The Preaching of the Word is central to our Presbyterian Worship Services and the sermon/address/ reflection typically comes mid way during our Sunday Morning Worship lasting around 25 minutes.
The congregation is encouraged to reflect upon how it may impact their own life and the lives of others around them, Personally, Locally, Nationally and Internationally. The purpose of the sermon is to grow in our knowledge and thinking, to become hearers of God’s word, believers and thus to live out our faith purposfully.
From time to time a selection of our sermons will be posted here for your own meditation and learning. You may find this useful if you have been unable to join us or if you wish to be reminded of the sermon you heard.
Please Do Not Reproduce any of these Sermons without permission. Thankyou.
A series on Psalm 107 by Rev Alan Boal.
13th August 2017
Some years ago an insurance company promised: ‘We won’t make a drama out of a crisis.’ But that’s precisely what the first five books of the bible do. Collectively these five books are often referred to in Christian circles as the Pentateuch; while the Jews call them the Torah and attribute them to Moses. Either way the crisis of humanity and the crisis of Israel is unapologetically turned into a drama; a drama that is still unresolved by the time the Old Testament draws to a close.
Well if Moses turns a crisis into a drama, David in the Psalms turns that drama into an opera. One bible scholar called him ‘Israel’s Mozart’; with the five books that make up Psalms corresponding to the five books of the Torah. Across these five books and 150 separate psalms, the great story of Israel’s crisis (which is a microcosm of the whole world’s crisis) is set to music, offered in answering prayer and put to work in the Jerusalem Temple.
It may help you find your way around those 150 psalms if you have a bit of a handle on the plot of the opera. Open up your bibles at Psalm 1 and follow along. In Books I and II (1-72) the principal subject is Israel’s king at prayer. With Book III (73-89) the covenant promise between God and King David’s dynasty is now seen as in the past and fractured. By Book 4 (90-106) Israel has no king and the people fall back upon their heritage (focusing now on Moses in a way hitherto absent from the psalms); there is a growing recognition that God is, always was, and will be again, Israel’s King. All of this emerges out of the catastrophe of the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and the great exile to Babylon. By Book V (107-150) the troubles of the Exile have been overcome and hope of the Davidic king is expressed in terms of the coming Messiah. This whole story has been sung at Jewish festivals; prayed in Jewish homes; and studied in synagogues ever since. In fact, this is the opera that echoes through the New Testament story, songs, prayers and doctrinal reflection in response to Jesus the Moses, the David and the Messiah for Israel and for the world. That’s the operatic plot of the Psalms.
Over the next few weeks, right up to our Communion Service in October, we’re going to stick with just one of those psalms: Psalm 107. Nevertheless, it’s important that we hear the whole opera even though we’ll be concentrating on an excerpt.
Those of you who have been following me will have noticed that psalm 107 just happens to be the opening psalm of the final Book V. We have fast-forwarded to the final act. Opera lovers tell me that Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle’ is the ultimate test of operatic endurance. Most of us would struggle with the entire cycle, so we just fast forward to ‘the ride of the Valkyries.’ The purists will tell us we’re cheating, but if it gives us a taste for the whole production, what’s the harm? I hope that by concentrating on Psalm 107 it will give you a taste for the whole opera.
Let’s then remind ourselves: Book V marks a growing hope that Israel’s Messiah will be crowned King, thus ending the Exile and heralding the eternal era under their righteous monarch. The mood music between Book IV and Book V changes dramatically. Psalm 106 (the finale of Book IV) ends on this note from the exiles: Save us, God, and gather us from the lands. Then Psalm 107 opens up with: He has redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands. Their prayer has been answered. It only takes us a second or two to read that transition, but it took the Jewish exiles seventy years before they could sing it.
Having fast forwarded let me just press the pause button and make a vital observation. We live in a day of the instantaneous. We know what we want and we expect to have it at the touch of a button. If we want coffee we just add water. If we want information we just press a keypad. If we want light we just flick a switch. Unlike past generations, we are not accustomed to waiting. If we are forced to wait we get irritable and start blaming someone. Our attitude and expectations is summed up in the phrase, ‘time is money.’ We can’t wait and we won’t wait. But if we take that attitude into our worship and into our prayer, we’ll be in for a rude awakening. Eugene Petersen calls it ‘presumptuous prayer’ and he explains it like this:
The editorial arrangement of the psalms shows that “prayer is a response to the Torah’s five books. The narrative of our lives received in classic form in the five books of the Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Life from its inception (Genesis) to its fulfilment (Deuteronomy) is the result of God’s making, redeeming, providing, and blessing word…Prayer is everywhere and always answering speech. It is never initiating speech, and to suppose that it is, is presumptuous” (54).
So let’s not imagine that the step from psalm 106 to psalm 107 was a request by Israel – ‘rescue us’- met with an instantaneous answer from God – ‘you’re safe now!’ In fact the speaking didn’t even begin with Israel, it began with God. God spoke, Israel listened, Israel answered, God spoke again. Seventy years was a long time listening, but when God finally spoke again it was well worth the wait. He calls them from the four corners of the earth where they have been scattered and brings them home and restores them as a single people.
That is what God has done and is still doing in and through Jesus. He restores individual lives that have been fractured. He gathers from all nations and makes one family. Those who have been alienated from one another become brothers and sisters in Christ the Messiah. He does all of this on his own initiative way before we even ask. It is left to us to answer: ‘I believe.’
Back to the play button! Notice the first thing Israel does now that God has spoken: they give thanks. They express their gratitude – ‘O give thanks to the Lord’! And why, according to psalm 107, ought they to give thanks? Three things: (1) because God is good (that’s at the opening of the psalm); (2) because wisdom is available (the psalm ends: Whoever is wise, let him give heed to these things); (3) because God’s steadfast love endures forever. This third reason dominates the psalm. Six times we are told, ‘God’s steadfast love endures forever’ (vv.1,8,15,21,31,43). The revelation of God’s character and purposes is summed up there.
In between the opening call to give thanks and the closing hymn of thanksgiving there are four scenarios; four test-cases in which God’s enduring steadfast love emerges: travellers, prisoners, invalids and sailors. In each case the predicament is outlined, then the distress call is issued, and finally the deliverance is affected. We’ll look closely at each test-case over the ensuing weeks, but for now let’s settle for a general observation that remains pertinent to us, Leonard Griffith put it well:
In each case they knew that they had exhausted their human resources and that they had no hope of being released from their predicament unless some kind of help came from beyond themselves. In their helplessness they prayed, they brought God into their experience; they looked up and sent an “S.O.S.” signal to heaven, “Help me! Help me if you can!”
