Monday, 29 April 2013


[Jesus said,] Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.  … You have heard that it was said to people long ago …  But I tell you … Matthew 5 (The Sermon on the Mount)

One of the oldest books in the Old Testament, Leviticus, lays down rules about many aspects of everyday life. For instance: ‘You shall not put on a garment woven with two kinds of yarn.’ (Lev 18:19). Or ‘You shall not shave the edge of your beards.’ (Lev 19:22). Or ‘You shall not eat … the pig, because it has a parted foot and a cloven hoof but does not chew the cud; you shall regard it as unclean.’ (Lev 11:7) These ancient laws, and many more equally unfamiliar, are still accepted as binding by truly orthodox Jews. Other Jews, and Christians of course, do not feel bound by them. So why do I quote these strange laws, laws which we find bizarre or even unacceptable? It’s certainly not to pour scorn on the people who wrote them. They and their contemporaries were struggling to find their place and manage their affairs in a changing world which they barely understood. Many of the laws are about how to make distinctions between things, and the ability to classify is basic to our understanding of the world. When Leviticus was written, people were just beginning to do this; it’s not surprising they got the classifications wrong and were over-keen to give classification and therefore separation a pre-eminence we would deny them. The roughly simultaneous change from nomadic, pastoral living to settled, agricultural society was enormous; the story of Cain and Abel illustrates how fraught it was. Settled, agricultural society brought with it surplus wealth and therefore the emergence of a ruling class and life in large villages and towns. In this new situation, accepted customs and the decisions of a headman were no longer enough; a new means of keeping order was needed: clear, easy-to-enforce Law.
                Perhaps it was because he instinctively sensed the reasons behind the old laws that Jesus could confidently say that many of them had been superseded. It wasn’t that they had been wrong; it was simply that their time had passed; humanity had moved, or at any rate could move, beyond them. Some people still struggle with this idea. They want to say either that the old rules were wrong all the time and should never have been made, or that if they were right once, they must be right now. What we cannot know is whether we could have reached our modern understandings without having passed through stages of over-zealous classification and over-reliance on strict liability law – or, to use the language of journeying, whether we could have arrived where we are today via a different route. Perhaps we could have, but we didn’t; the Leviticus route was the one our predecessors took, and we’re not really in a position to say whether they were right or wrong to do so. This thought might make us extra-careful about the rules and conventions by which we live or which we seek to develop, both because we will be judged by them and more importantly because they will bring our successors to where they will find themselves. You’ll have your own ideas as to which of our current rules and conventions are likely to go the way of Leviticus’s ban on weaving mixed-fibre cloth; my prime candidates would be those about drugs and assisted suicide.
                It’s important to remember that Jesus’s attack was not simply on the old rules themselves but on the approach they enshrined. He saw that trying to regulate and improve life principally by making and enforcing rules was an approach that had had its day, and that something different could be just as effective, less constricting and more enriching. It was necessary to get behind the behavioural rules to see whether underlying them were admirable dispositions that were to be encouraged. If there weren’t, the rule could be abandoned, at least as a moral rule as distinct from a civil law; if there were, it would be the disposition not the rule that needed to be nurtured. It’s clear from the earliest accounts of the post-Jesus church that its members quickly agreed to abandon circumcision and the kosher food rules, no doubt acting on the logic of Jesus’s teaching. By contrast, they would not have had any problem with a Leviticus rule such as ‘You shall not treat the deaf with contempt, nor put an obstruction in the way of the blind.’ (Lev 19:14), though they would probably have realised that it is the loving impulse behind such a rule that matters, not the rule itself.
                Jesus was boldly clear that some of the old laws and the approach they enshrined had to be abandoned, and with them, by implication, a particular conception of what it was to be a Jew. That the clearest statement of this view appears repeatedly in the Sermon on the Mount in the deeply Jewish gospel of Matthew is surprising and therefore reliable. Less reliable, because not so unexpected, is Matthew’s attribution to Jesus of the statement that no detail of the old law could be changed, and the claim the he had come to ‘fulfil’ the Law and the Prophets. No doubt this is Matthew trying to reassure himself and his fellow Jews, because it clearly does not reflect the thrust of the Jesus teaching – at least, not unless ‘fulfil’ is taken to mean ‘continue to develop and where appropriate abandon’. The Jewish authorities would have had no interest in executing a Jesus who had demonstrated a deep loyalty and reverence for the ancient texts that kept Jewish identity intact; they wanted him dead precisely because he did not show such unquestioning loyalty and reverence.
                One of the lessons we might draw from Jesus’s attack on the tyranny of the old rules of Leviticus is that it’s important to beware of the human tendency to imagine that the latest invention for helping us deal with life is a panacea. Maybe we can’t help this; it’s certainly a recurrent feature of human history. Perhaps we just have to live through these periods of over-enthusiasm, hoping that a Jesus figure will emerge to courageously suggest that the time has come to move on – and that enough of us will have the sense to listen.


Then Nathan said to David, "… Thus says the Lord God of Israel: 'I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave you your master's house and your master's wives into your keeping, and gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if that had been too little, I also would have given you much more! Why have you despised the commandment of the Lord, to do evil in His sight? You have killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword; you have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the people of Ammon.' " 2 Samuel 12 vv7-9

The ancient kings and emperors who became the image for God as King were regarded as all-powerful; their will was to be obeyed, their desires were to be satisfied. They didn’t like being told that their desires didn’t define rightness, which is what Nathan boldly told King David when he used his power to have Bathsheba’s husband killed in battle so he could have her himself. What Nathan was telling David was that it was wrong for rulers to use their power to satisfy their private desires, which you might think is a fairly obvious requirement of good government. For well over 2500 years, most religion in Eurasia has insisted that government is divinely appointed in order to benefit ordinary people; in saying this religious teachers have had to challenge the majority of rulers, who have tended to take a very different approach. There have of course been episodes when religious leaders have confused their own interests with those of the people, when secular rulers have manipulated religion for their own ends, and when the interests of different peoples have conflicted. We have to be careful not to allow such episodes, however common, to blind us to the thrust of religious teaching down the centuries: government is meant to benefit ordinary people, to make it possible for their lives to flourish.
                Over the last century it has become increasingly common to rely on voting as the means of ensuring that government does benefit ordinary people. And by and large voting hasn’t done a bad job; it certainly hasn’t produced worse results than other systems we’ve tried. In fact, so successful has voting become that we tend to think of it not as a means to an end but an end in itself. We tend to think that having a majority voting in favour of some policy or other makes it right. In other words we have come perilously close to the position Nathan had to criticise: we have come to think that the ruler’s desires – now meaning by that a majority of the people – define what is right.
But while democracy may be the least-bad way of deciding what is going to be done, it is not a way of deciding that what is going to be done is right. Like the rulers of old, we seem to have come to think that we can properly use our power, meaning these days our votes, to satisfy our private desires; the largely value-free appeals of competing political parties at election time suggest that they at least assume that voters – we – take heed mostly of exactly those self-centred considerations that motivated the less savoury non-democratic rulers. The coming of democracy, valuable as it is, does not free us, the new rulers, from the ancient requirement that Nathan insisted on: power must not be used to satisfy private desires. So it is that in a democracy, the tradition lays on all of us responsibilities that most members of earlier generations escaped, for we too are now rulers, and the requirement for rulers not to use their power to satisfy their private desires is one we all need to consider whenever we take part in the political process, even just by voting. The tradition does not smile on those who decide how to vote principally on the basis of how they personally would benefit if this or that party took power.
            And like ancient rulers we electors won’t always find the admonition of Nathan’s successors easy to accept – which is why it’s so important that they keep insisting on the need to pay attention to the common good and high standards in public life. Their insistence will face resistance. They will be told that we need to debate what the common good really is; fair enough, but such discussions can be cleverly used as an effective way of avoiding the issue. They will be told that they should keep religion out of politics, that politics is no business of theirs because religion is really just about personal morality; but notice that Nathan was admonishing David as an unscrupulous ruler who abused his power, not as a private man of faulty morals. They will be told to be realistic and admit that what the powerful want, they will get, be they ancient kings or a democratic majority, and there’s not much point in going along with Nathan’s denunciation of them; but real progress – of any kind but especially moral and spiritual progress – is achieved by people who dare to challenge the powers that be, not by those who go along with what those powers want. They will be told that making a nuisance of yourself by demanding that those in power do what’s right will not succeed; but Jesus’s story of the widow who pestered the judge until he unwillingly did the right thing reminds us that making a fuss is often the only way to achieve justice.
                Challenging ourselves and other electors to support the common good with our votes involves asking us all to understand that democracy can only thrive if we do. If as electors we don’t prioritise the long term common good over our own short term private interests, the governments we elect will inevitably take systematically wrong decisions – wrong not only for the common good but wrong even for our own long term interests. In the end we might even welcome dictatorship in the hope that a dictator, not in hock to an electorate that votes only on short term self interest, might take a longer view of the common good. But the most desired of dictatorships eventually goes sour; the temptation for even the best of us to use absolute power to satisfy our own private desires is practically impossible to withstand in the long run: in the story, David was not a bad man, just an ordinarily good man who had been given despotic powers. Far better, therefore, for us to mature as electors and not demand that our politicians pander to our cupidity – in other words to hear the admonition of Nathan as being addressed to us.


