June 28 2020
I once read a remark made by an academic whose job (like mine used to be) was to prepare candidates for the ministry.
He was teaching them the art of preaching, and he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, do not attempt a series of sermons on the great characters of the Old Testament. Remember: Abraham was a liar, Moses a murderer, Jacob was a thief, and David was an adulterer. God takes whom he needs, squeezes from them what he wants, and then discards them like left-over orange peel.”
The truth of the bible is often paradoxical, and if we do not read it aright, then we have missed the message. Indeed the message is frequently that of subversion. Behind many of the stories, the teachings, the people involved, there is often a profound contradiction which, if we care to reflect upon it, reveals a deeper truth and a larger mystery.
In a nutshell, the paradox is that God uses both the good and the bad for his purposes.
In his teachings Jesus frequently pointed out that the things which people value most were often worthless, and the things which were looked down upon as worthless were in fact the most valuable.
Wordsworth met Coleridge in Bristol in 1795. At that time Coleridge was writing poetry, but also preaching in Unitarian places of worship. He was a Unitarian for several years and even contemplated becoming a minister himself, but eventually reverted to the Church of England. He was passionately interested in theology and remained so all his life.
“But many shall be last that are first; and the first that are last.” [Matt 19,30]
An outstanding example of what he meant was his assertion that harlots would enter the kingdom of God before the chief priests and elders of the people [Matt 21,31].
The Almighty “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust.” [Matt 5,45]. And is it possible that this is the only answer worth giving to those who ask: if God is good, why does he let bad things happen to good people?
Spirituality has always appeared to be subversive: “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.” [Eccles 9,11].
It is believed that Jesus’ own greatest personal inspiration were the Songs of the Suffering Servant which we find in Deutero Isaiah 52 and 53: “Like as many were astonied at thee, (his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men…) He was despised, and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their face he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
The unlikely cast of characters we encounter in the scriptures, the prostitutes, the wastrels, the adulterers, the devious, the murderers, the liars and the thieves, all confirm the sense that the Almighty’s agenda can seem very different from our own.
As St Paul so cogently reminds us [1Cor1]: “the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men…
“But God chose the foolish things of the world, that he might put to shame them that are wise; and God chose the weak things of the world, that he might put to shame the things that are strong; And the base things of the world, and the things that are despised, did God choose, yea and the things that are not, that he might bring to nought the things that are…”
St Paul also reminds us: “for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.” [2Cor4].
One way of understanding this reasoning is to see if it works as a method of coping with the nature of injustices in our unequal world. Many things are unarguably and unequivocally evil; inequality exists. Kind or unkind, good or wicked, pure or impure: if it helps us in some way to navigate the rough places in our experience, it is worth calling to mind the apparently subversive nature of the divine wisdom, working like irony, like salt in our food, like yeast in our bread, like metaphor in our language.
These are ideas which overturn the usual order, and make possible (for example) the sublimity of the beatitudes in which Jesus described his vision of the Kingdom [Matt 5]:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth…
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God…
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called children of God…
Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness sake; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Although perhaps over-familiar to us, for the main part, a more subversive and surprising collection of perceptions would, I think, be hard to find.
One of the most interesting poets of the twentieth century is Ezra Pound. And I particularly like the way he comes to grips with this conundrum of the difference between the divine scale of values and our own.
I’ll end with the following lines taken from his Canto 81:
What thou lov’st well remains, the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage…
Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
Made courage, or made order, or made grace,
Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.
Learn of the green world what can be thy place
In scaled invention or true artistry,
Pull down thy vanity…
“Master thyself, then others shall thee beare”
Pull down thy vanity
Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,
A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,
Half black half white
Nor knowest thou wing from tail
Pull down thy vanity
How mean thy hates
Fostered in falsity,
Pull down thy vanity,
I say pull down.
Let me end if I may with a prayer adapted from Divine Discontent, a selection of prayers by Harry Lismer Short, ed. Frank Walker.
Infinite Spirit, this world is a complex puzzle, and so is our human nature. Both are marked with good and evil, form and chaos, new things coming to birth and old things dying.
We are often tempted to give up the struggle, and just let the future be what it may. Why should we agonize about doing good when even our best often turns out wrongly?
But that is not the true way of life. We are called upon to do good, to aim at goodness, in the faith that no honest endeavour is ever lost. We are called upon to take truth and goodness seriously, even in a world of imperfection. We erring creatures of a day must dare to do right, to deal compassionately with one another, as in the face of eternity. We must live, so that some good is done by us, and some truth spoken.
Out of the loose ends of this life we must make a coherent plan of living, so that thy grace may flow through us and make our lives fruitful and good. Amen.