You may be far from your homeland; either through choice or circumstance. On the surface of it your life appears to be going okay: you wake up each morning, get dressed, eat breakfast, go to work or college, return home and go to bed. You might even be exhilarated by your new surroundings and all the different people you encounter. Yet deep in your soul there is a nagging sense that all is not well. All is not as it ought to be. Jesus is not yet your King. Well then, listen to the operatic drama of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension on your behalf: the steadfast love of God endures forever!
Maybe you are very much at home in Ireland and have rarely, if ever, left. You are amongst familiar folk in familiar places and everything you do is so ingrained you’re not even conscious of it. This is the way life is. But even you – when you actually stop and still and become silent – sense that there is a voice calling you out and calling you back. There is a voice telling you that you belong to a greater, diverse yet unified family whose king is Jesus. You too are invited to believe that the steadfast love of God endures forever!
You are all; each and every one of you, invited to take the stage and become part of the opera.
20th August 2017
(Psalm 107:4-9) – Wanderers Homed Rev Alan Boal
To anyone remotely familiar with the Bible, this section of Psalm 107 screams of the forty years wilderness wanderings suffered by the Hebrews after their release from Egypt. Forty years wandering the desert; not entering the super-abundant land of promise. Forty years depending on ‘direct provision’ as God daily delivered bread and meat from the sky and water from the rock. Forty years unable to settle down, feel secure and take their rest. This wandering was both punishment and testing.
Last week I likened the whole of the book of Psalms to the Torah (the first five books of the bible) set to music; a dramatic opera with Israel’s king at the centre of the plot and Israel’s rescue a microcosm of what God would do through Jesus for the world.
This week is a mini version; an operetta of the Gilbert & Sullivan type. In their comic opera, The Mikado, we are told of the endeavour ‘to make the punishment fit the crime/ the punishment fit the crime.’ Whether execution befits the ‘crime of flirting’ (as in the Mikado) I’ll leave you to decide, but Nanki-Poo, the hero of the story, fittingly disguised as a wandering minstrel, is under sentence.
Throughout the bible wandering is the sentence that fits the crime. It was the curse of Cain, the murderer who feared being killed by others as a consequence of his wandering:
Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, you have driven me this day away from the ground; and from your face I shall be hidden; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will slay me.” (Gen.4:10-14)
Later we read; and it’s of interest to us given the link in Psalm 107 between wandering and city-dwelling, that Cain attempted to settle down with his wife and kids in the city of Enoch (named after his firstborn son and built by Cain to combat the punishment of wandering).
In just about every one of those opening books of the bible, then, we find this wandering motif applied to God’s ‘firstborn son.’ Paul gathers several of these references together in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor.10:1-13) to illustrate the kind of crimes in Israel punished by wandering:
Now these things are warnings for us, not to desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were (referring to Exodus 32:6)…We must not indulge in immorality as some of them did (referring to Numbers 25:1-9)…We must not put the Lord to the test, as some of them did (referring to Exodus 17:2 and Numbers 21:5-6)…nor grumble, as some of them did (referring to Numbers 16:41-49).
Like Paul, the author of Hebrews plays on that same theme:
Who were they that heard and yet were rebellious? Was it not all those who left Egypt under the leadership of Moses? And with whom was he provoked forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they should never enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief. (Heb.3:16-19)
Wandering often indicates God’s punishment! But the reverse can be the case. Indeed the reverse forms the context and supplies the content of hope for those who are being punished with wandering. In a foundational text for the whole bible, and to understand what Jesus has done for us, Genesis 12:1-3 reads:
Now the Lord said to Abram, “go from your country and your father’s house to the land that I will show you [wander]. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.”
The connection between Abram’s wandering and Jesus’ provision of himself as the city of rest; (God’s beloved firstborn Son representing and rescuing God’s wandering firstborn son), is made once again by the writer of Hebrews:
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go… [wandering]. For he looked forward to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God…from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand on the seashore. These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth [wanderers]. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland….they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Heb.11:8-16)
Against that background and with that context and content, listen again to Psalm 107:
Some wandered in desert wastes,
finding no way to a city to dwell in…
he led them by a straight way,
until they reached a city to dwell in.
Two related questions hung over Israel’s scriptures and history: (1) who, if any in Israel, will finally stop wandering and enter their rest in the city God has prepared; and (2) what place, if any, will the Gentiles have in this city?
Paul’s letter to the Romans tackles those questions from many angles and he gives the staggering (yet consistent with the covenant) answer that anyone who confesses with their lips that Jesus is Lord and believes in their heart that God has raised him from the dead; irrespective of whether they are Jew or Gentile, is guaranteed a place in the city of abundant blessing. On the sole basis of Jesus they have come home – or more correctly, their home has found them. As John put it: “those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them,” (Jn.14:23).
These are the people whom God has called and saved from their wandering distress, their restlessness, their hunger, their thirst, their disorientation and their vulnerability to danger and death. They have free entry.
We have a couple of German students staying with us and students being students have no money. They faced a few days just wandering around the city. So we offered to give them entry to the zoo. We didn’t have time to go round ourselves and I’m sure they didn’t want ‘pensioners’ like us crushing their style anyway. But, they couldn’t benefit from our membership card unless either Ruth or I went with them in person. Provided they followed me and went in with me on the basis of the price I paid earlier, they would have free access to the zoo and all its wonderful delights. So that’s what we did.
Entry into the city of abundant blessings (which if Eden is anything to go by, will be a veritable zoological garden) can only be had in the company of the Lord Jesus, and on the basis of the price he has already paid. I displayed my membership card at the gate of the zoo and that was enough to guarantee entry for my student friends. The membership card; the badge of entry to the city of God is lip service (confessing Jesus is Lord) and heart burn (believing God has raised him from the dead). This is the circumcision of the heart promised to Israel in Deuteronomy 30 and adapted by Paul in Romans 10. There is no other membership card; not even Israel’s circumcision of the flesh accompanied by variations of Torah/Law-keeping. Home is the Israel of God identified as Jew-Gentile-in-Jesus-by-the-Spirit. That’s what Paul unpacks in Romans. That’s how wandering ends.
As I prepared this sermon one of my devotional readings on Friday took me to the obscure little story of Ittai in 2 Samuel 15. In a coup by David’s son Absalom, Israel’s true king had been deposed, his life and that of his royal family threatened. So David gathered his household to lead them out of the city and away from danger. Then David noticed that one man and his family had identified themselves with Israel’s rejected king and joined their destiny to his destiny. That man, Ittai, was not an Israelite; he was a Gittite, a Gentile. David challenged him:
“Why do you also go with us? Go back, and stay with the king (Absalom); for you are a foreigner, and also an exile from your home. You came only yesterday, and shall I today make you wander about with us, seeing I go I know not where? Go back, and take your brethren with you; and may the Lord show steadfast love and faithfulness to you.”
