I was reading the Gospel passage for the Liturgy today. It is Luke 16:1-12, and is the parable of the rich man and the steward. The steward is told by his boss, the rich man, that he is going to lose his job. So he goes out to all those people who owe his boss money, and reduces their debt while he still has the ability to do so. Then he feels confident that even if he loses his position, at least he will have made friends who will help him when he needs it. The Lord Jesus commends him for being sensible in such a way, but he is not suggesting that we should use the resources of our employers to improve our own financial situation.
St Cyril has much to say on this passage, though he insists that there is no need to create reflections on every minute aspect of the parable. He thinks it is clear enough. And I think it can be applied to developing a Christian Refugee Policy. The internet is filled with angry and even violent posts about what this or that Government or politician should be doing to support refugees. Certainly, Governments and politicians can do much, and it is natural that Christians should have different perspectives on what is required of them. But since the civil war in Syria started five years ago, only 12,000 Syrian refugees have been received into the US. That is not a criticism at all, but even if this number of refugees were admitted to the US on an annual basis, it would still leave 11 million refugees and internally displaced persons in Syria and the Middle East.
Since it was never the policy of any previous administration of the US, nor is it the policy of the Governments of the US or the UK, to admit 11 million Syrian refugees, it is necessary for us as Christians to ask what we should be doing in parallel with Governments and politicians, especially if we think they are not doing enough, to support those who have had to leave their homes in Syria because of the conflict there. It is surely not enough simply and only to post comments online about how others are failing. Indeed it is commendable that the US is in the lead in providing financial aid to Syria refugees, to the extent of $3.8 billion, and the UK is a close second with $1.6 billion of aid being provided. Since most refugees are, as a matter of fact, still in the Middle East, it makes sense to support them there, while they have real, practical needs there.
But what does St Cyril say this parable means and how should it be related to a Christian policy towards refugees? In the first place he says that the parable is addressed to those who have much, in relation to those who have little. What does he say?
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than a rich man into the kingdom of God. For as long as a man lives in wealth and pleasure, he is careless about piety to God. For wealth renders men contemptuous, and sows in the minds of those that possess it the seeds of all self-indulgence.
It is always easy to excuse ourselves from such judgements, because we are perhaps not among the wealthiest of those in the society in which we find ourselves. But compared to most people in the world, most of us, living in the West and able to use the internet, are among the wealthiest of all and live a life of unimaginable luxury. Most of us in the West, not all of us certainly, but most of us who are able to read this, have fresh, clean, running water. We have fairly reliable electricity to power our computers, and light our homes, and work the TV and every other piece of technology that separates us from the majority of people in the world. The average disposable income after tax in the US is $2,897.98 per month. Of course many folk have less than that, but this is the average. And in the UK the average monthly disposable income is $2,145.63 per month. That doesn’t mean everyone can spend that on luxuries of course. But the average disposable income in Syria is just $98.93. That’s just 4 or 5% of the average disposable income in the US and UK.
Let us put things into perspective. Almost everyone in the West able to read this post is vastly wealthy compared to almost everyone in Syria at the moment. When St Cyril is speaking about those enjoying wealth and pleasure, he is talking about us! We may complain that we are not billionaires and don’t fly in private jets. But the fact that most of us will eat today, and will eat well, and have warm clothes and a dry bed to sleep in, makes us those who enjoy wealth and pleasure relative to the folk in Syria, and especially the 11 million displaced and refugee people of Syria.
What does St Cyril say…?
Is there then no way of salvation for the rich, and no means of making them partakers of the hope of the saints? Have they fallen completely from God’s grace?
If we are those who are rich in the world, even if we have comparatively less than some around us, then this question is also addressed to us. Without writing in any sort of condemnatory manner, since I am in the same situation as most of those reading this post, while we wonder where we might go for a holiday this year, others in Syria, and I am writing especially about Syria at the moment, are wondering where they will sleep tonight, how they will feed their families today, and whether tomorrow will provide even more difficult circumstances to endure. How are we to avoid the judgement against those who enjoy wealth and pleasure?
St Cyril has some difficult words for us, the relatively wealthy in the world. He says to us…
We have been entrusted with worldly wealth by the merciful permission of Almighty God: according nevertheless to His intention we have been appointed stewards for the poor. But we do not discharge our stewardship rightly, in that we scatter, so to speak, what has been given us from the Lord: for we waste it solely on our pleasures, and purchase temporal honours, not remembering God, Who says, “You shall open wide your mercy to your brother, even to him that has need of you.” Nor do we remember the words of Christ Himself, the Saviour of us all, Who says, “Be merciful, even as your Father Who is in heaven is merciful.” But we, as I said, make no account whatsoever of showing mercy to our brethren, but study only our own pride. And it is this which accuses us before the Lord of all.