‘The Prodigal Son’  Luke15  vv11-32

It’s one of the characteristics of at least the longer parables that they draw from us different responses depending on our preoccupations at any particular time. They don’t have a simple ‘meaning’, despite what the gospel writers sometimes say. The parables originally had no titles, of course, and the titles they have been given over the centuries as an easy way of referring to them often imply a particular interpretation and so tend to shut us off from the power of a parable to take on different meanings for us as we return to it from time to time. Suppose The Good Samaritan story were called instead ‘Who is my Neighbour?’, or ‘The Prodigal Son’ were known as ‘The Wise Father’ or ‘The Elder Brother’: how differently we might then think of these stories. And we could equally appropriately call The Prodigal Son story simply ‘Growing up’, and be prompted by that title to find some unfamiliar points being made in the story.
                Many traditions look at life as a series of stages, to each of which there are age-appropriate ways of thinking and behaving. Hindu tradition for example suggests that a man’s life ideally consists of four stages, as student, householder, hermit and recluse, each with its own different importance.  Maybe our culture has been too much influenced by Shakespeare’s cynical Jacques speech on the seven ages of man, and as a result has tended to mock the characteristic behaviour of each age instead of seeing it as having its proper place in a man’s development. Certainly there has been a tendency to assume that a person’s age ought not to be taken into much account in deciding how we expect them to behave. Law has had an influence here: once past the age of criminal responsibility the explicit standard of behaviour is the same for everyone. Now of course there is a great deal to be said for the principle that everyone should be equal before the law, that your age should not affect how you are dealt with. But maybe Jesus’s story ‘Growing up’ offers us not so much an alternative as a supplementary way of thinking about these matters.
                It is of crucial importance here and elsewhere to notice that Jesus often does not condemn behaviour where our traditional approach would do so; he even has a story about an unscrupulous manager that seems to be a direct rebuke to our readiness to condemn edgy behaviours. It’s not that he never condemns behaviour: he clearly does, and it’s always instructive to see which ones they are. The younger son in ‘Growing up’ is nowhere condemned for asking for his share of the inheritance and going off and spending it – ‘wasting it’ if you prefer – on travel and fun. He took a risk and it turned out badly though not catastrophically – he wasn’t dead, after all – , and he discovered that facing up to what had happened was the necessary first step in getting back on track; that’s two important lessons about life that a young person has to learn in order to become a truly mature adult. Neither is the elder son condemned for taking a more cautious approach. Some people wouldn’t say ‘cautious’ here; they’d say ‘mature’, and they’d want to praise the elder brother’s ‘maturity’ in knuckling down to helping his father in the family business. But the story makes it clear that where that more cautious, superficially mature, approach has left him is not a happy place to be; he seems to lack sympathy and human warmth. So maybe the story offers a warning about the dangers of premature ‘maturity’ – which is not to say that Jesus thought that what the elder brother had done in his youth was necessarily wrong, only that it had its own characteristic dangers that needed to be guarded against in some way.
                Even though, in context, it’s not how Jesus used it, his ‘Who is my Neighbour?’ story is often used as a challenge to people: which of the three unhurt travellers do you think you’d rather be, or ought to be? If we use the same approach with the ‘Growing up’ story, I wonder whether, given this choice between extremes, we’d rather a young person we care about were rather more like the younger or the elder brother. I personally don’t have much doubt that I’d rather they should veer towards the younger brother’s end of the spectrum, which is to say that I’d prefer them to be a bit wild and do a few things that would be foolish or daring or at least inappropriate were I or their other elders to do them; I certainly wouldn’t want to think of them as spending an adolescence that aped an unearned, fake maturity and left them a self-righteous prig like the elder brother in the story. I think this story, and indeed some of his other sayings, suggest that Jesus would have had the same preference as me.
But of course the younger son’s hard-won but genuine maturation is made possible by his father; it was he who funded what we might think of as a kind of wild gap year and welcomed his older and wiser son home when it went pear-shaped. Since you’re reading this, it’s probably more likely that you’re in the position of the father in the story than in that of one of his sons. If so, you won’t need me to spell out what seems to be the clear implication of the story for you, nor will you need me to say much about the courage and faith that the wise father needed to behave as he did. It is horribly difficult to watch someone you care about go off on a path that seems fraught with every kind of risk, against your advice, against what you see as common sense, against social conventions. But then, it can also be pretty horrible – not least for the adult the child becomes – to discover that a lively, adventurous, promising child has allowed advice, common sense and social convention to turn him or her into a version of the prodigal son’s elder brother.


Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Philippians 4 v8

We choose who we shall become. I don’t say that unavoidable outside influences don’t have any effect on who we become – of course they do. I say merely that many outside influences are not unavoidable: we place ourselves in the way of them. The sometimes uncomfortable truth is that to a considerable extent we are who we have chosen to become, even if we weren’t always conscious of what we were choosing. And more comfortingly but also more challengingly we still have choices about who we shall be in the future.  So: who do we want to be like? Which of the people you know have a disposition that you find admirable? This is part of the challenge of Jesus’s Beatitudes: notice, he says, how blessed, how makarios, are people of various dispositions. It’s not a question of imitating their behaviour; that would be to try to find a short cut to being makarios, and there is no such short cut. It is rather a matter of asking ourselves what influences and experiences we might expose ourselves to that might help to develop in us the kind of disposition we find admirable – and just as importantly, of avoiding those influences and experiences that would tend to make acquiring the disposition we desire less likely.
The greatest sin – the sin against Holy Spirit (your spirit, which is holy because it is the most precious thing you possess) – is to allow yourself to become someone you can’t respect, someone you don’t want to be, by exposing yourself to damaging or misleading influences and experiences, or, having found you can’t respect the self you have become, to fail to take the necessary steps to change your dispositions. This latter is what repentance is really about; it’s not (just) a matter of stopping doing some bad things: it is to take steps to change who you are becoming. So the matter of which friends we choose, what leisure activities we take part in, what entertainment we watch, what organisations we join, what work we undertake, what intimate relationships we enjoy, what books we read, which thinkers we allow to influence our approach to life – all these are questions of the utmost importance to us: to a large extent, they decide who we are going to become. This is necessarily an exercise in autonomy. Similar experiences do not affect everyone in the same way; it depends on who they have already become. Consequently as an adult you have to judge for yourself what influences and experiences you need at any particular time in your life. You might take advice, but in the end you must make your own decisions, because it’s your soul we’re talking about. These decisions won’t always meet with the approval of others; as Jesus observes, you may sometimes have to turn your back on home and family – as indeed he did.
This is not a plea for a caution that amounts to being so afraid of possibly damaging or misleading experiences and influences that one tries simply to avoid them completely. That is too negative an approach, and in any case some possibly damaging experiences are unavoidable and probably necessary in life because, like the prodigal son, we grow through them. Moreover, growing up necessarily involves encountering and dealing with experiences that a few years or even just a few months earlier might really have been potentially damaging; it’s no use being afraid of growing up – however old we are. No: like St Paul’s advice in our text, it’s a plea rather to make sure that there are sufficient countervailing helpful influences to shape us as we want to be shaped. And if the influences that we have already taken to heart have largely settled who we are becoming and have been positive, then we shall be the more able to expose ourselves without fear of damage to situations which might in other circumstances have drawn us in a less helpful direction.
Propagandists and advertisers understand all this very well of course; their task is to make sure that the influences that we are likely to come across most easily are ones that will shape us as they want us to be shaped. They are thieves of our autonomy and therefore of our souls. Sometimes propagandists appear to have benign intentions: they may seek to protect us from unhelpful influences. There is no doubt a place for that when bringing up a child, though it’s probably not as important as setting before that child examples of admirable lives. But we need to be very cautious about using that approach with adults, which is one reason why we are rightly suspicious of censorship.
                There is of course an infinite number of very different potential selves that we have not turned out to be because of the choices made long ago by ourselves or others, consciously or unconsciously. It is sometimes tempting to wonder who we might have become, if … whatever.  But the range of missed possibilities is in truth too vast for such wonderings to have much meaning. Even as we recognise that there is still a considerable range of possibilities for our future, we have to accept that we are, now, who we are, now; like any journey, where you go in the future has to start from where you are, not from somewhere else. The wonderful thing is that, whatever has happened in the past, there are always still choices to be made about who you want to be tomorrow and the days after. They may be tightly constrained, there may not be much time left; but there are choices. This understanding that the future is not mapped out, not absolutely dictated by the past, is an important part of what we mean by hope. We do not need to be hope-less. But being hope-full is not a matter of just passively hoping for the best; being truly hope-full involves action, yes, but more essentially it involves putting ourselves in the way of those experiences and influences that will make us who we still want to become.


Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths but do not speak, eyes, but do not see. They have ears but do not hear, noses, but do not smell. They have hands but do not feel, feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat.  Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them. Ps 115 vv4-7

How stupid those ancient people must have been! To imagine that little figurines of wood and metal should regarded as powerful entities in their own right, and should therefore be worshipped and have human sacrifices made to them – how could they not see that this was crazy? Whatever you may say about other aspects of ancient Jewish religion, at least the Psalmist was right to pour scorn on the idols of neighbouring peoples. For they were worshipping – and the root of that word is ‘attributing worth to’ – things that did not have the kind of worth or value that was attributed to them. True, they might have artistic value, or value as precious materials, or value as a symbol of tribal identity, or value as concrete representations of important but intangible aspects of life; but value in themselves, as gods? The Psalmist was right about that: the idea is nonsensical. For most idolaters, though they could not see it, idolatry was merely a surrender to a foolish illusion, and maybe additionally for a few priests or kings a useful tool for bolstering their social position. What was surely needed was a bit more hard-headed realism that recognised real value where it was really to be found instead of mis-attributing it to artefacts. 
                This, obviously, is a mistake we’d like to avoid. Consequently it’s comforting to think of idolatry as a phase of human social behaviour that has largely been left behind. Here in the west, the Abrahamic religions have been careful to avoid idolatry, sometimes taking the destruction of ‘idols’ to extraordinary lengths; one thinks most recently of the 2001 destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban, but down the centuries Christians too have destroyed as idols some wonderful artworks. Such iconoclasm may be taking things a bit far, but at least it’s surely a sign that we have got over the illusions that underlie idolatry.  Or perhaps it isn’t. There is at least a case for saying that just as we have modernised genuine spirituality in ways that can obscure its connection with ancient religion so we have modernised idolatry in ways that make it easy for us to think that we’ve really abandoned ancient idolatry. I tend to think that spirituality and idolatry are both pretty permanent potentials in the human psyche, and if that’s right we can’t be complacent; we need to look actively for the idols that have replaced those ancient figurines. And among them I suspect that money will be near the top of the list.
Idols and money have their uses and even their value, but idols are not gods, and money is not a resource. And just as idols can distract worshippers from what is of real value, so money can, and does, distract modern society from seeing that the only genuine resources we have are human resources and natural resources. In a global sense therefore, money cannot really be ‘wasted’; only human resources and natural resources can be wasted. Of course money is useful as ‘a means of exchange and a store of value’, but as money-idolaters we go much further than this. For instance, as a society, we find it hard to quite grasp that things that can’t be given a monetary value have any value at all; we say we understand this but judging by how we behave I’m not sure we do. Or notice how we find it difficult as a society to put resources into schemes that we’re quite certain will in the long term be of benefit and make better use of resources, because our money-based methods of accounting can’t identify and attribute the future savings and efficiencies. Or again notice how we describe as ‘efficient’ a situation in which money is saved by making people permanently unemployed, thus wasting human resources, or by throwing away slightly damaged things, thus wasting natural resources. Or, finally, notice how we do not count unpaid work as part of our GDP figures; the more we rely on volunteers, the ‘poorer’ we say we are. There are undesirable social and environmental consequences of all these examples of money idolatry, but that’s not the main problem, any more than the main problem with ancient idolatry was that the non-gods didn’t and couldn’t help their worshippers. The main problem is that idolatry of any kind takes our attention away from what is truly of value, what is truly to be ‘worshipped’.
And to be honest, we quite like to be so distracted by our idols. For one thing, it simplifies decision-making. You insulted my idol; I will kill you: simple. Or: We’ll carry out this scheme if it makes (or saves) money; if it doesn’t, we won’t: simple. No messy questions about balancing out how proposed actions affect the various aspects of life that are truly valuable, and indeed no questions about what those aspects are or what their relative values might be. For another, it’s a useful cover under which we can do what we’d like to do for our own private reasons. Just as ancient priests and kings used their people’s gullible idolatry to give themselves disproportionate power and wealth, so our money-idolatrous wealth-disposers can publicly regret that they have to pay each other ever-higher salaries on the grounds that, unfortunately, that’s what the market requires. They find it very convenient to base remuneration packages on the monetary value of what they do, rather than on its human significance.
                The snag of course is still the one the Psalmist identified: those who make and trust in idols become like them. To the extent that they put their trust in their idols, they – we – stop being vital, interacting human beings who can revel in the true richness of life as discovered through recognising awe and love and truth as our supreme values. We become instead figurines that look like real people but lack something that vital ‘something’. How you characterise that ‘something’, and what you think you might do to find it, are questions for another day. For now, it’s enough to be clear that they are questions that need to be asked and answered if we are to fulfil our human potential. 


Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Mt 5 vv27, 28

The more I learn about individual people, the more I understand how essentially alike we all are, allowing for the great divide between men and women. We are, literally, all descended from the same father and the same mother, the individuals science calls ‘mitochondrial Eve’ and ‘Y-chromosome Adam’, in reference to the Genesis Creation myth; truly, we are all cousins. By contrast, the more I learn about different cultures, the more I grasp just how different they are, often in ways that are far from obvious. Over centuries and millennia, choice and chance have made different groups of those essentially similar individuals adopt ways of thinking and living that are radically different and often almost incomprehensible to each other. It’s sometimes hard to keep both these insights in mind at once: it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that, if all humans are cousins, there can really be nothing to choose between the cultures they have created. The outcome of that kind of thinking is a moral and cultural relativism in which nothing can be legitimately criticised; anything goes.  On the other hand, if cultures are so radically different, surely some must be preferable to others, and those who belong to the less worthy cultures must in some sense be less worthy human beings. And the outcome of that approach is that we feel licensed to look down on those whose cultures are different from ours, and then pity, forcibly convert or perhaps enslave them.
                It’s into the second of these two traps that western religion has historically tended to fall in practice. Jewish religion thought of the Jews as being especially favoured by their God; many Christians and Muslims have felt comfortable with forced conversion and the enslavement of people from ‘lesser’ cultures. Yet always there have been voices quietly insisting on human cousinhood, sometimes perhaps without quite realising the cultural implications of that insistence. As those implications became clearer within Christianity, a new approach to mission became desirable, one that genuinely respected the humanity of people from other cultures and recognised aspects of those cultures that could be valued by Christians, even while trying to offer the most valuable-seeming insights from the Christian tradition. In practice this new approach has proved extraordinarily difficult to implement; missionaries, like the rest of us, religious and secular alike, have found themselves repeatedly falling into one or other of the old traps.            
                We naturally tend to characterise what we believe and how we behave by contrasting them with the beliefs and behaviour of others. Within our own western culture therefore religious folk and secularists find in each other foils for the development of their distinctiveness vis-à-vis each other. What this inevitably obscures is the extent to which they have values in common. It is only when we see the other, very different, value systems that have been developed by humans that we can begin to see just how much we westerners have in common with each other, and how much those shared values mean to us all. I’m thinking of things like human relationships, forgiveness, the value of human life, love, empathy, kindness. We shouldn’t make too much of this: running through western culture are important threads of value systems that give pride of place to wealth, power, will, duty. It was perhaps the German philosopher Nietzsche who crystallised the matter most succinctly by defining a ‘master morality’ and a ‘slave morality’, and identifying the latter with Christianity. Nietzsche didn’t think much of slaves, and one of the most important questions for our modern secularists is whether or not they share his contempt for the values of ‘slave morality’.
But perhaps Nietzsche was only speaking for the inner, unconverted, self in all of us, the raw, almost pre-human, drives that we usually keep hidden from public view and whose power we can learn to harness in order to pursue what we honour as higher purposes. And of course to a considerable extent our universally shared humanity is defined by those raw drives, including – and I think this was part of what Jesus was saying in our text – the sex drive. How you employ your raw drives matters hugely of course, but that you share them with the rest of us is critically important for self-understanding. It is only when you understand how similar you are to every other human being that you can begin to engage truly meaningfully in a debate about the values we might pursue. It is no doubt because I’m a westerner, brought up with values shaped by Christianity, specifically in its Anglican form, that, for example, I find it hard to make very much of the pre-eminence Confucian thought gives to obedience and rigid social order, or to find much depth in Japanese or Afghan notions of honour and shame – or come to that to have much patience with American-style bible-bashing Christianity. Yet so convinced am I that there is in the values I have inherited and developed a great deal that could help everyone who has the shared human drives to flourish wonderfully and to be makarios, that I must be a kind of missionary for them.
Any such missionaries must, I think, observe three principles, pre-eminently the understanding of the essential similarity, the cousinhood, of all human beings. Then the acceptance that, however rich the missionaries believe their own culture to be, there are always likely to be elements of it that are at least open to question – and similarly however impoverished they think the cultures of their interlocutors are, there are always likely to be elements of it that offer valuable insights that are lacking in the missionaries’ own culture. And finally the principle that underlies the method of the Jesus teaching: it is not by logical argument or passionate persuasion, let alone by force, that values can best be commended; it is by example and guided observation. It is the business of missionaries of any kind to engage with those who see life differently; no such engagement can be serious unless the missionaries are as genuinely open to what may be learned from them as they are enthusiastic to share with them their own understanding. That is the real risk that missionaries must be prepared to face: not that they will be persecuted but that they will themselves be converted.


… The heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. … Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. Ezekiel 1

Debates between scientists and religious folk irritate me when one or other side seems to misunderstand its own professional way-of-thinking – or at any rate for the purposes of the debate sticks with a way of thinking that was long ago abandoned as inadequate by their predecessors in science or religion. What’s more, each side – a most unhelpful way of speaking, incidentally – likes to set up straw men to represent their opponents, just for the fun of blowing them away. But this fun is not harmless, and it certainly doesn’t lead to enlightenment.
                We live in a world which presents all living things with phenomena with which we have to deal. We humans deal with those phenomena at least partly consciously: we know what we want and we can work out ways of getting what we want, on the basis of some understanding of how the phenomena are caused and relate to each other. For hundreds of thousands of years, humanity and its recognisable precursors operated in the world pretty successfully without making any attempt to systematise its understanding of the causes and relationships of the phenomena being experienced. Of course, this limited what could be achieved, but that didn’t seem to be a problem at the time; life was good enough as it was. As consciousness evolved however, humanity gained the ability to understand more about how the world worked and to formulate more distant objectives than had hitherto satisfied it. Western religion calls this the ‘Fall’ and regrets the need for artificial ways of dealing with the loss of contentment that it brought; science sees in this same development the earliest stirrings of a more scientific approach and rejoices in the dawning of a richer understanding of life. They both have a point.
                The scientific approach was honed over the centuries into what we call scientific method – the process by which explanations for a particular phenomenon are formulated as hypotheses, which are then successively tested until we arrive at a theory that we haven’t found a way of disproving. These theories are practically certain explanations of the phenomena around us, and we rely on them both to predict future discoveries and events, and to guide our actions to get what we want. Among the hypotheses that have been formulated is the idea that a supernatural supreme being – ‘God’ – is directing the phenomena, but this is impossible to test, not least because, as Laplace famously told Napoleon, we can explain the phenomena around us without recourse to such a hypothesis; it may or may not be true, but we can’t know, and in any case for the purpose of explaining phenomena it doesn’t matter. Consequently, the idea that God exists is a hypothesis that cannot become a theory. It is not the kind of idea that classical scientific method can do much with.
                But classical scientific method struggles with something else. Many hypotheses cannot be rigorously tested, maybe because the variables cannot be properly isolated, or because it is impossible to carry out the necessary experiments; meteorology and economics present familiar examples of these difficulties, as does astronomy. Untestable hypotheses cannot grow into theories. Yet we still want to have sufficient understanding of the phenomena for us to be able to use them for our own ends or manage their impact on us. So we formulate, not theories, but models. Scientific models are quite distinct from theories built upon hypotheses: we know we can’t say they are exhaustively accurate; we understand that they are tools for our thinking rather than exhaustive explanations of reality; we accept that for different purposes incompatible models may be needed. Theologians will no doubt find these limitations on scientific models somewhat familiar. After all, they have long acknowledged that the divine is finally beyond our understanding, and that while the language we use to speak of God may assist our thinking it cannot fully express the reality of divinity; they have also had to find ways of expressing the awkward insight that the one God of monotheism has to be spoken of as relating to us in apparently ill-assorted ways, as, for example, loving saviour, righteous judge and first cause.  
                Religious people, as distinct from theologians perhaps, will be quick to point out that they experience their God as a personal god not as an abstract model. Abstract models in meteorology or economics do not alter the very personal experience of being soaked in a downpour or losing your job. You would not make much of a meteorologist or economist if you forgot why your subject mattered to people. Nor would you make much of a theologian if you forgot that the point of religion is not so much to plumb and explain the deep mysteries of the universe as to enable and encourage people to live richly in their personal lives, to be, in the term used in the Beatitudes, makarios – blessed, happy. That is the great purpose of formulating and developing religious models. That ‘… and developing’ is important. Religious people seem to have a greater tendency than do scientists to feel unable to develop and finally let go of models that experience has shown to be less helpful than newer ones. It is a tendency born of fear; it lacks the boldness of, say, an Abraham or Ezekiel or Jesus or Paul – or indeed a Gautama, a Muhammad or a Gandhi.
                This is not a call for religious people to be more sophisticated.  On the contrary: religion, particularly Christianity, has got far too sophisticated over the centuries. It is a call rather to be less sophisticated, to accept our models and rituals and music and sacraments as what they are, and nothing more: means of helping ourselves and others to make the most of our human life, overcoming its inevitable setbacks and enjoying its richest potentialities. The fact that the resources – the support, the guidance, the understanding – that we need to be able to do this are unseen, unconstrained and finally incomprehensible to us does not make them any less real or valuable. When scientists remind us of all this, they are not combating religion; they are recalling it to its central essential purpose, and for that we should be grateful to them; it will help us take our religion seriously, but not too seriously.


Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 1 Jn 4 v7

To say ‘I love you’ seriously in any circumstance is among the most significant things we can ever do; it can have huge and long lasting implications for both the ‘I’ and the ‘you’, whatever happens next. It’s not the kind of thing anyone should want to say insincerely, or thoughtlessly, or out of obedience to convention, or against their better judgement. So it’s a good idea to be as clear as we can be about what it means. Unlike ancient Greek, English doesn’t distinguish different sorts of love: lovers ‘love’ each other, parents ‘love’ their children, friends ‘love’ each other; God is said to ‘love’ us. Always the same word: love. The fact that English has a bigger vocabulary than any other language suggests that this isn’t an accident; it suggests that maybe there is something similar at the core of all these loves that perhaps the Greeks overlooked in their desire for unambiguous definitions. At its most basic level, ‘I love you’ conveys a speculation: ‘I being I and you being you, I sense that we could do wonderful things together’; in the light of that speculation it offers an invitation: ‘I’d like you join me in enjoying doing those wonderful things.’ The first thing to notice is that love is personal; it’s about you as you and me as me. That means that to love someone you need to have a reasonably clear understanding of who you are yourself – your strengths and limitations, hopes and fears, expectations and blind spots, values and hang-ups, sexuality and status; that’s one reason why love is for grown-ups. You also need some idea about these aspects of the person you may be about to tell that you love them; at the very least you need to understand that he or she has all these aspects, just as you do. You can’t love humanity in the mass; you can only love individuals.
If you love someone, you will take time and make efforts both to build your relationship with that person and to work on your shared activities – those ‘wonderful things’ you could do together. But it’s important not to think of these contributions as fulfilling the demands of the other person; if you make that mistake, you will resent making them, and your resentment will communicate itself and rot the foundations of love. They must rather be freely given – and that ‘must’ is a logical not a moral ‘must’. Similarly, the contributions the other person makes must not be thought of by you as some kind of quid-pro-quo for your contributions. As the Jesus teaching points out, life in everyday society can be successfully managed only through a common sense of reciprocity, of give-and-take, forgiving as we ask to be forgiven. Love takes this a stage further, because it envisages doing wonderful things with a particular person, not just rubbing along with the people you happen to come across. For reciprocity to work, both sides have to know about it; one of the characteristics of love is that it sometimes makes us want to do things for the other person that they will never know about, and it may be that it’s when we find ourselves doing such never-to-be-known-about things that we discover that, yes, it really is love.
Love is about doing wonderful things together, but it’s not about achieving wonderful things. It is the ‘doing together’ that makes it love, not any ‘achieving’ that may or may not be the result. Take the most obvious use of ‘I love you’, said between a man and a woman: the wonderful things they will no doubt do together include sex; if that sex produces children that’s a wonderful added extra. And if they do have children, the possibility of a further wonderful thing to do together opens up, the wonderful shared activity of bringing up members of the next generation; if what those young people do with their lives is itself wonderful, that’s a wonderful added extra. Of course some people do marry in order to have children, and they do their best for those children in order to see them grow into successful adults. Love however never does anything in order to achieve something wonderful; love does what it does because doing that is itself wonderful. And when people get together in order to achieve something beyond their relationship, there is the rather unsettling question of what happens if they don’t achieve what they set out to achieve, or indeed after they have achieved it.
The reason that question is unsettling is that we humans are not principally satisfied by achievements; we are not made that way, because for tens of millennia, our fully modern human ancestors ‘achieved’ practically nothing: no ‘progress’, no ‘development’, no ‘improvement’ – or at any rate, none that any individual would have noticed. We like them are evolved to enjoy principally our relationships with each other.  We often, quite rightly, contrast love with law as a guide for life, but love also contrasts with being results-oriented. What both law and being results-oriented have in common is that they are consciously controlled activities: we consciously write laws and consciously obey them, or we consciously stipulate our goals and consciously work out how to attain them. They are activities we feel we can do without having much awareness of anything beyond our conscious selves. Love calls for a great deal more self knowledge, or at least self awareness, including awareness of the resources we have access to that are not under our conscious control. And one word that can be used for such resources is ‘God’.
Can anyone really promise to love someone else ‘till death us do part’, rather as they might promise to pay back a loan over the course of a lifetime? No, because loving someone is not a contract. But because we are made the way we are, long term relationships give us immense satisfaction, richer and deeper than either our achievements or any relatively short-term relationships. If sticking to the letter of a contract is not the way to make relationships last, we need some other more effective glue. There can be no more effective glue between people than the recollection of an ever-growing number of wonderful things done together. No surprise then that some of those wonderful things are called ‘making love’.