Did Ittai accept the blessing, take the easy way back to the city and there remain as a foreigner and exile far from home? No way! Ittai answered:
As the Lord lives, and as my lord the king (David) lives, wherever my lord the king shall be, whether for death or for life, there also will your servant be.”
That is what it means for a Gentile; you and me: to believe in our heart that Jesus (King David’s greater son) was raised from the dead and confess with our mouth that Jesus is our Lord.
That’s what it means to be found by God and to follow Him “whether for death or for life.”
That’s what it means to be home with God even while we wander this earth waiting for the city God has prepared for us; the New Jerusalem that will come from God.
Some wandered in desert wastes,
finding no way to a city to dwell in…
he led them by a straight way,
until they reached a city to dwell in.
27th August 2017 Rev Alan Boal
Sacrament of Baptism
National Water Day/Heritage Week
Having studied the desert wanderers last week we let the land lubbers give way to the sea-dogs this week. There’s a lovely parallel between these two outer pictures of deliverance, and something similar can be found with the two inner pictures of the prisoner and the sick. That’s the technical reason for jumping to the last of the four word-pictures. The real reason is more down to earth: this is National Water Day and we also happen to have the sacrament of Baptism, therefore the water picture in Psalm 107 seemed apt.
The desert wandering came to an end with God bringing them to a city of plenty. The stormy sailing comes to an end with God bringing them to a haven-city of peace. At one level this marine image refers to anyone on the waves: sailors, fishermen, travellers and, in these days, migrants. All these are at the mercy of the sea and the sea is a powerful and often cruel force. We ought to be mindful of how precarious this life is; especially when we take for granted the people, goods and security that we enjoy at the expense of others. We ought also to be mindful of the risks people are forced to take in their bid to flee the horrors of war. This is the first level of seafarers that come to mind when we read: ‘Some went down to the sea in ships…’
However, Psalm 107 has a very particular group of people in mind. Notice how the opening line continues: ‘…doing business on the great waters.’ That could of course refer to fishermen and the like, but I take it to refer to international businessmen and traders. The Hebrews were not traditionally sea-faring people, but over the course of history the Jews have gained a reputation for their global reach. Their energies and ingenuity have developed an international network in banking, commodities, commerce and even in ship insurance.
Their entrepreneurial and enterprising expansion didn’t come out of nowhere. There is ample evidence of it in the bible. Indeed the prophets bemoaned how ruthless and all-consuming Israel’s commerce could be. Some couldn’t get the Sabbath over quick enough so they could get back to business and maximise their profit margins:
Hear this, you who trample upon the needy,
and bring the poor of the land to an end,
saying, “When will the new moon be over,
that we may sell grain?
And the Sabbath, that we may offer wheat for sale…?”
That drive and self-confidence in business was, if anything, even more marked amongst Jesus’ contemporaries. James addresses it in his short letter:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain”; whereas you do not know about tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. (4:13-14)
God is not against international trade and commerce. God is not against profit and wealth creation. A good argument can be given for seeing in Israel’s commercial success a God-ordained blessing of His chosen people from the nations and His ordained blessing through Israel for the nations. God is not against business per se.
Nevertheless, God is scrupulous as to how business is conducted and its wealth used. For example, all business should be conducted with the utmost honesty: using accurate scales, paying for goods, being truthful in speech, and maintaining an awareness of dependence on other people and utter dependence on God and His creation. All business should be conducted with an attitude of service for the greater good and the glory of God. There can be no exploitation of people (especially the weak and vulnerable) or of the environment (over which we are appointed stewards). Large sections of the OT prophets address business practices.
The environment has a nasty habit of reminding us how powerful it is for our destruction as well as for our provision:
…they saw the deeds of the Lord,
his wondrous works in the deep.
For he commanded, and raised the stormy wind,
which filled up the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to heaven,
they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their evil plight;
they reeled and staggered like drunken men,
and were at their wits’ end.
As a rule of thumb, then, whenever you come across water in your bible, you should keep at the back of your mind two things: creation and exodus. Creation: when the waters divided so that order was placed over chaos. Exodus: when the waters divided so that liberty was wrought from slavery. The first waters gave birth, the second gave rebirth. And all of this was by God’s commanding word. That’s why the question of the mariners in Jesus’ storm-tossed ship was so pertinent: “Who is this, that even the wind and waves obey him?” Only God possesses such commanding word to bring order out of chaos and liberty out of slavery.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress;
He made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad because they had quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven.
Baptism, then, symbolises and re-enacts all of this; applying it and personalising it. There is cleansing from sin that pollutes, disorders and enslaves. There is birthing and re-birthing as the waters break to bring forth new life. There is dying and rising – passing through the waters from chaos to order and from slavery to freedom – a new exodus. All of this is the mark of the New Creation as we are identified with and benefit from Jesus. He passed through the waters on our behalf: when he was born as one of us; when he returned from asylum in Egypt; when he was baptised in the River Jordan by John; and when he died and rose again from the grave. To which our ready response ought to be:
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to the sons of men!
Let them extol him in the congregation of the people,
and praise him in the assembly of the elders.
3rd September 2017
(Psalm 107:10-16) – Prisoners Released
Over the years I’ve been in and out of prison. Actually that might give the wrong impression. I was in and out of prison as part of my prison chaplaincy responsibilities. Strictly speaking I am available to any Presbyterians who find themselves in one of the prisons in the Greater Dublin area. Presbyterians are either a very law-abiding lot or very skilled in avoiding detection, so my workload these days is hardly heavy. Nevertheless I’ve visited in Mountjoy, Arbourhill, the Docas Centre, St. Patrick’s, Cloverhill and Wheatfield. Some of these are relatively new buildings, but Moutjoy and Arbourhill are the great Victorian edifices that you associate with prison architecture. They are solid, imposing, impenetrable places. There are bars on the windows and gates, locks and keys, prison officers and handcuffs and cameras and protocols. Every mechanism is employed to keep prisoners from escaping.
Psalm 107 makes no reference to cameras or even to prison officers, but the bars of iron and the doors of bronze have changed little. And until recently, ‘hearts bowed down with hard labour’ was as common a sight in Irish prisons as in those of the ancient world. Many a prisoner in Mountjoy smashed up stones for road works.
One thing however that does distinguish these prisons ancient and modern is found in the third and fourth lines of our Psalm:
For they rebelled against the words of God,
and spurned the counsel of the Most High.
