“If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
Volmoed exists to help people discover God’s love which makes us whole. Many people come here in search of comfort and healing. Yet some of us also need to hear the words of prophets that make us uncomfortable. “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” Finley Peter Dunne told newspaper editors. He could also have been speaking to preachers. Warn people of disasters that will happen if they don’t change their ways, but also encourage them with good news stories that give them hope. The problem is, not everyone who needs to hear the message of the prophets wants to listen to or heed their words.
Every year about 50 theological students and professors come to Volmoed for our annual Colloquium. A colloquium is an extended conversation between a group of people on important issues. Last year our focus was on Islam and Christianity, this year it was on theology and economics, church and poverty. For those who think this is not a very theological topic, we should remember that more is said about economics in the Bible and the teaching of Jesus than about prayer. Consider the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. If anything should make those of us who are reasonably well off feel uncomfortable, especially when we see the poverty around us, this parable hits the mark.
On the final morning of the Colloquium, Nkosi Gola, a theological student who lives and works among the shack dwellers in Khayelitsha, did not sugar-coat the bitter pill which those of us who are white and privileged need to swallow in facing black poverty. Then this week on Facebook two of our VYLTP “Voeltjies” spoke about their own experiences of poverty. Thabo said that living in shacks was like living in hell, and Amanda wrote that it was unbearable. This was the situation which Jesus addressed in his parable. Lazarus lived in squalor right on the doorstep of rich Dives, a situation with which we are all too familiar.
In the end Dives and Lazarus died and the tables were turned. Dives found himself in hell and cried out in anguish to Abraham to send someone to tell his relatives to share their wealth with the poor before it was too late, But Abraham replied: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Yes, those of us who are comfortable are seldom willing to share with those who are poor. That is why Jesus said it is difficult for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom. But who then can be saved, the disciples asked (Matthew 19:26)? We may well echo those words. Its difficult, Jesus agrees, but with God’s grace not impossible! But how is this possible?
Jesus’ parable forces us to see the reality of inequality and economic injustice from the perspective of the poor, a necessary first step in prodding us to action. The fact is, for more than twenty years, while many of us have celebrated the “new South Africa” in freedom and even affluence, the majority of black South Africans have discovered that political freedom does not mean economic freedom. Julius Malema makes whites uncomfortable because he has told us this in no uncertain terms. Many young blacks are angry and unwilling to put up with the situation any longer. They are not asking for charity, but for justice. Unless we understand this we will never understand the protests that erupt around us, or the crime we bemoan. Reconciliation requires restitution, the equitable sharing of land and resources.
I think all of us here today know this. We feel ashamed and guilty that many of our fellow citizens live in poverty. There are also those among us who are attempting to do something to change the situation. But we also feel impotent, “who can be saved?’ we cry out. The problem is too big for us, so we seek refuge in our comfort zones. And, of course, it is true, things will not change for the better without a dramatic change in the macro-economic structures of our country. As long as there is corruption, greed and inequality, the poor will be with us, and we will always sleep uneasily if we have any conscience. But it need not be so among us.
The problem is that too many of us do not want to give up our privileges for the sake of the common good. We don’t listen to the prophets as Jesus said. “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” This is something Steve Biko, the founder of Black Consciousness whose murder we remembered this past week, also knew. Black people had to liberate themselves; they could not depend on white people, and certainly could not wait for us to change. This is also the message of Dikgang Moseneke, the former Constitutional Court judge, in his recent autobiography My Own Liberator, which I commend. But to say that blacks have to liberate themselves does not mean that those of us who are white followers of Jesus can sit back indifferently, or think that giving our old clothes to the poor is all that is required of us.
The good news Jesus proclaimed is that what might seem impossible to us is not impossible to God. Even the privileged can be liberated and change, and if we change we can contribute to a groundswell of change. But this requires a change in consciousness, what the prophets call repentance, which makes us willing to act in the interests of justice. There are many proposals on the table to help us do what is needed as the Colloquium reminded us if we are willing to heed them. From supporting and promoting economic policies that will help bring about real change in our society to paying a fair wage and putting our money where our mouths are. From changing our attitudes and opposing racism, to giving of our time and talents. If we use our collective imagination we will find ways to make a real difference, and join those already doing so. That is our Christian responsibility. Not to heed Jesus’ parable is to end up with Dives, which is not a cool place to be!
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 14 September 2017