‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you’. Saint Matthew Chapter 21 Verse 32
Jesus’ words would have outraged his listeners, it would especially have outraged those who were the religious leaders. How dare he suggest that those who were regarded as being beyond the bounds of respectable society would have a place in heaven ahead of those who had been devout in the religion throughout all of their lives.
Jesus’ words were a recognition of the rank hypocrisy of the religious leadership of his time. The attitude that Jesus condemned was a deeply-entrenched hypocrisy that has persisted right through Christian history into the church of the present times.
The influence of the church in society has frequently been less than benign, it has often been downright malignant. When one considers the accumulation of massive wealth, the abuse of children, the mistreatment of women, the manipulation of education, the interference by clergy in couples’ married lives, it is hard to discern behaviour that was meant to be a hallmark of an institution that claimed that it represented the Kingdom of God.
Sometimes, first hand accounts of the church’s behaviour give insights that broader histories do not capture. Reading the lines of the journal of the Revd John Skinner of Camerton, Somerset brings a realisation of how far the Church of England was from the Kingdom of God.
There is an entry in the journal that dates from the year 1807 that has much of the hypocrisy of the time, the attitude that women should be regarded as sinful and that they were deserving any treatment they might receive.
In the entry, the woman is described as a ‘strumpet,’ a word fora prostitute, whereas her husband, who appears to leave the family home to live and contract a marriage with someone else escapes without comment.
‘I had had occasion to notice the behaviour of a woman of the name of Sarah Summers, who kept company with Coward, a servant of Burfitt’s.
In the beginning of November, 1806, she came to me saying she wished to have the Banns asked between Coward and herself. I told her that it had been mentioned to me that her husband was alive, and therefore it would be very wrong in her to think of being asked without she was certain he was dead. She said it was all false what folks said about his being alive; that he went to the East Indies as a soldier upwards of seven years ago, and had never been, heard of since.
I accordingly asked the Banns in Church. Just as the parties were preparing to be married the husband made his appearance at Camerton, and on enquiring for his wife found out her residence and surprised her by his coming so unexpectedly upon her; whilst he on his part was no less astonished at finding four children, instead of the one he had left when he went abroad. However, as reproofs and complaints were useless, like a second Socrates he forgave the frail one and took her again to his bosom, and for near a month they lived together, I understand, in perfect conjugal felicity; but, unfortunately, the husband returning from his work in the coal pits sooner than was expected, found his rival with his wife. He beat her as long as he could without absolutely killing her, and immediately left the strumpet, going to take up his abode at Timsbury. The man afterwards married a Timsbury woman by licence’.
Desertion, brutal violence and bigamy on the part of the husband seem to escape the condemnation of John Skinner, while the wife who has contracted a new relationship, a relationship for which she has sought official recognition, is described as a prostitute.
Racketeers and prostitutes seem frequently to have lived with more honesty and integrity than those who regarded the Kingdom of God as their right.
Jesus would be unsurprised at a church where bishops and clergy live in fine houses and need never fear about paying bills, while ordinary people are forced to go to foodbanks. He would recognize the familiar behaviour of religious ledaers that has not changed in twenty centuries. There would be no ambivalence in his declaration aboiut who would enter the kingdom of God.