Here is the charge sheet for those deprived of freedom and serving time as their just punishment. It’s not a crime for which anyone in Ireland would have been convicted; unless you appeal to the blasphemy laws that are currently under review. Rebelling against the crown, government or boss might well land you in prison, but rebelling against the words of God and spurning the counsel of the Most High is unlikely to do so.
But then we are back in Israel’s Psalter with Israel’s history and Israel’s unique calling by God for the world. If ‘desert wanderers’ picks up the exodus phase in Israel’s story; and the storm-tossed seafarers address Israel’s international commerce, the gloomy prisoners have Israel stuck and going nowhere. At least wanderers and sailors are on the move. But with the prisoner (and in our fourth image, the bedridden) they don’t even have that sense of progress. This is not so much exodus as exile. They are clapped in irons and forced to labour without respite and without hope of release from captivity. And the worst aspect of all is that it was the very opposite of what God had for them; and the direct consequence of their refusing God. This is exile. And if the ancient historian Herodotus is correct, those bronze doors (all 100 of them) formed the security system around the city of Babylon. So these are prisoners of the Babylonian Captivity. That sentence lasted for seventy years, a long stretch by any standards.
Now we might jump quickly to Isaiah 42:6-7 and the news of release promised there:
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
We might rush to the NT and point out that Jesus himself, at the outset of his ministry (Lk.4:19), claimed to fulfil the work of Isaiah’s ‘Servant.’ So that’s alright! There’s nothing more to trouble us. Well, not so fast! For centuries the Jews have regarded themselves as this ‘Servant’; and with very good reason. Cast your eye up a few verses and you can see why:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations (gentiles).
That accurately describes the relationship between God and Israel. He did call them in righteousness when he called Abraham and Abraham’s faith was ‘credited to him as righteousness.’ He did take them by the hand to bring them out of Egypt, and he kept them for forty years in the wilderness. He did covenant them to the nations when he promised that through Israel all the nations would be blessed. The Jews are not wrong to identify themselves in this crucial role of ‘God’s Servant.’
A great deal rides on them fulfilling that role. If they don’t, then they together with all the nations of the earth are confined eternally to darkness and gloom with none to help. Worse still, the whole of God’s creation enterprise reverts to darkness, gloom and chaos. For God ordained that it would be through human agency; Adam’s race, that order would be maintained and life, flourish. With all humanity serving a life sentence everything collapses. Israel really does carry on its shoulders the full weight of the salvation of the world; and God gave Israel instruction to that effect.
That’s exactly what Paul argues in Romans. He never claims that every single Jew (like every single human being) is guilty of every particular sin and in need of salvation. He argues that Israel has failed in its vocation as ‘Servant of God for the nations’; and now is as much in need of a saviour as all the other nations. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile.
But if you call yourself a Jew and rely upon the law and boast of your relation to God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth – you then who teach others, will you not teach yourself?…You who boast in the law, do you dishonour God by breaking the law? For it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (Rom.2:17-24)
Far from being the people to whom the nations look for guidance in holy living and truthful worship, Israel is looked upon by the nations and God is actually blasphemed in response to what the nations see. To quote Psalm 107 again: ‘[Israel] had rebelled against the words of God, and spurned the counsel of the Most High.’ Therefore, ‘they fell down with none to help.’
Now we can turn to Jesus, the faithful Jew, the Isaiah 42 Servant for both Israel and the nations. Now we can appeal to the one who floods the prison cell with light; breaks the iron fetters; delivers from distress; sets the prisoner free and puts the whole creation to rights.
What was needed…was for God’s faithfulness to be put into operation, not by scrapping the covenant plan to save the world through Israel and start again by some different route, but through, somehow, the arrival of a faithful Israelite who would offer God the faithful obedience which Israel should have offered but failed to do…Now we see the faithful Israelite Paul had in mind: Israel’s representative, the Messiah, Jesus.
(N.T.Wright, Rom. Comm,53f.)
Even though Israel has been faithless, God remains faithful to his covenant promise to Abraham; to his creation plan through Adam; and to his perfect sense of justice. That faithfulness is displayed in the faithful obedience of Jesus, an obedience that remained unto death on a cross, thus purifying humanity from sin and turning humanity away from God’s wrath. From now on, those who believe and ‘cry out to the Lord in their trouble’ will be ‘delivered from their distress and brought out of darkness and gloom.’
That is the big picture. That is the super-secure prison from which humanity is released. That is how the whole of creation, because of humanity, is released. In that famous passage in Romans 8:
…the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. (Rom.8:21)
There are people who are literally in prison, and for whom this glorious gospel could be life-saving. But there are many people across this city who are locked up in their own particular prison: ‘career criminals’, gangland members, drug barons, paramilitary members, drug addicts, alcoholics, gamblers, those addicted to pornography, those addicted to money or in debt, those addicted to ambition, those addicted to power, those addicted to food or diets, those addicted to possessions, those addicted to their gadgets and technologies, those trapped in a twenty-four-seven mental nightmare, they are all “trapped in the dungeon of their own moral folly…They started out with freedom of choice but they continued to choose the wrong thing until finally it mastered them and they had no choice left.” And as one commentator insists, “there’s no use telling these people to reform; they are imprisoned in the dungeon of their own helplessness” (Griffith: 108).
Are any of them beyond the reach of Jesus? Is there any particular prison so secure that He cannot break down the gates, smash the handcuffs, and walk them past helpless prison guards? The psalmist tells us that those who believe and ‘cry out to the Lord in their trouble’ will be ‘delivered from their distress and brought out of darkness and gloom.’
Do we believe that for ourselves?
Do we believe that for the people sitting around us this morning?
Do we believe that for the people outside these walls?
If that all seems to you fanciful or simplistic, or at best wishful thinking; well, so be it. But don’t just walk away from this service content to leave it at that. Set yourself to read the scriptures and challenge God to convince you. Come and speak to me and we can begin that process. Surely you want to see people set free! Surely you want to be set free! Surely you want creation to be set free! So don’t just hear the word, do something about it!
17th September 2017 Rev Alan Boal
(Psalm 107:17-22) – Sin & Sickness
So far in the psalm we have considered the plight of desert wanderers, storm-tossed sailors, and prisoners. We turn this morning to the sick, the bedridden, the terminally ill. Like those prisoners held in gloomy dungeons with none to help, these folk are going nowhere fast. If they have a destination at all it is the ultimate destination. We are told, ‘they drew near to the gates of death.’
