Sunday, 5 July 2015

Trinity 5: Contempt, scorn and derision

“We have had more than enough of contempt, too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, and of the derision of the proud.” says the Psalm we read today.

Like most of the Psalms, we don’t know what context these words were written in or for, but the passion in them is obvious .The Psalm is at least 2500 years old, but it could have been written at any point in history. These could have been the words of someone forced to enter a Victorian workhouse – deliberately humiliating places, designed so that people would do almost anything to avoid having to enter them. They could be the words of someone who has to resort to a foodbank today; however well and humanely they are run, no one uses them for fun. It is hard work to be poor, and depressing, and tiring and complicated. It makes everything more difficult. It is harder to access and benefit from education. You have fewer opportunities and less protection from risk, so it’s harder to try new things. But to add to all that you also have to contend with those who have never been there, or who have but have escaped it somehow, and who are often all too ready to sit in judgement, to assume that those who  have less are less; less valuable, less hard-working, less careful, less conscientious. The contempt, scorn and derision the Psalmist complained of 2500 years ago is just as prevalent today as it ever was; you only have to take a look at the tabloid press to see that.

It was interesting to read that Psalm today alongside the other Bible readings we heard, because they too had things to say about poverty. St Paul and Ezekiel both discover that God is with them in times when they are poor in spirit , battered down by life. God’s strength is made perfect in weakness, says Paul. In the Gospel Jesus tells his followers to choose material poverty deliberately. He sends them out on their first mission, with nothing but the clothes on their backs and a stout stick. No bag, no money, no bread. No back up if they find themselves homeless, nothing to smooth their way if it all goes wrong and they have to buy themselves out of trouble. I have heard of travelling light, but this is something else. …  My guess is that very few of us would be happy setting off like this anywhere, no matter how resourceful and adventurous we are, let alone to do the challenging task of preaching and healing. It would seem irresponsible, asking for trouble. But Jesus is clear. It is as if he is saying “if you get the baggage issue right the message will follow.”

Why is this? Preachers will often explain it by saying that it is about the disciples learning to trust in God rather than in their own strength. That’s a valid and valuable point. But I think that there may be more to Jesus’ instruction to the disciples to take nothing on their journey than simply this. I believe he is trying to break the very deeply rooted link that we all tend to make between material success and the blessing of God.

As the Psalmist said it is easy for people to look down on those who are poor. We lazily assume that if life is going well for us it is because we are cleverer or stronger or more hard-working than those who seem to be failing. There’s nothing wrong with wisdom, strength or hard work, of course, but the link between those qualities and worldly success is often less clear and constant than we might like to think. Why do people rise or fall in the world? The truth is that it is often just as much by luck as judgement. Success is affected by the family we are born into, the people we encounter along the way,  the good weather that ripens a vital crop or the bad weather that destroys it. Political instability,war and unjust trading practices tilt the playing field so that some have it easy while others struggle.Billions of people around the world who work harder than most of us could ever imagine still live their whole lives in dire poverty.

 We might be able to overcome a bad start if we have other gifts we can use, like physical strength or intelligence, but these things are handed out by a genetic lottery; it is no reflection on our intrinsic worth if we have, or don’t have them. The fact that some manage to pull themselves up by their bootstraps doesn’t mean that everyone can – you have to have some bootstraps, for a start.  It isn’t fair that it should be so, and we are all called to right injustice where we can, but there will always be some who fall between the gaps; it might be others, it might be us, now or in the future. So it is also important that we learn to talk and think about poverty in ways which don’t demonise or reject those who find themselves stuck in it.

When Jesus sent out his disciples with nothing it was one way of breaking the link between economic and personal worth. Effectively he sent them out  as beggars; they would be dependent on the good will of those they worked among. That has to have been tough. They weren’t wealthy people, these fishermen and tax collectors, but as far as we know they weren’t destitute either. I’m sure they took pride and comfort in being able to provide for themselves and their families. Going out with nothing was a huge challenge to them, not just in material terms, but because it made them look at themselves afresh. It forced them to discover how much of their sense of self-worth was tied up with having a decent income and a secure background and the respect of those around them. There’s no promise in this passage that they would always find a welcome on their travels – if there was Jesus wouldn’t need to tell them what to do when they weren’t welcomed. This wasn’t a test of their faith in God, designed to show them that if they believed firmly enough they would always find themselves with a three course meal and a comfy bed at the end of the day. It was a confrontation with reality, with the insecurity and fear that stalks human life and which we all, sooner or later, have to deal with.

It mattered that they sorted this out, because they would certainly face opposition and hatred later. Many were arrested, tortured and killed for their faith – they lost everything, including their good names. It was the same for Jesus. We tend to think of Jesus and the disciples as good guys, but to many at the time they were dangerous blasphemers, bad influences whose needed to be silenced. The story that the Gospel reading began with gave us a glimpse of this danger.

Jesus had been preaching in his own home town. The people who heard him were astounded, but evidently not in a good way. “Who does he think he is?” the crowd asked. He was just a carpenter – not someone who had been through the theological training of a Rabbi. What was more they described him as “the son of Mary”. People in that patriarchal culture would usually have referred to people as sons of their father, not their mother, even if the father was dead. To call him the son of Mary implies that that there is something distinctly questionable about his parentage. Mark’s Gospel, the earliest one we have, doesn’t have any stories about Jesus’ conception or birth. It doesn’t mention Joseph at all or any other father.  We have to wait for Matthew and Luke’s Gospels for the familiar Christmas stories. Mark doesn’t seem to have heard of the Virgin Birth. It is reasonable to assume that Jesus’ neighbours in Nazareth thought he was illegitimate – that’s the implication of what they say here. That would have been a cause of stigma at the time. Whether it was true or not is neither here nor there – it was what people believed, and maybe what Mark believed too. His birth was only the beginning of Jesus’ humiliation, though. He would go on to die a shameful public death on the cross, a means of execution deliberately designed to humiliate and to expose criminals to mockery.

So if Jesus’ disciples thought that following him would bring them honour and respect, and that this would be proof that he was sent from God, they needed to think again. For their own sake, as well as the sake of those they would be ministering to, they needed to learn that material success and popular acclaim weren’t signs of God’s blessing, and that lack of them weren’t signs of God’s curse.

“Blessed are the poor,” said Jesus. We are very used to those words, but they weren’t obvious at all to those who first heard them. It was a message that had an electrifying effect on those who first heard it though. The crowds who flocked to Jesus, and those who made up the early church were disproportionally made up of the poor, slaves, women and others who would have been disadvantaged in their world.  They knew good news when they heard it, and the news that they – even they - especially they – were blessed and loved by God was like water in a desert. They found new dignity in following Jesus’ way. They discovered the truth that set them free, that they were of infinite worth to God, however much contempt, scorn and derision the world heaped on them.

It is a message which is as important now as it was then. It is important whether we think of ourselves as poor or rich in the world’s terms, because the truth is that all of us are both at some stage. Sooner or later we all have to face situations in which we don’t have what we need, whether that is money, health or status. However charmed a life we may seem to lead none of us is invulnerable. Whether we are rich or poor, contempt, scorn and derision are no part of God’s view of us, and they should be no part of our view of others, and no part of our view of ourselves either when trouble strikes.
Instead we are called to open our hands and hearts to one another, in our need and in our riches, in our weakness and in our strength, so that together we can rejoice in and share the limitless generosity and grace of God. Amen

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