I can’t stop thinking about Ian’s sermon from last week. It was about what Ian named ‘the Parable of the Harsh Master’ – also known as ‘the Parable of the Talents’ – and about how, as Ian put it, ‘the daft slave’, knowing his master is severe, ‘acts entirely out of fear and buries the money entrusted to him in a hole in the ground’.
That’s me. I’ve always known that’s me. I identify completely with the slave who, fearful and risk averse, buries his lot in a hole in the ground where it lies safe and snug and shiny and new and whole and undiminished – and hidden and inert and dormant and unproductive and virtually nonexistent.
And I identify completely too with the goats who come along in the next few verses of Matthew’s version of the so-called ‘good news’.
Yes, I’ve awkwardly proffered a ‘Meal Deal’ to a rough sleeper or two on my way home from Tesco and I’ve made donations to our foodbanks. But I’ve never done any of the really incarnational service Jesus is talking about here in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. I mean the open vulnerable kind where you meet the other eye to eye with nowhere to hide and stay a while because the other is always more than hunger or thirst or nakedness or illness in need of a quick fix. The other can be complicated, hard to understand, demanding, inappropriate, anti-social, criminal even – a great unknown, and definitely outside my comfort zone. Even people who are far less challenging than the truly destitute can leave me retreating to my subterranean hole: a cordial acquaintance with whom I run out of things to say, an interlocutor whose talk I struggle to follow, a cold-caller I’m not sure I trust, a relative pressuring me to say ‘yes’, a salesperson trying to be helpful, an unmerited friend I’m bound to let down, a canny observer who sees through me to my weak and gormless core.
The problem is, I think, that what is even harder for me than trying to see Jesus in others is imagining that others could ever see Jesus in me. Hence, the hiding, the not wanting to be seen, the fear that what others do see in me is an absurd creature: timid, ignorant of real life, clumsy, unable to follow spatial directions, inanely incapable of easy interactions, hapless and gaff-prone in innumerable ways. Social anxiety makes a goat of me. And having Matthew’s Jesus tell me, in effect, ‘Don’t be fearful or I’ll call you accursed,’ is a bit like that part in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland where the King of Hearts tells the Mad Hatter, ‘Don’t be nervous, or I’ll have you executed on the spot.’
These verses in Matthew’s Gospel have had an enormous impact on morality wherever Christianity has been accepted. Along with the concept of the image of God in everyone and the parable of the Good Samaritan, they give us our notion of what it means to be humane and to approach each other as irreducibly holy beings. They are so morally weighty, in fact, that they can make all other modes of service and charity at a distance seem half-hearted and inadequate. Because of these verses, unless I engage in these very specific ways of doing the Word, I feel that nothing else I do is the right thing to be doing, or enough – enough to enable me to say, without being a hypocrite (see Ian’s sermon from last week again!) that I am a Christian, a follower of Christ, and to suggest that others too might find following Christ salvific – healing – here and now, in this world.
Now, please don’t be kind and tell me I’m being too hard on myself. I know, because these verses tell me so, that until I muster the courage to do something like sign up to the Glass Door rota, I am a goat. And I am in Hell – real Hell, the only real Hell.
There are few other passages in the Bible by which I feel more directly and undeniably accused. These are my ‘satanic verses’.
The expression ‘satanic verses’ – made famous by Salman Rushdie’s novel – refers to the much disputed claim that early Islamic tradition included a legend according to which Satan, insinuating himself in place of the angel Gabriel, ‘revealed’ false verses to Mohammad for inclusion in the Qur’an. With these verses, Satan intended to pervert monotheism, because they sanctioned the worship of three goddesses recognized by the people of Mecca in their pre-Islamic cosmology. But the word ‘satan’ in Hebrew means ‘accuser’ or ‘adversary’ and refers to a legal opponent, a prosecutor who reads out the charges against you. I’d like to say that these verses – the whole of Chapter 25, in fact – got into Matthew’s Gospel by means of some devilish deception, but what I really mean is that they indict me – they are truly satanic verses to me – and I know I have no real defense. Most disquieting of all: it is Jesus who is doing the accusing, and the judging.
Because I find hands-on service so daunting, I’m astonished at how many people today seem eager to engage in it. Happily, the world appears to be full of blessed sheep flocking to obey Jesus, even if they wouldn’t put it that way. As one of St Barnabas’s Deanery Synod representatives, I attended a Zoom meeting of the Synod this past Wednesday. Our guest speaker was Hannah Rich, a Senior Researcher with the Theos think tank on religion and society; she reported on a recent three-year study showing that social action, as a nexus between secular society and the church, is now a major mission site. (You can read the report here.) Churches across the UK (including St Barnabas) are increasing their participation in service projects that draw Christians and non-Christians together around a shared commitment to help others: preparing and delivering meals to struggling families, feeding and sheltering the homeless, sewing PPE, phoning the lonely, collecting winter clothing. These activities provide a presumptively faith-free zone where people marked as churchgoers are nevertheless present and indexing, by their actions, the power of something politely bracketed out but quietly there, ready to be explored by others. The study recommends that ‘churches should be encouraged to see their social action projects as primary sites of invitation and be expectant of the relationships that can grow through it.’
Who could churlishly find anything worrying in that?
I worry slightly, goat that I know I am, that for fear of appearing dogmatic, backwards, and fanatical, we are rushing to become doers of the Word with renewed enthusiasm in order to avoid having to be speakers of the Word. If actions speak louder than words, do the words even matter anymore? Let’s face it, a lot of Christian language can sound crazy – outdated at best, offensive and reprehensible to some. No wonder some people find it easier simply to live out the social gospel. That much of the tradition still makes sense. Who really needs those outmoded creeds and paradoxical doctrines? Who needs that embarrassing cosmology? The one with the fluffy white heaven and the fiery red hell and the final judgement and those cartoon characters the devil and all his angles? Who needs Jesus, even, when we have our common humanity to venerate? Is the Jesus in the other anything other than that? I think it might be other, but we’d have to talk about it sometime.
I worry slightly that we might be burying something precious in a hole in the ground – the Christian tradition and all its rich but, for many, increasingly ossified and unresurrectable rituals and narratives. We can’t renew the Word for each generation if we are running away from speaking it by doing it exclusively. We need to keep repeating it, differently, and hearing it in dialogue with others. And joking with it. Joking with the tradition, through and in its own terms, is a great way, as Ian often shows us, to keep it alive. Articulating the tradition, continually restating it in new ways, can be just as much a faith-free zone as delivering food parcels. We don’t have to pretend it all makes sense. But if we don’t take it seriously and work hard to replenish it – for its own sake as a unique and irreplaceable means of grace – then we will have to admit that the Christian tradition has outlived its usefulness as a motivation for social action, which is now fully self-propelling in the world.