Last week all of us got some respite and comfort: the promise to freeze energy prices soon after a new Labour government has been formed. The reaction of energy companies was obviously predictable, with thinly veiled threats of blackouts, supported by archive footage shown on the telly. Instantly both sides launched their own PR campaigns, drawing clear battle lines and creating an impression of a black-and-white situation. A false impression, to be honest. On one hand we can be shocked and dismayed by the permanently growing profits of the energy companies; on the other hand some of those profits are paid out as dividends to shareholders, and so indirectly to pensioners, charities, private savers keeping their money in banks. In our modern economy everything is tightly interwoven and mutually dependent. Just one change in this system ignites a chain reaction, sometimes creating greater problems than the one that has been solved. Politicians tend to oversimplify everything in order to gain votes, while big business similarly overcomplicates everything to fish easily in muddy waters.
Today’s gospel seems to present a simplistic vision: a baddie living in the lap of luxury, and a goodie suffering from hunger and illness. Then, in the afterlife, their roles are dramatically exchanged, although the timescale of unhappiness or happiness is much greater (infinite, in fact). This simplified story was very attractive in times when there wasn’t any real prospect of overcoming poverty inherited over the generations. A promise of eternal reward for the poor and eternal punishment for the rich must have been attractive to slaves, poorly paid workers and the disabled. As I said in my sermon last weekend, the gospel is not an Economics textbook; its role is to give us knowledge of God and to shape our ethical, moral attitude. So, what can we find useful for us in this fragment of the gospel today?
The first lesson is that our existence in this world is rather temporary; though average lifespan has dramatically expanded in the last century, at one point each one must die. It’s a deeply upsetting prospect, and people react in different ways to that. Some dive into promiscuity in order to experience every possible earthly joy. Others travel a lot to see all the wonders of the Earth; others devote their lives to serving people in need or their own families. Today’s gospel suggests making good use of the time and resources entrusted to us.
The second lesson is that of seeing people around us in an empathetic way. It’s not about cheap sentimentality, driven by guilt or short-lived emotional stirrings. It’s all about helping people to stand on their own two feet, to take their own lives into their own hands. It’s all about being supportive in such a way that it doesn’t replace their own responsibility. In his recent interview Pope Francis compared the Church to a field hospital, where people battered in battle can recover of their wounds. I think it’s a most difficult situation whenever our support makes others dangerously dependent.
So this is the third lesson of today’s gospel: ‘They have Moses and the prophets, let them listen to them.’ In other words, they have the Bible, let them listen to it. The Word of God shapes and moulds us, it helps us to look at our lives and the lives of others from the right perspective. The Word of God taken seriously can prevent us from being manipulated by skilled politicians, or greedy merchants, or manipulative chancers. The Word of God, taken seriously, can help us to live our lives to the full.