“You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” II Corinthians 8:8-15
“In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance,” Ephesians 2:11-12
This week the International Court of Justice found an Islamist militant leader guilty of war crimes for the destruction of historical sites in the ancient city of Timbuktu. This, the first time that the Court had prosecuted someone for the destruction of a world renowned heritage site, highlights the significance of heritage, something we celebrated on our own Heritage Day last week. So three cheers for Heritage Day, as long as it does not become a source of division instead of mutual enrichment. But there is another aspect of heritage that is equally important: inheritance, for heritage is not just about culture but everything we inherit from the past. Unlike cultural heritage, inheritance is more personal, a sensitive subject usually only discussed within the family circle or behind closed doors in lawyers offices. Families can fall apart when, at the reading of a will, the inheritance is not what was expected by those who have been excluded or received less than they thought their due.
Isobel and I attended the Hermanus Supper Club on Monday evening at Duchies Restaurant. The Club is a great an attempt to bridge the divide between the white and black communities in Hermanus. I sat next to someone from Zwelihle who is one of a growing number of professionals in the township. He was telling me about his difficulties in trying to get reasonable housing despite earning a good salary. He simply did not have enough capital to raise a loan, and of course, he had no inheritance to help him out. The truth id, the vast majority of people in South Africa and probably world-wide do not inherit much if any material wealth. If you do, it gives you a kick start in life, but if not you are at a great disadvantage. In fact it is one reason why the poor get poorer, the rich, richer, and the middle class get stuck somewhere in between — not poor enough to get welfare grants and RDP housing, not wealthy enough to get loans to buy a house. No wonder there is so much anger among students whose parents cannot afford to pay their university fees and who fear that if they take loans they will get into such debt that they will never be able to get out of it again. This is a universal problem facing stidents, not least in Britain and the United States.
Of course, inheritance is not just about money or property, it is also about less tangible matters. You can inherit a great deal of money but very little else by way of true values, love, and happiness. In this respect those who are poor are often richer than the rich. Many people can testify that while their parents were not wealthy, they left them a legacy far more important than what money can buy. Some financial inheritance would undoubtedly have helped, but being loved was of more lasting value. While love does not help you buy a house or pay your fees, when we think of what our children or grandchildren might inherit we would do well to think as much if not more about our moral and spiritual legacies as we do about money. Those who inherit material wealth are by no means better people as a result. Of course, none of implies that those who are wealthy have a right to keep the poor in their place by piously saying: “seeing you are spiritually rich you really are better off than we who are materially, so stop demanding more — your reward in heaven will be greater than ours!” This was not Jesus’ teaching. “From those who have much,” he insisted, “much will be required.” Sharing wealth is not charity, it is justice. A true commonwealth is a just society, not a political organisation for former British colonies.
The first Christians were generally poor, many of them peasants and much that Jesus taught highlighted this fact. “Blessed are you, you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20) The church back then was a commonwealth. But as it expanded it included people who were more wealthy than others. This wealth disparity soon became a problem, as in the church in Corinth. That is why Paul challenged the more wealthy to give generously to support the poor, prefacing his challenge by saying “You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” He went on to say: “if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has — not according to what one does not have.” Like the Corinthians we can tax ourselves, we don’t to wait for the Receiver of Revenue to do it for us! And while we are doing so we should also consider what we are leaving behind for those who have worked for us over the years, and for those causes and institutions that are committed to serving the common good.
But what about our spiritual inheritance and wealth? When Paul, or whoever wrote the letter to the church in Ephesus, told them that “in Christ we have also obtained an inheritance,” (1:11) he was not preaching a “prosperity gospel.” Becoming a Christian did not mean becoming materially wealthy. The inheritance Paul had in mind was and remains “the immeasurable riches of God’s grace.” (Ephesians 2:7): forgiveness, healing, salvation, abundant life. This is the imperishable inheritance that we received in Christ. We have, says Paul, been made heirs of God’s kingdom, “co-heirs with Christ” in knowing God (Rom. 8:17).
So we should not only be asking ourselves about what material goods we might leave to the next generation, to those who have served us well, and those organisations and institutions that are committed to serving others, but will be our moral and spiritual legacy. What values are we handing on? And what about the inheritance we have in Christ — our knowledge of the love and grace of God, the importance of forgiveness and the need to embrace the stranger, of justice, mercy and compassion? This must surely be part of the heritage we pass on for the next generation to celebrate. Not to do so, would surely be a crime against humanity.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 29 September 2016