Labourers in the vineyard -the Sovereignty of God - and a comment from Paul on living
For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live
in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed
between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more
necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all
of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come
to you again. Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see
you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one
mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence
of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously
granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
Matthew 20. 1-16
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner
who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing
with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When
he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You
also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When
he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about
five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle
all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said
to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner
of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going
to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received
the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but
each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying,
‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching
heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the
usual daily wage?
Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to
you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious
because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.
the labourer in a Phillipian field
these 2 readings we are presented with some pretty hefty principles and a very high bar to reach. Paul says that for
him to die is gain because he will be with Christ. This is no idle phrase as Paul knew too well the sort of death that might
be coming his way. But, says Paul, if I have to live, at least let you, the Philippians, be faithful to the Gospel. Further
to which, he says, ‘you Philippians and I have in common that we have been allowed to take part in the suffering of
Christ, a high honour and act of grace’. Martyrdom is not everyone’s first idea of an act of grace but if it’s
going to happen, you might as well at least try and see it as a good thing.
Marxist, capitalist or simply the Son of Almighty God?
Jesus, though, has even harder things to think on as they concern living not dying and life goes on
and on and on whereas death, pardon the obvious, is a once only event although it can take a while in the doing. I do not
make light of the heavy, I do make the point that life is a long ongoing matter in which many things change and come into
play, go out of reach and cause distress as well as pleasure. Death, as my philosophy tutor used to tell me, is not an event
So is Jesus teaching us right wing
economic fundamentals here? – the boss has the last say and the workers must simply put up with it. The coin of sin
has two sides and pride is the one we think of first. This is the side that says ‘I can do without God’. It’s
obverse side is passivity, less preached on but there nevertheless. To be passive is to say that we have no role to
play in what comes our way and we must just accept whatever the Great God gives us. This attitude, as sinful as pride, leads
to us accepting injustice and rottenness in the roots of our own behaviour and that of society around us. Why protest against
anything when it is simply God’s will and we must endure patiently? This is a charter for bully and weak alike, the
bully will say you must do this, it’s God’s will. The weak will meekly accept and hope to inherit the earth
– one day, if that’s alright with the rest of us, please…On such a premise has the Church often held its
congregations under the thumb of a dominating hierarchy of priesthood.
The injustice the first workers feel is palpable and we can sympathize with them - but
they did agree to the wage in the first place so they really have no recourse. But, to counter such apparently unjust
behaviour, trade unionists and philanthropists fought to establish what we now take for granted – or did until
the gig economy reared its head. An hourly rate and a minimum wage not one or the other as the parable here is suggesting.
The first workers got the daily rate, the last an hourly one and the disparity between the 2 is what upset the first
workers even though they had no one to blame for their perceived injustice except themselves –but they trusted
the employer. More fool them? Western society, since the Second War, has been more or less based on the idea of a fair wage
for a fair job done – so long as we turn blind eyes to discrimination against women and the unskilled, illiterate or
illegal. Economic history is too long for such short generalisations to cover them fairly, read the gist.
So if Jesus is not saying that the workers should have
been more canny in negotiating a day’s work look at the phrase He uses about generosity.
‘I choose to give to this last the same as I
give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you
envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’
At first glance we’re still in the territory of the
employer. the employer can choose, it’s their money they are giving away. So what’s the stuff about envious and
generous? The late workers, arguably the shirkers, lay abouts and otherwise variously useless (why else would
they not have found work before 5 in the afternoon?) got a crackingly generous deal. The respectable workers, those up and
shaved and dressed, booted and suited for work early, got the rough end of the deal -except they agreed to the deal.
The late folk were hardly going to turn round and say no to the employer, nor ‘take half of mine you deserve it’
to the first workers in the vineyard. Traditionally this parable is seen as saying that the Jews came first but they will
only get the same rewards in heaven as the late-comer-Christians or that the early 1st Century Christians
will get the same reward as those of the 21st Century – after all, if the 1stC. folk are in Eternity,
what difference there does any concept of Time or Reward make?
For me the clue to the meaning of this parable is in the attribution of envious and generous.