Many of us, I imagine, have experienced this. We may have sat beside or stood around the death-bed of a grandparent, parent, son or daughter. Here’s how Blake Morrison described the last minutes with his father:
I point to his frail flapping efforts to get upright: it seems cruel not to help him, but it would be crueller to sit him up when he’s so weak and out-of-it. Then I notice him opening his eyes, which seem to fix on something beyond the bed, and I walk round, into his line of vision, hoping I will register in them. But nothing registers at all: his eyes are looking cloudily into some middle distance – they seem to have died. His breathing, too, has changed in some way – my mother remarks on it – slower, though still regular. Then he gives a slightly bigger breath than usual – and stops. I nod at my mother. After about half a minute, he breathes again, lightly, a wisp only…Then nothing again. Another half minute, another wisp. Then silence. And more silence, restful…It is very quiet…He is dead…
(Blake Morrison, And when did you last see your father: 140-149)
It may be that you have no such experience, but you have seen on the television those heart-wrenching images of emaciated adults and listless children. They are desperate for food, but even if food were offered them, they have reached the stage described by the psalmist: ‘they loathed any kind of food.’ It isn’t merely a loss of appetite, they are well past that. It isn’t a hunger strike: that would require a forceful act of the will. It is utter resignation; when death is much preferred to life itself.
We really are at rock bottom now. The desert wanderers knew hunger. The gloomy prisoners knew hunger. But given half the chance; offered even the most rancid morsel to chew on, they would happily have done so – such is the human desire for sustenance and self-preservation. Not so with these people on their sick-bed. They have given up the will to live altogether. Death alone is their deliverance.
How has it come to this? What has brought them to this desperately sad place? With the international traders on the high seas, it was hubris. They were go-getters and nothing would get in their way. With the prisoners it was rebellion against God’s words, the spurning of his counsel. That was the charge sheet against them. What, then, lies behind these emaciated people on their death-bed? According to verse 17 –
They were sick through their sinful ways,
and because of their iniquities
Now we need to be careful at this point. We need to consider, first, what is NOT being said. Then we need, second, to consider what is being said. Failure to distinguish these two will result in the kind of warped theologies and ministries that have lined the pockets of charlatans and destroyed the lives of the vulnerable.
What is NOT being said
This is not a simple matter of cause and effect. The psalmist is not saying that acute illness is always a sure indication of God’s judgement of sin. It is tempting to draw such a straight line and operate accordingly. We find it in the disciples when they ask of the man born blind, “who sinned, this man or his parents?” (Jn.9:2). Observe the judgement and you can identify the sin. There is a growing clamour in the media for ‘tariff sentencing’, so that if a person is found guilty of a specified crime the judge will be obliged to give them the set sentence for that crime without any reference to mitigating circumstances. Judges have rightly resisted this on the basis that justice is far more nuanced than that. But tariff sentencing seems so straightforward; like this link between illness and sin, that it’s very tempting to stick with it.
Jesus knocks this faulty (not to say, sloppy) theology out of court: ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.’
Now we must be cautious the other way. A tightrope walker doesn’t stay on the rope by lurching from one side to the other, nor can we stay on the rope by rejecting one wrong idea and replacing it with its opposite. Jesus is not saying that this blind man and his parents were paragons of virtue. He is not saying that they were, like Mary Poppins, perfect in every way. Of course they sinned. Scripture is adamant that all have sinned; that none is righteous; no not one. The blind man and his parents undoubtedly sinned; perhaps more or perhaps less than the average person, but that is not the point. The point is that blindness in this specific case was not the direct result of sin; the unequivocal evidence of God’s judgement. God can indeed blind people in response to their sin (texts), but not all blindness testifies to sin. Jesus’ oblique reference to manifesting the works of God is immediately clarified by giving sight to the blind man. Jesus, who is God in the flesh, is primarily in the business of restoring humans, not punishing them.
Sadly there are evangelists, pastors and international speakers who peddle the simple principle of sin and punishment. When people with an obvious disability arrive in their church or auditorium they make a beeline for them and demand they repent of their sin in order to be healed. We had lunch with a couple from the Maynooth church on Monday and they told us a story about Joni Ereckson-Tada. She broke her back in a diving accident and has remained a paraplegic ever since. But this hasn’t stopped her from travelling the world and ministering to millions of people with incredible faith and fortitude. Anyway, she was in her wheelchair at one of these churches and the leader approached her and insisted she repent of her obviously gross sin in order to be healed. Her sin was ‘obvious’ to him because her disability was so obvious. According to his theology God had meted out a severe tariff, so she must be guilty of serious sin. To which she replied, “Well why don’t you pray for my healing and if that doesn’t work we can ask what gross sin you need to confess!”
I know some of you watch the God-channels on TV. I think you’ll find this sort of thing in many of the programmes. Some of you have attended certain Pentecostal churches here in Dublin. Not all are guilty of this kind of teaching and preaching, but some of them are and you have to be alert to it. Quite a few of you may testify to an encounter where someone, with the best of intentions, offered to pray for your healing and when that didn’t happen, they blamed you for lack of faith or of stubborn sin you refuse to confess. This kind of thing lacks wisdom, discernment, mercy and love. It is more damaging than the illness or disability itself and Psalm 107 is not defending it.
We must be equally vigilant of those who would have us lurch in the opposite direction. Those who divorce mental and physical health (the domain of medical practitioners) from spiritual health (the crumbs left to people like me). Our health system – and I have this on the authority of Christian doctors and nurses – operates on a definition of ‘human’ that ignores or even rejects the biblical definition. Consequently Christian medics are required to leave their quaint theology at the hospital door and act ‘professionally.’ Can you imagine what disciplinary procedures would unfold if a Christian clinician were to suggest to a patient that their terminal prognosis was due to rebellion against God? I appreciate the dilemma they face, but what excuse do my fellow clergy have? There is as much (maybe, more) resistance from vicars, priests, pastors, nuns and ministers; people who, interestingly, are desperate to be accepted as ‘professionals.’ We bemoan our lack of access to gravely ill patients while they still have the ability to communicate, but when we do have the chance, we avoid the elephant in the ward because deep down we can’t face up to our own mortality. Psalm 107 confronts us and challenges all our assumptions.
What IS being said
If Psalm 107 is not saying that kind of thing, what is it saying? Clearly some correlation is being made between ‘iniquities’ and illness. Verse 17 insists upon it. The psalmist is quite particular about his terminology at this point. He is focusing on deliberate, wilful rebellion against God. The guilty party is well aware of the actions taken and is culpable for those actions. When the recently released Hebrews made a golden calf, they were guilty of ‘iniquity’ (Ex.34:6f.), but for Moses’ mediation, they would have died.