The flood continued forty days upon the earth. … and all flesh died that moved upon the earth. … Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. Genesis 1 vv17-23

You might almost worry about the independence of science from the religious tradition of the Old Testament. Not only does the creation myth in the first chapter of Genesis foreshadow our modern understanding of the beginnings of the universe and of the development life on earth, but the story of Noah and the Flood seems to point towards our modern understanding of mass extinctions. We now know that in the long history of life on earth vast numbers, not only of individual creatures, but of whole species and genera have repeatedly been wiped out through natural events that have overwhelmed them. In each case the catastrophic effects of the natural disasters wore off and left the earth a different kind of place from what it had been before; many kinds of animals and plants disappeared but life survived, including of course our own ancestors. As a matter of scientific fact, counting the numbers of species that become extinct each year, we seem to be living through a rapid mass extinction at present, and uniquely in this case it’s one that a single particular species – us – has initiated through its conscious, intelligent actions. You and I cannot know whether homo sapiens will go the way of the land-based dinosaurs that were wiped out in the previous mass extinction, or will instead survive, albeit in smaller numbers – saved, you might say, though some miraculous-seeming intervention like Noah’s Ark.
                It is truly astonishing that the people of the ancient world produced what appear to be mythologised accounts of mass extinctions, such as the story of Noah. They could have had no conscious knowledge of the various mass extinctions that recent scientific discoveries have revealed to us; even the most recent large-scale reduction of the human population that occurred when the Toba volcano erupted about 70,000 years ago probably happened before language had developed sufficiently to pass on a memory of that event in the form of stories. The idea is not one that would be likely to arise through speculation. Pure chance? Maybe, but then there is also the ‘pure chance’ that put equally astonishingly suggestive ideas into Genesis chapter 1. It’s tempting to wonder whether somewhere in our minds, out of reach of consciousness, we retain some kind of ‘memory’ of these things, and perhaps have a similar kind of ‘knowledge’ about a great deal else that we’re not consciously aware of. When such ideas bubble up, perhaps in a dream or in a work of art, and strike a chord with our conscious selves, we might speak of ‘inspiration’; earlier generations might have been prepared to call the inspiration ‘divine’ and to attribute it to ‘God’.
                In one particular respect, the story of the Flood as told in Genesis is quite unlike the mass extinctions, except perhaps the present one. It is seen as a punishment for, or, we might say, a direct outcome of, human action – ‘sin’ is what Genesis calls it. Two primitive ideas coalesce here. First, there is the feeling like the one children have when they believe that they are personally responsible for what happens around them; for example, they often feel that if their parents divorce, it is because of something bad they have done. Second, there’s the difficulty early people had in accepting that anything significant could happen without someone intending it, and since the Hebrews did not believe in a malicious deity, they had to suppose that the Flood had been divinely intended for some good and rational purpose, punishment for example. It was a long time after the Genesis stories were written down that Jesus of Nazareth pointed out that natural calamities and genuine accidents, like towers falling down and crushing people, just do happen without any unseen power causing them in order to punish people.
                That said, the current mass extinction is not principally a natural calamity or a genuine accident. Our crazily burgeoning population and our extraordinary wastefulness are what underlie it, and you’d think that both of these are in our collective human power to control. But we actually do very little to control them and tend rather to hope the problem will not really arise, just as, in the Flood myth, the people mocked Noah’s caution and carried on ‘sinning’. Perhaps we’re meant to imagine that Noah’s fellow-citizens only realised their mistake when the rains came and didn’t stop; and perhaps our successors here will have the same dismal experience of realising that it’s too late to avert the catastrophe. You might think that’s no reason for us to be troubled by the current mass extinction; after all, it’s most unlikely that any of us will personally witness its climax. The dinosaurs didn’t understand what was going on in their mass extinction event, and in any case could have done nothing about it. By contrast, we are conscious of what’s going on, and it troubles the best of us to think of a world whose development is being decisively and catastrophically transformed by us behaving as if we lacked the consciousness and intelligence that distinguishes us from other animals. It may turn out that we have enough consciousness and intelligence to get ourselves into serious difficulties but, tragically for our species, not enough to get us out again. And notice that when the people have failed to deal with their ‘sinning’, the Flood myth suggests that it will be dealt with by a force of nature. You don’t really need to posit a punishing god-out-there to understand that a sustainable equilibrium must somehow be restored.
                The Flood story ends with the rescued remnant of life coming through the crisis thanks to the insight and effort of Noah, and being promised that no such thing would ever happen again. We need something of that optimism, provided it doesn’t turn into the insouciant optimism of human-imitating-dinosaur that says there’s nothing much to worry about, and even if there is there’s nothing we can do about it, so we should just carry on as we are. The kind of optimism we need is Noah’s kind, the grounded optimism of a man who recognises what’s going on, who can see what needs to be done to tackle if not avert the coming catastrophe, and who gets on and does it, in the face of criticism and mockery.


And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed and said, ‘Lord, … show us which one of these two thou hast chosen.’ … And they cost lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias. Acts 1 vv21-26

I wonder how Justus felt when the lot fell on Matthias. Disappointed maybe, rejected perhaps – or just relieved? Maybe others felt he would have been more suitable than Matthias. At any rate, it didn’t take the church very long to abandon this method of election. Imagine if the Catholic Church simply drew lots to elect a new pope from among the cardinals; it might make for some interestingly unpredictable appointments. But of course they don’t make decisions in that way, and neither do the rest of us. I think the main reason for that is that we understand that as ‘Fallen’ humanity we cannot abdicate our responsibility to make choices as best we can, informed by our knowledge of good and evil – even if we don’t always make objectively wise choices. Ever since what Genesis mythologises as the ‘Fall’, we have been embarked on a course on which we cannot comfortably leave important matters to chance if they are within our control. There are of course many things which are either not important or not under our control, and we needn’t fret too much about them. But our problem is that our ‘Fallen’ consciousness and intelligence keeps bringing more and more important things under our control, and sometimes we struggle to feel able to deal as responsibly as we’d like with the consequences of having attained our new powers. And then we like the irresponsible luxury of leaving things to chance.
                Or, as religious folk might put it, to God, and more specifically to a god-out-there. In drawing lots to select a successor to Judas Iscariot, the early church was behaving a way that was very much of-a-piece with other first century religious practices designed to relieve people of the responsibly of deciding what to do. They believed that God would ensure that the right man was chosen for the job by, so to speak, manipulating the straws. I don’t think any church people would believe this now, because if they did, they’d surely continue with this apparently foolproof selection system, which they don’t. And they don’t, I think, because they do not believe that God operates like this. They may even believe that to attribute to God a power and a willingness to act in this way is to misunderstand what ‘God’ means, where ‘God’ is located and how ‘God’ acts. Perhaps, maybe without being fully aware of it, they have come to believe that ‘God’ is not an ‘out-there’ God but a God who animates our better selves and can be appealed to to assist with decision-making without relieving our conscious selves of the need to take our decisions seriously and to accept responsibility for them.
                Our problem with responsible decision making shows up acutely with some issues in particular. Birth control has long been one. From the beginnings of agriculture until about a hundred years ago, human society needed as many babies as could be produced because many, sometimes most, babies died before adulthood, and each older generation as it aged needed a larger younger generation to support it. The religious prohibition on birth control was understandable in such a setting. Thanks to our medical and technological ingenuity, conditions have now been transformed, but some religious teaching hasn’t adjusted itself; it still advises the faithful to leave conception to chance – or, as they would put it, to God. Our ‘Fallen’ powers of intelligence and consciousness have given us a problem, but some people of a religious cast of mind feel uncomfortable using that same consciousness and intelligence to deal with the problem thus created. This strikes me as dishonest: if you really want to abdicate responsibility, you’d surely want to be consistent and stop using your intelligence altogether. We can’t do that of course, and so most people now accept that ingenious birth control is an appropriate way of dealing with the problem of population that we have created through our ingenuity.
                Birth control appears now to be a relatively easy case; the argument has been had and is largely won. There is however a matter that is becoming an even more acutely difficult issue for our sense of responsibility: call it ‘death control’. I suspect quite a few of us  have witnessed the long, slow decline of someone we have grown to love and respect, from the active, engaged, self-aware person we knew, into the mere husk of that person, bereft of reason, of interest, of the ability to interact meaningfully. Those who are left have ‘lost’ the person they loved, but cannot mourn as they would a death. There is no disguising the horror of this increasingly common situation. And why is it increasingly common?  Because we have got better and better at defeating the diseases and infections that until recently used to carry most of us off not so very long after the prime of our lives was past. I’m pleased we have: too often those diseases and infections carried off happy, active, engaged people, whatever their age. But we have as yet no answer to the question, ‘If not from this or that defeated disease or infection, what are we supposed to die from, and at what point in our lives?’ I can’t answer that question either, but I’m sure it has to be asked, and sure too that we are going to have to find an answer that we can be responsible for, just as we are responsible for the medical progress that has made it such a pressing question. Just now, we are at the stage of being uncomfortable with leaving death control to chance, or God, even as we seize almost every opportunity to lengthen life. That we cannot finally be satisfied with that is one of the unavoidable consequences of the ‘Fall’.
                Dealing with the problems raised by steps we have taken as a result of our ‘Fallen’ consciousness and intelligence has been a characteristic of human development. The early Old Testament repeatedly records worries about the consequences of developments we now take for granted because we have ways of managing their downsides. But finding those ways was neither easy nor straightforward. Controversy was, and will surely always be, part of the process, because it is through controversy, and experiment too, that we come to understand where ‘God’ is leading us.


