Saturday, November 19, 2011

Doing Good For The Right Reasons

Matthew 25.31-46
Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince

On one level the parable of the separation of the sheep from the goats is a straight forward story about the rewards of doing the right thing. Like the Happy Prince, the sheep and the goats discover that true happiness lies in serving others not in enjoying ourselves.

However, both the parable and Oscar Wilde’s Happy Prince add a further twist to what would otherwise be a simple morality tale. The more deserving the recipients of our help, the more easily they might otherwise be overlooked, the greater will be our reward in reaching out to them.

If we only help those who can return the favour, that is not good enough. We must make sure of helping the people at the back of the queue, the strangers and the marginalised. If anything, these are the people to whom we should give priority.

And yet there are problems with this interpretation. First of all, shouldn’t doing good be its own reward. Why do we need to inherit a kingdom? Isn’t this no different - on a moral level - from singling out for help those who can afford to return the favour one day. The only differences are that the gratification is being postponed - and also greatly enhanced, because it will last for ever. And if we help people solely in order to be chosen and rewarded by God, we are also scarcely any better - at least at the level of personal motivation - than the misguided individuals who blow people up for the same reason?

However, Jesus has - of course - thought of this objection. The sheep didn’t realise they were earning a reward. They just did what seemed to them to be right at the time. They may not even have believed in God, or in eternal rewards. They are surprised, gobsmacked even, to be chosen and rewarded now. And the same is true of the Happy Prince and the swallow. They never expected any reward save that of knowing they were doing what was right.

This means the parable cannot be a template for getting on the right side of God. It isn’t telling us that, by doing A, B and C we will earn our way into the kingdom prepared since the foundation of the world. The only way into that kingdom is to be the kind of person to whom doing the right thing comes as second nature. There can be no calculation in becoming a sheep.

Second, the parable appears to devalue the spiritual life in favour of robust social action. Getting close to God ceases to be about prayer and worship, about opening oneself to God’s grace and mercy, and becomes a matter of doing as much good to as many people in as short a time as possible. But there are other aspects of the Christian story - and the teaching of Jesus - which emphasise that we can never do enough good to deserve to inherit the kingdom. It is always a gift, even to the sheep.

Perhaps in order to become the kind of person who never stops reaching out and giving to others, we first have to recognise our own need of help, of love and forgiveness. Those who are totally absorbed in seeking their own salvation may never find the time and energy to reach out to others, but equally those who don’t feel any need of help themselves are unlikely to help others with the right spirit, or in the right frame of mind.

Isn’t that one of the points of the story about the pharisee and the tax collector? The first couldn’t see that he needed any help at all. The other could only see his total need of grace and help. Which was the more appealing character?

The third difficulty with the parable of the Sheep and the Goats is that it talks about helping the members of Jesus’ family. Who are they? Is the kingdom reserved for those who help suffering and persecuted members of the Church? Or is Jesus’ family the whole human race, or those who are disadvantaged, those who - like him - are being crucified?

And this, of course, leads us to the final difficulty. What does Jesus mean when he says that, if we help those in need we shall find we have helped him? Being poor, marginalised or disadvantaged doesn’t make people Christ-like.

Sometimes it frees people from a reliance on material things and makes them genuinely content with little things, the small blessings of daily life, like the children in the Happy Prince who were able to play in the streets and enjoy themselves once they had been fed. But sometimes poverty and lack of opportunity make people disillusioned, bitter, despairing, hopeless and even feckless, and helping them can make them reliant on hand-outs or cynical and greedy for more, like the notorious welfare scroungers beloved of right-wing tabloid newspapers.

Of course, if the people in need in the parable are members of the Church, they are therefore part of the Body of Christ, and helping them means helping him too. But it’s difficult to interpret the story with such a narrow focus. Isn’t Jesus calling us to reach out to others and to try to include them into his family, whether they deserve it or not? In doing his will, are we not serving him?

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Recognising where we are

Matthew 25.1-13

This Gospel reading is about our spiritual journey. It’s a story that gives a young woman’s perspective on the ups and downs involved. It’s like being a bridesmaid. Perhaps other religious communities, like the Muslim community, have a closer experience to the one Jesus recounts than a typical Christian or secular bridesmaid might have. Muslim bridesmaids might have to get dressed up to the nines and then hang around all day with the bride on about five separate occasions because in the build up to the wedding there could be a party every night of the week. No wonder then that it might be necessary to take a whole week off work just to get ready, psyche themselves up and then perform their appointed role.

