OK. Politicians shouldn’t write about religion. But it’s Sunday, so I will anyway.
I awoke this morning to that rather self-consciously pious BBC Radio 4 programme “Something Understood”, and listened to the New Testament story of the Kingdom of Heaven likened to a pearl of great price, for which a man might sell everything to acquire it. A girl in the audience (that is, in Our Lord’s audience, not the BBC’s) pointed out that a pearl is all very well, but it doesn’t put bread on the table. And if you sell the pearl in order to eat, you’re back to square one (this is a loose paraphrase, by the way). I think she had a point.
I recently acquired a copy of the Folio Society’s facsimile of the Four Gospels, the Golden Cockerel Press edition, woodcuts by Eric Gill, number 2510 of a limited edition of 2750. The text is set continuously, not broken into verses. The King James prose is resplendent, the layout and illustrations wonderful. And for the first time in my life, I read through the whole four gospels at a sitting. I’m afraid they’re rather repetitive.
I was struck by the relentless denigration of worldly goods. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven”. “Yet one thing thou lackest. Go, sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor”.
Of course it may be that the love of money is the root of all evil, and there are certainly people for whom acquisitiveness becomes an obsession for its own sake. Others become obsessed with alcohol, or stamp collecting. But I think that most people appreciate money for the simple and admirable reason that it puts food on our tables, clothes on our backs, a roof over our heads, books on the shelf, an education for our children, and (critically these days), gas or oil in the boiler. And the possession of modest wealth, be it only a pension policy, adds something much more — the reasonable expectation that food, clothes, shelter and warmth may be assured for the future, and perhaps a small excess left for the grandchildren.
I do not believe that these are ignoble concerns. Nor do I believe that one man’s acquisition of wealth necessarily implies another’s loss. Life is not a zero-sum game. If the desire for income and security drives achievement and a work ethic, we are all the richer.
Our Lord tells the story of the farmer who had a bumper crop, and says “I shall tear down my barns and build greater”. God looks down from Heaven and says “Thou Fool! For this night thy soul shall be required of thee”. If I were the farmer, my reply might be: “OK. So you knew that, but I didn’t. I was just making reasonable provision for the future. And if I die tonight, at least I leave my family well provided for, and can die content”.
Then there is the parable which appears to fire an Exocet at the heart of the insurance industry. Our Lord points to the lilies of the field, and the birds of the air, for which God provides, and concludes “Take no thought for the morrow, for ye know not what a day may bring forth”. An alternative approach might be to take great thought for the morrow, precisely because we don’t know what may befall. So we should consider foreseeable eventualities, and make what provision we can in advance — like insurance and pension policies (which admittedly may have been hard to find in New Testament times).
So I am rather concerned at the current political fad for down-grading GDP measures and looking instead for general measures of well-being. Well-being is difficult to measure, and may mean different things to different people. Yet most of the conditions for well-being depend ultimately on economic prosperity.
Of course we want clean, safe streets; low crime rates; a pleasant built environment; housing, health and education; good food and clean water; prospects for our children; care in old age. But most of these things need money. To paraphrase the New Testament again, “Seek ye first economic growth, and all these things shall be added unto you”. It is a truism that money can’t buy happiness. But at least it enables you to be unhappy in a great deal more comfort.