“Go and tell John what you hear and see.” Matthew 11:4
The churches are strangely quiet; always quick to defend their own interests, they seem to lose their tongues when it comes to speaking for someone else. When confronted with the injustice of the burden of the banking crisis being heaped upon working people in last Tuesday’s budget, there was silence.
Where do we look for a Christian response to a world where working people and poor people are made to pay for the reckless greed of the rich and powerful? Perhaps we could look at two very traditional, very conservative sources for guidance as to the Christian way forward: the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer and the words of the prophet Isaiah.
The elderly Rector in our rural Somerset parish forty years ago would come into our primary school on a Friday morning. He would try to teach us something and would then read from C.S Lewis’ ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. Strangely, four decades later, it was him trying to teach us that remains in the memory, rather than the children’s story.
He would take us through the prayer book catechism. This seemed an odd exercise; I wasn’t aware of any of us ever going to church, and we would have been hard-pressed to understand the sixteenth century language of the Book of Common Prayer.
Had we understood the catechism, there were probably bits of it with which we would have agreed, even if we didn’t believe the religious stuff. When it asked us about our duty towards our neighbour, we would not have quarrelled with much of the answer.
‘My duty towards my Neighbour, is to love him as myself, and to do to all men as I would they should do unto me: To love, honour, and succour my father and mother: To honour and obey all that are put in authority over me: To submit myself to all my governors, teachers, spiritual pastors, and masters: To order myself lowly and reverently to all who are set over me: To hurt no body by word or deed: To be true and just in all my dealing: To bear no malice nor hatred in my heart: To keep my bands from picking and stealing, and my tongue from evil speaking, lying, and slandering. To keep my body in temperance, soberness, and chastity: Not to covet nor desire other men’s goods; but to learn and labour truly to get mine own living, and to do my duty in that state of life, unto which it shall please God to call me’.
“To learn and labour truly to get mine own living”, was the Prayer Book’s way of setting out what became known as the Protestant work ethic. Education and work were part of the divine scheme of things; they were part of doing one’s duty in the state of life to which one was called.
It was a move away from the attitude, reflecting Genesis, that work was a curse that came with the Fall. Work was something good. Work provided independence; it provided choice; it allowed the emergence of the individual in a society. “My own living” would allow for the development of many virtues (as well as many vices!).
Had that primary school class been told that in December 2010 there was not enough money in the country and asked what did we think should be done, we would have been unequivocal, “we should work”.
It would have seemed obvious to a group of schoolkids that answers to the economic problems would come not in increasing taxation and making work less and less attractive, but in allowing people to “labour truly” to get their own living; allowing them independence and choice. To labour truly and to get one’s own living would have applied to the banks; had they laboured truly, they would not have bankrupted themselves, and had they been told to get their own living, there would have been no question of any bailout.
The Catechism would have excluded last week’s Budget and so would the words of Scripture. When we turn to the Scripture readings for today, all three promise justice to those who have been badly treated.
Look at what the Lord says through Isaiah to those who have suffered at the hands of unjust rulers, ‘.Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” When we read the prophets, is it conceivable that Isaiah or Amos or Jeremiah would stood silent while a burden of billions was loaded on the shoulders of ordinary people who had no hand, act or part in causing this crisis?
“A highway shall be there,” says Isaiah, “and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray”. Not even fools get lost if they follow God’s way of doing things, but we live in a society where the Scriptural way has been pushed aside in favour of a way that has put the interests of a powerful few ahead of the needs of the millions of ordinary people.
In the Gospel, the demands of justice for the common man are put in even plainer terms. John the Baptist sends followers to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Look at how Jesus answered them: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them’. The poor have good news brought to them—not that the poor have money taken from them during one of the coldest December months ever recorded.
What would John the Baptist and Jesus have said to the idea that those who were reckless should not bear the full responsibility of their actions? What would they have said to the idea that the blind and the deaf and the sick should pay for the arrogance of our financiers?
We read the Scriptures, we read the Prayer Book, and we could well feel anger at what we see. Saint James talks to his readers about not getting angry, though. ‘Be patient’, therefore, beloved’, he says, ’until the coming of the Lord’. James knows that anger is not productive, ‘As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord’.
The Christian response is not to become angry, but nor is it to become silent. ‘As an example, say James, ‘take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord’. It’s time the churches spoke; time we took our Bible and our Catechism seriously; time that the prophets were our example.