I do not normally preface my comments with a health warning, but here is one: I am profoundly sceptical of certain things, but especially of what is fashionable, of what “they say”, and of the received wisdom of our times, writes Rev Sydney Maitland. While I am happy to proclaim a faith and to encourage it in others, it is a moot point as to just what that faith should be vested in. For me, the starting point is God and I can think of none better.
I suppose that the theological – or at least the biblical term for this is “The World”. This is that realm of human wisdom and practice which does not start with God or His revelation of Himself in scripture and especially in Jesus. Rather it is confident in proclaiming its independence from God, the church, the scriptures, and is content to contrive its own morality to meet the needs of the moment. Consequently, its morality is a shifting sand, and as times and interests and the balance of powers in society change so will the nature and scope of those values. Consequently values can become outdated very quickly as new causes are embraced and promoted. 50 years ago the goals achieved today in the name of feminism, same-sex relations, birth control, abortion and even euthanasia would have been unimaginable. But “Progress” is a more doubtful proposition.
In the New Testament the position of “The world” is a matter of considerable doubt, especially in the hands of St John. Even the descriptions by Matthew and Luke of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness however places the dominion of the world firmly in the hands of Satan, who is accepted as being free to handle and dispose of it as he wills. And he does.
But apart from the cultural and social aspects of “The World,” there is also the economic aspect. Jesus is certainly shown as showing favour to none but those who will accept and receive Him, and this is now seen as a preference for the poor – that is to say, the despised and dispossessed, those with no external support from family or community and no personal wealth on which to fall back. But the central point is Jesus for He was still happy to call Matthew from the reasonably prosperous receipt of custom; Peter, Andrew, James and John from their boats (and hired servants). He was still ready to accept the hospitality of the well-connected and indeed to accept the repentance of Zacchaeus who offered to give half his goods to the poor – ie not all of them or 75% or 90%. At His birth He was worshipped by the 3 wise men or kings (men of substance) and at His death He temporarily occupied a rich man’s tomb.
Central to Jesus’ attitude to the poor was that they had nothing to support them – no solid occupation, daily work if they could get it and no security in times of need except the donations of the community, which by definition were voluntary, even if they were expected under the law. Indeed it was their very vulnerability that rendered them open to the gospel message, and which therefore opened Jesus’ heart to them.
Our situation regarding the poor is very different with whole bureaucracies and social security systems devoted to them, and indeed whole national regimes claiming to support their wellbeing. Wars, civil wars and revolutions, all with their own blood-letting, have been fought in their name, although whether this was really to their benefit is another matter.
So what about the poor? When His feet were anointed by Mary at Bethany, Jesus made it clear that the poor would always be there, and would always therefore provide an opportunity for good works in which His disciples would not only be able to serve but also worship Him. There is rather the sense in which by serving the poor, who we can see, we are also worshipping Jesus who we cannot see. In doing so, we work to an agenda which will not reward us in the terms of this world’s wealth or honours, and may not be seen at all. We would be bringing into the equation things that the social security system cannot, and we abandon any sense of pride or self-sufficiency which our own wealth or possessions or education or position may offer us.
Just how this might come to be I am not wholly clear, but we already have the opportunity to contribute financially to appropriate charities. But there may also be ways in which our time, resources, facilities, emotional and physical energy may yet be called into use. As our social security systems and indeed the whole of the welfare state come under more and more stress, we may yet find that we have a new role to play. As I say, I cannot foresee what that may be – but I can pray that we will be ready and not found wanting when it comes.
May the Lord bless you all richly this Pentecost.