What man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? … If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him. Matthew 7 vv 9-11

This is one of those gospel sayings of Jesus that it is easy and comfortable to spiritualise so that it offers no challenge to us as we live our lives in the world. The process of spiritualisation is even visible in the New Testament: where Matthew has God giving ‘good gifts’, Luke’s version (ch.11 vv19-13) has him giving the Holy Spirit. We need to reverse this neutralising trend and try to go back even beyond Matthew to what Jesus might have been getting at as he tried to help people improve their lives.
Ever since the agricultural revolution about 12,000 years ago, the most important determinant of your position in an increasingly complex society has been your parents’ social standing. It’s really not very much different now: social mobility is still quite limited; it’s relatively widespread only in unusual social circumstances; and it’s seen as desirable, if at all, only in one direction. This isn’t surprising. People generally have two inclinations when it comes to social organisation: while they want it to be ‘fair’, they also want to do well not only for themselves but also crucially for their own children. There’s an obvious tension here. No parent intends that in the interests of fairness their own children should be poorer, or less powerful, or of lower social status than themselves; you don’t pay for your kid to go to Eton to give him the opportunity of becoming a bus driver. If you are a poor or powerless parent, your demands for ‘fairness’ may be as much driven by considerations of heredity as are the demands of rich and powerful parents that their children should inherit their wealth and social position. People who have no children, whatever their wealth or social position, may find it easier to espouse fairness at least in the long term because they have no heredity to worry about. This is the very stuff of politics, of course, and you can often characterise political parties in terms of their wish to conserve the social order pretty much as it is, or their demand for the better treatment of their down-trodden supporters and their children, or their impartial idealism about fairness.
Religion is equivocal about all this. On the one hand, it sanctifies existing social stratification; the Hindu caste system and the coronation of hereditary monarchs come to mind. It may preach that true contentment has nothing to do with your place in society, so you can be content with the lot that society has laid upon you. Sometimes it has discouraged social revolution partly because revolutions tend to be violent, and violence is discomforting to most religious outlooks. On the other hand, there has long been a positively equalitarian, levelling streak in religion; it’s there in Old Testament prophecy and in Islam, and here in England both the Civil War Parliamentarians and the later Labour Movement were the offspring of religious nonconformity. To some extent religion may have simply been enlisted by opposing political factions, but I don’t think that’s the whole story; there are sincere religious, and indeed Christian, convictions on all sides of the political debate. This is worrying. If religious and specifically Christian people have deeply held, religiously-informed convictions about politics, but those convictions will support almost any political position, that wouldn’t seem to say much for the quality of the religion that informs the politics.
It’s hard to expect a parent to do anything less than as much as they possibly can to advance their child’s interests, not least because to do so is to go against the evolutionary grain. Some political revolutionaries have attributed their political aims to religious inspiration, yet often when such religiously inspired political revolutionaries gain power, they find they want to hand it on to their children, just as their ousted predecessors did; the example of Oliver Cromwell comes to mind as once among many. In theory, religion may possibly put God on the side of the poor and dispossessed, but when it comes to practice, that doesn’t cut very much ice; it seems that heredity always trumps fairness when heredity is available. Perhaps that was one creditable reason why the powerful medieval western church insisted on clerical celibacy. In a world of widespread dynastic violence, clever and ambitious people born outside the ruling class – Thomas Becket, for example – could rise to wealth and power only provided they had no children to whom they could pass on their new-found social status.
One characteristic of heresy is that it gives too great a prominence to some particular religious idea and too little to others, and it may be that the problem here is of that kind. Maybe religion asks us to give full political weight to several different ideas, a balancing act that is only possible to the extent that all the relevant ideas are honoured. To ask socially well-placed parents to allow the clever, ambitious children of their social inferiors to overtake their own children is going to be a lot easier if socially inferior roles are properly respected and paid; to claim that money isn’t everything is going to be a lot easier if the disparity between rich and poor is narrower than it will be if left to itself; to resist violent revolution is going to be a lot easier if social structures offer other avenues for redressing grievances. And close to the heart of all this is the Jesus conviction that just as human parents want the best for all their children, so in the God-as-Father theology the concept of all human beings being radically equally the ‘children of God’ implies an urge towards more equal treatment in society. If as a religiously-informed parent you treat, or allow society to treat, a child that is not yours in a way you would not accept for your own child, the Jesus teaching challenges you to ask yourself how you would justify that in terms of your religious convictions. No-one should imagine that there are easy or comfortable responses to that challenge.


On the same day Jesus saw a man performing a work on the Sabbath. Then he said to him, ‘Man! If you know what you are doing, you are blessed. But if you do not know, you are cursed, and a transgressor of the law.Luke 6, 5 (a unique reading in Codex D)

