Opposing society's Scrooges


Flickr image by catepolAmong the characters in the expanded Christmas stories, Scrooge is perhaps the most reviled. He doesn't fit the season. To be sure, Herod is more practically misanthropic, but Scrooge is just plain mean.

Outside of Christmas, though, Scrooge is back in favour. If a government has big ideas and plans to spend money, all the talk will be about the burden on taxpayers and on the deficit. Big projects need to be fully costed and fully paid for, or, better, shelved, unless they are left to big business. And the business of big business, we are told, is to make profits, not to look to social benefits.

Yet when we look at the services which voters find so defective, we see that what we actually have was built out of public debt. Governments borrowed heavily to build the suburban and regional railway lines that still form the core of our public transport system. Now the fiscally responsible governments that refused to borrow to maintain or extend them are no longer seen as prudent but as neglectful.

The same is true of churches. When the Gospel is alive they struggle with debt. Mary MacKillop was so driven by the needs of the poor that her foundations always ran ahead of the resources. People whose first concern was to balance the books always had trouble with her. When the focus of interest becomes the preservation of property and financial security, churches are in decline.

At Christmas time it is customary for Christians to reflect lightly on the coherence between the stories of the Gospels and the society they live in. The Gospels are pretty silent about the utility of debt. The most intriguing and ambiguous hints are found in the story Jesus tells of the talents.

Briefly and colloquially put, it goes like this. When a ruler goes away to be made king, he divides his money among his officials to look after. One gets six million, another three and the third half a million dollars. The first two trade with it and double the investment. The last buries it to keep it safe. On return the king praises the first two but tears strips off the third, saying he could have at least banked it so it would earn interest.

At first glance the story seems to endorse adventurous trading of money. But the moral usually drawn from Matthew's version of the story is personal and has nothing to do with money. Neglecting the detail of the story, it says we should be attentive and develop the gifts we have for God's service.

This interpretation, however, does not do justice to Luke's telling of the story. There Jesus tells the story in response to a question whether God's kingdom of peace and justice was about to come. The story itself appears to refer to Herod's journey to Rome to secure power.

In this context it could be read as a sardonic commentary on the Palestinian world. To judge from the priorities of the king, the emphasis on using money to make money, and the king's systematic murder of his opponents, it would be presumptuous to think that God's kingdom would be coming any time soon.

Underlying the story and its mordant comment on the political economy is the conviction of the Gospel stories that people matter, especially those who are without resources to help themselves. Money is not all important, but it can help needy people flourish.

So almsgiving is good when it looks to the needs and good of the person helped. The Good Samaritan uses his resources well to ensure that the mugged traveller recovers his health.

The Christmas stories fit into the same pattern. In Luke's Gospel, the baby born in a manger represents a God who slums it to be with the poor. Matthew's story of the flight into Egypt aligns Jesus with those who flee and are oppressed.

Because people matter first, money is often enough treated irreverently. Jesus is described as cavalier in his attitude to the temple. He tells the disciples to find the coin in the fish he instructs them to catch.

This freedom with money and lack of concern about it is the opposite to the attitude of Scrooge who is obsessed with it. It suggests that to spend money for the benefit of people is a good thing to do. Where money is seen as something good in itself it will be harmful. When money is God, it will lead to ruin societies preoccupied both with making it and with hoarding it. 

 Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, scrooge, good samaritan, christmas, tax, infrastructure



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What a fantastic piece. Thank you so much for your wonderful insights and those of the your fellow contributors. Eureka Street provides much food for thought Merry Christmas.
Patrice Daly | 22 December 2010

Breathtaking naivety

"It suggests that to spend money for the benefit of people is a good thing to do."

Fr Andrew, haven't you noticed how "it's very easy to spend money for the benefit of people" when you've taken it from them in the first place?

And "Governments borrowed heavily to build the suburban and regional railway lines that still form the core of our public transport system."

Was that necessary...or beneficial? I invite readers to consider the delightful story of Thomas the Tank Engine. If you look carefully, you'll see it's predicated in its original version on the documented flourishing success of PRIVATE railways (of which Thomas is a unit) in England up until the time when the system - not due to any public outcry as to poor service - was coercively socialized in 1948.

Of course, outcries regarding poor service of the heavily state-regulated, if not directly owned,
railways are a daily occurrence today in Australia and in England. But who hears of the remedy of complete reversion to open competition among the railways, as of old, as with the unregulated computer industry nowadays, when there is no reason to suspect that consumers might not benefit from constantly lowering prices and ever-improving services?

HH | 23 December 2010

Please excuse my tardiness as I have only just become aware of your article,which by the way is very much to the point in that adequately describes the conditions that now apply in the UK. I have always been an opponent of prosperity theology and its view that if you fullfil your religious obligations you will be rewarded materially.I find that this says that you feed the rich and devour the poor. I lived through the Thatcher years and as a result formed the view that neo liberalism wae a blight on society.I could not stand by and watch decent people become the tools of the NEW RIGHT who by force battered the working class into submission. The reply by your respondent is just a rehash of the many falsehoods peddled by the Tory "Think Tanks"who have turned blatent lies into sham truths for the benefit of those who believe that they should inherir the earth. At present I am well aware of the call by US conservatives that social security be abolished,but I was shocked by the call of that faux philospher Roger Scruton that the same approach be taken in the UK. Do they think that we are that stupid and so thick that we could imagine what a return to Victoian values would do to a sizable portion of the populaton of the UK today. A curse on the Torys for their brutality and vindictivness while spending much of their time castigating those who see compassion and charity as the true guide to paradise
areyth schoibler BA MA Bth | 16 January 2011


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