The Vicar writes...
A recent United Nations report into poverty in the United Kingdom has suggested that a growing number of the poorest people in our society are condemned to a life that is increasingly “solitary, brutish, and short”.
The report was written by Professor Philip Alston following an official visit to Britain in 2018. Professor Alston is a much respected Australian law scholar and is the current UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. His findings reveal what many of us have suspected for a number of years - that the gap between the rich and poor is widening in the UK.
Britain is the world’s fifth largest economy and has many pockets of immense wealth, especially in the south east of England. London is a leading global financial centre and, despite the banking crisis of a decade ago, the wealthiest ten percent of Britons have actually grown richer. The UN report reveals that while the few have become wealthier the poor have become markedly poorer.
It’s estimated that 14 million people, a fifth of the UK‘s population, now live in poverty. Four million of these are more than fifty percent below the poverty line and one and a half million people are destitute.
Over the last decade we have seen an unprecedented growth in the use of foodbanks, as working families struggle to make ends meet. There has been a significant growth in homelessness, especially since the reform of the benefits system. Local libraries are closing, leisure centres and sports fields are being sold off to private companies and developers. All these, and more, are symptomatic of a society that is failing its more vulnerable members.
The challenge of the poor is an age old one. Jesus once said to his followers, ‘the poor will always be with you’ [Matthew 26]. He said this in response to Judas’ criticism of a woman who had anointed him with costly perfume just before the events of Good Friday. Judas couldn’t see the loving thing that she had done and argued that the oil should have been sold and the money given to the needy instead. In his response Jesus didn’t mean us to be resigned to the existence of poverty. He was probably quoting from the Law of Moses, which declared, ‘there will always be poor people in the land, so I am commanding you to be generous to the poor and needy.’ [Deuteronomy 15]
One of the hardest hitting of Jesus’ parables is that of the rich man and Lazarus, which we find in Luke chapter 16. In the story the two central characters, the rich man and the poor man, are depicted as polar opposites and the epitome of wealth and abject poverty. Dives, as we traditionally call the rich man, literally had it all. He was clothed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day. At his gate was a beggar called Lazarus who sat there in the hope that he would be given the ‘morsel’ that was thrown from Dives’ table. He was malnourished, full of sores, ritually unclean and living on the margins of his society.
The story ends with the death of the two men. Lazarus was taken to heaven and to the joy of Father Abraham’s bosom. Dives was sent to Hades, the place of torment. Roles were reversed in the kingdom we look to and, despite the rich man’s protests, Hades was to be his eternal damnation.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus isn’t there to encourage the poor to put up with their lot in the hope of gaining the riches of heaven. That kind of misinterpretation led Marx to call religion ‘the opium of the people’. Neither is the story told to condemn wealth. What it does condemn is the way the love of riches can blind us to the needs of others. Dives was sent to Hades, not because he was deliberately cruel to Lazarus, but because he just didn’t see his neighbour in need. His wealth could have been a blessing to him and to the poor man at his gate. In the end it became his curse.
At a time when the gap between the rich and poor is growing in the UK we would do well to take this parable to heart. Successive governments have failed to really address the challenge of poverty over the last few decades. As a growing number of the electorate see our politicians as self serving and brexit obsessed we are in danger of taking our eye off the great post war vision of a Britain with its welfare state and its support for the underprivileged.
Our Christian faith calls us to remember that society can only become a blessing when we open our eyes and hands to the poor and needy.