Jesus Speaks on Income Inequality

Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
May 26, 2019

Luke 12: 15-21, 42-43, 45-48 (CEB)
Then Jesus said to them, “Watch out! Guard yourself against all kinds of greed. After all, one’s life isn’t determined by one’s possessions, even when someone is very wealthy.” 16Then he told them a parable: “A certain rich man’s land produced a bountiful crop. 17He said to himself, What will I do? I have no place to store my harvest! 18Then he thought, Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. That’s where I’ll store all my grain and goods. 19I’ll say to myself, You have stored up plenty of goods, enough for several years. Take it easy! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself. 20But God said to him, ‘Fool, tonight you will die. Now who will get the things you have prepared for yourself?’ 21This is the way it will be for those who hoard things for themselves and aren’t rich toward God.”
The Lord replied, “Who are the faithful and wise managers whom the master will put in charge of his household servants, to give them their food at the proper time? 43Happy are the servants whom the master finds fulfilling their responsibilities when he comes.
“But suppose that these servants should say to themselves, My master is taking his time about coming. And suppose they began to beat the servants, both men and women, and to eat, drink, and get drunk. 46The master of those servants would come on a day when they weren’t expecting him, at a time they couldn’t predict. The master will cut them into pieces and assign them a place with the unfaithful. 47That servant who knew his master’s will but didn’t prepare for it or act on it will be beaten severely. 48The one who didn’t know the master’s will but who did things deserving punishment will be beaten only a little. Much will be demanded from everyone who has been given much, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked.

I can remember as a child sitting at the dinner table with my family with the news running in the background. I remember always being annoyed that the news was on the TV while we ate rather than something more entertaining like cartoons. In my adult years, though, I have come to realize how much I learned about the world because the news so frequently provided the backdrop to our dinner-time. I remember first hearing about AIDS. I remember hearing about Desert Storm. And do you know that I also remember hearing about minimum wage; a debate that continues even now.

I share that with you as we continue this morning our series, “Jesus Speaks Today.” We’ve pulled from some of the matters that are filling our news today and considered them in light of Jesus’ teaching and Scripture in order to answer as best we can the question, “If Jesus were here among us today, what would he say about these things?” Today, we are going to give some thought to what Jesus might say about Income Inequality. And again, much like last week, Jesus actually has a lot to say about money, riches, and poverty. So, first, I’m just going to share some facts and figures about household income in the U.S. and around the world, and then we’ll give some consideration to the passage from Luke and other words from Jesus that might help us understand what Jesus would say today about income inequality.

So the reason I shared that story with you about the news and dinner in my childhood is because it turns out, there has been significant growth in income inequality just in my lifetime. (Show green graph.) You can see in this graph that in the years from 1979-2014 (my lifetime), the income of earners in the highest quintiles (this would what we often refer to as the upper class) grew by 95%, those in the middle three quintiles (the middle class) grew by 28%, and in the lowest quintile (lower class), growth was just 26%. Now, some of you, if you’re financially savvy, you may say, “Well, what about taxes? Higher earners pay higher taxes.” (Show purple graph.) Here is the chart for income growth after taxes. And you can see there that after tax income grew by 97% for the highest earners, 69% for the middle levels, and 42% for the lowest quintile.
Now remember, this is not income, this is percentage income growth from 1979-2014. So why was there this unequal growth from the highest earners to the lowest? Say in 2010 every single person’s income increased by exactly 2%. So if everyone got the same 2% raise, then income growth would have been equal across the board. That’s true by percentage, but in real dollars, 2% of $1,000,000 is a $20,000 increase. But if your salary is $30,000, your income increased by a mere $600. Do that year over year, and you see this gap begin to open up.

How many of you have heard the phrase, “You will always have the poor among you”? Jesus said this, of course. This phrase often gets thrown around in these conversations about cost of living, minimum wage, and income inequity. It’s a way for those of us who make a decent or even extravagant living to sort of toss off the poor as none of our concern because, we reason it doesn’t matter what we do because no matter what there will always be poor people, as Jesus said. But the thing is, Jesus wasn’t saying that we shouldn’t care for the poor. Look in every single gospel and you will find Jesus telling the disciples and followers to care for the poor in some shape, form, or fashion. When Jesus is saying this, he is just stating a fact. We’ll talk more about how we deal with that fact in a little bit. But first, I want us each to understand where we fall in this picture.