A Christian or secular bridesmaid has to support the bride on the hen night, perhaps at some sort of eve of wedding party nowadays, and - of course - on the big day itself. There’s still plenty of room for things to go wrong - losing the bride on the hen night would be bad, for instance. Failing to take the flowers from the bride in church - or at the register office - and help her remove her veil if she has one are pretty bad omissions too. Assisting the bride in and out of her dress might be a bridesmaid’s responsibility, depending on whether her mother gets involved.

But essentially Jesus’ story is an illustration about the ups and downs of the spiritual life. The message, as in a number of his other stories, is about remaining alert and ready to do our bit when the opportunity arises.

‘Recognising where we are’ is another way of depicting the same idea, and I thought of it because the Guides have been talking this morning about their trip to Switzerland.

'Recognising where we are' is a picture which depicts the spiritual journey as a mountain climb. At the bottom of the picture we find the start of the journey - sitting at the bottom of the mountain and wondering how we’re ever going to get up to the top, perhaps feeling in two minds about whether even to make the attempt, or else - like the wise bridesmaids - planning our route carefully before we set out so that we take the best route and know what to expect.

The picture also depicts some of the foolish climbers, people who were not properly prepared for the rigours of the journey. One person seems to be sliding down the mountain. Are they on the way back from the summit? Are they a risk taker, who enjoys the thrill of the quick descent - like mountain bikers who slog all the way to the top of a mountain, or ride up in a cable car, just for the thrill of hurtling down again at fifty miles per hour? The look on the face of the would be climber suggests otherwise - that they have lost their footing and are making an unintended descent. They are like one of the foolish bridesmaids. perhaps they were too busy looking at the view instead of watching where they out their feet. Or perhaps they just tried to take too perilous a route.

Then there’s a person who’s on their hands and needs. Are they watching their partner sliding down the mountain side or are they just completely out of wind? And another person is hanging from a ledge by their finger tips with no toeholds to help them, but at least they’ve managed to rope themselves to the mountain side so all is not lost. I’m not so sure about a person lowering themselves from a horizontal tree trunk. The tree has leaves growing on it, so perhaps its roots are firm and the climber is like one of the wiser bridesmaids who was well prepared. That certainly can’t be said for one man shivering in a t-shirt and another who’s laid down in the open and seems to be taking a nap.

The picture shows people who are doing a bit better. One of them has taken shelter in a cave, one is in the rain - but at least she has an umbrella. And others look well prepared and confident about what they’re doing.

Finally there’s the summit. But are we all climbing the same mountain? is the person far away on a different mountain top jumping for joy that they have made it to their goal, or furious at finding they have climbed the wrong peak? Are they wise or foolish?

What do these parables have to say to us? Each of us are on our own personal pilgrimage with God. Are we going the same way, or do we all have our own unique direction of travel? Does it matter if we are going to slightly different destinations? or should be going to the same place, even if we take different routes?

The answer to those questions will depend on how you understand the Christian faith. Some people think there is really only one way to the top of the mountain, and certainly only one mountain to climb. They will say that we have to do x, y and z - probably in a very precise order - if we wish to be put right with God. But other people will say that there are different ways of believing and following Jesus, and we must all find the way that suits us. Or again people will say that we each have our own personal vocation - something that God wants us to do to make complete sense of our lives and get the most from our experiences. And, then, of course there will be other people who say that Christianity, or our understanding of what it means at any rate, is not the only way of reaching the mountain top and that - however we get above the clouds - reaching the summit of our particular mountain is still cause to celebrate.

It’s also interesting to ask what this story has to say to our church at this particular time. We have completed the refurbishment, which some people saw as a staging post on our way to the mountain top and others saw as a wrong turn or even a backwards step. We’re now thinking about future patterns of worship. Should we be promoting different ways of worshipping to help people find the way up the mountain which suits them best, or should we be roping ourselves together and trying to go up the mountain in one group by the same path?

The church is also thinking about how we can best serve the local community, and who we need to guide us on the next part of the journey. How can we be sure that we’re making wise choices and not foolish ones?

Because the stakes are high. The spiritual life is not just a personal indulgence, something we cultivate purely for its own sake or because we happen to enjoy it. And the church is not just a club for like-minded travellers.

Young women don’t dress up as bridesmaids just for their own amusement. There is a wedding day looming. And, in the same way, we are asked to make progress - as individuals and as a church community - not just to suit ourselves but so that we can be ready to play our part whenever the opportunity arises to serve God.

I have always found that ministry is about being open to opportunities. They have a habit of coming along, and we can either grasp them and use them to help us make further progress in our vocation, or we can miss them and perhaps find ourselves imagining that we have already reached the summit when it is still actually a long way off, or - worse still - we can end up sliding back down the way we have come. So, in the final analysis, being prepared is the crucial thing. If we’re always ready - or even sometimes ready - to recognise an opportunity when God places it in our way we can make our way to the top of the mountain or gain admission to the wedding banquet.

