The Party's Over

Sunday 5th July 2020
Year A, The Forth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
2 Samuel 2.1-11
Luke 18.31-19.10

Because our Gospel Reading, somewhat unusually, runs across Chapters, we are introduced to two men who could hardly be more different: the first, Bartimeus, is blind and we are entitled to speculate that, therefore, he is poor; the second, Zacchaeus, has overcome the risk of being jeered at because of his shortness of stature by being very rich. Jesus restores the sight of the first man and accepts the reparations for greed of the other, confirming his approbation by staying at the man's house which, as usual, rouses the irritation of his critics.

Speaking for myself, I do not find it difficult to mix with and establish relationships with the poor and needy but when I was Chair of RNIB I frequently attended fund raising receptions for the very rich and found them profoundly disorienting and uncomfortable; on one occasion I had to shake hands with a millionaire pornographer  and, overall, I felt that I was being looked down upon but it was the cause that counted. There are some of us, I am sure, who can manage relationships with the rich and the poor equally well but I suspect that most of us, like me, are more comfortable with one lot than the other.

For most of us who sit in the middle between the poor and the rich, the case for establishing relations with the poor is relatively easy but the case for a similar degree of intimacy with the rich looks more difficult to make except in the context of fund raising where we make our pitch and, successful or unsuccessful, we then withdraw until the next time.

The dynamics of Jesus and Zacchaeus are instructive. No doubt the little man of Jericho had heard about the cure of Bartimeus and so was even more anxious than otherwise to see the great man; but when they met, Jesus simply invited himself to dinner, bed and breakfast and, without another prompting, Zacchaeus promised to give to the poor and make good all his previous extortions. Jesus did not have to say anything because Zacchaeus had learned from his example.

There is a strain of politics and Christianity which specialises in lecturing the rich and you will know that I am not immune from this moralising stance; but my better self knows that the only way to change minds is not through argument, no matter how passionate nor rational, but through example. Being a Christian is fundamentally a matter not of what we say but of what we do. The issue becomes clearer if we think of ourselves as little rich people. We may be poor by the standards of the top 1% but compared with most people in the world, and even a substantial minority in this country, we are rich indeed; so before we think of trying to alter the behaviour of others whom we call rich we should start with ourselves.

If we had been Zacchaeus, would we have given money to Bartimeus before Jesus came along to cure him or would we have thought that that was a matter for others? As we come out of lock-down this is a question for us too, not just in the sphere of individual action which is the sphere in which Jesus operated, but we also have to consider how we act in the sphere of public policy. How much of what we will need to do to put the country right should a financed through debt which our children and grandchildren will have to pay and how much should we pay now through taxation? How much attention will we pay, when things have calmed down, to the claims of the poor and BAME people raised by the asymmetrical Coronavirus death toll? How much will we really love the NHS if we have to pay more for it? Not much, I think, based on polling data that shows a majority of us are in favour of increased taxation as long as somebody else is paying it!

The trouble is that we are fundamentally conservative, with a small c, so we simply want all this bother to go away so that we can go back to how things were before the Virus; but we can't; and that means a lot of prayer and hard thinking. I am not so foolish as to think that the pandemic has jolted us out of our lassitude so that we are all ready to make a better country within a better world. Rather the opposite. I think our inclination will be, as I said, to try to restore the past. My evidence for this is how easily we switched from talking about racial injustice to protecting the statue of Churchill.

Matters are not made any easier by the pile of demands on the public purse while income from businesses and private pensions have both, at best, declined; whichever way we look at it, most of us are going to be poorer and yet most of us will be asked to fork out for good causes as well as, I suspect, being asked to pay more taxes.

It is easy to be superior about those people who only pray when things are going wrong but as we are more or less weak there is nothing wrong with intercessory prayer; and if ever there was a time for it, the time is now; not the sort of prayer which asks God to fix what he has given us the means to fix but prayer asking for wisdom, for strength, for perseverance.

Being blind myself, I've often tried to imagine myself into the plight of Bartimeus, poor and outcast, desperate and helpless. There are still plenty of such people; and there are also plenty of people like Zacchaeus who can make such a difference. And there are people like us, little rich people, who can try to be bridges between the two extremes, not poor by any means but insecure, uncertain of how to direct our resources and our strength in such an unfamiliar and turbulent world.

All I can say is that the Lord will be with us through the power of the Holy Spirit and that we must listen. Compared with previous plagues, with previous ages, we have plenty of capacity but we will only appreciate this when we recognise that we have been living too much on our prospects rather than on our real income. The party is over; and we really should be glad!