Sunday, 2 November 2014

"Scroungers" or "Hard Working Families"?

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
2nd November 2014 11.00
Living Wage Sunday

Matthew 23:1-12  Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples,  2 "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat;  3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.  4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.  5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.  6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues,  7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.  8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.  9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father-- the one in heaven.  10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.  11 The greatest among you will be your servant.  12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

Micah 3:5-12  Thus says the LORD concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry "Peace" when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths.  6 Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without revelation. The sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them;  7 the seers shall be disgraced, and the diviners put to shame; they shall all cover their lips, for there is no answer from God.  8 But as for me, I am filled with power, with the spirit of the LORD, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin.  9 Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity,  10 who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong!  11 Its rulers give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money; yet they lean upon the LORD and say, "Surely the LORD is with us! No harm shall come upon us."  12 Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height.

The people once described by Napoleon
            as a ‘nation of shopkeepers’ are now, it seems,
divided into ‘scroungers’ and ‘hard working families’.

You’re either contributing to society,
            or taking from it.
If you’ve got a job, and you pay your taxes,
            then you have earned your right to be part of our society,
            and to access the benefits of our common wealth.
If, however, you’ve not got a job,
            and especially if you’re in receipt of some support from the state,
            you are a ‘scrounger’, and you have no moral right
            to access the benefits that are sustaining you.

I think that this is an invidious narrative,
            but it is one with huge popular appeal;
particularly among those who work hard, pay their taxes,
            and resent funding the lifestyle choices of the ‘scroungers’.

Earlier this year, the Chancellor George Osborne said:

“Where I have had the opportunity I have focussed the effort on those on low and middle incomes… That's my priority, that's where my tax-cutting priorities lie because I want to help those hard-working families."[1]

And the Prime Minister David Cameron said:

“welfare is there to help people who work hard and should not be there as a sort of life choice… That is why we need to make work pay and cut the welfare bill - cutting this bill will enable us to cut taxes for hard-pressed households.”[2]

But it’s not just from the Conservative side of the house
            that such rhetoric comes…

In his conference speech this year, Labour leader Ed Milliband asked:

“Can anyone build a better future for the working people of Britain?”.

before offering the following answer:

“I am not talking about a better future for the powerful and the privileged. Those who do well whatever the weather. I’m talking about families like yours treading water, working harder and harder just to stay afloat. For Labour, this election is about you.”[3]

Both sides of the political fence have bought into the narrative
            that we’re all either scroungers, or workers.
And both sides recognize the political capital that is to be gained
            from reducing the national burden of the benefit system,
            in order to correspondingly reduce the taxation burden
                        borne by hard-working floating voters.

As Jesus might have put it, in one of his more cynical moments,
            “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,
                        and lay them on the shoulders of others;
            but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”

And so we find ourselves at our Gospel reading for this morning.

Come back with me, for a few minutes, to the world of first century Judea,
            as we start to unpick Jesus’ damning indictment
                        of the religious and political leaders of his own day,
            before coming back to our own world,
                        to consider how his critique might speak
                        to our contemporary situation.

The first thing to say, is that our passage from Matthew 23,
            which we had read to us earlier in the service,
cannot be read in isolation from something that Jesus says
            a few chapters earlier in Matthew’s gospel.

Matthew 11:28-30   "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 
29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 
30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

We often encounter this saying as a comfort for troubled souls;
            I’m sure you know the kind of thing,
            you’ve heard it in sermons before:

            Are you weary? Weighed down by the trials of life?
            Are you finding the burden of your troubles too hard to bear?
                        Then come to Jesus, like Pilgrim in Bunyan’s famous novel,
                                    and lay down your heavy burden at the cross;
                        because Jesus is gentle, humble, meek and mild;
                                    rest in him and your soul will be restored.
                        His yoke is easy, and his burden is light…

Except, this was not really the point
            of what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 11,
and it certainly wasn’t what he was talking about
            when he spoke of burdens too heavy to bear
            in our reading for this morning from chapter 23.

The burden that Jesus had in mind,
            was not the sense of soul-weariness
                        that afflicts us all from time to time.
            Nor was it the burden of persistent sin,
                        damaging and destructive though that can be.

Rather, Jesus was talking about burdensome systems of oppression,
            that had kept people enslaved and ensnared,
                        to the service of the unjust regime
                        that held political and religious power.

The Judea of the first century
            was an occupied country.
The Romans held ultimate political power,
            but it was exercised locally through a permitted network
            of puppet kings and religious leaders.

This devolved system of governance had local responsibility
            for administering taxation, legislation, and social care.
And as long as the Roman Empire received what it required,
            the details of how the rest played out at a local level
            was something for the indigenous rulers to sort out.

For the average person, in an average Jerusalem street,
            the “hardworking first century family man”,
                        just “trying to make ends meet”,
            the system was a burden from dawn till dusk.

Taxes were exorbitant,
            and the system for their collection was rife with corruption.
The political leaders were out-of-touch,
            and motivated primarily by self-interest and self-aggrandizement.
And the religious leaders were utterly compromised,
            and thoroughly enmeshed in the preservation
                        and legitimation of the status quo.

The Judean equivalent of the man on the Clapham omnibus
            was over taxed, under paid, and put-upon at every turn.

By the same token,
            those in need society’s help,
            the widows, the orphans, the extreme poor, and the disabled,
were having their legally enshrined right to support
            cut back at every opportunity.

Isaiah may have told the people of Israel that they should
            “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
            defend the orphan, [and] plead for the widow.” Isaiah 1:17  

But the reality of Israel at the time of Jesus
            was a long way from this ideal.
Beggars lined the streets,
            women were vulnerable and defenceless,
            and the sick were pushed to the margins of society and beyond.