Dr Fox, Tony Blair and The Counsel of the Wicked

Psalm 1
1 Thessalonians 2.1-8

‘Happy is the one who does not take the counsel of the wicked for a guide.’ Why might Doctor Fox come to mind when we read those words? He didn’t take the counsel of the wicked, but neither did he take the counsel of his civil servants for a guide. Despite repeated warnings he failed to stick to the path laid out in the ministerial code and - in the end - he didn’t prosper. When judgement came he found that he could not stand firm in the assembly of the righteous.

Of course, he’s not alone. Tony Blair didn’t take the counsel of the wicked either, but he did take the counsel of spin doctors for a guide when he wanted to justify the war against Iraq. He followed the path laid out in the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’ and - like Dr Fox - he has been driven hither and thither like chaff, by the winds of public opinion. When judgement came, in the shape of the Chilcot Inquiry, he had plenty to say in his own defence - because Tony Blair is never wrong, of course - but will he really find, after the verdict is handed down, that he can stand firm in the assembly of the righteous? In the meantime at any rate, Tony Blair still prospers in all he does. In fact, he’s made his fortune since he resigned as prime minister.

Righteousness took a long while to catch up with Colonel Gaddafi. He began as a radical reformer, but his head was soon turned by the counsel of the wicked. He followed the path set out in his own Green Book. ‘Women are females and men are males,’ he wrote in one of the sillier passages. But in other sections of the book he could be quite philosophical. He called for a universal cultural revolution to rid the world of fanaticism. But, of course, that didn’t extend to ridding the world of his own peculiar brand of fanaticism. When there was a revolution against him, Gaddafi proved the accuracy of one of his own sayings by the barbaric actions that he ordered his troops to take: ‘Boxing and wrestling,’ he had said, ‘Are proof that human beings have not rid themselves of all savage behavior.’ Gaddafi was certainly driven like chaff before the wind, and he was certainly doomed, but he didn’t come to judgement.

Yet is the way of the wicked really doomed? Adolf Hitler came to a bad end, but not Joseph Stalin! Sometimes righteous people do not prosper because they seem too good for a world like this. They seem to suffer because they won’t take the counsel of the wicked - they refuse to take short cuts, or appease the crowd, or short change their customers, or bend the rules.

What about the Welsh ruby team? They considered cheating in their match against France. But the coach did not the counsel of the wicked, nor take the path that sinners tread. His delight was in the international laws of rugby. However, the team didn’t prosper, it lost. Who can say what would have happened if they had bent the rules, instead. Would they have been found out, or might they have won the game?

Later writers got around this problem by coming up with the idea of life beyond death. If judgement comes at the end of time, after death, it doesn’t matter whether or not we have prospered in this life. We can still imagine the wicked being driven like chaff driven before the wind until they perish, while the righteous are like a tree planted by streams of water which stands firm.

The final question to ask about this psalm is, ‘What about the scoffers?’ The Psalmist imagines that the wicked take refuge among the scoffers, but that was before the creation of a free press. The newspapers have taken a battering in recent months, after the scandal of mobile phone hacking. Picking up on the widespread revulsion which people feel about tabloid journalism, Dr Fox couldn’t resist taking a swipe at some of the people who had scoffed at him, accusing journalists of vindictive and hurtful reporting.

In his speech to the Levison Inquiry into the Media, a week ago, Paul Dacre - editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail - put the case for press freedom. He said, ‘I’d … like to persuade you that there are thousands of decent journalists in Britain who don’t hack phones, don’t bribe policemen and who work long anti-social hours for modest recompense – and if they’re in the regional press often for a pittance – because they passionately believe that their papers give a voice to the voiceless and expose the misdeeds of the rich, the powerful and the pompous.’ He suggested that those who feel the press ought to be more regulated should try living in Zimbabwe.

Scoffers today, then, can sometimes be the very people who delight in the law of the Lord and meditate on it day and night, to the discomfort of the powerful. But, of course, the Psalmist is thinking of a different kind of scoffer, the person who deliberately scoffs at the very idea of principles and righteousness and seeks to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator, to human greed and veniality.

Last Monday, on Radio 4’s Start The Week, I heard the famous atheist Richard Dawkins trying to defend himself from just this charge. Although he believes the world doesn’t have any meaning or purpose, nonetheless he was still capable, he insisted, of recognising beauty and mystery - a magical quality he called it - in the world around him, and of finding inspiration in music and so on. In that sense, he wants us to understand that he is not a scoffer. But, of course, plenty of other people, who are less intelligent and thoughtful, have concluded that if the world is without meaning then it no longer matters how they live or what they do.