Now I’m going to make a huge leap at this point and take you with me. Time doesn’t allow for detailed explanation. Together we leap from Psalm 107 to Romans 11. You may be familiar with the term: ‘The sick man of Europe.’ It’s been applied to virtually every European country at some point. It was applied to Britain before it entered the EU and this week it seems that Jean-Claude Junker has made an early diagnosis for Britain as it exits the EU. Well overall, the Bible diagnoses Israel as the sick man because Israel is habitually stiff-necked. In other words, Israel (collectively and individually) tends to wilfully resist God, so death is close at hand.
Paul; who of course still regards himself as an Israelite – albeit he uses that term in a variety of ways – is quite clear that there is sickness unto death for everyone (including those like him that are biologically Israelites) who refuse to put their faith in Jesus as the risen and reigning Messiah in whom alone one becomes a member of God’s Israel. Paul accepts that most of his fellow Israelites have wilfully refused to recognise Jesus. And he fears that the Gentile Christians in Rome may be tempted to sign Israel’s death-warrant and claim the family inheritance for themselves. Put another way, Paul fears that these Christians have written off the Israelites on the wrong assumption that God has given up on them and left them to die. Paul’s insists that:
If [Israel’s] rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? (Rom.11:15)
We Gentiles have indeed been brought into God’s family through the death of Israel’s Messiah (Jesus) – and so, in a manner of speaking, through Israel’s death. But that doesn’t automatically mean the death of Israel altogether. For in a strange twist, it is going to be through the faith and humble service of us (believing) Gentiles that many Israelites will be provoked to faith in Jesus. Whenever that happens, Psalm 107 rings true:
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he sent forth his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction…Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love…let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving, and tell of his deeds in songs of joy.
If you are to rise from your deathbed you must stop resisting Jesus and instead place your faith in him. If you are already a member of God’s Israel in Jesus, don’t just stand around the (literal or metaphorical) deathbed of others waiting for the final breath. Set yourself to bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus and the new life in him; the only hope for a sin-sick world.
24th September 2017
(Psalm 107:33-38) – Sin & Landscape Rev Alan Boal
Last week we explored the complex connections between sin and sickness. This week we’ll explore the equally complex connections between sin and landscape; and next week between sin and society.
As with sin and sickness, Psalm 107 seems to make a simple and direct correlation between sin and landscape, a connection dependent upon human behaviour in relation to God. If the people are in a right relationship with God then God will literally pour out his blessing upon their land and they will enjoy the benefits that accrue. If, however, their relationship with God is wrong, then God will curse the land, command drought and bring famine to kill plants, herds and families. It seems straightforward and brutal:
He turns rivers into a desert,
springs of water into thirsty ground,
a fruitful land into a salty waste,
because of the wickedness of its inhabitants.
Some people find such a straightforward and brutal connection between sin and landscape very appealing; especially when they’re applying it to others. They look at the landscape inhabited by a particular group of people and swiftly draw a conclusion as to the righteousness or otherwise of that group. If they happen to inhabit a lush, fruitful land, that’s a sure sign of God’s blessing. If the land is desert, desolate and barren wilderness, (we might include here the brutalist landscape of post-war housing estates throughout Europe and the makeshift camps of mass migrants), obviously God has cursed that unrighteous population. The land is ‘God-forsaken’ because God has literally forsaken its inhabitants. In fact there is a sub-plot to this damning analysis: since God has forsaken them, we have no obligation to rescue them and every reason to ignore them.
You may think this is very odd indeed. Surely nobody thinks like that these days, even if some may have thought like that in the past. You might remind me that any time disaster strikes (as the recent hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts and monsoons demonstrate) the international community is quick to respond with aid. Nobody comes on air claiming these people deserve to suffer God’s curse, or arguing that our interventions are inappropriate.
Well as a matter of fact they do. Whatever the catastrophe, there are people from many religious camps only too willing to discern God’s hand of judgement.
Take for example the aftermath of the 2014 Boxing Day tsunami that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Tina (of Holy Love Ministries) linked it to the issue of abortion. Al-Fawzan, a member of the Senior Council of Clerics, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body, and a professor at the Al-Imam University, regarded it as God’s judgement on sexual sins rampant in these holiday resorts. Muhammad Al-Munajiid spread the net wider, blaming, “the Christian holidays [that] are accompanied by forbidden things, by immorality, abomination, adultery, alcohol, drunken dancing and revelry….they spend the entire night defying Allah. … At the height of immorality, Allah took revenge on these criminals.” Some Imams in Banda Acah, Indonesia (which suffered the greatest loss of life), blamed the tsunami on lay Muslims not meeting their obligation to pray five times daily and for following the materialistic lifestyles of others, and because Allah was angry that Muslims were killing each other. Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Amar saw it as: “an expression of God’s wrath with the world. The world is being punished for wrongdoing…be it peoples’ needless hatred of each other, lack of charity, or moral turpitude.” Others blamed it on Sweden’s 2002 Act to give protection to all genders and orientations (noting a relatively large number of Swedes who died in the disaster).
So much for floods! Are droughts any different? Seemingly not! In July 2014 American meteorologists claimed, starting in 1999, California has suffered the “worst drought in recorded history.” This didn’t suit some American Christians who preferred to date it from 2012 so as to coincide with their claim that it was God’s direct response to the 7/Dec 2012 US Supreme Court hearing on homosexual marriage. Life magazine ran a cover story in 1993 titled – “killer weather” – surveying blizzards on the East Coast, drought in the S.E, floods in the Midwest, and raging fires in the West. Some Christians claimed this catalogue as God’s judgement on America’s moral decline. In Nov. 2016 – Israeli meteorologists recorded eight years of dry winters that were depleting the reservoirs. Some in Israel blamed the Palestinians for refusing to sign up to a water project that would secure safe drinking water across the region. I suppose it took the heat off God for a while!
I take the point that these assessments could be dismissed as the rare views of ‘religious crazies’, but that only begs the question: why, if in the past, people did make such a direct correlation between sin and landscape, are we now so resistant to such analysis?
Is it because we have expert meteorologists and geographers who can better explain climate change and predict weather conditions? The Israeli meteorologists admitted that they didn’t predict the early snows and droughts that followed.
Is it because our analysis of ‘natural disasters’ is more sophisticated and takes into account the human culpability of politics and greed? That may be true, but experts in drought analysis are tearing their hair out because of the political inertia in setting up an international drought warning system precisely because of political self-interest.
Is it because we are more humane towards total strangers in their hour of need? Again there is evidence to support this claim, but there is also evidence of charity fatigue and profound unwillingness to sacrifice for others.
Is it because fewer people now believe in God (any god) and simply don’t make the connection? That’s fair enough, but then we ought to put a media moratorium on blaming ‘God’ each time disaster strikes.
