The fourth sermon in a series run by Rev Dr Scott Couper on Church Mision and the Environment
“Moving from Econocentrism to Theocentrism”
*Hebrew Scripture: Deuteronomy 15:7-11
*Christian Scripture: Luke 12:16-21
Friends, this morning’s message to us is one of the most difficult messages I have ever preached. The reason why I am uncomfortable is because there is the proverbial ‘log in my eye’. Can you see it? Today, as I preach about income inequality, I live in relative extreme wealth amongst those in extreme poverty within Inanda township. Today, as I preach about income inequality, I live in what is considered to be the most economically unequal country in the world: South Africa. Today, as I preach about income inequality, I hold in my hand my passport to the richest country in the world: the United States. Today, as I preach about income inequality, I live in a world where the rich are getting richer and poor are getting poorer. In short, I am the Rich Fool. Perhaps the best person to preach about the Rich Fool is the Rich Fool himself! Are you ready to hear from the Rich Fool?
Friends, this morning we continue with part IV of our sermon series entitled “Sunday Times”. In this series, we are, in a sense, reading the newspaper to learn about the state of our world. What is happening in the world that ought to affect our Christian faith and our local church in Sydenham? We are asking ourselves, “Do we have the courage to face the realities of our time and allow ourselves to feel deeply enough that it transforms us and our future?”
As I pick-up a copy of the Sunday Times, I read “Democracy Suffers under Cleft between Rich and Poor” (13 September 2015, Business Times, 11).
The article summerises a report by economists that “singles out [income] inequality as the major cause of [societal] strains […]”. In short, what is causing social delivery protests? What is causing corruption? What is causing the EFF to be thrown out of parliament? What is causing, well, the theft of my car in Overport last month? The answer: income inequality. Of course, the answer is far more complicated than that. However, since I am the Rich Fool, there is only so much I am able to explain. But, I will try.
First, what I am speaking of today, is not so much about poverty, as about inequality. There is a difference. Everyone can be rich in South Africa and everything might be fine. Everyone can be poor in South Africa, and everything might be fine. Income inequality exists when a small minority of people have most of the money and large majority of the people have very little. Income equality is measured by, what is called, the ‘Gini Coefficient.’
Being a budding engineer, I have asked Frank, Jr. to kindly explain it to us. (No? Apparently he is politely declining.) Anyway, we do not have to know how the Gini Coefficient is determined, what is important to know as we read our newspaper is that South Africa has the highest Gini Coefficient in the world. Yes. South Africa has the highest income inequality in the world!
If a country has a Gini Coefficient of 0.00, then everyone in the country would have the same amount of money. If a country had a Gini Coefficient of 1.00, then one person would have all the money and everyone else would have nothing. South Africa’s Gini Coefficient is the highest in the world at 0.62!
But the situation becomes more sobering. In urban areas, in cities, the Gini Coefficient get worse because there are more rich people and more poorer people living together in cities. Would it surprise you if nine of the ten most unequal cities in the world are in South Africa?
Our Christian scripture reading this morning narrates for us the story of a Rich Fool. The scripture states that he produced a good crop. It is fair to say that since there are storehouses of grain and goods, that the man had labourers. Yet, the scriptures indicated that “the man produced a good crop.” So, we are not speaking about laziness here; ‘the man’ worked for his money. [Interesting, in another biblical translation it states that ‘the field yielded a good crop’. This is a very cosmocentric translational that plays down our more anthropocentric translation.) Yet, his objective is to accumulate more for himself so that he may live with security and ease. While reading this, I accused myself: ‘Scott, how is this not different from your pension? How is this man’s storehouses not different than your mutual funds, investments and equity portfolios?’ I am the Rich Fool. I must ask myself: Am I storing things for myself and not attuned to God’s will and work? What does the scripture mean when it accuses the Rich Fool of “not being rich toward God?”
Well, it could mean several things. Is the Rich Fool giving a tenth of his earnings, at tithe, to the ministry of God, the Temple (or in our case, Bethel Congregational Church, UCCSA)? Is he paying his labourers fairly? In our case, we live in Durban which is Area B, full time domestic workers’ minimum wage is R 1,812.57 per month or R 9.30 per hour. There are many things that we ought to do to live ‘richly towards God.’ Our scripture reading from Deuteronomy implores us to be generous towards the poor. We often refer to giving to the poor as ‘charity.’
I mentioned to you that the minimum wage for a domestic worker who works full time is R 1,812.57 per month – that is R 21,750.84 per year. Did you know that the average CEO in South Africa earns an average of R 1,035,324 per year? That is almost 50 times as much (47.6)! I can accept a CEO earning twice as much, even three times as much, even five times as much, even ten times as much – but 50 times as much!!!?? No. That is too much. I might be remunerated R300 for leading the worship. Can you imagine if I stated I deserved R15,000 or 50Xs as much!
While the Bible encourages us to be charitable, it is clear that there are ‘systems’ in place that favour the rich and disadvantage the poor. The writer of Deuteronomy, hints at this system, because he mentions a rule that all debts are to be forgiven every seven years. The Bible says a system was in place whereby the society’s Gini Coefficient would be lowered through the cancelling of debts, thus favouring the poor and disadvantaging the rich at least for one year. This seventh year levelled the playing field by countering the six years of ‘system’ that favoured the rich. Deuteronomy does not say there should not be rich people or there should not be poor people. But, Deuteronomy does say that systems have to be in place to lower the Gini Coefficient. Perhaps in our discussion group after the service, our leaders will suggest ways to lower society’s Gini Coefficient.
Friends, our environment is in danger because our theology is too focused on ourselves and not on God’s Creation, because there are too many of us, because too many of us pollute the Earth and because too many us earn and consume too much of the Earth’s resources. In other words, we have too many goods and too many storehouses to hoard those goods and we continue to work more in order to consume more and more and more without end – to the detriment of the Earth and the poor.
Let us as a people of faith at Bethel Congregational Church develop ministries that teach modestly, simplicity, fairness and greater equity with all God’s resources entrusted to us. Let move from ‘econocentrism’ (a focus on money) to ‘theocentrism’, a focus on God – so that unlike the Rich Fool we can be “rich towards God.”
This was the world of God. And it was preached to the people of God. And the people of God responded: “Amen.”