Another atheist on the same programme, cosmologist Lisa Randall, said that - although she didn’t believe in anything - she still took pride in being the best scientist that she could possibly be. But a lot of people who don’t believe in anything don’t take pride in anything, either. They scoff at effort of any kind, preferring the counsel of the wicked and the feckless as their guide, following the easy path that sinners take, which is why the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs - who was also a guest on the same programme - insisted that without belief there is no real hope.

Standing up to the scoffers may not be easy if you are a politician caught out misusing your power, but neither is it easy for Christians and other believers in a secular and deeply cynical world. The scoffers of today are not necessarily deliberately siding with wickedness, as the Psalmist imagined. They are simply people who refuse to commit to any principles at all and who find it easy to criticise those who do have principles, especially when they go wrong or if they stand up for what they believe.

This is what Paul and his companions were doing - standing firm for the Gospel despite the outrageous treatment meted out to them in Philippi, where they were stripped, flogged and thrown into prison. When Paul talks about the great opposition they had faced he is referring to mob rule. Anyone would think - from the way they had been treated - that they were trying to deceive people, or cheat them, or that Paul and his companions were somehow deluded and needed saving from themselves. But, of course, all they had been trying to do was delight in the law of the Lord and yield God’s fruit by proclaiming the Gospel.

They didn’t follow the counsel of the wicked, or the path that sinners tread, by currying favour with the angry mob. They were, instead, ever mindful that they would need, one day, to be able to stand firm in the assembly of the righteous.

And, of course, a leopard doesn’t change its spots. Now that they have been to Thessaolonica too, the Thessalonian Christians know only too well that Paul never minces his words or resortes to insincere flattery. He tells it how he sees it.

Although Paul clearly felt that he was entitled to claim authority over the churches he ministered to, because of his call from the risen Jesus to be an apostle or messenger of the Gospel, he prefers - or so he claims here - to take a gentler approach, sharing his very self with the congregations he worked alongside, out of deep affection for them.

In the short term, Paul’s approach appeared to meet with failure. He was eventually taken to Rome in chains where he was almost certainly martyred for his faith. His letters were so easily disregarded, and so little cherished, by the people who had received them that whole sections of some of them, and in other cases the entire correspondence, was lost to posterity. Yet, in God’s good time he was vindicated. Many of his lost letters were rediscovered and dusted off; some new ones were even written around a few scattered fragments of the missing originals; and his theology has come to dominate much of Christian thinking. The Lord watches over the way of the righteous.

What are we to conclude? God will make our cause to prosper, he will help us to yield fruit, he is watching over us. But God’s ways are not the world’s ways. The counsel of the wicked will suggest that we are misguided. The scoffers will insist that we are deluding ourselves. But in the end their opinions will be driven before the wind like chaff. They will not stand firm in the assembly of the righteous. Their worldly wisdom is doomed. And, in the meantime, we must continue to gently share our very selves with the people around us as we seek to impart - fearlessly and frankly - the truth that has been entrusted to us.

The Golden Rule

Leviticus 19.1-2,15-18
Matthew 22.34-40

‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ It’s sometimes called The Golden Rule and yet the way it’s understood by the writers or editors of Leviticus is far from obvious to our way of thinking.

According to this passage it means being strictly impartial, neither favouring the poor or being subservient to the rich, but playing a straight bat. That’s all well and good, of course, but it’s not the traditional, Christian understanding of loving your neighbour, which is about showing special compassion to the outcast, the stranger, the poor and the weak. In fact, it has become fashionable for modern Christians to speak of God’s bias to the poor.

There are passages in the Old and New Testament - including Leviticus - which suggest that we are supposed to show partiality to the poor and the oppressed, but this is not one of them. Here loving your neighbour is about treating everyone the same, without fear or favour. The poor should not be condescended to. They deserve the compliment of being treated exactly as the judge, or the magistrate, or the official would expect to be treated if they needed someone to decide about their case. And, of course, we’re not necessarily talking just about court cases, but about any set of rules or regulations that need to be interpreted and applied with fairness. We’re talking about bosses, post office clerks, traffic wardens, and teachers and parents. Are any of us fair and even-handed in the way we interpret and apply rules and regulations?

To love your neighbour doesn’t just mean being fair, of course. Leviticus says that it means not spreading gossip about them, something which is all too easily done in close knit communities. The Revised English Bible’s translation is oddly archaic here, I think, with its reference to ‘your father’s kin’. The New Revised Standard Version says ‘you shall not go around as a slanderer among your people,’ and even The Revised Version - a very literal Nineteenth Century translation which was the original version used in this church when it first opened - says, ‘Thou shalt not go up and down as a tale bearer among thy people.’

