In an age when consumer capitalism shapes the lives of people everywhere, it is sobering to be reminded that our spiritual forbears had a totally different attitude to material wealth and the use of it. From the first days of Christianity, the duty to care for the poor and marginalised was central. Jesus himself lived and preached a way of life free of possessions, the first church in Jerusalem abolished private property, and the early apostles condemned the misuse of privilege and wealth. St Augustine said: “God does not demand much of you. He asks back what he gave you, and from him you take what is enough for you. The superfluities of the rich are the necessities of the poor. When you possess superfluities, you possess what belongs to others.”
There has always been a huge gap between religious principles and practice as Isaiah, claiming to speak for God, declares in a reading for tomorrow. He criticises those who “day after day seek me and delight to know my ways” but “serve your own interest on your fast day”. They seem to him to be more concerned at promoting their competing rituals. The prophet states what is required: “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness.” This is not just a matter of being charitable or nice to each other, although that is important, but more importantly we are talking about the fundamentals of a fair and just society, where peace and justice can prosper.
Centuries after Isaiah, when writing to the Colossians, St Paul used a Greek word, pleonexia, to describe the problem. It means wanting more and more of what rightfully belongs to others. That could be said to apply to modern society where too many, especially younger people, feel neglected or exploited when it comes to things like job security or having somewhere decent to live. And although we expect our political leaders to resolve such difficulties, they are often constrained by powerful international commercial and financial interests like those represented at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
While it would be unfair to suggest that those taking part don’t care about the less well-off back home, the problem is that they don’t care enough, as this year’s Oxfam report to the gathering clearly shows: “The richest 1 percent grabbed nearly two-thirds of all new wealth worth $42 trillion created since 2020, almost twice as much money as the bottom 99 percent of the world’s population. During the past decade, the richest 1 percent had captured around half of all new wealth.” Much of so-called new wealth is created through the exploitation of the poor, including children, by means of cheap labour and, at times, slavery. It has also resulted in serious and permanent damage to the environment. A clear consequence of economic imbalance is found on our very doorsteps in the form of immigration; men and women fleeing desperate situations, often accompanied by children, risking everything to get to countries like ours, in the hope of gaining even a small share of what we cling to and take for granted.
In the gospel reading we are reminded that Jesus calls his followers to be the light of the world, but we hesitate because that must surely mean questioning the economic system on which our relatively comfortable lifestyles depend. Is it possible that the light of the world shines brightest in the lives of the homeless in our cities, the unwanted immigrants at our borders and the world’s forgotten, whose desperate circumstances shine a light on the greed and selfishness of a dark world? Martin Luther King challenged all of us when he wrote: “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness. This is the judgement. Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”