Sunday 12 February - Epiphany 6 - Evensong - Kenneth Boyd

6 after Epiphany, EP: Malachi 2.17-3.5; Luke 7.18-35.

As a result of the recent European Referendum, the Scottish Referendum before that, the American Presidential Election, and signs from forthcoming elections in Europe, it is often said, our and our neighbours’ societies have become more deeply and bitterly divided than ever before. But how true is that? Referendums and elections may encourage or even create divisiveness, but equally perhaps they may simply bring to the surface what was simmering below.  And some of the issues over which politics and society are divided are far from new. Back in the 5th century BC, as our Old Testament reading tonight reminds us, the Prophet Malachi was fulminating against ‘those who oppress hired workers for their wages’ and ‘those who thrust aside the alien’, issues no less alive last week, in the Supreme Court judgement on the employment conditions of London plumbers, and in Parliamentary debate on the number of child refugees allowed in to the UK.

Malachi also has echoes today when he prophesies against ‘those who speak falsely’. The claim that we live in a ‘post-truth society’ may be overblown: if society really was ‘post-truth’, there would no longer be such a thing as society, since nobody could ever believe what anyone else was saying, and all the things we rely on for everyday living, from bus timetables to NHS prescriptions, could no longer be trusted.  Fortunately, self-interest may prevent society from ever reaching that dire stage, but the ‘post-truth’ claim does still have some substance to it. Only yesterday on the radio, a teacher was expressing concern that her students were too uncritical about what they read on social media and too ready to pass on to their friends false news stories that supported their own prejudices, without first checking whether they were actually true, or who was spreading them and for what political or other purposes.

Now that again, of course, is not new. Such social media stories are perhaps only an enlarged and accelerated version of malicious gossip, with which all societies have always been familiar. But the very familiarity of gossip, which all-too-often can, in Malachi’s words, ‘speak falsely’,  perhaps should make us ask if there is something in current talk about ‘post-truth’, ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ that as responsible members of society we need to think a little more deeply about.

Someone who did think deeply about such issues was the 20th century novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch. She assumes that when we have to make important decisions, either affecting the future of our own lives or in elections for example, we would all say that we want to do ‘the right thing’ – as President Trump puts it.  But how do we know which thing to do is ‘the right thing’, when we have a big decision to make and there seem good reasons for deciding either way? Well, Iris Murdoch says, the fact is, that what we decide in these big choices will probably already have been decided by all the little everyday choices we have made in the past, which gradually make us come to see the world in ways that influence, or even predetermine, how we see and make the big choices.

How we see the big choices is influenced, even decided, by how we made our little everyday choices. But how did we make the little choices? How we make the little choices, Murdoch says, depends on what we pay attention – or do not pay attention – to in what is going on around us, to what and who we feel is important or valuable. Paying attention to something or someone in the world around us, does not mean just being aware that they are there: paying attention means seeing or hearing them in their own right, as the things and people they are, and not as it is more convenient or comfortable for our own purposes or self-esteem to see or hear them. And this, Murdoch says, can be difficult: when it is not convenient or comfortable to pay proper attention to someone, psychologically it can be fatally easy to fasten on some superficial impressions we have of them and build this up into a total picture of them that convinces us, but may actually be false. Paying true attention to someone or something, Murdoch says, ‘is the effort to counteract such states of illusion’, such false pictures.

Paying true attention to what is going on in the world around us, making the effort to resist our human tendency to create convincing, convenient, comfortable, but for all we know, false pictures of other people and the world around us, is perhaps one of the best contributions each of us can make, in our everyday little decisions and our occasional big ones, to counteract the rise of ‘post-truth’, ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’. Paying true attention to all that is going on in the world around us, of course, is an impossible ideal, because the number of people and things each of us can attend to is very limited, as is the contribution each individual can make to the direction of human history. What and whom to pay attention to, moreover, can sometimes or often create difficult or even impossible choices: whom should we pay attention to at this moment, our work or our family for example, our neighbours or refugees? 

Lest we be tempted to give up on all this however, let’s turn back to tonight’s Scripture readings and particularly to that strange little parable at the end of the children in the market-place. This parable may originally have been told by Jesus, but may also have been altered in the retelling, in ways that make it difficult for biblical scholars to know quite how to interpret it. Who are the children ‘sitting in the market-place and calling to one another “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed and you did not weep”’, and what has this to do with the words ‘For John the Baptist  has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say “He has a demon”; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking and you say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard”’ ? Well, the most persuasive interpretation by biblical scholars seems to be that the children in the market-place represent the self-righteous religious leaders who sat in judgement on John and Jesus, but in doing so behaved like children jeering and catcalling. The wild and contradictory accusations these religious leaders level against John and Jesus are in fact just those kinds of, to them, convincing, convenient and comfortable, but false, pictures of these prophets, which show they are not really paying attention to what John and Jesus were trying to tell them.

And why did they not want to pay attention to what John and Jesus were trying to tell them? Well, John’s call for everyone to repent, and Jesus’ call for everyone to love one another and even their enemies, could not have been easy to accept by people who believed that they could and did fulfil all the necessary moral and religious requirements of the Jewish Law – no easier perhaps than it would later be for those who would equate Christianity with believing the right doctrines or demonstrating social and moral respectability.

But the Christian good news was and is more realistic. John’s and Jesus’ call to repentance recognises how far every one of us falls short of paying that true attention to one another that is at the heart of loving one another. It recognises moreover that even the best, however hard they try, will fail in loving. Yet it encourages us nevertheless to go on trying, as best we can, to pay true attention to, to love, one another. It encourages us to love even our enemies, not least by rejecting false pictures of them, even when we must also oppose what they say and do. And the Christian good news encourages us to go on trying, because it does not all depend on us. Jesus also failed, and yet he did not. His example incarnates what the best of his Jewish predecessors and the pagans also proclaimed: magna est veritas et praevalebit, ‘Great is the truth and it will prevail’; and omnia vincit amor, ‘Love conquers all’ - because Truth and Love are at the hidden living heart of everything.

Reference

Iris Murdoch The Sovereignty of Good London Routledge & Kegan Paul 1970: 36-37