Sermon for Ordinary 23 Year B - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |
Status, Love and Equality
[For a sermon on the gospel reading for this Sunday concerning the Syrophoenician woman, but from Year A, see The general saviour of mankind.]
[On the theme of the epistle see also Better than a fair go on the parable of the workers in the vineyard. A somewhat different approach is taken here in regard to the direct moral teaching in the letter of James, but the basic principles are the same in reflecting the nature of the gospel.]
The letter of James reveals ordinary human struggles within the Church. Vanity and pride of place, claims for recognition and a bigger share were common concerns brought into the Church from the culture of the converts which had not yet been transformed in response to the gospel. Cultures, the ways we live and the things we value, need to be transformed or baptised through the work of Christ in the power of the Spirit of God. It is not sufficient for individuals to be converted. The way we live in community also needs to be changed , baptized or washed clean and set on a new path of life. In the days of the apostles, people were not made good before they were allowed into the Church, but they were expected to change when they became members. The leaders of the church often had to confront its members with the need for their behaviour to change in order to reflect Christ and his victory over evil. For example, James wrote:
See how the writer goes on to emphasise the special value and spiritual privilege of the poor:-
We are inclined to think when we read the first part of this chapter that it is about treating people equally, but there is a different message here. There is something closer the Kingdom of God than equality. In part it is about the poor, as Jesus said in Luke's version of the beatitudes,
There are special blessings in being poor, and the poor should be honoured. But James said in this letter, "You dishonour the poor" (verse 6a). That is very different from political ideologies of equality, a value in continuing conflict with ideas of reward for merit. The Christian way is different from both of those, although in political debate we are often asked to choose between them, in the guise of concern for the disadvantaged on the one hand, and the value of freedom on the other. A truly Christian preference would include both concern for the disadvantaged and enhancement of the liberty of all citizens. We do not believe in doctrinaire adherence to either equality or freedom as ultimate values, even if they are the values of democracy in the views of many. There is a better way based on the love of God and love of your neighbour, which is the point to which James takes us at the end of the reading from his epistle today (verse 8). What is the difference between love of your neighbour and concern for equality or freedom?
Remember the washing of the disciples feet, when Jesus said:
See how the action comes back upon oneself. It is a reciprocal obligation: "You also ought to wash one another's feet". It is not easy to accept the experience of being washed as well as to give the kind of humble service that might have been given by a slave. Anyone who has taken part in the foot washing ceremony in a Maundy Thursday service will know how it challenges the culture of equality or of pride. There is something very basic in our confused thoughts and feelings when questions of status, pride and equality challenge us personally.
Despite our tendencies in liberal Western democracies to accept as Christian imperatives political and social attitudes and ideological pressures for equality, the scriptures witness to a call which is quite different and even more challenging.
1. Equality is not promised or required in the Kingdom or among disciples of Jesus;
2. The change required and promised is more radical than that.
Equality of status was not encouraged by Jesus or by Paul
There is some truth in the popular (or is it populist?) ideal of equality. We all, as human beings made in the image of God, have the power to become children of God; by our nature as human beings we are equally able to receive the greatest of God's gifts. There is equality of status in being children in the one family; but even so, some might enter before others, and those whom we least expect might go in first:
There is, however, some element of equality in the understanding of another person as a child of God. Knowing, and really believing in, the potential which others have makes it impossible to treat another person as less than we would wish for ourselves.
However, the gospel writers never referred to equality as a value to be desired. Concern with equality tended to be associated with the enemies of Jesus. Equality was not a direct subject of Jesus' teaching. It came up indirectly when people objected to what he taught, usually by way of misunderstanding. His concerns were different. We see it in the parable of the workers in the vineyard who were all paid an equal amount regardless of how long they had worked:
Those who had worked all day received the normal wages which had been agreed, but others who had worked less than a day were given the same as a full day's pay, which was more than they deserved. The workers who had been out in the heat all day objected :
Equality was given when not deserved, or in spite of merit, and might be said to have been a higher value recognized by Jesus, but that was not the point of the story. His message in the parable was about the goodness and grace of God, who never gives people less than they deserve, and will often give much more than anyone has a right to expect -- as in those other parables about the forgiveness of debtors (Luke 7:39-50), and the bountiful harvest (Mark 4:26-29).
Another view on it comes from the way that Jesus regarded his own status. The Jews were offended that Jesus seemed to speak as if he had equality with God. Some modern critics have said that Jesus could not have done so, otherwise they would have killed him - well they did!
