That moment. The first time your girlfriend reaches across the restaurant table and helps herself to a chunk of your parma and a few of your chips. Whoa. When did this relationship start moving so fast? Yeah, that parma could comfortably feed a family of six, but it’s your parma. You muster a half-hearted smile. Then, when the server returns to ask about dessert, she has the audacity to say she doesn’t want anything…but she’ll have a little bite of yours. You snap. “No. No. No. Not just a little bite. If you want cheesecake, then order cheesecake!”
Well, mate, at least you’re good at sharing one thing: a sharing problem, which you share with much of the Western world.
It’s a Great View From the Top
For years, we Western countries have been zealously guarding our plates, slapping the developing world’s hands away if they get too close to our stash of resources. In the U.S., for instance, we consume a massive proportion of the world’s food supply – around 200 billion more calories each day than we actually need. We also use a quarter of the world’s energy, despite having only 4% of the world’s population.
The same scenario plays out domestically. In the U.S., the top 10% of the population control a staggering three quarters of the country’s wealth, with the top 1% accounting for about half that (Here in Australia, though slightly more egalitarian, the story is similar: 62% of financial assets in the hands of the top 20%). We applaud their self-reliance, frugality and extraordinary business acumen, rewarding them with tax breaks and loopholes, so they can accumulate even more and contribute even less. When they line their already bloated accounts with more capital, we call it ‘sound financial management’. Of course, when your grandmother lines her cabinets with cans of sardines, we call it ‘hoarding’. Go figure.
Meanwhile, the middle classes scrabble for whatever scraps fall from the tables of the rich, hoping to store up enough for our own present needs and future comfort – and perhaps dreaming that our tireless efforts and a bit of luck will facilitate our ascent up the economic ladder.
And very few of us, genuinely wealthy or otherwise, seem inclined to share much with the poor. Together, they hold less than 1% of our nations’ financial resources.
But hey, what can you do? This is just the way the world works, isn’t it? Yeah, but should it be the way we work?
The ‘Haves’ and ‘Have Nots’
So often, we (Christians) unquestioningly accept the following Western cultural myths:
Myth 1: The ‘haves’ have because they’re harder workers than the rest of us. They’ve surmounted countless obstacles to transcend their humble origins and build their own wealth from the ground up. They’re a symbol of what can be achieved by anyone who’s willing to reach for it.
Myth 2: The ‘have nots’ have not because they’re shiftless and lazy. They’re entitled and would rather sit on their asses watching daytime television than seek gainful employment. In fact, they could achieve wealth themselves if they’d only work hard for it. $8.00 an hour on the graveyard shift at Burger King is more than adequate to drag a family out of poverty.
Myth 3: We shouldn’t share resources with the poor because they haven’t earned it. Why should we share what rightfully belongs to us with the undeserving? Besides, granting them things like healthcare, welfare or money only enables them and their ‘poverty mentality’. Those ‘big government’ programs enslave people, so by denying them, we’re actually doing the poor a favour. Anyway, they’d just use our money to buy drugs and alcohol.
What’s the Rich Man’s Vice?
Unfortunately, these myths floating around in our subconscious impact the way we approach scripture. We don’t know what to make of the Hebrew prophets’ calls for social justice. Acts 2:43-47 makes us downright uncomfortable. And we tend to just gloss right over James when he tells us that if we’re not willing to feed the hungry and clothe those in need, our faith is worthless.¹
Then, there’s this little parable from Jesus about the rich fool:
The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought 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. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 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.
Luke 12:13-21, NRSV
Now, what’s this guy done wrong? After all, he’s doing what we would do, storing up plenty of resources for a time when he might need them. That’s just wise stewardship and personal responsibility. Maybe, we think, he’s a drunk and a glutton, since he wants to ‘eat, drink and be merry’. Maybe he’s not ‘saved’; his soul’s not prepared for judgement!
No. As Randy Richards and Brandon O’Brien have noted in their book, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, Jesus’s first audience would have immediately discerned the very simple problem: the rich man had more than he needed and he didn’t want to share. We tend to miss this very plain reading thanks to our rugged individualism and the premium we place on self-reliance. But 1st-century Jews lived in a collectivist culture. In their minds, resources were limited and squirrelling away an abundance of them was a vice, not a virtue. The issue was a lack of generosity.²
Building a Generous Lifestyle
And a lack of generosity is often our issue as well, as difficult as that is to accept. Yes, we’re happy to give to a charity on occasion, pass a few bucks to a homeless person as we walk by, or take a ‘love offering’ for a missionary (because that’s God’s work).
These incidental actions are fairly easy; we enjoy unprecedented abundance by the standards of the world. Where we all struggle is in committing to regular and continuing generosity with our resources (Just yesterday, I played the cat-and-mouse game with an Oxfam cold caller, asking for regular contributions to refugee camps in Jordan. He kept trying to back me into commitment corner and I kept dancing my way out of it. It’s pathetic, really, but it’s a default response).
And it’s not just our finances. The Christian vote in the last U.S. election reveals that, for most of us, sharing our land, our homes, our food, our healthcare – and most importantly, our tax dollars – with displaced and poverty-stricken people isn’t high on our list of priorities.
Being disciples of Jesus means upping our generosity (Just consider the example we were set). Yet building generous lifestyles requires intentionality. That’s especially true when we have to dismantle our self-constructed and culturally-encouraged walls, designed to keep people out and our stuff in. The Christian community (and in that, we should include the wider Christian community) is a great place to begin practising.
But to limit our kindness to our faith circles would be to miss the point. Our spheres of influence beyond the church doors take in many desperate people. The world will never run short of the poor, the hungry, the powerless, the stateless, or the homeless in need of our active compassion. Let’s start extending it.
So yeah, go ahead and help yourself to my parma.
¹ Someone will surely bring up Paul’s teaching to the churches at Thessaloniki: ‘Anyone unwilling to work shall not eat’. Exactly! Dependable Paul, the apostle who just keeps supplying us with proof texts. Clearly, he’s a Westerner in Eastern clothing. But this teaching was likely for people who assumed that since Jesus was returning ‘any day now’, there wasn’t much point in working. And it’s not enough to upset the balance of scripture as a whole.
² Just in case we’d doubt that this is what Jesus is actually talking about, the parable is set in the context of his teaching on greed. Jesus has lots of stuff to say about wealth in his teaching and parables. None of them are terribly optimistic.
- Featured Image: My own amalgamation of a ‘Do Not Touch’ sign (https://pixabay.com/en/warning-hand-off-touch-not-sign-43806/) and a chicken parma from the ‘Off the Spork’ blog (http://offthespork.blogspot.com.au/2008/01/palmerston-hotel-chicken-parma.html)
- ‘The Parable of the Rich Fool’ by Rembrandt, 1627
(www.uni-leipzig.de : Home : Info : Pic, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5812686)