I wonder if we are too accustomed to the Judaeo-Christian principle of charity towards the desolate stranger as a fitting response to divine grace, so we no longer recognise it for the odd novelty that it is. If you read Psalm 107 carefully you’ll notice that, where you might expect symmetry, there is a-symmetry.
He turns rivers into a desert,
springs of water into thirsty ground,
a fruitful land into a salty waste, [Why?]
because of the wickedness of its inhabitants.
By contrast, God:
…turns a desert into pools of water,
a parched land into springs of water.
And there he lets the hungry dwell… [Why?]
You would expect to be told at this point that God is responding to ‘the righteousness of the land’s inhabitants’, but that is not what the Psalmist says. At no point is God’s outpoured blessing explained by right behaviour on the part of the human population. Their only ‘boast’ is their desperate need: they are hungry, and God’s steadfast love. Therefore God waters their land; settles them in sheltered cities of refuge; and goes beyond their immediate crisis to secure their long-term future:
…they establish a city to live in;
they sow fields, and plant vineyards,
and get a fruitful yield.
By his blessing they multiply greatly;
and he does not let their cattle decrease.
In just a couple of poetic lines we are confronted by the stark juxtaposition of curse and blessing; of punishment and mercy; of justice and grace. Here we find hospitality in the hostile landscape. What’s going on? Is God schizophrenic or, as the Greeks regarded the deities, capricious? Or is there as a matter of fact, no connection between human behaviour and the landscape we inhabit? Clearly the environmentalists will thump the table against any rejection of that link and our responsibility, but may equally resist any divine dimension.
The bible is not nearly so resistant. In fact the inextricable link between God, humanity and land is insisted upon from start to fish; from Genesis to Revelation. And this link; as with so many things, becomes focused on Israel. Few, I think, would dispute this. The mere mention of ‘Israel’ and the mere sight of the Israeli flag is a red rag to the Palestinian bull. Israel is shorthand for people-plus-land-plus-God. And the dynamics between these elements largely accounts for the geo-politics of the Middle East and beyond. This is not coincidence. It is covenant.
God established humanity in a landscape (lush and fruitful) with the vocation to tend it and make it flourish. When humanity distorted itself by rejecting God and claiming autonomy, the connection between humanity and land also became distorted:
…cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground… (Gen.3:17-19)
It is through Israel that God’s restoration plan is mounted. God calls Abraham to leave his homeland and promises him both populous family and a fruitful land for them to inhabit, thus reconstituting Eden. As this plays out, Israel’s story is dominated by land possession and the inability to dwell in it according to the guidelines provided. Those guidelines included both curse and blessing depending on Israel’s obedience.
And if you obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments which I command you this day, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your body, and the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your beasts, the increase of your cattle, and the young of your flock. (Dt.28:1-4)
But if you disobey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command you this day, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Cursed shall you be the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading-trough. Cursed shall be the fruit of your body, and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your cattle, and the young of your flock…And the heavens over your head shall be brass, and the earth under you shall be iron. The Lord will make the rain of your land powder and dust; from heaven it shall come down upon you until you are destroyed. (Dt.28:15-24)
The punishment of exile; removing Israel from the land, was therefore not at all arbitrary. This too was a recapitulation of the Eden story; only now it recapitulates banishment from the life-sustaining garden. Is there no hope for Israel, no hope for humanity through Israel? According to Moses’ swan song prior to Israel’s entry into the land, God will, “stir [Israel] to jealousy with those who are no people; [and] provoke them with a foolish nation” (Dt.32:21b).
This is precisely the thread of hope Paul clings to as he contemplates Israel’s rejection of Jesus as their Messiah. He reflects on the plight of humanity, land and God in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection and realises that the gentiles have been made right by God through God’s ‘casting off’ of Israel. He reminds the Christians in Rome that, “through [Israel’s] trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous” (Rom.11:11). Israel is being provoked, by the obedient faith of the gentiles, to embrace Jesus as Messiah. The net result will be one family of God on the sole basis of grace, inheriting all the land of the world; together with the vocation to care for it and make it flourish. Jesus’ intervention is God’s hospitality in the hostile landscape of sin and curse: “Come you thirsty and drink!”
If this is what you believe, then you are bound by God’s grace to extend that future into your landscape and to all those who happen to inhabit it at any given time. This is especially so when the landscape has become hostile and where hope has evaporated. It is not your place to speculate on the ‘spiritual’ reasons for such visitations. You certainly have no grounds for justifying your self-righteous inaction. Rather, you are freed and empowered to usher in transformation.
This may be as simple as picking up rubbish from your local streets. [North Inner City problem] and making the place a little more beautiful. It might mean involvement in a local initiative to improve the neighbourhood. It could involve giving money, time or talent to some crisis response at home or abroad. It might require you to share your home with a homeless person. Perhaps it calls you to pursue studies and a career in some aspect of the environment or humanitarian aid. But in all of these enterprises you must remain centred on the grace of God in Jesus, and operate within the story of God’s hospitality in and for a hostile landscape. For, ‘creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of God’s family.’
1st October 2017
Sacrament of Communion
(Psalm 107:39-42) – Sin & Society
It’s common these days to divide society into ‘the haves’ and the ‘have nots.’ There has never been a human society that was wholly equal; where every citizen enjoyed the same status, reverence and wealth equally. There has always been some internal distinction based on strength (‘might is right’ – dictatorship), wealth (‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’ – free-market), intelligence (‘knowledge is power’ – meritocracy) or ancestry (‘born with a silver spoon in the mouth’ – aristocracy). In a crude distortion of the Gospel principle, it seems that ‘to those who have, more will be given.’ The world, as my mum is fond of reminding me, is ‘ill-divid!’
Now you might think that we’d have learned our lesson by now. History teaches us that the more unequal a society becomes the less stable it is and the more likely it is to fall to bloody revolution. After all, when the masses no longer have anything to lose, the one thing remaining to them is numerical strength. It’s a point the Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz made in his book, The Price of Inequality. But Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, in their book The Spirit Level, reckon they have unearthed a world full of ‘closet egalitarians.’ These are people who, in one way or another, are asking themselves three questions:
- Why, amidst such unprecedented affluence, are our societies beset by such a worrying array of social problems such as depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol dependency, and violence?
- Why do a large majority of the population feel that ‘consumerism’ or ‘materialism’ is something we get caught up in despite feeling it runs counter to our values and our desire for more time with family, friends and community?
- Why do we intuitively sense that inequality is divisive and socially corrosive?
It seems that we know the good society we want but are incapable of realising that good society. The only people who don’t share our vision are those elites who, at least in their own terms, are wallowing in the muck of self-indulgence and basking in the glow of the good life.