So, when Jesus says,
            ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens’
he is speaking to those who are put-upon and done-unto
            by an economically oppressive and destructive system,
            borne out of a combination of Roman Imperialism
                        and unethical localised administration.

The yoke that Jesus invites people to throw off
            is the yoke of the oppressor,
            it is the yoke of tyranny.

And his invitation to take up an alternative yoke,
            is an invitation to start living by a different set of rules,
it is a call to start living
            as citizens of a different empire,
            as those who belong to different kingdom.

Once again, Jesus sounds like a dangerous revolutionary,
            and his words of challenge no longer sound so warm and comforting.
This is no gentle Jesus, meek and mild,
            comforting the tired and weary with platitudes and clichés.
Rather, this is Jesus the radical,
            calling the oppressed to a new world order,
and challenging the self-interested powers-that-be
            by unmasking their hypocrisy
            and exposing their indifference to the plight of the poor.

The empire to which Jesus calls people
            is a kingdom of mercy, justice, and compassion.
It is a new world-order where those who wearily toil
            are liberated from the burdens that tyrannize them.

It is a vision of the world where justice is fairly administered
            for both the rich and the poor alike (Lev. 19.15; Deut 1.17),
and where each member of society is of equal value
            in the eyes of the law, as well as in the eyes of the Lord.

This is the empire of God,
            and Jesus invites people to start to experience it in the here-and-now.
Not as some longed for future,
            or as some vision for the afterlife,
but as a reality that transforms human society
            as the values of eternity break into the present.

It is in the light of this vision, first spelled out in chapter 11,
            that Jesus turns his attention in chapter 23
            to one of the main stumbling blocks to the realisation of the new world.
And so the religious leaders, the scribes and the Pharisees,
            become his particular target.

The thing that seems to particularly offend Jesus
            about the scribes and the Pharisees
            is that they ought to know better.

They, after all, are the custodians of the laws of Moses.
            They are those who have read Leviticus and Deuteronomy,
                        and have taken upon themselves the task
                        of applying the ancient laws to the first century world.

The scribes and the Pharisees know the commands
            to exercise fair and impartial judgment,
they know the commands to care for the weak and the vulnerable,
            they know the commands to exercise taxation with probity.
They know this stuff, and they teach it easily enough;
            but, says Jesus, they don’t live it out.
It is not real in their lives, and so they are hypocrites.

They should be at the forefront
            of challenging the oppressive practices of the Roman Imperial system.
But instead they have become complicit in its abuses,
            and are profiteering from its corruption.

Instead of lifting the yoke of oppression from the shoulders of the poor,
            they are tying up heavy burdens, hard to bear,
            and laying them on the shoulders of others,
while they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.

They have betrayed the vision of the prophets
            and have sold their birthright for a mess of pottage.[4]

They have accepted the bribe
            that the empire offers to all who might challenge it,
and have exchanged their call to transform the world
            for the more immediate lure of power, status, and wealth.

And, I have to ask,
            are we any different?

The followers of Christ down the centuries
            have demonstrated a ready capacity to align themselves
            with promises of power, wealth, and status.

We have silenced ourselves, and shut ourselves up,
            all in the cause of self-preservation and self-interest.
Time and again we have lost the vision of the prophets
            for a world transformed and a world renewed,
because we have set our sights on the things of this world,
            and not on the revelation of the new world that is breaking in upon us.

But the call and critique of Jesus echoes down the centuries to us, today,
            challenging us to consider our relationship to power, wealth, and status,
and asking us to look long and hard at the complicities we bear
            in the treatment of the poor, the vulnerable, and the disabled.

The people of our country cannot simply be split
            into “hard working families” and “scroungers”,
            to “givers” and “takers”,
and to do so is to imbibe a narrative of domination
            where the poor are squeezed,
                        the vulnerable are oppressed,
                                    and the weak are heavy-laden.

The gospel of Jesus Christ calls us all to engage society
            in ways that are transformative, and not entrenched.
It calls us to see Christ in the face of the stranger,
            and to see God-given humanity of each created person.

There may be no such thing as the undeserving poor,
            but any of us who look at our own wealth
                        and tell ourselves that we deserve it,
            may well find that we are closer to the Pharisees and the scribes
                        than we are comfortable admitting.

This coming week is Living Wage week,
            and there will be a lot of publicity
                        about the importance of paying people an hourly rate
                                    that is sufficient, not only for subsistence living,
                                    (which is the premise of the minimum wage(,
                        but a rate that is capable of lifting people out of poverty.

The Living Wage foundation believe
            that work should be the surest way out of poverty.
Work should not be a burden on the shoulders of the poor,
            but a means of grace and dignity.[5]

As a church, we are part of the Citizens UK movement,
            which aligns us with other community groups,
            ranging from churches, to schools,
                        to synagogues, to hospitals, to mosques.[6]

And in this way, we are directly involved
            in the process of community-organising to effect change
            in some key and vital areas in both London and the wider UK.

So, through the London Citizens group,
            we are aligned with campaigns relating to, amongst other things,
            the governance of the UK,
                        improved social care,
            child health,
                        affordable housing,
            treatment of asylum seekers,
                        employment and training opportunities,
            credit unions,
                        and the living wage.

If this kind of direct involvement in the transformation of society,
            at a non-party-political level
is something that you are interested in,
            please do speak to me, or Dawn, or Ruth,
and we will talk with you about how you can get more involved
            on behalf of Bloomsbury.

This, it seems to me,
            is where the rubber starts to hit the road
in terms of our faith taking shape in our society,
            to transform the world in the name of our saviour Christ Jesus.

[4] Genesis 25.29-34

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