Love & Justice

Sunday 24th September 2006
Year B, The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity
St. George's, Hurstpierpoint
Mark 9:30-37

As the decades go by, and as legislation loosens the grip of secretive governments, we are learning ever more about our recent history. Ever since the end of the Second World War we have known of the implosion of the Lutheran Church under Nazi pressure and have rightly celebrated the heroism of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. More recently we have learned of the collusion between the French people and the Germans in the persecution of the Jews; and we know much more now than we used to about the highly selective immigration policies of allied governments in the face of the desperate flight by the Chosen People.

How would it be, then, if our Government took seriously the calls of many to be tough on asylum seekers, economic migrants, labourers from new European Union States? Let us put to one side a discussion about the difference between the three categories of people. Let us just pose the question: how would we feel if our Government exercised a strong preference in favour of people like us and, as a matter of policy, treated all the rest harshly: the unemployed, black people, the poor, Muslims, drug addicts, Eastern European migrant workers, beggars, travelling people, scroungers? Would we go out on the streets and protest against the oppression of the already downtrodden, or would we conserve our campaigning zeal for the humane treatment of veal calves and retired donkeys?

It is a startling thought that it is the people we despise most whom Jesus loved the most. In today's Gospel He could not be more specific. In making His point, Jesus singled out children, the weakest members of Palestinian agrarian society, and said that they would be the first in the Kingdom of Heaven. After that he was pretty definite about no-hopers and sinners; they would get into the Heavenly Kingdom for sure. He was equally definite that the rich would find it hard going; and as we, in comparative terms, are rich, we better look out.

The acid test is whether we can, through the Grace of God, bring ourselves to love those whom Jesus loved. The signs are not good. As a community we resent the small amount of social housing that we have got and we will do our best to see that we get no more. We have claimed a corner of God's world as our own: Not in MY back yard; not in the South-East of England; not in the United Kingdom; not in the European Union. We will defend OUR culture, OUR British way of life, OUR European democratic values.

Now I can feel myself getting into hot water but there is no way out. As a culture we are in serious danger of wanting to preserve our kind of freedom by denying it to others. It is so valuable, we think, that there isn't enough to go round. Somehow, if we share what we have with others we will have less for ourselves. When it comes to earthly goods that is often true; but the great quality of love is that the more we give the more we have. The same is true of freedom; the freedom of all is strengthened as more people are freed. If we visit injustice on the downtrodden, the same injustice will be invoked against us; it's only a matter of time. The same legislation passed in Zimbabwe by the whites to oppress the blacks is now being used by the blacks to oppress the whites. This comfortable church of ours could disintegrate within years as the result of moral indifference; Christianity's record under strong political pressure has not been good.

But the argument in today's Gospel is even more searing than any analysis of social and political justice and well being: to be just to our neighbour is not good enough; to ensure proper treatment for all God's children is not good enough; to give all we have to the poor is not even good enough. What we have to do, with the Grace of God, is to love and serve those we care for least. People like us have to stop being totally bound up with people like us. In a strange way, the rich used to have a great deal more contact with the poor than they do now: they employed servants in their homes; they knew many of their factory workers; their houses, though bigger, were not far from squalor; but now you can live your life in affluent Sussex entirely away from the poor except from the occasional Big Issue seller in Brighton or the occasional beggar on a West End street. The poor are not always with us; they are always somewhere else!

It is difficult to see how we can love people we have never met and about whom we know so little. How many of us have read the Koran, studied the roots of corruption in Africa or the labour market in Romania? We can hate people simply on the basis of prejudice but we can't love them on the basis of prejudice.

So what does this mean in practical terms? Well, we are back with the old Karl Barth nostrum about reading the Bible with a newspaper in your hand or, in today's language, a television remote controller. We need to learn to understand the world we live in so that we can be constructively engaged with it in the causes of freedom, justice and love. We can learn to understand why things are the way they are; we can learn to empathise with those who suffer from oppression and injustice; we can learn how their plight might be improved, including how we might improve it.

And yet; freedom, justice and love abide all three, but the greatest of these is love. As human beings we go through a learning and empathising process but as children of God we should not need it; we should make the leap of faith to love unconditionally. This is what Jesus asks us to do in today's Gospel. It is, we might think, too much to ask, but we are nothing of ourselves. The Lutheran Church which collapsed so swiftly under Hitler was given to ritual and rationalisation and had abandoned the foolish love that Jesus requires. We must be careful not to end up in the same place. We need a little less justice and a lot more service; a little less rationalism and a lot more foolish love.