Preached by Revd David Walsh on 25th September 2016
Amos 6.1a, 4 – 7, Luke 16.19-end
A vicar friend of mine has a son, who, much to his embarrassment, is constantly getting into trouble at the school attached to my friend’s church. The teachers at the school drip-feed my friend with stories of the latest misdemeanour his son has committed or the completely unacceptable things he has said.
When this boy was nine, one teacher couldn’t wait to update his father on the latest episode. In an attempt to influence the boy’s behaviour, the nine-year-old had been given a punishment, intended to deter him from even considering such an action again. The nine-year-old just looked at the teacher and said: ‘That’s the stick. Where’s the carrot?’
When I first saw the readings selected years ago by the Church of England for this Sunday, the Sunday we are inviting people back to church, I realised they weren’t the readings I would have selected for such an occasion. The Bible is full of stories of welcome, embrace and acceptance. Instead today we get ominous warnings. An Old Testament prophet rails against those who bask in luxury whilst around them a society is being ruined. Far from being immune from what is happening to their country, says the prophet, they will be the first to suffer when the nation finally collapses. In our second reading from Luke’s Gospel, agony and torment are pictured as the consequence of decisions taken by a rich man whilst he was alive.
Exile, agony, torment. I can well imagine you thinking ‘That’s the stick. Where’s the carrot?’
These stories are of course set in societies very different from ours, a long time ago. For most of my life I’ve found it hard to identify with them. And yet in recent years I’ve found it easier, as our societies have once again become more unequal, as a whole new class has emerged, a new breed of plutocrats, the extraordinarily rich.
And of course some of these fabulously wealthy people are doing fabulous things with their money. Just this week Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, announced a donation of $3 billion to try to eradicate many diseases by the end of the century. Zuckerberg joins Bill Gates, who has been fighting against malaria for some years now.
It’s easy to be sceptical about rich people making gestures like this. But for me their actions throw a spotlight even more clearly on the behaviour of the seriously wealthy who don’t even bother pretending they are generous and responsible with their wealth.
And so these difficult stories from the Bible begin to make more sense to me. Some of the imagery is troubling. But underlying these stories is an insistence that – despite appearances – justice matters, is built into the very fabric of the universe.
There is a psalm many of you won’t have heard, but which, as a priest, I say at Morning Prayer several times a year. I used to struggle identifying with the sentiments in the psalm.
And then I found myself living in Kensington at a time of unrivalled affluence, of tax avoidance and then financial meltdown. And suddenly these words from Psalm 73 came alive in a new way:
‘I was envious of the proud
I saw the wicked in such prosperity;
For they suffer no pains
and their bodies are sleek and sound
They come to no misfortune like other folk
nor are they plagued as others are
And so the people turn to them
and find in them no fault.
Then thought I to understand this
but it was too hard for me
until I entered the sanctuary of God
and understood the end of the wicked
How you set them in slippery places
you cast them down to destruction.’
If this is simply about finding pleasure in the misfortunes of others who had it coming to them, I’m not interested. But if these stories are trying to say that – despite appearances – there is a moral order built into the fabric of the universe and that in the end good will have its day, then I’m intrigued and interested. I would like all that to be true. That’s what faith is. Wanting it to be true. Deciding to behave as if it were true.
It would be easy and comfortable in the religious life to steer away from the demand for justice. But that can lead to a facile spirituality, self-absorbed, caring little for so much that is wrong in our world. It simply doesn’t take account of the whole of our experience, fails to take on board life’s cruelties.
It doesn’t reflect the way most of us want to bring up our children. Yes, we want them to be happy, want them to be healthy, want them to succeed in education, in work. But most of us want also for them to nurture their moral compass.
For many people this is what religion is all about, precisely what religion is all about. And yet this is no more than a starting point. For if life without a moral compass is vacuous, life with nothing but a moral compass is harsh and rigid. Those of us who are Christians follow a man who desired not only justice but also mercy. Justice and mercy.
Justice and mercy are both necessary aspects of the spiritual life and so of any life well lived. Justice without mercy would be unbearable, a kind of North Korea of the soul, in which life is always a march, never a dance.
If you want to see judgment without mercy, pick up a tabloid newspaper, where even getting the judgments right in the first place often fails to matter. If you want to see judgment without mercy, think of the judgments we sometimes make about ourselves: our low opinions of ourselves, our habitual expectation of criticism, often taken in at a young age and yet as we grow older surprisingly resilient as an inner voice.
We are not short of judgment in this world. What God offers us is honest judgment so that we might know who we truly are: a mirror which doesn’t distort.
And then he offers us mercy.