The Equality Foundation based in the UK published its annual ‘Wealth Tracker’ in May and declared that the 1000 richest households have more wealth than the poorest 40% of households. The wealthiest saw their wealth increase by a staggering £82.5 billion (or £226m per day, or £2,615 per second). To put that in context, £82.5 billion would pay the energy bills of all 25.6 million UK households for 2.5 years and still have more that £2b change. It would pay the grocery bill for all the UK’s users of food banks for 56 years and still have £1b over. It would pay 2 years rent for 4.5m households; or 4 years adult social care in England.
According to their ‘Pay Tracker’ (Mar. 2017); which tracks the pay difference between CEOs in the FTSE 100 with average and low pay workers, the statistics were just as staggering. The average CEO annual pay is £5.3m, or 386 times a worker earning the National Living Wage. The average CEO is now paid 165 times that of a nurse; 140 times a teacher; 132 times a police officer; and 312 times a care worker.
Should that bother us? Well according to The Equality Foundation:
People in more equal societies live longer, have better mental health and better chances for a good education regardless of background. Community life is stronger where the gap is narrower; children do better at school and are less likely to become teenage parents. When inequality is reduced, people trust each other more, there is less violence and rates of imprisonment are lower.
Ah, but that’s the UK and this is Ireland. Inequality isn’t an issue here! According to Dan O’Brien’s article in the Sunday Business Post on Feb.15/2015, “claims about great inequality in Ireland are just bunkum.” The facts are clear, he says, Ireland is average equal in income (a flow) when compared to its peer countries. In terms of wealth (a stock) we are similar to our peers; indeed we outstrip our German friends because we have a much higher level of house ownership. According to the Gin co-efficient (a well established measure of inequality) Ireland is more equal than the euro average.
David McWilliams begs to differ. In his RTE documentary in September of the same year he argued that the divide in wealth has widened as a direct result of the austerity measures implemented during the economic crisis. Incomes stagnated over 7 years, but those who make money exclusively from shares and assets saw an increase of 500% since 2008. The most affluent 20% actually own 73% of the country’s wealth, whereas the poorest own just 0.2%. As for the top 5% – their combined wealth is nearly double that of the entire “squeezed middle.”
According to the TASC report 2015 – ‘Cherishing all Equally: Economic Inequality in Ireland’ – we are moving closer to US levels of inequality. While average incomes doubled in Ireland (1975-2009), the average for the top 10% more than tripled, and the average for the top 1% went up five-fold. Data from the Revenue bears this out. The top 1% income earners average €373,300 compared to the bottom 90% who earn €27,000. The top 10% hold between 42-58% of wealth while the bottom 50% holds only 12%. Dr. Nat O’Connor of TASC comments:
High concentrations of wealth and income can lead to disproportionate political power, and so more equal societies are better able to promote democracy and ensure the public interest is safeguarded in public policies.
Inequality is closely bound up with injustice because wealth is power and too much wealth in the hands of too few, means too much power for the elites over the masses. Now this is not a modern issue. Ancient societies faced the same prospects. There was inequality in Israel. Jacob blessed his twelve sons to varying degrees. When the twelve tribes finally entered the Promised Land each was given an allotment, but the size and quality of each varied. And when the demand for a king over Israel was granted the worst excesses of monarchy became apparent. As Chris Wright said in his book, OT Ethics for the People of God:
Under a human landowning king, people live in the equality of oppression. Under their landowning God, Israel lives in the equality of freedom. (94)
Much of what we read in the OT can be understood in that context. As Chris Wright says:
It was the imbalance in a society that was supposed to be based on covenantal equality and mutual support that most angered the prophets. (175)
Affluence was a feature of Israelite society and Amos issued a blistering condemnation on it:
Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the midst of the stall…who drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils and are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! (6:4-6)
There was vast inequality and the elites didn’t give a toss. Isaiah was a contemporary of Amos and shared his assessment:
Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land. (5:8)
The prophetic outrage against Israel’s inequality was so fierce because it was so contrary to God’s blueprint for society. However, it wasn’t as if God was socially naive or sociologically inept. He knew rightly what Israel was capable of and he built in measures to take the heat out of the economy and to redistribute power away from the hands of the few. These measures found their most glorious expression in the Jubilee Year. Every fifty years the economy was zeroed: all land allotments were returned to their respective tribes; all debts were cancelled; and all those who had sold themselves into slavery to meet a debt were released with a start-up package. It was the kind of reversal described by the psalmist:
When they are diminished and brought low through oppression, trouble, and sorrow, he pours contempt upon princes and makes them wander in trackless wastes; but he raises up the needy out of affliction, and makes their families like flocks. (Psm.107:39-41)
So when Jesus launched his mission with an appeal to the Jubilee he was not using it as a mere picture. Jesus was launching the Jubilee that would result in God’s society of equality.
The spirit of the Lord is upon me…to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. (Lk.4:18f)
Paul later reminded the gentile Christians in Galatia of this radical equality in Christ:
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal.3:27-28)
It doesn’t matter what your background is, or what your bank balance is, or what your stocks and shares portfolio contains, if you are baptised into Christ and thereby a citizen of the polis of God’s kingdom; the kingdom that is radically distinct from all other societies in its unity and peace, then you are duty bound to treat one another as equals and care for one another as family. That’s why Paul got so upset over the news from Corinth that the Sacrament of Communion had become a place that brought the rich/poor divide into stark relief. The wealthy Christians had no work to go to so they stuffed their faces on the choice food and left the scraps for the poor brethren when they finally clocked out and arrived. We are familiar with the glorious words of institution that begin, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you…” You’ll hear it later in the liturgy. But listen to what immediately precedes those lofty words:
When you meet together it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you? No, I will not.(1 Cor.11:20-22)
This sacrament should symbolise the radical unity, peace and equality that marks the Church of Jesus out as the Jubilee Society. It should be a moment when all who gather in faith recognise in one another the only basis upon which each is righteous before God: the basis of faith. This is a place where wealth, strength, intelligence and ancestry count for nothing. The only thing that counts is faith. There is no room for boasting (save only in the Cross of Christ). There is no room for one-upmanship (save only in humble service). This sacrament should exemplify our equality before God and between one another. And, we should go from this sacrament determined to make visible to society the Jubilee Society of God. Politicians across the political spectrum; for all they are to be respected, cannot create this society. Even we can’t create this society; for it is God’s creation. But we can point it out to others. We do that by our lifestyle choices. We do it by our attitudes towards others. We do it by our lobbying and campaigning. We do it by our sacrificial generosity and our radical example.
The upright see it and are glad; and all wickedness stops it mouth.