The Year for Cancelling Debts

June 30, 2019

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Preached by Canon Mark Collinson using Deuteronomy chapter 15 verses 1 to 11 at Evensong on Sunday 30th June 2019, the Second after Trinity.

Poverty Politics

Those of you who regularly read the Hampshire Chronicle will know that I contribute once a month to the Christian Comment. I must confess that I do find it difficult to distinguish politics from party political, for which I beg your pardon.

Christian faith is non-party political – you can be a Christian and a member of the Brexit party, a Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem, or Greens… however I would argue that you cannot be a Christian without being political.  Christians can and must speak to the issues of society in such a way that holds out hope that God will bring his kingdom, a kingdom of righteousness and justice for all, not just a few. It is the responsibility of government to bring righteousness and justice for all, not just the powerful and wealthy. I would argue therefore that all political parties must have policies to tackle poverty and bring opportunity to the weakest and most vulnerable in society.

Our first reading from the book of Deuteronomy is an example of God’s political economy. The law says that loans for the community of the people of Israel cannot be last for more than seven years. Every seven years is a sabbath which terminates all existing borrowing. It’s an interesting concept isn’t it? The impact of such a policy is that within the nation of Israel there would be no long term debt. Lending would be dramatically reduced and the nation would also not be in debt to other nations. This reflects Israel’s reliance on God for all she needs.

My daughter has now completed her second year of university, and she has borrowed in order to pay her maintenance and her tuition fees. She will be coming out with a debt larger than the cost of the first house I ever bought and is paying an interest rate that is higher than most mortgages. She is starting her adult life with a long term debt.

We may not see as much poverty in Winchester as in other parts of the UK. In fact, I was surprised when I discovered that the parish I live in is the second least deprived parish in England, which means no-one who is poor can afford to live there. However it is shocking that 14 million people in the UK live in households that are below the poverty line. 14 million (https://bit.ly/2DoRsy2). That’s one fifth of the population of the country. We may not see it – perhaps because we have not eyes to see, and we don’t want to admit that it’s a problem.

A recent UN report said that poverty in the UK is ‘systemmic’. That means you can’t get out of it. It’s there to stay. It doesn’t matter how many hours you work, how many jobs you have, you will stay there for the rest of your life, and consign your children to the same.

The law defined in Deuteronomy is designed to prevent poverty. It encourages the ‘haves’ to lend to the ‘have nots’ even if it is unlikely that their loan will be repaid. If your neighbour needs help, the law encourages you to meet his need, even it if is one year before the sabbath cancels the debt. Such a system was meant to ensure that systemmic poverty could never happen.

Our political system is currently undergoing enormous and uncharted transition because for too long, I suggest, we have tried to ignore the growing disparity between rich and poor in this country. And poverty isn’t just a problem in the UK, of course. The inequalities of wealth mushroom when you compare the UK with other countries.

Over the next two weeks we are welcoming a colleague who works with schools, youth and children from one of the diocesan companion links in Rwanda. We met Marcel in February earlier this year during the School of Mission visit to Rwanda, and were privileged to be some of the first guests to his house to greet him after the birth of his first child. He will be visiting schools around the diocese and will be staying a couple of nights at our house, and I have no doubt that we will be overwhelmed by the embarrassment of our riches.

What binds us together is our common humanity and even more so, our faith in Christ. We are one body. We are brothers, Marcel and I. And despite our differences we are called to live together in the kingdom of God and figure out what it means to be in a relationship of sorts. Yes, perhaps it does make us feel uncomfortable. Yes, perhaps solving global poverty is difficult. But it is wrong to ignore inequality, and claim that immigrants are the problem not the symptom of a global system that is systematically consigning billions of people to poverty generation after generation.

Jesus has an interesting take on poverty. He quotes from the passage in Deuteronomy,

‘The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me.’ (Mark 14:7)

He said this in the context of a woman who used up a precious perfume by anointing his feet with it. One of the disciples piously suggested that it could have been sold and the money given to the poor instead.

Why does Jesus appear so dispassionate? Why is he more worthy of this costly anointing than the poor?

The answer is that we can only fight poverty through the body of Christ that died on the cross. The perfume was an anointing that prepared for his death and burial, and it is only when our own lives have connected with the death of Jesus Christ, that we begin find his death brings us a deeper and meaningful connection with life in his kingdom.

The problem with poverty is not that resources are scarce as politicians would have us believe. The problem is that the human heart thinks we have too little and is unwilling to share. Only when each human heart locates itself in the body of Christ, does it begin to question whether we have too much.

I challenge you therefore to be uncomfortable, if you survive off more than £15,000 a year (the defined poverty line of 60% of the median income), I suggest that it is your responsibility to be politically active (whichever party you associate with) to ensure that those who live off less than £15,000 a year get a helping hand out of systemmic poverty. There are fourteen million such people you could help.

If that feels too hard, then I wonder if we need first to give again our all to Jesus, through whose body our hearts begin to feel compassion for those less well off than ourselves. As we give ourselves to Christ he gives his heart to us. Becoming part of the community of Christ is the first step towards desiring what Christ wants for our society.

Living God,
deliver us from a world without justice
and a future without mercy;
in your mercy, establish justice,
and in your justice, remember the mercy
revealed to us in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.