The workers are envious, the employer is generous.
Take nothing at face value
When I worked as a hospice chaplain a middle aged couple were admitted, she to die,
he to watch and wait and mourn. One day he exploded as she lay ill and weak. ‘We have been Christians all our lives,
we have given time and money to the Church and worked for God and this is the reward we get?! What have we done to deserve
this?’ His anger was even more understandable than that of the first labourers, but it missed a point.
On ordination retreat we were given a ‘charge’
by the ordaining bishop - a traditional end of retreat and pre-ordination pep-talk. We were told that God does not give
brownie points or have a loyalty card system for working in the Church for the Kingdom. Expect bad things to happen and you
won’t be disappointed for clergy and Christians alike have stuff happen to them.
We all of us have an innate sense of justice, we are made in the image of God and God
rages against the injustices of the world that we perpetrate. –So why is God seemingly so unjust to us when dealing
out tragedy and relief?
We have no choice so
much of the time. We do not choose the moment of our conception nor the type of parents to which we are born. We do not choose
the gifts and talents we have - yet we can choose to cultivate, enhance or ignore them. We cannot always choose which
job we do, someone else may be better qualified or fit the profile better. The house in which we live is determined by having
the money, the buyer, the seller, the landlord and such like. We cannot choose if we lose our hair or have a big bum –though
there are some things we can do about these things! As I say to myself as I eat the butter-laden bread, no one is making
you do this… And by and large we have no say in how we will die - of which illness or which circumstance or simply
old age. Whether you think these things are God determined, genetic or choice, the degree of autonomy is mythical in
that we think it greater than it is. Our lifestyle may bring us to an early grave by our choice but some smoke for years and
die of old age not lung cancer. Tragedy comes unbidden but sometimes we urge it on.
One thing is certain and that is that we will die and return to God from whom
we have been given our being. This sounds like a theology of gloom! Consider this: ‘ It is no fool who gives what he
cannot keep to gain what he cannot buy.’ I cannot keep my life on this earth for ever, physical life is finite. So to
give my life in the cause of justice, loving my neighbour or something of which God approves and is pleased, is all, literally,
to the good. But there is more to life than just being socially equitable and ‘nice’. By giving my life to Christ
in gratitude for His having giving His life first for me, in gratitude for His taking my due deserts for wrongful, sin-ridden
behaviour, is to gain something that wealth cannot buy - for God is not impressed or bought by wealth, only by sincerity
of heart and love of the Son - ‘for God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in
Him will not perish but have eternal life’. How simple can it be?
We are envious, we look on others and think – why not
me? Peter, at the very end of John’s Gospel does the very same – he looks at John and says to Jesus – ‘What
about him?’ (John 21,20) to which Jesus replies pretty much as the employer in the parable does: ‘If it is my
will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’ We work so often in economic terms of transaction and worth,
thinking in terms of deserving reward or punishment, but this is not the way of God who gives without reserve
and is generous beyond grace. Our life in all its being is a gift to which we have no right and which we have done nothing
to bring about. God may do as God chooses or life may be curtailed as others impose. God does not always decide our deaths
(when idiots kill with guns or cars or chose not to take precautions against illness or accident) but God can and does cope
with our life and our death. How will we choose to react, what will our attitude to life and to God be? Gratitude or self-righteous
indignation? Do not be passive but neither be you proud. Give that which belongs to God, to God - and thereby gain that
to which you have no right, only an invitation.
Peter the Sulker-in-Chief
Then Peter came and said
to him, “Lord, if one of my brothers sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus
said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23 For this
reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When
he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and,
as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment
to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience
with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord
of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went
out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii;[j] and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then
his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But
he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When
his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had
taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave!
I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had
mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed
him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father
will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
How to read…
To understand the Bible sometimes it helps to try and visualise what’s going on in the text in front of you
and treat it like a description of an event instead of always looking for the deep and holy message. This is particularly
so with the Gospels when Jesus is often taken very seriously when actually He could well be teasing. It also helps to
remember the context of the small piece appointed as the day’s reading. In the section above, set for last week’s
reading, we have a good example of all of these words of warning.
