Michael Pascoe: The scariest lines in the world’s best seller

It's the opposite of 'prosperity theology', and it's a message for us all.

It's the opposite of 'prosperity theology', and it's a message for us all. Image: TND

And so we begin 2024 with a reading from the Gospel of St Luke. (Hang in here – it’s as scary as all hell, so scary the vast majority of “believers” run away from it.)

The biggest selling and most quoted book of all time has only one line that I find genuinely frightening. No, nothing to do with the rollicking Four Horsemen (the scriptwriters for that episode clearly having a bad trip) or the usual fire, brimstone, contradictions and fantasy of the old vengeful God culture.

Much worse is: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

It’s pretty much the opposite of prosperity theology – the idea that God makes nice believers rich. Clap hands and shout hallelujah to win Lotto while poor people must be undeserving.

That sentence attributed to JC is a warning to use whatever talent and good fortune we might have to improve the world – and the more talent and good fortune, the more opportunity to do so and thus a greater expectation that more will be achieved.

Take responsibility

On a secular level, it manifests as the feeling of responsibility to make the most of our world.

On a national level, for a country as rich and un-ironically “lucky” as Australia, it becomes a desire, a drive to realise our massive potential, “to leave no one behind”.

It helps explain the frustration with one government being only incrementally better than another, with any government not seizing all the opportunities we perceive, not doing more sooner.

For a country with unlimited and unrealised opportunity, in control of its own destiny and capable of doing so much more if it wants to, the frustration can become maddening.

Of course, there is the secular equivalent of prosperity theology, too: Trickle-down economics – the neoliberal extreme, almost invariably wealthy, who want the government to do as little as possible (beyond protecting their wealth) so that taxes can be minimised to help further increase the rich’s riches.

For such believers, paradise is everything being left to “the market”, never mind that “the market” left to its own devices so often demonstrably fails the greater good.

Politics at play

The usual end-of-year political scorecards concentrate on, well, politics. The polls and winners and losers and momentum – “horse race journalism”.  It is not about what has and has not been done, opportunities taken and ignored, but which way voting intentions are running.

Dr Colleen Lewis, an associate of The Centre for Public Integrity and ANU Honorary Professor, wondered in The Canberra Times if there is too strong a tendency to focus almost exclusively on what voters perceive as problems rather than consider the positives of what has been achieved, so she compiled a list of some of the improvements to our commonwealth in 2023.

The professor strikes me as an optimistic soul – yet that nagging “from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” line won’t go away.

And it shouldn’t. After the Coalition’s “Lost Decade” (OK, nine years – close enough), there is much to be done with no better example than our two greatest challenges: Climate change and housing.

It is necessary to keep the pressure of higher expectations on the government. Doing merely better than the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison nothing is not enough.

Great expectations

Government is hard, wearing and generally thankless; the Dutton Opposition purely negative – the black hole of Australian politics – and encouraged to be so by horse race journalism.

But dealing with that is part of the job of being in government, of being “entrusted with much”.

Politicians can generally be relied on to talk of feeling “humble” upon winning elections, soon followed by experiencing the weight of responsibility. Secular or believer, the responsibility to and for the commonwealth (not to the political party, not to “winning”) is and should be scary. It should help focus the mind.

In The Years, Annie Ernaux writes after recording a French election result: “Far better to live without expectations under the Left than in constant fury under the Right.”

For those feeling frustration about climate and housing policy here, it could be a matter of “better to live with disappointments under the Left than in constant outrage under the Right” – though it’s a stretch to label the Albanese government as “Left”.

Anyway, it’s not just the government that should feel the responsibility. That wonderful thing, our community, our society, needs to feel it, too.

On any global scale, being here means we’re among those to whom much has been given.

Do you feel it?

Happy New Year. Here’s to a better 2024.

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