In churches there is a fine distinction to be made between being properly concerned about the misfortunes of other people, and wanting to pray for them and support them, and - on the other hand - being at best inquisitive or at worst even prying into their affairs. That’s why, for instance, we can no longer put people’s names in the prayer book, and so on, without their permission. Sometimes loving our neighbour means keeping our counsel.

‘Do not take sides against your neighbour on a capital charge’ suggests that, if there’s a danger they might swing for their crimes, it would be wrong to report our neighbours to the police. It seems a totally alien way to interpret loving your neighbour, as if running them in for burglary or for trespass would be perfectly all right whereas accusing them of murder, or giving evidence against them for poisoning their Granny, would be unsporting. But again the Revised English Bible seems to have taken certain liberties with its translation. The Revised Version translates the Hebrew very literally as ‘neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbour’, which the New Revised Standard Version takes to mean, ‘you shall not profit by your neighbour’s blood.’ Gone here is any suggestion of our neighbours having formal charges laid against them in a court. I think what we’re talking about here is a good old-fashioned witch hunt or a land grab, where someone appears to be throwing accusations around just to discredit their neighbours and gain advantage over them. Sadly, it still happens, but nowadays it’s more likely to be the kind of thing that goes on in an employment dispute - with staff members hurling rival accusations against one another in an attempt to blur the real issues and get the hearing to find in their favour. Needless to say, that’s not a neighbourly thing to do.

Loving your neighbour turns out, then, to be a more forensic idea than we might otherwise think. It’s about being fair and open-minded, about not taking advantage, about having honest and straight dealings with one another. And, as it’s understood in Leviticus, loving your neighbour doesn’t rule out reprimanding or reproving him or her. In fact, failing to tell other people what you really think about them - while nursing a secret hatred for them in our heart - is much worse than being open with them.

In his poem, Mending Wall, Robert Frost talks about walking along a boundary wall with his neighbour to make sure that it‘s in good repair. This makes him reflect on why the wall is there in the first place. ‘Good fences make good neighbours,’ his neighbour says, but Frost thinks to himself, ‘Only where they are needed.’ His neighbour’s side of the wall contains only pine trees, on Frost’s side is an orchard, whereas you need a wall only where there are cows! Frost thinks:

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offence.

That’s pretty much how the writers and editors of Leviticus think about neighbourliness. Let’s not put up walls of hypocrisy and pretence between us, walls to hide our feelings. Let’s be honest and open.

But, with honesty must come acceptance. When we find out what our neighbours really think we can’t be grudging or unforgiving, or try to get our own back or take vengeance on them. We must live and let live. That’s what Leviticus means by loving our neighbours as we love ourselves.

Jesus sets the Golden Rule in a different context. First, he makes it far more important. He elevates it almost to the same status as the first commandment - to love God with all your heart, soul and mind. And by doing so, of course, he brings the focus to bear much more sharply on love. For Jesus the saying is definitely about loving your neighbour rather than about respect or honest dealing.

And second, the way that Jesus highlights this verse, and juxtaposes it with the first commandment, reminds us that there are three crucial aspects to loving our neighbour. It’s not possible to love our neighbour properly and consistently unless we first love God and also love ourselves.

Modern society has dropped God out of the equation - but that tips the balance towards the self. If you don’t have to love God in order to love your neighbour, but you do still have to love yourself, then you start to get people saying, ‘Unless I first find myself, and journey into myself, or pamper myself, I won’t be able to look out for my neighbour as well.’ So people will say, ‘I knew the children couldn’t be happy because I wasn’t happy.’ Or, ‘I knew my partner couldn’t be happy because I wasn’t happy.’

So then, of course, the only solution is to make yourself happy, whatever the cost might be to the other people in your life, because only then will you be any real use or support to other people. This creates a tendency for loving your neighbour as you love yourself to become a very introspective, inward-looking, self-serving idea. But is that what Jesus really intended?

I don’t think so, because Jesus set the commandment to love our neighbour as we love ourselves alongside the prior commandment to love God, and loving God means looking outwards, trying to imitate God’s love for creation, caring not just about ourselves - or not first about ourselves - but treating other people’s well-being as equally important to our own. Yes, we can’t love other people properly if we don’t love and respect ourselves - and we see that again and again in parents who fail to love their children in a healthy and rounded way because they haven’t yet dealt with their own hang-ups. But, by the same token, we can’t love and respect ourselves properly if we don’t love and respect others, beginning with God.