A Lenten reflection….
We know (or think we know) what Good News for the Poor looks like. But is there an equivalent Good News for the Rich? We know the Bible is pretty unequivocal in its condemnation of poverty, but what has it got to say about the problem of wealth?
Far from ‘rich-bashing’ Jesus’ message was of liberation for the rich – just as it was of liberation for the poor.
Its so hard being wealthy today… Even a million doesn’t go that far any more. In fact, the once-princely sum is now the average house price in 4,735 streets in London, according to the website Zoopla. In Sloane Gardens, Chelsea, £1 million will only buy you a one-bedroom flat.
There’s wealth, and then there’s ‘ultra-high net wealth’. As Oxfam revealed at the start of the year, just 62 people own as much as the poorest half of the world’s population. Since 2010 the wealth of those richest 53 men and nine women, has increased by more than half a trillion dollars to a mind boggling 1.7 trillion dollars.
According to the latest ‘Wealth Report’, just over a quarter of the ‘seriously wealthy’ were considering purchasing another house in 2015 to add to the three they already own. But apparently art is ‘where its at’ amongst the super-rich. It is always possible to buy a new ski chalet or commission a new yacht, but nobody can paint another Monet or build a classic Ferrari.
Great wealth also brings its worries. How to handover the family wealth to the next generation was the number one worry, but close behind were concerns with wealth taxes and increased government scrutiny of wealth. So whilst Bill and Melinda Gates might win plaudits for giving away most of their wealth in their lifetimes, clearly the majority of seriously wealthy folk are intent on holding onto their wealth at all costs.
And one of the best ways of doing so is by holding your money ‘offshore.’ This doesn’t mean in a rusty tanker, moored off Bournemouth, but in a suitable ‘tax haven’ safely out of the reach of the taxman. In fact, Switzerland remains the ‘offshore’ destination of choice to hide your millions from the taxman, followed closely by the Channel Islands, Dublin, the Cayman Islands, Bahamas and yes, the UK.
For Oxfam, the message is clear. Urgent action is needed to tackle growing inequality by ending the era of tax havens which has seen increasing use of offshore centres by rich individuals and companies to avoid paying their fair share to society. This has denied both rich and poor governments alike valuable resources needed to tackle poverty and inequality.
Amen to that we might all say. But does our Christian faith have anything to add?
Firstly, a timely reminder about beams and motes. Clearly, some of the blame can be shouldered on a small cohort of filthy rich tax dodgers, but it would be a mistake to scapegoat a mere 62 individuals; there’s much blame to go around. Of the global increase in wealth that Oxfam reported on, half has gone to the richest 1%, which globally equates to roughly 70 million people. And how much wealth do you need to be in the 1%? According to Investopedia, you’d have to possess just over £533,000 in net worth, which includes everything from the equity in your home to the value of your pension and investments.
That’s a little more awkward, for those of us who now find that we’re actually included in the globally chastised 1 percent. Me included.
For proponents of the ‘prosperity gospel’ wealth is itself a sign of God’s favour. But unless I’ve missed something, nowhere in the Gospels do I read the phrase ‘Blessed are the Rich for they shall invest offshore.’
Far more uncomfortable are Jesus’ words recorded in Luke’s Gospel: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.” Then there’s Jesus’ parable of the rich fool, who built ever bigger barns. And that’s before we’ve even got onto the Eye of a Needle… or you cannot serve to masters.. or the story of the rich man and Lazarus…
Whatever spin the advertisers put on it, the endless pursuit of wealth does not bring contentment. An extra million in the bank does not buy an increase in happiness, but its own insecurities and resentments. Do not be beguiled by the attractions of wealth.
True liberation for the rich is to be freed from their (or our) obsession with keeping hold of it. Pay your taxes with joy, pay your workers enough that they too may enjoy the fruits of their labour. Contribute out of your wealth to the common good of all humanity, and you too will find true happiness.
Are we brave enough to announce this as Good News for the Rich?