Monday, 29 April 2013


Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.  Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’  In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.  Matthew 18 v32-34
We’re accustomed to thinking of Jesus in two ways: as the Son of God and Saviour of the world of St Paul’s Christian religion, and as the source of some stories and sayings that memorably encapsulate a few desirable moral principles. We rarely think of him as a thinker, someone who through those stories and sayings worked out and expressed a coherent approach to important aspects of life. Of course, he wasn’t a philosophical ‘thinker’ in the tradition of Socrates as recorded by Plato – though it’s intriguing to wonder in passing how things would have panned out had Jesus’s ideas been collected by a Plato rather than by people who were committed to the view of Jesus in Pauline Christianity. Nevertheless it’s worth trying to see what coherent structure underlies what he had to say, because his stories and sayings are not just well-meaning but isolated nuggets. They hang together around a number of themes, one of which is social philosophy. Jesus was a keen observer of how life in society could work to make people happy, and he clearly wanted to encourage and enable more people to live happily and in so doing make for a happier society. 
                His starting point is the observation that people generally treat well those who have treated them well. As he acknowledges, there’s no credit in this; it just makes sense to behave in this way. Still, he wants to encourage this behaviour, and the Good Samaritan story is one place he does this: as the story stands in the gospel, it answers the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’ by saying that your neighbour is the person who does well by you, and who therefore deserves to be well treated by you as your neighbour.  There’s no special reward for such reciprocal behaviour, but equally there’s no need to spell out why it makes sense or to imply some kind of punishment for not behaving in this way, because if you don’t, people will soon enough stop doing well by you.
                By contrast, Jesus does speak of punishment in connection with a different, more indirect, kind of reciprocity, one which is not so obviously self-interested. A world where people did well only to those who has done well by them would be composed of many overlapping but closed relationships. Jesus noticed a pattern of behaviour that anyone can notice for themselves on London streets: if someone is graciously allowed into the stream of traffic from a side road, they very frequently go on to let someone else in from a side road when they have the opportunity. Such behaviour is very much to be encouraged because through it kindnesses are not just exchanged between people but are passed on through society: A helps B, who in turn helps C, and so on. Of course individuals can opt out of this without suffering any disbenefit, or at least none that is specific to them; when B fails to help C, he has already enjoyed the benefit of A’s help, and it can’t be taken away. Jesus’s story of the Unforgiving Servant, about a man in B’s position who is punished by A for not dealing with C as generously as A had dealt with him, clearly makes the point that B’s behaviour is reprehensible; it prevents kindnesses from spreading though society. What’s more, it has the added social risk that A will be discouraged from dealing generously with D and E and F when he comes across them in need. In other words, B’s behaviour is dangerously corrosive of social bonds, and so deserves punishment.
                So kindnesses should be reciprocated because that makes sense, and passed through society because we have a duty to do that. But where does the chain of kindnesses begin? At the origin of the chain, someone has to freely do something gracious; someone has offer to go the extra mile or give the second coat, as Jesus puts it. This does not automatically attract a reward: you can’t be sure the person you help will reciprocate, however sensible it would be for them to do so. Or rather, says Jesus, it attracts a reward that does not depend on the reciprocity of the person you freely helped. ‘Your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you’ is a striking way of saying what Jesus says less metaphorically in the Beatitudes: people who often graciously do good things for the people they meet are makarios, ‘happy’ or ‘blessed’. Many people grow up understanding this because they are surrounded by people who demonstrate the joy of gracious generosity, and it is relatively easy for them to follow their happy example. People who as children were not offered such examples, or whose subsequent experience whether of poverty or wealth has stunted any generous impulses they once had, are less likely to start off chains of kindnesses. Yet even they may dare to try an experiment to test the truth that generosity is its own reward; to do so takes a particular kind of faith.
                It’s easy to convert the wise guidance that being generous is its own reward into a rule that requires that no beggar ever be refused, no appeal ever go unanswered, no victim ever be passed by on the other side. This is to misunderstand the nature of generosity and graciousness; even if we were ever to find ourselves always unfailingly behaving generously, it is only if we are sure that we are doing so because we feel a genuine internal urge to do so and not because of any external pressure that our acts can be gracious. Maybe it’s necessary for us to ignore appeals sometimes, if only to reassure ourselves that we haven’t fallen into the trap of turning generosity into a rule, thus robbing it of its graciousness and ourselves of the joy of being gracious.

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