facing greater hardship even than ourselves.

And finally there is the question of the circuit assessment which seems, in the case of a number of churches in the circuit, to have been calculated in a way which over-estimates how much money they have in the bank. This is because the decision to take a church’s bank balance into account was made very late in the day, by the Circuit Assembly, after all of the churches had already submitted their accounts. As a result church treasurers were unable to point out that some of their savings might have been accumulated to pay off existing debts or to cover the cost of a special project to which the church was already committed.

Now we could go about trying to unpick these arrangements, to see if the assessment needs to be recalculated. But I think St Paul suggests another approach. If, out of our small surplus - that is to say, the reserves we certainly do have in the bank for a rainy day - we can afford to pay what has been asked of us to help relieve the hardship of others, perhaps we should do so even if it turns out that, like other churches, the amount we actually owe is not quite that much.

But, of course, in the end these passages are meant to challenge us not just as a church but as individuals. We are being asked to remember how generous God has been to us through Jesus and to be equally generous to others in return. We are being asked to remember how, in God’s eyes, all of us are equally deserving of his constant and immediate care. If we take that idea seriously it means that all of us are equally deserving of one another’s love, kindness and understanding.

Archbishop Rowan Williams hit the headlines a week ago when he appeared to criticisie the prime minister in a new books he’s written. Referring to one of the prime minister’s favourite ideas he said, "Big society rhetoric is all too often heard by many … as aspirational waffle designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable."

Well, of course, that may be true. But the Big Society also has a positive aspect. If we help the people on the Portobello Estate, and the counsellors who are trying to assist people with big debts to find a way of repaying what they owe, and if we look out for and take care of one another, that’s an example of the Big Society in action today. It turns then from empty waffle and camouflage for cuts into reality - making the world a better place as we show generosity and compassion to one another.

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