It’s now pretty common for us to talk about “the 1%.” The 1% are the wealthiest 1% of the population in the U.S. The term grew out of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement that happened in 2013 in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008. As the economy slowly began to recover, the richest rebounded pretty quickly, while many unemployed still couldn’t find jobs. So who are the 1%? You’re in the 1% if you have a total household income of $430,600 per year. You’re in the top 10% if your annual total household income is $170,432. And you’re in the top .1% if your total household income is $1.135million or greater. I don’t know how many, if any of us, fall into any of those categories. But let’s expand our consideration for a moment beyond the U.S. and look at worldwide household incomes. When you take into account the whole population of the earth, you are in the top 1% if your household income is $32,400 a year or more. Friends, that’s almost all of us. And just one more statistic to help us understand exactly the reality of income inequality: the eight richest families in the world own the equivalent of the bottom 3.6billion people (50%) of the world. In other words, eight families (eight families…) hold 50% of the world’s wealth.
Earlier in the service, Suzanne read a passage from Acts that describes the earliest days of the church. Luke writes that the believers were united and shared everything; that they would sell property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to whoever needed them. Even this passage points to the fact that there will always be income inequality, that some will earn more than others, and so on. And really, that’s a necessary part of our lives. You have to account for different costs of living; people should be rewarded for good, hard work, and so on. This is not so much about the 1% vs. the 99%, this is really about opportunity vs. poverty.

Jesus talks a lot, a whole lot, about money and about poverty. Because Jesus talked about these topics so much, we should understand that this matters to Jesus. And as followers of Jesus, it should matter to us, too. Jesus knew the lure and the temptation of wealth. Jesus also knew the need for us to give freely and sacrificially for the good of others (just as he did for us). So here, in Luke chapter 12, he tells this parable of the successful landowner with bountiful crops. The rich man is at a loss because his crops are so plentiful and he doesn’t have enough space to store the harvest. So the man says to himself, essentially, “I’m going to tear down my barns, my storage units, and I’m going to go get some bigger storage units.” We don’t need more stuff, do we? We don’t need bigger storage units. Again, Jesus knew the lure of wealth and possessions. Jesus knew that there would be times when the Bible and billfold are at war for our souls. And Jesus wanted to give us guidance on how to devote our lives fully to God. So, basically, the whole of chapter 12 is focused around this matter of wealth and possessions, beginning with this parable where Jesus says quite plainly, “You’re a fool if you hoard things up in storage units and aren’t rich toward God and one another.”

Then a little later in this chapter, Jesus tells another parable. And this is a parable that we don’t often dive into because, let’s be honest, it’s really disturbing. A master puts managers in charge of his estate while he is away. But instead of being good stewards, these managers turn violent and frivolous, squandering everything the master owns—his servants, his food, and drink, everything. The master returns unexpectedly, and in his anger and disappointment at their actions, Luke tells us (and this is the part we don’t like), he cuts the managers to pieces. Then Jesus ends the parable with this reflection: “Much will be demanded from everyone who has been given much, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked.” I shared this parable with you because of that line. I think this strikes right at the heart of what Jesus would say about income inequality.

I think when we look at all the instructions Jesus gave about what we should do with riches and how we should treat the poor, the first thing we should know (as I said before) is that Jesus would say, “This really matters to God, and it matters to me.” It matters how you treat the least of these. It matters how you manage your resources. “To the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked.” Christ wants us to have more empathy and compassion for people in need, but even more than that, if we have the ability to help people in need, Christ expects that of us; not that we would foolishly hoard our possessions in oversize storage units, but that we would give our excess and even more away for the well-being of those who don’t have the same opportunity as us.

You know, Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft is one of the richest people in the world. He dropped out of college so that he could work on computers. He tells the story of when he started to make it big and the money began rolling in. He said every so often in those booming years, his mother would call him up just to say to him, “Never forget to help people.” And then she would say, “Because to whom much has been given, much is required.” Where do you think Bill Gates’ mom got that? From Jesus. And you know, Bill Gates listened to his Mom. The Gates Foundation invests billions of dollars to help people all around the world every year.

What would Jesus say about income inequality? I think the modern version of “You will always have the poor among you” would be “you can’t all make the same wage.” But you can definitely take care of the people who need help in the same way that I care for you because… “To the one who has been entrusted with much, [even more will be asked]…”

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