Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Jeff Bezos, Amancio Ortega, and Mark Zuckerberg. A story came out this week saying that these five men, the five richest people in the world, now possess as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s populations. These five men own as much as 3, 750,000,000 people. Just take a second and try and wrap your head around that fact. On average each of them holds as much as nearly 750 million people. Each of them owns more than twice the population of the entirety of the United States!
This item in the news really struck me, particularly in light of our scripture lesson from Exodus this morning. God says to Moses, “You saw what I did to the Egyptians, and how I lifted you up on eagles’ wings and brought you to me. 5 So now, if you faithfully obey me and stay true to my covenant…” I heard an interview with Walter Brueggemann, who is perhaps the most renowned Hebrew Testament scholar of our day. He recently wrote a book, called Money and Possesions, for the Interpreter Series in which he systematically went through the entire Bible looking at what it has to say about money and possessions. In the interview he talks about the Moses story as being foundational in Jewish and consequently Christian thought about what the relationship with money should be.
As Brueggemann recounts the Moses story he begins, not Exodus, but in Genesis. He points to Abraham, and notes that in Abraham’s day, when they experienced famine, they left to Egypt, and found that Pharaoh had plenty to share. But then as the story continues and we get to Joseph and his time in Egypt, Pharaoh has these dreams, that Joseph interprets, dreams of skinny cows devouring fat cows, dreams of thin sheaves of wheat consuming full ones. What do they mean? It is fear of scarcity. Pharaoh is beset with anxiety, and so puts Joseph in charge alleviating that fear, of filling his storehouses. The story is not specific about this, but of course what it means is taking more from the peasant farmers. Brueggemann actually calls Joseph Pharaoh’s hatchet man. By the time that we get to Moses this greed has so consumed Pharaoh, that the Israelites have been made slaves, building up the Pharaoh’s empire. Looking at the situation around him Moses is moved to indignation. He can’t take it anymore, and runs. But we find that Yahweh has also been moved by the plight of the Israelites, and God uses Moses to help free them. As they are freed Yahweh sets up the Covenant with them, and as Brueggemann describes it, the Covenant is really an alternative to the life they had with Pharaoh. The story he says is a contest between predatory extractive economics with Pharaoh on the one hand, and covenantal or neighborly economics on the other.
It is a contest that is paradigmatic, one that runs throughout scripture. When the Israelites clamor for a king in 1st Samuel, Samuel speaks the word of God to them, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariot… He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take from your grain and your vineyards. He will take… take… take…” Predatory extractive economics versus covenant economics.
When the Prophet Isaiah brings God’s case against Israel he says, “The LORD enters into judgment with the elders and the princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?” Predatory extractive economics versus covenant economics.
Even the story of Jesus, even this story can be seen in the lens of the contest between the Roman Empire and its predatory extractive economics; the Roman Empire, who grew wealthy off the fat of the land of Judah and off the backs of Jewish peasants and Jesus, who preached the kingdom of heaven, who preached covenantal economics, who preached loving neighbor and loving God. This is why Jesus is crucified.
And it is a lens that we might read our own context. And this gets me back to where I began the sermon this morning – five people with as much wealth as half the world. The predatory extractive economic today is consumer capitalism. It is this silent and almost unperceivable coercive power, but it is very much at work extracting wealth and putting it in the hands of the people at the top. Last year, it was eight people, that owned as much as the poorest half of the globe, now it’s five. Last year nearly two trillion dollars, trillion with a T, was effectively transferred from the bottom 90% to the top 1% of wealth holders. And you might think, well that’s just the market at play. That’s very different than Pharaoh, or the Kings of Judah, or the Roman Emperor, but is it. The laws of the land favor the wealthy. Investment income is taxed less than earned income. Investors are given priority over laborers. And the ones who make the laws are the super rich. In both houses of congress, nearly forty percent of the body is made up of those at the top 1%, ninety percent of the congress is made up of those at the top 10%. So of course laws favor the rich.
Last year, I was able to talk to J Herbert Nelson, who is now the Stated Clerk for our denomination, the PC(USA). Prior to being Stated Clerk he was in a role in the national office of the church tasked with advocating for the poor. He said that when he came into that job, the work was essentially as a lobbyist to congress, trying to get bills passed that would alleviate the plight of the poor. He said to me, “As bad as you think it is in congress, it’s way worse! It is all about money there.” By the time he left that position he had pretty much abandoned lobbying work in favor of grassroots action, because work for legal change was pretty much a non-starter.
Now, in case you were wondering, I haven’t come here to totally bum you out on Father’s day. But, I do think that part of our task as people of faith is immerse ourselves in the Biblical story, and to let that Biblical narrative ask questions of our own lives. Part of our task is to look to the text, and as Brueggemann says, ask what does it declare to be revelatory, and who is it revealing, and where are we in that story? So some questions might be, where are we in that Egypt story? Where are we in the contest between Pharaoh’s predatory extractive economics and God’s covenantal economics? What does it meant to be a participant in the consumer narrative? And what does it, could it, should it mean to be a participant in the covenant economic? What would it mean to participate in the economic of the kingdom of heaven?
Now, I don’t expect that any of would be the next Moses. That God is calling us to lead a mass exodus out of market consumerism. For one thing where would we go? The moon? No, consumerism is a system that now seems to have consumed the world itself. Moses is probably not the model for us. But perhaps there are other ways. Jesus says, “Go instead to the lost sheep, the people of Israel. As you go, make this announcement: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with skin diseases, and throw out demons. You received without having to pay. Therefore, give without demanding payment.” So maybe the question for us is how do we make the announcement that the kingdom has come near with our lives? How do we show that there is another way? How do present an alternative to the predatory extractive practices of market consumerism? We may not be cleansing skin disease or raising the dead, but what is that we can do in our part of the world, with the gifts and the talents that God has given us? What is that you can do?
Brueggemann summarizes his book like this, “We live in a predatory, extractive economy. The mission of the church and its allies is to try to practice, model, and advocate for a neighborly economy that would be an alternative to that.” And so go out today and be the church. Go out and make this announcement: The kingdom of heaven has come near. Amen.