There are many points at which he gave that offence. It came up in different ways at different times. For example,
Or similarly in regard to authority:
Equality with God was something he had to face during his temptations in the wilderness in the afterglow of his baptism and the affirmation from heaven that he was the Son of God. He rejected the temptation of status then, and at the end we know that he allowed himself to be humbled; as Paul wrote, he was one who did not grasp at equality with God,
Concern to enjoy equality with anyone, let alone with God, is nearly always presented in a bad light in the New Testament. Equality is represented as a concern with status, and something to let go, disregard or give up. But there is one sense in which concern with equality was praised. The only positive mention of it in the New Testament is in regard to money and material possessions - strange is it not? The very point at which people resist ideas of equality in the one where it was specifically endorsed. Equality in possessions was mentioned by Paul as something good. It is in connection with the collection he made, from the many churches he had founded, for the poor among the faithful in Jerusalem. It was justified as a means of sharing things equally or make a fair balance. It was an important matter for Paul and there are numerous references in his letter to the collection which eventually took him to Jerusalem in spite of the danger it posed:
So sharing what they had to make things more equal was good, but concern with equality on one's own account was not. That was like any other kind of concern with status, something to be avoided.
A greater change than equality
When Jesus talked of status he talked of how things would be different: there would be radical changes in the Kingdom he came to announce: upside-down and very different from what was expected, but not equal!
As we noted with the parable about the labourers who came at different times of the day. .... many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. [Matthew 19:30] That is a reversal of status, not equality. The disciples also had difficulty with the message, and failed in their own behaviour to accept it. They jockeyed for positions in the Kingdom:
And mothers were ambitious for their sons - ordinary human concerns, but wrong:-
That the first in status must take the place of the least was a recurring theme in the teaching of Jesus about the Kingdom of God. That is how things would be in the end, when it was all completed and perfected.
It was a lesson he applied to himself. He gave up his equality and suffered death for others. And its fruits were seen in his reversal of status, being raised from the condemned criminal to become the Lord in glory. He who was with God at the beginning and will be there at the end. Jesus himself is the first and the last, but the end was achieved at a price. He who would become the Lord of all was the one who made himself the servant of all,
John the Divine gave the vision of him in glory at the end:
And apostles witnessed to him in these terms before the Jewish Council:
How then do we relate to one another? - As members of the body without concern for status, but as servants of one another, giving special honour to the least among us, and in this we honour Jesus Christ whose love made him the servant of all.
How does it work out in our daily lives, regarding status in today's world? It would be quite wrong to see the message of this sermon calling popular ideas of equality as an ultimate value into question as a call for return to some more hierarchical and authoritarian society. There are groups who would jump in behind the advancement of Biblical truth in order to promote a less equal and less open economic system and a divisive political climate. I would not give them any encouragement.
Many people are confused. It is an opportunity for trouble making as well as celebration. Even while enjoying the freedom of new more equal relationships in marriage, family, the work place and public life, we may be uncertain sometimes how to behave, fearing rejection for not understanding, or breaking new rules. And sometimes the new rules promoting equality can themselves be tyrannical. When things change we might find ourselves resenting lost influence, or lost income, or lost respect, perhaps when there is a move towards greater equality, or alternatively, perhaps when on the contrary we are affected by the tendency for the rich to get richer. Sometimes we fear the breakdown of discipline, from which young people might fail to learn what they need for a successful life as social relationships become more equal. But we can rejoice in Christ when those of lesser status begin to enjoy liberation. We have seen it in the changed roles of women which make for more interesting and fulfilling lives for themselves and their companions. There is benefit in more collegial work relationships that often benefit both our personal relationships and economic productivity with a sense of shared responsibility. These aspects of equality in changed social relationships in our society over the past generation or so have not moved as far as the promises of the Kingdom, but they do signify benefits which can be enjoyed. So in recognizing the fact that equality is not a primary value and that the gospel offers even more radical change, we should avoid a mean and judgmental attitude to some of the equalitarian sentiments that have been associated with social changes in recent years. , Although it can quickly degenerate into exploitation of advantages, liberty is different from self indulgence. Even if improvements have come together with other changes which are highly damaging, and even if they are not all that the gospel promises, we can be thankful for these signs of salvation which is yet to be seen in its fulness.
In a small way such changes can demonstrate the love of God. In celebrating them we are accepting the gift of the Saviour, the grace of God which inspires respect and recognition of the potential of others as children of God. So while equality is not the highest value, and mutual service is better in love of one's neighbour, movements towards equality can be part of the transformation with which we stand ready to welcome the coming of the Kingdom of God in which more radical changes can be expected. If there is any sense of equality in the New Testament it is in this mutual recognition of where we stand in God's purpose for creation, seeing that we all have liberty to become what God intends us to be -- and that gift of becoming his children, and sisters and brothers of one another, is what it means to be saved.
In the end we hope that by the grace of God in Jesus Christ we will be enabled to enjoy that free relationship of love in which we all rejoice in the glorious liberty of children of God without regard for status, even the status of equality.
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