Whenever the writers of the New Testament turn from theology to plain talking about ethics, I get the impression the modern day equivalents of the scribes and Pharisees grow strangely quiet. This is not a new phenomenon. For example the one book of the New Testament in which there are the clearest and most unambiguous directions for Christian living turned out to be the one book that the biggest number of Church leaders were most anxious to block from the final selection. In the Latin speaking Church, the first listing of what we now call the New Testament books, the Muratorian Canon, despite tradition having it that James was the brother of Jesus, the letter of James got left out, and it wasn’t until 367 AD that the letter of James finally made it. And why not admit it. Like parts of the Sermon on the Mount, the real problem with the book of James is that it insists not on theological ideas, but on some defining behaviours which require an active response. What is more, those behaviours are not automatically part of our lives.
Perhaps for the same reason, through the centuries, it appears to be the comfort of supportive religion with notions of eternal life, the shepherd carrying the lost sheep and the promises of what lies beyond suffering which tugs at our heartstrings, rather than those awkward bits which require a reorientation of what we actually do in our day to day lives. As Thomas a Kempis once famously put it:
Jesus has many lovers of His kingdom of heaven, but he has few bearers of His Cross. Many desire His consolation, but few desire His tribulation.
If anything, for the middle and upper classes of the 21st Century there are even more reasons for selective hearing of the gospel.
One verse in today’s gospel reading is particularly awkward for those of us who collect possessions and orient our lives towards earning and using what we accumulate for our own advantage. Here it is: the Gospel of Matthew, chapter six, verse 24 and Jesus is speaking:
24“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
Before I say anything at all about that particular verse perhaps I need to stress that in common with many in our society I too am one who has suffered for a good part of my life from that insidious disease called affluenza, a disease which has been described with these symptoms:
1. Stress, overwork, shopping and debt caused by dogged pursuit of the sort of aspirations paraded daily before us in the TV, radio and now the internet advertising. The Americans call it the American Dream.
2. The bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from one’s efforts to keep up with the Joneses.
3. An unsustainable addiction to personal economic growth.
As one with a comfortable home, a two car family, money in the bank and a pension I need to be very cautious before lecturing others about the need to be setting aside their wealth. Nevertheless it occurs to me that the caution about possessions and money is also part of the gospel we ignore at our peril.
I recently met a man who had written an app for his smart phone which was making him a tidy profit each week. The app analysed the close of share trading each week, factored in the declared purchasing and sale of stock by CEOs and a steady growing profit gave him an automatic buy while a steady loss gave him an automatic sell. No problems in that as a formula for making money, yet I sensed a possible moral problem when he further told me that it didn’t matter to him how the company was making its money. As far as he was concerned ethical investment was a total irrelevance. For him, companies getting profits from blood diamonds or asset stripping or arms sales were just as valid as a company that invested in trading basic food products or encouraged fair trade products.
It rather reminds me of a comment by Bertrand de Jouvenel in 1973 when he said:
“I am frightened when I see intellectuals work out cost benefit analyses which justify what the people in power are determined to do, rather than judge the correctness of their actions. It is important for intellectuals to assess not only what could be done, but what should be done”.
When Jesus said no-one can serve two masters, although we might protest this is an over-simplification, there is also a metaphorical sense in which whatever we choose to direct us when we are setting our priorities provides a window into our very souls. It is certainly true that few people in our modern societies are entirely free from affluenza. Nevertheless it is rather easy to know when we are in the presence of someone who puts people before profits.
I am sure my experience of meeting caring people both in Church congregations and in community organisations who notice and are prepared to respond to the needs of those around them is not unique. We become very aware of this when there is a downturn in the economy. Managers and senior staff who do their level best to minimise harm for their staff are very different to those who dismiss according to set formulae or with an exclusive attention to the profit line.
Notice too that Jesus seems totally uninterested in status or position in a faith community when he makes his observation. At various times in history even Church leaders have accepted wealth and possessions as a right and over recent years we have occasionally had the unedifying sight of some Tele-evangelists and Charismatic Church leaders amassing huge personal fortunes while some among their followers are expected to mortgage homes to support their lifestyle.
There is also the issue of blocking out the parts of the message we don’t wish to hear. I have always wondered at preachers who choose preaching texts exclusively from favourite verses rather than from something a little more systematic. It is easy to escape personal self examination if we avoid some of the more searching scriptures. A rather more subtle form of avoidance is to choose less worrying translations.
For example in the section of Matthew before today’s reading there is the famous Lord’s Prayer. In that prayer, those who don’t wish their financial conscience to be troubled can easily avoid the line which the Greek gives as ( 6:13) “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” Even a cursory look at this line looks very much like a call for some practical form of using circumstances to determine debt relief. This makes some sense if we are not always driven by money and particularly when class divisions are taken into account. Being in too much of a hurry to turn this line: “forgive our debts…..” into that rather obscure religious admonition, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” which actually risks letting us off the hook, particularly we are most unlikely to spot examples of trespasses in our day-to-day lives whereas many of us are actually owed money.
Being freed from the current obsession with money and turning our attention to matters of more eternal value might also help us find more meaning in those verses that follow.
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?
And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, you of little faith?
And what did Jesus mean by this change of tack. Bird watching? Lily contemplation – and even checking out the grass….. Surely he wasn’t asking us to become twitchers or flower pressers?
Well perhaps not, but when we read “Look at the birds of the air” he is reminding us that there is something to be seen and wondered at. The Greek scholars say the term Matthew records as “Look” means look carefully”. We are perhaps being reminded that nature should not be taken casually and that as any biologist could tell you, there are wonders there that put any mere accumulation of riches well and truly in the shade. In a way this is simply a continuation of Jesus main theme of this sermon. Get your lives in perspective he appears to be saying. Ultimately what you think is important and what you are tempted to chase may well turn out to be trivial in the extreme.
In an age where there is wholesale destruction of ancient forests, vast plantings of single crops and strip-mining on huge scale, not looking carefully may yet prove to be a mistake of colossal proportions. Nature should never be taken casually if only because virtually every species has a finite life before a shortage of resources or disease wipes out that species. Homo sapiens is a species too. If human-kind is to continue to progress then perhaps we should turn back to the Sermon on the Mount for life-preserving perspective.
Sometimes we notice the obvious rather late. General Omar Bradley, on looking back over the Second World War, which had taken so much of his professional life, made an observation we might need to take rather more seriously if we are to reflect the spirit of Jesus’ teaching:
“We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.” General Omar Bradley, November 10, 1948
Today as we do our own looking back, do we see ourselves as being satisfied we are making progress in a material sense, or do we see in our thoughtful observations indications that we are still yet ethical infants in matters that really count?