Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on Sunday, 15th March 2009
A Day of Prayer for our Nation
“Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple” John 2: 15
The numbers with which we are confronted are overwhelming—the loans made by Anglo Irish Bank; the money going into AIB and Bank of Ireland; the government deficit this year; the money that the government is trying to recover in the emergency budget—it has now reached the point where any number less than a billion seems small. In the midst of the overwhelming numbers, there is a danger of losing sight of people. In the announcements, in the debates, in the political conflict, there is too often a losing sight of the fact that numbers represent lives and families and homes.
How would Jesus respond to the papers, to the television and radio news, to the seeming unending stream of bad news?
At the heart of Jesus’ ministry, there is a concern for individual people. Repeatedly, throughout the Gospels he is confronted with large crowds; there are huge numbers with which to deal; yet, time and again, he finds time for individuals. The very people who are overlooked by our barrages of economic statistics are the very people with whom he identified.
Jesus does not lose sight of the big picture. In the Gospel story of him driving the money changers and the salesmen from the Temple, he is concerned with the theological issue of the place of the divine presence being profaned; he is concerned with the exploitation and the defrauding of pilgrims. He is filled with zeal as he addresses the big picture.
But, in addressing the big picture, he is aware that it is composed of thousands of small pictures. Pilgrims were required to pay the Temple tax, it was equivalent to around a day’s wages; but the Temple tax had to be paid in a special coinage and the money changers might charge another day’s wages as commission for changing the money. The big picture is one of profanity and exploitation; the small pictures are of individual people, many of whom were poor, many of whom had used all their savings to make this one special journey, coming up to Jerusalem to be ripped off in this most sacred of places.
Following Jesus in our own time means going beyond the numbers to being mindful of the people behind the figures. Had we been standing there in the Temple when Jesus made the whip of cords to drive out the money changers and the sellers, would we not have felt that was the right thing to do? Would we not have felt sympathy for the thousands of ordinary people who were the victims of the system?
Jesus takes the side of the individuals, the ordinary people, but what does the church say?
Even Vincent Browne is wondering what the church has to say. In his column in the Sunday Business Post last Sunday he wrote, “I continue to be intrigued by those who profess to be Christians, yet are not embarrassed by the question of whether Jesus would think such vast disparities in wealth and income were fair. And if Jesus did not think they were fair, why then don’t Christians support doing something radical about it?”
It’s a fair question. If we believe in a man who was so angry at the rip off merchants of his own time that he physically drove them out of the Temple, what have we to say?
Lest we think that religion and politics do not mix, I think there are clear pointers in the New Testament as to what might be the shape of Jesus’ programme for economic recovery, if he were finance minister.
Jesus is concerned about individuals and I think he would be angry at any government that stood back and watched as unemployment rose. Work would be the lynchpin of Jesus’ policy. Work is something good; work is not a necessary evil but something that is done for God. The Letter to the Colossians Chapter 3 says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving”.
In Jesus’ economic programme there would be jobs for everyone who was able to work. Jesus would have been mystified that when Ireland had full employment and was having to recruit thousands of workers from overseas, there was still an unemployment rate of 4%. He would have been mystified that 4% of the workforce was caught in welfare dependency. In a biblical model of society, there would be work for everyone. The Second Letter to the Thessalonians Chapter 3 says, “For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” Leaving people simply doing nothing in the boom years weighs heavily on us now.
In direct response to Vincent Browne, I think a greater degree of equality would be important in a biblically-shaped economic policy; a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Luke Chapter 10 and the First letter to Timothy Chapter 5 say, “The worker deserves his wages.” If people are to be properly rewarded, then there cannot be the huge differentials between the top executive salaries and the weekly wage of the working man.
How can one man put in a week in the office and earn €2.9 million a year for taking his company into virtual bankruptcy, requiring a bailout from taxpayers, while a man engaged in hard physical labour gets a few hundred a week for his efforts? If the worker deserves his wages, then the massive differences in rates of pay need to be reviewed.
Saint Paul would have become angry at measures that hurt the weakest in our society, particularly the cuts in health and education. In Acts Chapter 20, he says, “You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'” ‘Help the weak’ says Paul, not hurt them.
Of course, the politicians didn’t listen to Jesus of Nazareth when he spoke 2000 years ago; that was why he became so angry in the Temple, that was why he made a whip of cords and drove the money makers out.
It is not something radical that needs to be done, it is something Biblical. A Biblical policy is one where people matter; where work is a mark of dignity; where there is fairness in reward; where no-one is left in want. It’s not a policy that would be welcomed by those who have done well at the expense of ordinary people, but they didn’t welcome Jesus either, “Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple.”
Behind the overwhelming numbers, may we never lose sight of the people, the people for whom Jesus cared.