‘Woe to those ensconced so snugly in Zion and to those who feel so safe on the mountains of Samaria. Lying on ivory beds they dine on lambs from the flock, and stall fattened veal. They drink wine by the bowlful, but about the ruin of Joseph they do not care at all.” These words of the prophet Amos, confronting the conspicuous excesses of Israel’s northern kingdom in the eighth century BC, are among the most disturbing in the Old Testament. They addressed a situation in which an abundance of natural resources, and links with the most lucrative trade routes of the ancient world, had been harnessed to the enrichment of a ruling elite.
Amos became an implacable voice for the poor, those whose resources and labour had been plundered to fund a lifestyle that they could scarcely imagine. Amos challenges us to look beyond the relative comfort of our own lives to the poverty frequently on our own doorstep, and widespread throughout the developing world. We cannot dismiss his words as applying only to the ancient world. There are disturbing parallels between his ancient world and the world that we inhabit, a world created by global commerce. We share the benefits of progress every time we take a flight, visit a hospital or drink a cup of coffee. Can we rest assured that those whose labour and resources have contributed to our comfort, share equally in its blessings?
This might well seem to be an oversimplification, but it cannot be denied that everything we enjoy comes at a price. The concerns, so well articulated by organisations such as our own Cafod, cannot be ignored. It is for us all, not simply the dedicated few, to ensure that we live in a just world whose resources are shared according to the needs of all. We should not be surprised when this challenge takes us beyond our own comfort zones. That is what the prophet Amos intended.
In his own day, Amos threatened that the sprawlers’ revelry was coming to an end, that the rich would be carried off into exile. This occurred when the prosperous north was obliterated by its more powerful neighbours. It was a situation not unlike recent banking crises, in which our own society was nearly consumed by its own excess.
St Luke’s parable of the poor man Lazarus and his rich neighbour brings these issues into sharp focus. The rich man is not condemned for his wealth alone. Ultimately all wealth is a blessing of creation. The crucial question is the manner in which this wealth is used and shared. In the case of the parable wealth insulated the rich man from the poverty that surrounded him. He didn’t even notice the poor man Lazarus lying at his doorstep covered in sores.
As the parable unfolds the position of Lazarus and the rich man were reversed: the rich man went to the torments of Hades, while Lazarus was taken into the bosom of Abraham. The rich man pleaded with Abraham both for himself and the surviving brothers that continued to enjoy their wealth. This exchange brings us to a chilling conclusion: “Between us and you a great gulf has been fixed, to stop anyone, if he wanted to, crossing from our side to yours, and to stop any crossing from your side to ours.”
This, surely, is wealth’s greatest danger: that it can insulate us from a suffering world, put an unspoken barrier between ourselves and the Christ who came to bring the good news to the poor. Let us pray that we might see ourselves, and our world, through “the mind of Christ Jesus”.