On Being Generous

Posted on: April 5, 2019, by :

The government has characterised the budget that was handed down this week as a ‘generous’ budget that puts more money back in the pockets of most Australians. Tax relief, energy rebates, superannuation benefits and more are posited as the government being generous in easing the financial pressures on ordinary, tax-paying citizens. And it’s not just the government playing this pre-election game, the response of the opposition has been to claim that its policies would be more generous to more people who really need it. Forgive my cynicism, but it seems to me that this ‘generosity’ is self-serving on two fronts: it is self-serving for the political parties as they seek to ‘buy’ votes, and it is self-serving for those in the electorate who confuse ‘generosity’ with ‘what’s in it for me?’

We don’t have to dig far below the surface of the budget to discern its lack of generosity. Micah Challenge (micahaustralia.org.au) reports that Australia’s overseas aid budget has fallen to the lowest level ever – just 0.21% of gross national income, meaning that Australia ranks 19th amongst OECD nations in its giving to others. As a point of comparison, Australia’s overseas aid budget in the 1960s was running at 0.48% of gross national income, and in the late 1990s Australia agreed to work towards the Millennium Development Goal target of 0.7% GNI. In real terms, the 2019 budget figure represents a cut of $11 billion in our overseas aid since 2013. That is not generous!

And spending on welfare, health, refugee and migrant services, education, indigenous issues and family support has been shrinking in real terms in Australian budgets for many years. While superficially people may appear to better off with tax relief, energy rebates, superannuation bonuses, etc., in the long term many more people suffer as we fail to effectively address the issues of climate change, poverty (both local and global), health care, justice for asylum-seekers, etc. A truly generous Australia would be less concerned with how much I get out of this budget in the short term and more concerned with how we might share our comparative wealth more equitably both within Australia and beyond it. 

It is unimaginable in the current political climate, but what if a government actually proposed raising taxes in order to increase our overseas aid, decrease greenhouse gas emissions, bolster the welfare safety net, help eradicate poverty, invest in public housing, etc., etc.. It would, of course, be the definition of political suicide. But it would also be the definition of genuine generosity.

In the gospel reading for this fifth Sunday of Lent, as we draw ever-closer to the confronting reality of Easter, Mary lavishly bathes Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. No doubt speaking on behalf of other disciples, Judas bemoans this waste of resources, suggesting that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to ‘the poor’. The gospel-writer recognizes and alerts us to the pretense in which Judas and his friends were engaged: this was a self-serving ruse to get their hands on the money, to use it for their own purposes. It is not hard to see echoes of the Australian electorate in the plea of Judas, complaining that our hard-earned money ought not to be wasted on those who don’t deserve it!  Jesus reminds us that such attitudes are mean and selfish and invites us to reflect on what true generosity might look like as we consider our resources.


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