Altruism & Calculation

Friday 23rd September 2005
Year A, The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity
St. George's, Hurstpierpoint
Ezekiel 18:25-28
Matthew 21:23-32

Richard Burrows is planting tiny oak trees at Danny House; they will not reach their full maturity until long after he is dead. One day they will give people in Hurstpierpoint very great pleasure but the only pleasure Richard will gain from his efforts is imagining their pleasure. Many of us instinctively sympathise with this. We don't say: "Now I am seventy I won't bother with the garden"; we don't even say: "I am leaving this house next year so I won't bother with the garden". Thankfully, as individuals living in a community, most of us are altruistic even without thinking.

This is the middle Sunday of the Hurstpierpoint and Sayers Common Arts Festival which is also involved in a different kind of planting: Musicians, painters, potters, photographers, actors, lecturers, practitioners and presenters have been prompting us to think, to develop our minds, our sensitivities and our sensibilites so that we will be more fulfilled as individuals and members of our community. Yes, a few make their living from these activities and it is wonderful that they can, but most of this creative outpouring has been for a nominal charge or free; and the scores of volunteers who have made phone calls, designed posters and washed glasses have charged nothing. Of course all these people get great pleasure from creating and organising but it is a generous pleasure. And wassn't it wonderful yesterday with the village full of activity and people: the MOrris men and the trips up the bell tower; and people visiting our church for the first time?

Thinking about the idea of community I often wonder how far our instinct for collective responsibility really goes? I said a moment ago that most of us were altruistic without thinking. What I really meant was that we are altruistic without calculating because it is the calculating that all too often overcomes altruism. I know this at a personal level every time I put a dozen bottles of new wine into my cellar and wonder whether I will have the pleasure of drinking them with my family and friends or whether it will be left to the next generation to guzzle them unappreciatively. And it's the same with the gardening I mentioned earlier; how often do we wonder whether it is really worth it to plant that tree where it would surely look wonderful, or whether it would be best just to shove a couple of bushes in to fill a gap.

Of course the epitome of calculation is what we call justice, the theme of today's readings from Ezekiel and Matthew. Human justice has many virtues: it provides us with reasonable expectations so that we can calculate risk; in spite of rising figures for some criminal offences it stops many of us from infracting; it compensates those who have been victims; and in general it gives us a sense of well being which is seriously damaged when we feel that we are living in a climate of increasing injustice. But it also brings out the worst in us. Instead of tempering justice with mercy we all too easily temper our justice with a pocket calculator or a tape measure. Too often we think of justice as the system which gives us back precisely what we think is our due. Justice is the balm of our grievance but it must be administered to a nicety. This is not only true in a legal environment it is also true in our dealings with other people. We spend much of our lives keeping a myriad of accounts: whose round is it? Whose turn is it to come to dinner? How much does she owe me for that cake? and, much worse: I bought him a drink and he didn't buy me one back; we asked them to dinner but they didn't ask us back; I back; I gave her a birthday present but she didn't give me one. Suddenly what we think of as our generosity descends into accountancy.

And it is this accountancy, this calculation, which is at the root of our social problems. How often do we hear parents bemoaning the fact that their children do not return their love and care? How often do we hear adults talking about the ingratitude of children? how often do we hear people saying that they have done such and such a good deed and received no thanks? We live in this grim prison of self righteousness while the ungrateful revel outside, getting drunk, smashing windows, pleasing themselves. The Psalms are full of it: "O Lord, how do the wicked flourish while good people like us grow weary?" Well, if we think like that, our goodness is not the genuine article. The beginning of goodness is not to count, not to compare, not to put everything into league tables; in fact, the beginning of goodness is to stop caring for such things. Goodness is not giving more than somebody else, goodness is not knowing how our giving compares with that of others.

The key to giving is to see ourselves as channels. We love our children not so that they will love us in return but so that they will love their children; we give to others in need so that, remembering, they will give to others in even greater need; we give not so that the giving will be returned but so that the quantum of giving in our family, in our community, in our world, increases.

I suspect that the problem with this idea of giving as a form of transmission, and with the idea of justice as a whole, is that we are too easily tempted to think that our giving account is always in deficit, that we always give more than we get; but, going back to those trees I mentioned at the beginning, going back to the example of the Arts Festival, is it that easy for us to reduce our world to accountancy, to balance what we have given and what we have been given? The answer is that it is impossible to be precise but I would not bother, if I were you, even to be approximate. For all kinds of reasons, an accumulation generosity, community action, public imposition and the accident of where we live, most of us are incalculably in credit when it comes to the balance of our lives. And we have the incalculable consolation of knowing that if we happen to be in deficit, God will not count it against us.

Finally, however, and you will be relieved to know that I have reached my point relating to Matthew's Gospel for today, Jesus is telling us something which very closely relates to our life in community. He tells the story of two sons, one who promises to do something and then goes back on his word, the other who says he can't be bothered but then changes his mind. The life we enjoy cannot survive if we behave like the first son, making promises that we then break; but life is greatly enriched by people who make the effort in spite of their natural inclination not to bother. Our society relies for its social, cultural and economic health on the generosity and altruism of the few while the majority of us are, essentially, freeloaders who enjoy community events and amenities without ever bothering to contribute. And it is even worse in the wider world where we frequently see: non unionised people who attack trade unions but then accept the pay rises negotiated by them; tax avoiders who enjoy public parks, the health service and the state education system; and, in many ways worse still, critics who have nothing constructive to say.

So when it comes to - as the trite phrase goes - counting our blessings, let us count amongst them those who give without thought, the tree planters, the poster designers and the glass washers.