A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 26 September 2010 by the Rev. Phyllis Wong. The scripture readings that day were Psalm 146; Luke 16:19-31 and 1 Timothy 6:6-19.
Dear God of trinity, may Your word inspire us and Your loving wisdom dwells in us. Amen.
The ever widening income gap has become a great concern to many people in the community of Hong Kong as well as around the world. Such inequality is measured by what is called “the Gini coefficient” according to which a value of zero expresses total equality, and a value of 100 maximal inequality. Let me share with you some figures. According to the latest figures from the United Nations, the Gini index is 43.4 for Hong Kong and 46.9 for China, compared with 24.9 for Japan, 33.7 for Switzerland and 36 for United Kingdom.
In Hong Kong, over 510,000 workers currently earn less than HK$6,000. They are the lowest earners. Over the past ten years, 30% of working labors not only did not receive any increase in wages, but there was actually reduction of salary.
Recently I saw some pictures that reveal the seriousness of the wealth gap problem. A huge amount of food which had been provided for a few rich people was piled up like a hill. This amount of food cannot be consumed by them, and it ends up in the rubbish bin. What a waste of food! This is at a time when the world’s poorest are starving--women and men, young and old. You can see the bones under their skins, they are so thin and malnourished. The contrast of the wealthiest and poorest world is stunning, disturbing and distressing.
The widening income gap and increasing number of poor people is a concern to many people across the board and a concern to the government that rules the society. The poor people are concerned about it because they are directly affected and suffer a lot from their plight. The rich people are concerned about it because they are afraid that there would be negative sentiment or even an antagonism against the wealthy on the part of the poor masses. The government is concerned about it because serious income disparity will cause social instability that would jeopardize their rule. They have to bear a strong political risk.
How about the Church, my friends in Christ? Is the widening income gap a concern of the Church?
Widening income gap is a concern of the church
Today’s gospel story about the rich man and the poor man well illustrates the issue of the wealth gap between the rich and the poor. The impoverished Lazarus was obviously suffering from abject poverty and hunger. He was not only deprived of food to sustain his life, he suffered from sickness caused by malnutrition. He had, of course, lost weight. But in the eyes of society and probably he himself (but not in the eyes of God), he had even lost his basic human dignity. The main evilness of wealth disparities is to be found in the degradaton of the poor. They don’t have enough to support their basic daily life. The right for food to keep one’s life is so basic for every human being.
In Hong Kong, as there is a basic safety net provided by the government. Thanks to the comprehensive social security assistance (CSSA), no person will go hungry like Lazarus. The poor will get some support to maintain their basic living. Truly, there may not be many cases of people starving to death in Hong Kong. However, the poverty has driven many poor people into difficult lives. They may look down upon themselves—a phenomenon for which society bears some responsibility. It is not uncommon to hear people’s negative comments against the welfare recipients--complaints that they are lazy and too dependent on government handouts. In fact, there are many poor people in Hong Kong who want nothing more than to stand on their own feet and work.
But very unfortunately, the wage for many low skilled jobs is very low. Can you imagine a woman who works as a full time cleaner in a public housing estate earns less than HK$4,000 per month? I know of one who is trying to support two daughters and a husband suffering from chronic illness? This woman feels helpless and defeated. Her case reflects only the tip of the iceberg.
In Hong Kong, there are many such working poor. They have been living in a de-humanizing situation. I have read about a young man saying, “Because I am poor, I have no choice but am obliged to live in an over-crowded small cubicle which is dangerous but expensive.” I have also heard a domestic helper say “because I am poor and I have very little bargaining power, I have to tolerate the unjust treatment by the employer and the employment agency.” “What to do when you are poor?” When the poor people become non-persons with neither respect from others nor self-respect, they seem to have lost the basic God-given human dignity. This is very sad indeed.