The context of this small sequence is set into a long teaching session on sin and the
relationship we have with our fellows in our community. Jesus has spent quite some time explaining and teaching the consequences
and best practice for living with others (Mt. 18, 15-20). Then along comes Peter and sets himself up as an example of how
not to do things. How so? Look and think harder!
The disciples are gathered
and Jesus is teaching. Who was in this merry band? (Name the disciples…) PICTURE in your mind’s eye who
were gathered together. Think too of what we know about Peter. He was a fisherman, as much brawn as brains perhaps (or, as
Shakespeare said, less brains than ear wax). He was noted for his ability to get the wrong end of the stick, had a habit of
telling Jesus what to do and of changing his mind, of being impetuous and then, like a cartoon character who finds himself
out of cliff to run on (or waves to walk on) he falls flat on his face or sinks. He also had a capacity to sulk. Look especially
at John’s Gospel at the end and judge his reaction to Jesus’ 3-times-given invitation to apologize. Peter didn’t
take the chance Jesus gave him, even after his 3 times denial of Christ. Peter seems to have thought Jesus was just getting
at him, and, like all who feel accused he tries to deflect attention on to another ( see John 21. 15-21). Notice Peter’s
absence from the dialogues at the post resurrection scenes.
He’s behind you…
So now look at the scene above and start to put this scene onto a stage in your mind.
Gather the disciples and put Peter among them. Imagine what could prompt him to ask Jesus the question ‘How many times…’
What has happened that Peter should ask this?
There are at least 2 possibilities.
1.Peter has been annoyed/hurt by someone and is trying to get Jesus to play judge. Imagine, in a group together, something
happens and a dispute breaks out so Peter says ’Right, I’ll get Jesus to settle this’. Off he goes marching
to Christ whilst the other disciples groan, try to get him back or just watch on in bemused’ here we go again’
mode. 2. Peter has done the annoying and has told the disciple (who has perhaps just followed Jesus most recent instruction
to talk to that brother and if they won’t listen go with 2 or 3 others -Mt. 18.15ff) that he, Peter thinks he should
be forgiven. The other thinks, perhaps, that Peter has been forgiven enough and should now be looking at the suggestion Jesus
makes in verse 17! The knub of either situation is that this isn’t the first time something has happened (my money is
on Peter being the annoying one) and that forgiveness for the umpteenth time is required. Patience is running out so Peter
goes off to Jesus. And this is where mischief and teasing come in.
not, perhaps, the brightest tool in the box. Remember the bit in John where the exact number of fish is given? Did Peter have
a wee bit of trouble with numbers? We know how the caricature of fishermen presents them as prone to exaggeration and maybe
John was also teasing Peter by recording the exact number? Anyway, Peter asks Jesus how many times should I forgive as many
as seven. You can do all the academic stuff about 7 being a special number that represents something other than 6+1 but maybe,
just maybe, Peter couldn’t get past 7. I know this feeling, I get to 7 in German or Norwegian and then my brain starts
to melt and I mix up åtte with acht and huit. So, as many as 7 was a long way for this chap.
Jesus says, depending on which edition of Matthew you’re reading seventy
times or seventy times seven. This is a lot of sevens for a bear of little brain. The other disciples, watching on, might
now start to giggle. Among their number would be several who could count, not least Matthew and Judas. Matthew the tax collector
who knew his sums and Judas who kept the company purse (John 12.6). Peter, running out of both fingers and number-words now
must have looked flummoxed and maybe at this point the company break into laughter and Peter has his hair ruffled by a loving
Christ and his shoulder gently thumped by the person he’s upset.
people are humans, they live and love and fall out and reconcile. Imagine these things and see yourself in their humanity.
So Jesus goes on to tell another story, warning them all of the need to forgive, lest
worst befall and God judges their shortcomings. How would we fare if we were judged by the same stricture as we judge others
let alone if we were judged by the standard set by Christ?
