A Harsh Message for Shepherds and Sheep

Sunday 20th November 2011
Year A, Christ the King (The Sunday next before Advent)
St John The Baptist, Clayton
Ezekiel 34:11-16;
Matthew 25:31-46

Today's passage from Ezekiel is primarily addressed to the shepherds of the flock whom, the Lord says through his prophet, he will smite for their negligence. This is a harsh message for shepherds. But because we can no longer claim to be untutored in faith and thought, it is also a harsh message for sheep.

On this, the last Sunday of the Church's year, we might care to look back on how we have behaved; and I would venture that the salient event of the year has been the demonstration still encamped outside Saint Paul's cathedral.

Let me, for a start, clear some ground. It is true that the demonstrators don't have a global manifesto; but that's also true of politicians, economists and bankers whose job it is to sort out the global economy. And it's also true that Cathedral officials were rightly concerned about health and safety issues. But neither of these considerations are excuses for compromise. Both of today's Readings stress our absolute obligation to all sheep, but particularly to poor sheep.

This is not an easy message for us. To a greater or lesser degree we are all feeling the pinch. We are all suffering from falling incomes and rising prices; and some of us don't know how we are going to make ends meet. Many people are losing their jobs; and the prospects for improvement are gloomy. There may be another economic down turn before things get better; and they might just not get better.

And there really is no point saying that we should have behaved more responsibly in the good times; that we should have saved more and borrowed less. Of course we should; but every generation makes the same mistake and suffers the same punishment. And the next generation will repeat our mistake.

But that, as I have said, isn't the point. The real lesson of the Saint Paul's demonstration is that our Church, the Church we belong to, the Church for which, in spite of clerical blustering, we are responsible, must begin any discussion of world poverty from a clear, principled position. We will have to make compromises along the way; but what should our starting point be? Technically, if you like, from the perspective of today's Reading from Matthew, our starting point should be that we should give all we have to the poor. Now we just aren't going to do that, are we? So let us temper our obligation with penitence and humility. We might be ridiculed for saying it, for admitting our faults, but our opening position should be: in principle we should give everything we have to the poor; but we are morally incapable of it; we who seek social justice for the poor are weak, we acknowledge our shortcomings and beg you humbly to understand.

How would that go down with the bankers on the other side of the table? We would be ridiculed; but perhaps that's the only credible starting point. Our lamb was not only laughed at, he was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. It may seem counter intuitive, but that should be our starting point, too.

I am all in favour of church people being educated in economics as well as in theology; but it doesn't do for them to behave like bankers. I have a suspicion that one of the problems at Saint Paul's was that the authorities didn't want to look weak and foolish; but although bankers might posture about being tough and in charge of the situation, in spite of their catastrophic howlers, it's proper for our church to admit its foolishness and weakness. That is our only credible starting position. We will, to remind ourselves, be despised at the outset, but we and those we support will benefit in the long run. There is a fascinating strand in the Psalms and in the Book of Job about why the wicked prosper while the faithful suffer; but it is my belief that this prosperity of the wicked can be correlated to the short term. If we prosper now because we ignore the unpleasantness going on around us, it will ultimately catch up with us, whether it's over borrowing, Colonel Gaddifi or a difficult moral decision; putting things off invariably makes them worse. And, the corollary of that is that thinking long term, which will almost inevitably involve short term sacrifice, is the only way to proceed if we want to solve difficult problems. That doesn't mean we do nothing now, it means that we admit that what we do now is temporary, a sticking plaster, while we look honestly at long term solutions.

This is not really the place for an economics lecture; indeed, my central point is that we've been discussing economics far too much, almost invariably concluding that everything is far too difficult. As I have said, this is the place to start a discussion of principle. If we really are committed to helping the poor, how can we best do it?

The obvious place to start is clear commitment. What we have tended to do is to make our position conditional: "We will help if somebody can work out how it is possible" is a much weaker statement than: "We are absolutely committed to helping; and if you can't work out how, we will have to ask somebody else because our commitment is non negotiable."

One of the aspects of the Saint Paul's demo that I really loved was the Socialist Workers Party banners containing snippets from the Sermon on the Mount. It's a good text (along with Saint Luke’s Sermon on the Plain) because it's short and sharp, without a whole thicket of get-out clauses.

It's one thing to try hard and fail; but quite another to ensure failure by being equivocal. There was nothing equivocal in Ezekiel about what would happen to the shepherds; and there's nothing equivocal in Matthew about our behaviour and God's response to it. You might not accept a literal interpretation of Matthew's vision of the day of Judgment; but the message is still clear.

Rather than waiting for the beginning of the calendar year, what about making a resolution at the beginning of the Church's new year next Sunday; to think of our responsibility in uncluttered, clear language; that is a good starting point for action.