There is not much here about how we should be protesting about how others treat the poor, though there is nothing wrong with protest as far as it can achieve something practical and useful for those in need, rather than just making us feel like we have done something. There is nothing here about FB posts and Twitter status updates, though sharing the needs of those in Syria and elsewhere by such means is certainly useful. Simply sharing our outrage at what others are failing to do for the poor and needy is perhaps less useful, to those who actually have need, today and tonight, away from their homes and from the relative security that we enjoy.
There is a great deal here about our own personal responsibility. Others might argue about how many Syrian refugees should be able to migrate to particular countries, and whether or not a temporary restriction for the sake of the welfare of those already in various places is wise, or humane. Those discussions can continue. But St Cyril is saying, what have YOU done? What have WE done? With the relative wealth that we have, are we showing practical expressions of mercy today to those in need in Syria? Or are we just talking about what others should be doing? Even worse, as St Cyril says, have we become proud because of the views that we hold and share online, and in the streets, whatever those views are? So proud that we think we are excused actually showing mercy to those we claim to be concerned about?
What does St Cyril say to us, in his words on this parable of our Lord…
What therefore would Christ have us do? It is, that while we are yet in this world, if we are unwilling to divide all our wealth among the poor, that at least we should gain friends by a part of it; and numerous witnesses to our charitableness, even those who have received well at our hands: that when our earthly wealth fails us, we may gain a place in their tabernacles. For it is impossible for love to the poor ever to remain unrewarded. Whether therefore a man give away all his wealth, or but a part, he will certainly benefit his soul.
What does our Lord Jesus want us to do? It is that if we are not able to give all of our relative wealth to the poor, and many of us have responsibilities and those dependent on us that will not allow this, then we should at least make some provision for some of those in desperate need, and this practical and manifest care for those in need, for refugees in Syria, in the context of this post, will be remembered and will be of benefit to us. Not only benefit to us in the judgement to come, but to our spiritual state now.
It is our duty therefore, if we are right-minded… to remember God, Who requires us to show mercy upon the brethren, to suffer with those that are sick, to open our hand wide to those that are in need, and to honour the saints, of whom Christ says, “He that receives you receives Me: and he that receives Me, receives Him That sent Me.” For showing mercy towards others is not without profit and benefit, the Saviour Himself teaches us, saying; “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to drink because he is a Christian, shall not lose his reward.”
This parable is understood by St Cyril as saying that though we should consider giving all that we can to the poor and the vulnerable, if we cannot do this then even the smallest gesture will be rewarded. But what is required is that something actually be done. It is not enough, in our modern context, to make a lot of noise about the needs of others, especially those refugees in Syria and the Middle East, if we are unwilling to do anything ourselves. There is nothing wrong with campaigning for Governmental action, or to support political programmes. But the measure of our virtue, according to the Gospel, is what we ourselves are willing to do, and how much we ourselves are willing to give of ourselves and of the relative wealth and prosperity we enjoy.
Here is a Christian Refugee Policy according to St Cyril… If we can actually do some good to a Syrian refugee, if I can actually do some good, then do so. Don’t talk about it, don’t just post about their needs, but actually do something. Be aware of how well off we are in comparison to the people of Syria. Today, tonight, there are 11 million such people, of a variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds in Syria and in the surrounding countries that are cold, hungry, frightened, sick, lacking shelter and much hope for the future.
There are lots of other things we could and perhaps should be doing, in supporting refugees who are already in the communities where we live. All of these are excellent means of service. But there are still 11 million Syrians living as refugees in Syria and the Middle East. If we are to have a Christian policy then it must surely include our own sacrificial support for those in need. If it is to be a policy directed towards Refugees, then it must be intended to practically support those who are presently refugees. So a policy must surely bring together our own self-sacrifice and the needs of those in Syria and elsewhere. This is survey what God is looking for? Not so much that we protested because someone else withheld a cup of cold water from one in need, though that has value, but that we ourselves did what was necessary, at cost to ourselves, to ensure that the one who needed a drink received one?
Are there 11 million committed Christians in the US, UK and Canada? What would it cost for each of us to support one refugee in Syria and the Meddle East? What would it cost a family to support another family? Or a congregation to support many families while there is need?
Save the Children estimate that it costs £100/$125 a month to feed a refugee family of six. What would be required of us, what changes would we need to make in our own lifestyles, to be able to support a refugee family in this way, or even £20/$25 to feed a single child for a month. Or £60/$80 to purchase 4 heaters to keep two families warm this winter.
What is required of us? What can we do that will actually make a difference to real refugees today and tomorrow? This is the sort of policy that we need to prayerfully think through for ourselves, whatever else we are doing. We don’t have to support Save the Children, of course, and we may wish to support Syrians already in our own communities. But we must surely wish to avoid being like the Scribe and the Pharisee in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and add to their excuses, that we were not sure which charity to support, or that we were concerned that our support might not be properly used. Let us do some investigation by all means, but tonight, 11 million Syrian refugees will be going to sleep far from home, and many will be cold and hungry. Our Lord Jesus, and St Cyril, ask what we will do for them, and the measure of our response will have an eternal value.