Against Moral Caricature

Sunday 6th July 2014
The Third Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
2 Samuel 2:1-11; 3:1
Luke 18.31-43; 19:1-10

One of the episodes of "Yes Minister" involved the construction of a state of the art hospital. When it was finished, every aspect of its architecture and equipment were appraised and found to be perfect in every way. But when things went wrong the matter was tossed in to the in-tray of the hapless Jim Hacker. When the Minister instituted an enquiry he might have saved all the report writing and held fast to the comment of one of the officials: "It worked perfectly well until they started admitting patients."

I recently went for a job interview at a hospital and we had a similar discussion over the relative importance of processes and people and I said that no matter how good the processes might be, what makes organisations tick is the way that people behave within a culture. Perhaps that's why I didn't get the job.

The same sort of inexorable logic applies to the Bible. There has been an effort since the beginning of Biblical interpretation to try to turn the Bible into an ethics textbook to provide us with unfailing guidance on the way human beings should behave, but it's a much better collection of books than that which, in its best moments, comes much nearer to the novel than the treatise.

Take our readings for this evening: even David, the darling of the Old Testament, a man who stands before his God, displays lust and commits murder in pursuit of its gratification; Abigail, David's second wife, widow of the surly Nebal, surely made a play for David before her husband died; and Abner stayed loyal to his old master Saul and, in spite of a bad write-up in 2 Samuel, his major misfortune was to stick with the losing team. As for Luke's characters, I have to say as a blind man myself, that if I had been around when Jesus was passing by, I would have given it a try as Bartimeus did; and although Zacchaeus turns out to be generous to those he has swindled, it only happens after he's been rumbled and, even then, he still emerges with enough cash, as well as moral credit, to keep him comfortable for the rest of his life.

It is, then, a mistake to caricature human nature in the hope that it will provide moral templates. There is, as they say in my home country of Yorkshire, nothing funnier than folk!

As some of you know, I sing in a couple of church choirs and this gives me the pleasure of attending many weddings and not one goes by without the thought that young love makes the beloved into something of a caricature. It is only later that the warts break through. And I also often wonder to what extent the two people standing at the altar are thinking: "I really love my new spouse but there will have to be some changes". I have lost count of the number of divorced people whose marriages failed because one of the partners wanted to change the other. A steady rubbing off so that some jagged corners are worn away is one thing but wholesale change is quite another. That is not to say that we can't all behave much better than we do but, in the end, we improve ourselves for god and for ourselves and we make millions of massively complex decisions where we do not even know ourselves what all the contributing factors are.

The point I am leading to is the simple one that only God knows the hand we have been dealt and how well we are playing it. There is a deeply destructive strand in christianity which involves making moral judgments about other people, usually people who are in some ways weaker than we are - the poor and the rich, the forceful and the fickle - and once we get into the habit it's a hard one to break.

Imagine, then, our world without moral judgment where all gossip is harmless. We would, I fear, have a lot of empty time to fill, perhaps time to pray, to think, to examine ourselves, to concentrate on the life well lived.

Of course, it doesn't get easier: the increasingly hysterical tabloid press, 7/24 news and social media all focus in on flaws, mostly minor, in the characters of public and private figures, magnify them with forensic glee and then transmit the results all over the world. But, of course, there would be no point in publishing if there wasn't a consumer. My favourite Cuckfield story is of a BBC Radio 4 Any Questions which took place here at the height of some Princess Diana Scandal; and Jonathan Dimbleby asked the audience to raise their hands if they would boycott the Sunday newspapers. Almost every hand went up but some bright young journalist took the trouble to go down to the paper shop on Sunday morning and found the shelves empty as if a plague of newsprint locusts had swept through the shop. Of course the purchasers might not have been the people in the hall for the broadcast; but you take my point.

It is, then, both pleasant and profitable to read the Bible in that light. It is easy to make sound moral decisions in easy cases but the cases that live with us are the difficult ones; and if we look at ourselves and the difficult choices we have made it should be all the easier for us to sympathise with those who are exposed. David earned his high reputation in spite of his lust and murder; Abigail got lucky; Abner was unlucky; Bartimeus put his faith in the right place; and Zacchaeus, like so many characters, particularly in the Old Testament, isn't castigated for a bit of worldly wisdom.

If there was such a thing as a moral beauty contest nobody in our stories, with the possible exception of David, would be given a prize; but, then, neither would most of us. But we can and should celebrate the richness and complexity of our creatureliness and learn from Julian of Norwich that to do wrong is part of a learning process for which we were made and for which we will not be punished.