The unparallel disparities between the super-rich and the poor who are deprived of basic necessity, has reflected a kind of self-interest without compassion for others. The rich man in today’s biblical story was punished with a stay in Hades and he suffered physical pain. In the conversation with Abraham after the rich man’s death, he was judged by his selfishness, his lack of compassion for the needy. This man had turned a blind eye to the plight of poor Lazarus. He did not care about him at all, and abandoned him to a poor and undignified life.
The huge wealth gap still results in disrespect of and discrimination against the poor. Sometimes the poor are even held in contempt. People are segregated and ranked accordingly to their level of wealth. This is absolutely against God’s original conception, according to which every human being as equal, having been created in God’s holy image. The income disparity has created a break in the inter-connectedness of human beings. The mutuality of all humanity is forgotten. This alienation of human relationship is a grave sin.
God reminds us, through the rich man and Lazarus, that we need to restore compassion for others. When we have a heart for others, we will have higher possibility to share with others of what we have and to give more generously.
“Have compassion for others” sounds like a very easy message. But the reality is that even when people have more, they rarely share with others in need so as to make the distribution more even!
The wealth gap reflects the accumulation of money and resources by a handful of people. When people are more in love of money than with anything else, they try by all means to earn and accumulate their money for is own sake. The love of money reflects human greed, a sin of greed.
In 1 Timothy 6:10, it says ‘For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil”. In this apostle’s letter of 1 Timothy 6:6-19, the author was addressing the false teaching of the Christian community in the early church context. In this way was the issue of money and wealth then addressed.
In our world today, we do also face a kind of false teaching about ‘market forces’ in the contemporary economic system. The teaching of our market driven economy is that we need to keep our competitiveness. To maximize profit and make more money is the golden rule of the market mechanism in our economic operation. The market economy has justified the love of money and legitimized the underlying greed. This greed and love of money has to be understood both from a personal and a structural point of view.
Li Ka Shing, one of the wealthiest tycoons from Hong Kong, once said that, “ a righteous man who loves money, earns with integrity.” 「君子好財 取之有道」Do you believe that?
In our contemporary economic and financial system, money has taken on a life of its own. Money is no longer just a medium of exchange. Money has become a commodity, from which more and larger profit are expected. Individual and structural greed feed on, and mutually reinforce, each other.
To combat the problem of income disparity or the wealth gap, we have to be aware of this structural greed. The unjust system perpetuates the uneven distribution of wealth. From the point of view of faith, this is structural sin that we need to repent. The whole unjust and inhuman system needs to be redeemed by our Savior, Jesus Christ our Lord.
In a society with a wide wealth gap, and where structural greed prevails, the vulnerable and the weak, often including children, the women, the elderly, the new immigrants, the sick, and low-status foreigners suffer most. At the same time, our mother earth is damaged and suffering too. Through Psalm 146, our Lord speaks to us and reminds us that God who created the heaven and earth was compassionate with the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. God cares for the poor who deserve good life and dignity, as they are also God’s children.
God has and will continue to deliver the oppressed, the hungry and the sick from captivity and pain. Our God loves justice and disregard wickedness.
God has called upon the church to do the will of God – execute justice, and to love kindness, by following the footstep of Jesus Christ, our Lord and the redeemer of the world.
So yes, the widening income gap is definitely a concern of the church today. The mission of the church today is to lead a spiritual life by challenging the market-driven ideology.
Instead of thinking of money as the ultimate vlaue, and private ownership of wealth as success, we have to do our best to cultivate a spirit of true richness, which is driven by love, compassion and generosity. The great gain of life is in godliness combined with contentment.
The good news—the promise of a more equal distribution of wealth and resources, by sharing of what we have with others and being contented in what have been given, is God’s message for our world today. The Church plays an important role in this as Christ’s faithful witness on earth.
The church is required also to demonstrate solidarity with the poor and collaborate with other concerned groups, to try every effort to subvert greed and develop alternatives that are life-giving and sustaining for all.
Dear sisters and brothers, I invite you to join in prayers and actions to create a loving and compassionate world where we share God’s gift equally with joy and dignity. I trust that, by doing this, our praises and worship to God is acceptable and a delight to our Lord. Amen.