But look once more at who was there watching and listening to Jesus explain the nature
and quantity of forgiveness. Peter needed forgiveness after the Resurrection and he couldn’t quite get his head round
how willing and ready Christ was to forgive him. Instead he sulked his way about until the power of the Holy Spirit transformed
him (see Acts 2). But remember Judas was there and heard the words too. John found Judas difficult to forgive and his
gospel is laced with anti-Judas sentiment but Matthew saw Judas differently. In Matthew 27.3 we read that Judas repented.
There is a Jewish tradition that the willing death of a man repays the death of another and the suicide of Judas may have
been something to do with this piece of maths –who knows the minds of those who take their own lives? But there is another
tradition of the Church that talks of the Harrowing of Hell and is based on 1 Peter 3 19 and Acts 2.27. In this all but lost
theology (which we also find in the Apostles’ Creed) we find that Christ descended into hell to bring out those who
were there waiting for Christ to take them from there to heaven. If Judas was one of the last in, maybe he was also one of
the first out?
The nature and property of God
communion service we say almost without thinking ‘on the night He was betrayed…’ It is easy to think of
Judas yet we must also think of all those who ran, Peter not least among them. But also in the communion service we hear the
description of God as one ‘whose nature is always to have mercy’, or, as the old Book of Common Prayer has it,
‘whose property is always to have mercy’. A property is something which defines a thing. Remember science
lessons and the property of oxygen? The way we tell that oxygen is oxygen is that it relights a glowing splint. So
with God, a (not the) defining characteristic of God is always to have mercy.
So seven or seventy or seventy times seven, forgiveness is essential (i.e., of essence, of
vital importance) to the life of the Christian. It restores us to God and to our fellows. It is difficult to give it
sometimes and difficult to receive it sometimes –but that’s the sermon below!!
Three branches of Government, sermon on a piece of string!
Matthew 18. 15-20
another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the
member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened
to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If
the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let
such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever
you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again,
truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For
where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’
This is not the way we do things as a rule. Standard human behaviour is to talk behind people’s
backs and expect our confidante to be mutually appalled at whatever behaviour we have found offensive. The idea of going
to someone direct and ‘reproving’ as the Greek word translated ‘point out’ here is given, is something
most of us shy away from. Confrontation and challenge are not part of our way of doing things, it seems aggressive
and impolite. But ‘challenge’ is not the same as ‘confront’ and to go to someone in an attitude of
‘what did you mean really by what you said/did as I may have got the wrong end of the stick here’ is quite different
from ‘Excuse me, but you really annoyed/upset me by what you said’. Attitude is everything and asking a genuine
question of seeking to understand is much more reconciliatory than ‘oi, you!’.
Notice the language in this passage. There are words here which are simply not in the Greek
text. The word ‘church’ of the opening sentence, the word ‘offender’, the phrase ‘point out’
and the word ‘loose’ are all interpretations on the part of the English editor. If you look it up in the NRSV
you’ll see that there are footnotes which say that the word ‘church’ is an editorial choice for ‘brother’
in verse 15 but is properly translated as ‘church’ in verse 17. Nit picking? No, because translation and
thereby understanding words is what underpins this passage; how we understand a different point of view. When we complain
to our friend about what so and so has done we usually exaggerate or add to the story rather than quote word for word. Why
would the editor of this passage use ‘church’ not ‘brother’? Perhaps to make it inclusive of all genders
or to make it solely an in-house problem, i.e., relating only to the way we deal with our own religious community in the same
way that the 10 commandments relate only to the Jewish dealings with other Jew -killing your non-Jewish neighbour is the bulk
of the history chapters of the Old Testament!
Jesus recommends a way of dealing with people in your community that seems quite bold but when done in curious love (i.e.
in a way that seeks explanation and clarification) a new understanding between 2 people may come about and so the community
So what of this business about bind
and loose? Take a piece of string and put a knot in it and as you do think of someone you have offended recently. Then tie
another knot for someone that has offended you. To bind means to tie in, to hold fast something that is otherwise free, like
a horse to a fence or a man to a cross.
string is made up of many threads and its strength lies in the complexity of the many threads adding strength to itself. The
knot represents a complexity of ways in which we are made and by which we interact with other people. We are many layers of
emotions and some things hold us down that we don’t even see are there.
