Sermon for Evensong on the 17th Sunday after Trinity, 18th September 2016

Ezra 1; John 7: 14-36. 

‘By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept’ (Psalm 137). The psalm recalls the exile of the Jewish people after Jerusalem was captured in 587 by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. It was in fact Nebuchadnezzar’s second invasion of Jerusalem and of the kingdom of Judah.

From 587BC to 538 the Jews were in exile in Babylon. Although their original capture and defeat were brutal, they were not imprisoned and they were still led by their prophets, Ezekiel and latterly the ‘second Isaiah’, a disciple of Isaiah, so they kept their national identity. In 539BC Babylon fell to the Persians under king Cyrus in a bloodless invasion. It is thought that the Babylonians were fed up with their king Nebunidus, who was said to be incompetent, and that they admired the Persians, so they more or less invited the Persians in.

The Jews had generally admired the Babylonians, who were also monotheists, who worshipped a God called Marduk, and they had a national myth which was very similar to the Creation story in Genesis, called the Epic of Gilgamesh.
In the middle of the city of Babylon was a ziggurat, a tower, which was the Tower of Babel, from which Babylon gets its name. But although the Jews on the whole admired the Babylonians, they did not like the fact that they were captives in exile.

Cyrus was a friend of the Jewish nation too. So when Cyrus came along, and, as described in the the first book of Ezra, gave an edict which released the Jews from captivity, and undertook to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, when Cyrus did that, he was considered to be a possible candidate actually to be the Messiah, the chosen one of God, the liberator of the Jews. 

As we can see, he not only allowed them to go back to Jerusalem, but also he gave them back a huge amount of treasure which was originally taken by Nebuchadnezzar. And so under the Persians the Temple was rebuilt. 

Why was Cyrus in favour of the Jews? It seems that he saw them as people who could provide a buffer, a sort of human shield, at one end of his empire on the way to Egypt. He wanted to win their loyalty and favour towards him, and he saw letting them rebuild the temple as being important in this.

Well, this is all very interesting, but I’m not sure that it’s really sermon material, by itself. The clue to why we’re bothering with it now is in our New Testament lesson, where Jesus, according to St John’s Gospel, is asked where he gets his teaching from: where he was taught himself. And Jesus says that it’s not all about him, but about the one who sent him, about God.

He says, ‘Did not Moses give you the law, and yet none of you keepeth the law? Why go ye about to kill me?’ The Jews appeared to want to kill Jesus, because they felt that he somehow undermined their theological authority.

The point about Jewish history, the history of the Exile, was that it was about obedience to God. The idea was that when the Jews followed the Commandments, in particular the Commandment, the Shema Israel, to love the Lord your God, they prospered; but when they turned aside and worshipped foreign gods, the Baals, and made the golden calf, and worshipped it, then disaster struck and they were driven into exile. The Temple was sacked and destroyed.

Here in John 7 is one of the accounts where Jesus got into trouble as a result of healing a man on the Sabbath day. He turns the accusation back against the Jews by pointing out that, as they performed circumcisions on the Sabbath day, why not heal a sick person at the same time?

This is all to do with a theological doctrine which is called eudaimonism. If you do good things, God will smile on you: whereas if misfortune strikes you, you must have been bad, and are being punished by God. I think it’s fair to say that we see things as being more complicated than that. Why do good people not always prosper – indeed, why do good people sometimes suffer terrible hardship? Surely not because, or not necessarily because, they have done something bad.

It seems very cruel to think that anyone who is ill, is ill because they have done something wrong. In the Prayer Book service for the Visitation of the Sick there is a scarifying prayer for a sick person. 

‘Open thine eye of mercy upon this thy servant, who most earnestly desireth pardon and forgiveness. Renew in him … whatsoever hath been decayed by the fraud and malice of the devil, or by his own carnal will and frailness…’ You are ill because you were bad!

That’s not a view we would hold now, I can confidently say. But I will just leave you with this thought.

Granted that sick people don’t cause their own sickness by being, say, immoral: but what about poor people who are hungry? What about benefit claimants? There have been newspaper articles – and statements by politicians – suggesting that, if you are poor, it is because you are feckless, because you ‘have made bad life choices’.

Dare I mention the Foodbank in this context? When we first started, there were people who came up to me quite often asking how many people were cheating, and getting free food when they didn’t really need it. Politicians were saying that food banks had grown up, not because people genuinely needed them, but that they were used because they were there – they created a ‘pull factor’.

Another version of this concerns refugees. I have had letters from MPs saying that we should not save children (who are legally entitled to come to England, particularly following Lord Dubs’ amendment to the law), we should not save them from the camps in Calais and Dunkirk, until we can ‘balance out the risk of attracting more people to try to come here’.

All these are versions of the same thing. People are the authors of their own misfortune, and we should not help them for fear of encouraging them. Just think about the refugees. Did they have a real choice whether to flee when their homes were bombed? This eudaimonism is a cruel deception. I’m sure that, if one asks, ‘What would Jesus do?’, the answer would be very clear.

Just as some of the Old Testament morality, ‘an eye for an eye’, and so on, has been totally eclipsed by the Sermon on the Mount, so has this awful eudaimonism.

‘By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept’: we wept, we didn’t plan to invade Bradford. We should understand that, and have compassion.

Hugh Bryant is a Reader (Licensed Lay Minister) at St Mary’s, Stoke D’Abernon and General Manager, Cobham Area Foodbank