Sermon for Holy Communion on the Third Sunday after Trinity, 16th June 2013
2 Samuel 11.26 – 12.10,13-15, Galatians 2.15-21, Luke 7.36 – 8.3. Taking the Poor Man’s Pet Lamb.

On Wednesday I went to a very interesting panel discussion in St Paul’s Cathedral, chaired by Stephanie Flanders, the BBC economics correspondent, in a series called ‘The City and the Common Good – what kind of City do we want?’ under the auspices of St Paul’s Institute, which, even if it may not actually have been set up in response to the Occupy protest outside St Paul’s, certainly has raised its profile since.

The title of the session was ‘Good Banks’, and the panel was led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who gave the keynote presentation. As you can imagine, it was a fascinating evening. Archbishop Justin is a leading member of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, so he definitely knows what he is talking about in the banking area as well, of course, as being an archbishop.

Archbishop Justin talked about what it was for a bank to be good. The ultimate objective, Archbishop Justin said, was that a bank should contribute to the common good; and the common good he explained as ‘human flourishing’.

I think ‘human flourishing’ is one of those almost circular terms dreamed up by philosophers and theologians to get away from terms like ‘rich’ or ‘successful’ or ‘happy’, which might invite objections of one kind or another, if they were put forward as ingredients of ‘goodness’. ‘Flourishing’ has perhaps some connotation of St Irenaeus’ famous saying, that ‘the glory of God is a human being fully alive’. A human being who has realised his or her potential, who is fulfilled in that: not just successful – not necessarily successful at all.

Antony Jenkins of Barclays, another panel member, recalled that, when he was being questioned by the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, he was ticked off by Archbishop Justin for forgetting that Barclays was originally a Quaker company. Their values were derived from their Quaker, Christian, faith.

Not everyone will automatically agree on what is good and bad. There’s a famous instance in Herodotus’ Histories, written 2,500 years ago in the 5th century BC, [Book III.38.3f], where the Persian king Darius asks some Greeks how much he would need to pay them in order to persuade them to eat their fathers’ corpses when they died. They replied that would never do that, not at any price.

After that, Darius summoned some Indians of a tribe called Callatiae, who regarded it as completely normal to eat their fathers’ corpses, and he asked them how much money it would take to persuade them, instead of eating them, to cremate their fathers’ corpses. They cried out in horror and told him not to say such awful things.

These days we don’t very often go very deeply into what it is that makes something good or bad, what it is that makes us generally agree that something is good or bad: what the quality in the thing which is held out to be good or bad, what quality in that thing will make us decide that it is good or bad morally. I think that we ought to give it more thought.

But if we do think about it, it is that as Christians, just like the founders of Barclays Bank, we derive our justification, our perception that something or other is good or bad, from our Christian faith: from the 10 Commandments, from Jesus’ sayings in the New Testament. Not everyone has this same moral compass.

In our lessons today there are three different illustrations of right and wrong. Jesus meeting the woman who was said to be a ‘sinner’, but who showed him more love than the respectable Pharisee, Simon; St Paul wrestling with whether ultimate goodness depended on following the Jewish Law, and in particular whether in order to be a good Christian you needed to be circumcised (if you were a man).

I want to concentrate on the first one, the terribly sad story of King David and his adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. Some of it is rather reminiscent of what I think many of us find shocking in the recent stories about the banks.

David used his power as king. He did what he wanted, he had his way with another man’s wife – because he could. There was no-one to stop him. He contrived to have Bathsheba’s husband killed, by ordering him to undertake what was in effect a suicide mission. Again, he did it not because he was right, or justified, in so doing, but because he could. He had the power, the might, of kingship.

Just so, those banks, those banks who were ‘too big to fail’, and the so-called ‘masters of the universe’ who led them, undertook transactions which involved zero sums: someone wins, and the other party loses. By the amount won, the loser loses a corresponding amount. The profit and the loss balance out: it is a zero sum. Nothing wrong, perhaps.

But the trouble is, that in many cases, what made some banks winners was not the excellence of their work, or their deals’ contribution to the economic well-being of society, but rather the fact that they did it because they could. If, for instance, you sell people an investment based upon the bagging up of hundreds of loans, if you represent to your buyer that this is a good investment, even though you know that in many instances the loans which you have packaged up will never be repaid, and if you sell them on, using your bank’s great reputation as a powerful and reputable operator in the market, you are not trading fairly. You are in effect a bully. You are too big to fail: the other parties are too small to affect you.

You are a bit like King David, perhaps. But where your bank differs from King David is that, in modern times, there has been no prophet to speak truth to power, in the way that the prophet Nathan did to David. The regulator, the FSA, has been ineffective. Perhaps if one compares Nathan’s scrutiny of what David had done with FSA regulation, one could see that, whereas, most likely, a modern regulator will look at whether the rules have been followed, Nathan looked to see whether David had done evil in the sight of God.

I had some dealings with the FSA when I was in legal practice: but I never remember them couching any of their communications with my clients in terms of whether their conduct had been right or good – let alone whether they had done evil in the sight of God.
Nathan brought David to see that he had done wrong by telling him the heartbreaking story of the rich man taking the poor man’s pet lamb. The rich man had no right to do it. He didn’t even pay the poor man – he just took it. He did it because he could.

What redress could the poor man have? He was too poor to sue. It’s the same today; legal aid has been taken away, so a poor person cannot, in practice, go to court to get justice if a big company infringes his rights.

But King David had Nathan the prophet to hold up a mirror to him, to show him the wrong that he had done. David acknowledged his fault, his sin, his crime. He was punished: but ultimately the Lord forgave him. We, in our society, don’t do that. No-one accepts that they have done wrong. No-one prays for forgiveness. Instead, these masters of the universe take their bonuses, or their huge golden parachutes, and ride off into the sunrise, heads held high.

But the little people have to suffer. I was shocked to read, in ‘Lunch with the FT’, yesterday, Sir Mervyn King, the retiring governor of the Bank of England, sketching out possible ways of restoring financial health to Europe. One was, I quote, ‘to continue with mass unemployment in the south, in order to depress wages and prices until they’ve become competitive again’. Do you see the spectre of the pet lamb? Do you think that a poor person in Greece, who can’t get medicine any more when they are ill, has the slightest interest in being ‘competitive’?

Maybe it was the way the piece was written; maybe in fact Sir Mervyn is the most compassionate man, and he would never sacrifice the livelihoods of the poor and impotent for the sake of some economist’s dogma. But the frightening thing is that he could, if he did want to. Where is his Nathan?