When we hold something against someone we are tying them to us, binding them to be held responsible
for hurting us. But there are 2 knots for we offend even as we are offended – ‘forgive us our trespasses as we
forgive those who trespass against us’ and ’all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’. We hold
and we are held.
This applies to individuals
and to communities for Jesus talks about 2 or 3 gathered together. When these 2 or 3 agree they confirm the attitude
if there is no reconciliation to be found and Jesus says we should throw them out – but is this right? Is this how Jesus
works or is His assumption/hope rather that in discussion, temperance will be achieved and with it understanding? The
counsel of others begets a sense of ‘hang on, let’s think and pray and see what’s really going on here,
what underlying issues there are that may be making an unsought and unintended reaction’. Communities hold grudges
and refuse to seek understanding. It’s part of the history of individuals and groups that a narrative builds
up in which the Other is demonised or made into an enemy. Equally the history of a group becomes something which binds them
to a way of doing things –‘we’ve always done it this way’ whether or not there is value or grace in
such things, whether or not such ways are valid any more.
This idea of narrative and history is worth looking at. The word ‘text’ has its origins in the concept
of weaving. We spin a yarn, we weave a story, we treat somethings as sacred texts that cannot be altered -yet we’ve
already seen that words can be interpreted and this is exactly what communities and individuals do when they bind to
themselves interpretations of events that hold them to a story-line. Think of the caricature of any group and see how the
narrative has become a prejudice or a definition that forbids redefining. Our stories are sometimes many yarns tied into knots
of unforgiveness, accumulated to make a carpet covering our faults and woven from the perceived faults of others.
But the word ‘loose’ means to untie. It was used
at the beginning of a horse race to set free the lined-up horses so that they might run the race set before them. When we
forgive, we undo the knot that binds another to us and we are free then as they are freed -forgive
us our trespasses as we forgive… When another person forgives us we are set loose to be a better friend the next
time. But this complex because all the threads need to be severed and sometimes the small threads that cling are hard to be
rid of, like small splinters in the finger -or specks in our eyes.
Again, what is true for the individual is true for the community. Long histories, bitterly told,
bind countries and people to each other even though they/we think we are separate and apart.
is why what we decide between us is held by God to be the case in heaven. Unless and until we forgive and set free, the will
of our hearts is honoured by God but we do God honour by forgiving as we have been forgiven and God forgives all who truly
repent, whether we like or deserve it or not (how often do we refuse apologies, preferring the self righteous feeling of having
In civil governance there are
3 branches of government, the legislative which makes the law, the executive which enforces and prosecutes the law and the
judiciary which decides and judges. If I hit you and you make a complaint to the police, they arrest me, take evidence, take
me to court and a judge decides if and to what degree a law has been broken. The 3 branches are separate to avoid collusion
or corruption. No one is above the law which means that anyone involved in any of the 3 branches, can be offender or offended
against and brought to book. If I hit you it is not you that prosecutes but the police, you then simply become a witness to
the offence because my offence is not just against you the individual but against the State that sets the laws.
In terms of our faith we are all offenders, God is our judge
but God is also the maker of the law. The brilliant good news is that God is also our advocate pleading our case and Jesus
is the one who will take our punishment for us if our sins require such. Forgive me’ means ‘take my punishment
for me’. God’s way is to prefer reconciliation between God and human kind -hence John 3.16 and17.
When we forgive we are doing a Godly thing but in order to forgive we need to understand what we are reacting to and how that
forgiveness operates on many different levels, embedded sometimes in our story, our narrative and what binds us, what holds
The Christian church insists on acknowledging
that we have sinned but has always followed it through with the giving of forgiveness on God’s behalf. The
words are ‘Almighty God, who forgives all who truly repent…’ because it is God that is hurt by our sinning
as well as those that are on the receiving end of our behaviour. This is an intricate and profound structure which affects
human behaviour deeply. Forgiveness and grace are not cheap, undoing the knots that bind us is the work of the Son, a craftsman
of the heart.