Today’s text is curiously familiar, yet unfamiliar – familiar because we’re used to hearing stories of Jesus in which he casts doubt on the importance of keeping ritual rules like not labouring on the Sabbath, unfamiliar because we can’t quite place this one. In fact, it is one of the few stories of Jesus that are entirely plausible yet are not found in the canonical gospels. It comes from just one fifth century manuscript of Luke’s gospel, Codex D, now in Cambridge. No-one knows how it came to be there, and only there. Had it been handed down orally for over three hundred years? Was it the creation of a preacher who wanted to make an important point that wasn’t quite clear enough in the canonical gospels? But maybe what matters is not how this saying came to be in Codex D but what it prompts us to learn.
                Here is a man who is clearly doing something that the Jewish law forbade. Right-thinking, religious Jews would have condemned him for this, just as right-thinking Christians have often condemned those who disobey the church’s rules. Jesus does not do this, but neither does he say that what the man is doing is obviously OK. He says that whether or not it is OK depends on the man’s understanding of what he is doing. This cannot be judged from outside; only the man himself can be certain as to whether he believes that what he’s doing is right, for him, now. This development is of massive significance, because it undermines the ability of any external agency to judge the moral value of an act. An external agency might of course decide that the act, whatever the motive behind it, must be punished – what lawyers call ‘strict liability’, the kind of law enshrined in the very earliest law codes. Maybe the reason this saying is not found elsewhere is that the early church found this development deeply disturbing; if it were to be accepted, the church could not say with any finality, ‘Thou shalt not ...’ but could instead only ask, ‘What’s your motive for doing that?’ It is a mark of the maturity of our modern legal system, and also of its having been influenced by the thrust of the Jesus teaching, that our courts seek to discover not only whether the accused did what has been alleged but also, crucially, why.
                Jesus, we know, did do on the Sabbath day what was regarded as ‘work’. Neither that fact nor today’s text tell us whether he thought that Sabbath observance was generally a good idea, though we also know from his famous saying, ‘The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath’ that he would have made that judgement on the basis of its human utility. But today’s text is not concerned with whether or not the rule about Sabbath observance is a good one; it is about the fact that it is a rule, and this man is breaking this rule when it might be assumed that it applied to him.
                Jesus expressed doubts about the wisdom of doing what the rules said you should simply because the rules said so. But the problem with rules is that they can make us unfree whether or not we obey them. You’re obviously not free if you simply obey the rules. But it should be equally obvious that you’re not free of the dominion of rules if you simply disobey them – if, that is, you decide to break the rules exactly because they are the rules. In that case, as in the first, what you do is being driven by the rules, one way or the other; in neither case are you behaving autonomously. It’s this understanding that our text makes crystal clear. If this man working on the Sabbath really understands what he is doing and is doing it because he knows it’s right for him to do it, he is ‘blessed’, and, we might want to add, free. If on the other hand he’s just being bolshie, breaking rules for the sake of breaking rules, that is not commendable; he’s just a ‘transgressor of the law’; he is not free.
                In Christian history there have been groups who have believed that all rules should be abolished, or at least that rules didn’t apply to them. The Jesus of our text doesn’t appear to have been such an antinomian. It’s not that the rules don’t have some utility – some of them at any rate; it’s that any utility they may have as wise guidance is lost when they become rigid rules that people feel they must keep at all costs. It’s one thing to accept traditional guidance when you have neither the time nor the inclination to think things through for yourself and want to behave in a way that has generally been found to be both safe and defensible. But it’s something quite else to think that traditional guidance is unchallengeable, or that it must always unfailingly take precedence over our own intuitions, however deeply felt or carefully thought through.
I think that something further may be implied in this story. Change is an unavoidable part of life at every level. Consequently, it’s unrealistic to think we can go on forever obeying the same old laws and conventions. And maybe the way laws and conventions are best developed is by serious people thinking seriously about whether and when to follow the traditional guidance, and whether and when to try something that the traditional guidance forbids. Of course, such explorations sometimes turn out badly. I don’t think that the Jesus teaching would call such disasters ‘the judgement of God’; that wasn’t how Jesus thought of God. But because there is this risk, it takes a certain kind of courage to act on a sincere belief that some traditional constraint does not apply to the situation you are in, either for reasons you understand or because you have a deep intuition about the matter. That courage is an aspect of what we call ‘faith’, and I hope it was possessed by the man Jesus encountered working on the Sabbath day.


Jesus … said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!’ They were amazed that he should say this, but he insisted, ‘… It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ Mark 10 v25

Public prayers can be very revealing of the values really held by those who lead them. Among the groups regularly prayed for, along with the sick, are the poor. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s odd that another particular group never gets prayed for: the very rich people in our society. Yet you’d think that the very rich needed at least as much praying for as the poor; after all, Jesus himself observes the potential blessedness of poor people, but he’s scathing about the rich: it’s easier, he says, for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for rich people to attain the Kingdom of God, his term for the state of blessedness. This week-by-week failure has serious implications, not least because it conditions us to think that while we would want to avoid being poor, being very rich would be fine and might perhaps be aspired to. Of course, there’s nothing to be said in favour of real poverty, but perhaps it’s not much more undesirable than huge wealth. Let me be clear: I am not talking here about the damaging effect of great wealth on those who don’t have it. Real relative poverty is corrosive in itself and the envy it provokes only makes it worse; as a society we need to encourage the relief of poverty because we have compassion for the poor. No: I am talking about the damaging effect of great relative wealth on those who do have it; perhaps as a society we need to encourage the relief of wealth at least partly because we have compassion for the very wealthy.
                While religion has long exhorted society to be generous or at least fair towards its poorest members, it has often had rather less to say about the dangers of wealth to the wealthy. But this concern too is deeply embedded in the tradition, as the eye-of-a-needle saying demonstrates. We can now explain this concern better than once we could. For one thing, we understand that beyond a certain point more and more wealth does not make people commensurately more and more happy; we say that wealth has a declining marginal utility. As Jesus’s story of the widow and her mite suggests, we can see that the pound in the plutocrat’s bank account is much less valuable than the same pound would be in the pauper’s pocket. For another, we have had plenty of evidence that when great wealth is inherited as distinct from being earned, the heir has little sense of its value and cannot imagine what it is like to be – not even poor: just an ordinary middle-income person. That’s just one way great wealth can sap the ability to be compassionate; hence perhaps Jesus’s advice to the rich young ruler[1] to give away his wealth, and his inability to do so. We also know that for those who didn’t inherit it, amassing great wealth demands at the very least single-minded pursuit of it and at the worst utter ruthlessness towards other people; neither leaves much room for the cultivation of good relationships or any other lastingly satisfying human activities. Jesus’s story of the rich man who dies before he can enjoy his wealth[2] seems to make the point. It can be even worse: great wealth tends to make its possessor see other people as objects to be bought with cash, not as fellows to be won by love or persuaded by debate; and even when in fact love and debate are present, the very rich can’t be certain that what binds others to them is not simply their money. That’s how great wealth corrodes human relationships.
                All this we know, but we find it hard to take seriously. To say you are wary of the dangers of great wealth can easily sound like a case of sour grapes: since you couldn’t reach the grapes when you tried, you claim you never wanted them in the first place because you knew they were sour. It is naturally much more convincing when people who certainly could reach the grapes, and indeed enjoyed a good many of them, realise the limitations and dangers of great wealth, and begin to give it up. And some of them do. It takes great inner courage to do this, because the pursuit of wealth is deeply ingrained not only in us as individuals but also in our society’s value system: whatever it claims, there’s plenty of evidence that our society tends to value people by their wealth rather than by other, better, measures of human worth. But even in giving wealth away there is a moral risk: how can you or anyone else be sure that in doing so you are not buying worldly popularity and power, or, if you believe in an afterlife, the reward of eternal bliss?
                It’s not just individuals who are corrupted by great wealth; so are nations. The truth is that great wealth and great poverty are, for individuals and for whole societies, burdens that we would all be better off without. That does not mean that there should be no disparity of income at all, but it does mean that we need to take steps to ensure that those disparities do not grow exponentially, as they tend to if unchecked. The Old Testament provides mechanisms to prevent this happening: pawned tools and clothes had to be given back, slaves had to be freed and land returned after a set period, the charging of interest was forbidden, and so on. Our inheritance, income and capital gains taxes continue this ancient and wise tradition. But we need always to be vigilant: money has a way of beguiling its possessors into finding, and even justifying, ways round such safeguards, now no less than in ancient times.
                So let me suggest that we begin routinely to use in our intercessions some such prayer as this: ‘We pray for the very wealthy in our society. We pray that they may come to see that great and growing wealth brings relatively little happiness, compromises human relationships, and takes attention away from what is truly enriching in life. We pray that they will find courage to forsake the pursuit of great wealth. We pray also that they will be able to dispose of their excess wealth in ways of that will bring relief and joy both to them and to others.’ I would certainly say ‘Amen’ to that.

[1] Lk 18:18-23
[2] Lk 12:20