No fools in April
One of the earliest images (from around 225 CE) we have of Christ being worshipped
is of a man in front of a crucified figure. The caption reads ‘Alexamenos worships his god’ . This is thought
to be an anti Christian piece of work – or certainly an anti-Alexamenos one! But the representation of Christ is the
real curiosity for it shows Jesus as having a donkey’s head. Donkeys were thought of as foolish creatures, something
we see in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream where a village workman is made to have an ass’s
head and falls in love with a fairy queen.
In the first chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians,
Paul talks about foolishness and how, on the one hand we are called to be fools for Christ, proclaiming a gospel that makes
us look stupid and naïve, to have faith in a man that was crucified was considered exceedingly stupid and it was, as
Paul says, a stumbling block to faith in Jesus for many people then and now.
On the other
hand, Paul talks about the foolishness of God being wiser than the wisdom of man. I Corinthians 1, 23 -25;
…we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ
the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
But those of you who read carefully will have noticed a sleight of hand here in my writing. I have made it look
as if foolishness and stupidity are one and the same – which they are not. ‘Stupid’ is not using the brains
you were born with to think something through. We may think of it as dull-witted but stupidity is not so much about mental
ability as mental willingness. A fool though, is someone like a jester, far from dull-witted but agile of thought and
sharp as a pin and, in kingly courts of old, expected to speak truth to power where others would simply fawn and flatter.
How many of our current day ‘kings’ could do with someone to speak truth in their ears! Again, to quote the Bard,
‘jesters do oft prove prophets’ as Shakespeare says in King Lear, a play which examines foolishness
in all its guises from stupid folk to professional wit via old age folly, and malice which gets its come-uppance. Jesters
use humour to teach deep truths, sugaring the pill. It’s why Jesus used parables and why so much of His words are full
of humour – if only we could take off the ‘must-be-serious specs’ and perceive them.
How does this affect the Christian? How are we to be fools for Christ and speak truth to our hearts
and those around us?
Not by being daft about life and doing reckless things that threaten our health and that of those around us.
Not by behaving as if forgiveness is a gift to be taken for granted as we habitually do those things which, by omission or
commission hurt others deeply (‘we have not done those things which we ought to have done and have done those
things which we ought not to have done’ as the old prayer book puts it). Not by pretending that all will be well and
just let things go by without taking action against climate change, poverty, waste or other things which engage us and challenge
our sense of justice. Not by failing to think about our faith and doing what Jesus tells us when He says ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your mind …’) Too
many Christians want a ‘simple faith’ which is fine if you are ‘simple’ but many of us are far from
this. ‘Engage brain before putting mouth in gear’ as the fridge magnet philosopher has it. I
think that those of us capable of tertiary level education owe it to God to do this with our faith and explore the
wonderful intellectual integrity it has.
So what to do then to be good fools for Christ? To follow
where we believe He is leading which may indeed make us look foolish in the eyes of those lead by seemingly brighter
lights. To give from the depth of our pockets and the depths of our hearts. To go beyond reason and act from love. ‘God
so loved the world…’ says John, not ‘God so thought the world’. It was not as an act of capricious
amusement that God called the world into being but as an action of love, God sharing the joy of being alive with us hence
we are made in God’s image, capable of great creativity and great compassion.
At the point of decision reason fails us and we go with our hearts be it the colour of the car (‘resale
value’ or ‘the kids/wife/granny…. like it’) the location of the house (Cotswolds or Trondheim?!)
or following Christ when there is nothing to commend Him other than that He seems to make just about more sense than the others
who attract us, as Peter says in John 6.6. As Easter draws on, the common sense (intelligence) of the common good will keep
us separate yet a while but the common sense (feeling) of us as a community of praying, worshipping and joyful Christians
will hold to eternity. ‘Speak the truth in love’ as Paul says (Ephesians 4. 15) not out of malice, but do speak
the truth that Christ teaches us which is no folly nor ignorance but grace personified (John 1.14).
Word became flesh
and dwelt among us,
and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a father’s
full of grace and truth.