Archives for posts with tag: zero sum

Sermon for Evensong on the 11th Sunday after Trinity, 12th August 2018

Job 30:1-40:4, Hebrews 12:1-17, Psalm 91

Through the great kindness and generosity of one of my St Mary’s friends, I spent a wonderful day yesterday at Lords watching the Test Match between England and India. As you will know, there was a lot to celebrate, at least if you were an English fan. But what must have poor old Sharma, the Indian fast bowler, have been feeling? More than anybody else in the team, except the other pace bowler, Shami, he was running vast distances to bowl at over 80 miles an hour, spot on target, over and over again – but it wasn’t working. He only got one wicket.

Once Bairstow and Woakes were in, there didn’t seem to be anything that he could do. I can imagine that, when he got to the end of the day, over his biryani, Ishant Sharma would have felt a little bit like Job. ‘Why me, Lord? Why is everything going so badly? I’m doing all the right things, but nevertheless I keep getting hit all over the ground.’ That’s what I want to look at tonight: how things can go wrong for us, whether God has anything to do with it, and how we can come to terms with it.

I’m not quite sure how far I can pursue the cricketing metaphor, but of course God goes on to answer Job, by giving lots of illustrations of divine power: all the things that God can make animals do, interestingly including unicorns (at least in the King James version of the Bible which we had tonight). Unfortunately in all the more modern, mundane versions of the Bible, the unicorns have turned into some special kind of ox or heifer; the unicorns have disappeared. Nevertheless, it’s God that makes them do whatever they do, not man.

Similarly at Lord’s today, and on Friday, God made the rain come down. That really changed the way the game was going. It wasn’t anything that either of the teams did which changed the course of the game, when it rained: it was the rain.

There is only so far that I can go with this cricketing analogy with the book of Job, but the point about the passage which Len have been reading tonight is that with divinity comes omnipotence. There is no limit to God’s power. Let’s leave aside for a minute the question who is talking in the book of Job – the question who is God in this context. How realistic is it that someone can write a book saying that so-and-so so had a dialogue with God, in the way that is portrayed in this book in the Bible?

Let’s leave that on one side for minute and just say that, however it came to be written, the book gives a perfectly plausible illustration of the workings of the divine. God is omnipotent, God can do anything. God can make all the animals in the world do what those animals do; and the corollary is that God may not regard the needs of a particular human being as being very high up the list of priorities, so that human being may lose out if it fits God’s cosmic programme for him to lose out.

Job has to accept his position and not rail against it – however unreasonable that might seem, particularly if you’re Job. There are connotations of zero-sums in this as well. Just as in a cricket game, somebody has to win, and somebody has to lose, (unless, of course, it’s a draw), so in the world of nature, for all the sunny days, some rain has to fall at some time.

I think the implication is also that, as between God and man, God and Job, between the Indians and the weather forecast, there is nothing personal. The suffering that is caused, the suffering that is a spin-off of the operation of creation, of the natural order, is not in any way intended, directed against anyone – although that was Job’s beef: he thought God had got it in for him, and he didn’t feel that he deserved it.

But I think that the message of the Book of Job is that there is nothing personal. God has not got it in for Job. This is just the way that God makes nature work. But then contrast the situation in the book of Hebrews. There is, if you like, a different sort of engagement with the divine, ‘seeing we have such a great cloud of witnesses’. Everyone is looking at us. Poor old Sharma: everyone is looking at him. Things may be tough for us. In order for us to achieve the goals which we have set ourselves or to do justice to the calling we feel to follow the example of Jesus, say, as Christians, it’s not easy. We have to persevere to the end.

The metaphor in Hebrews is an athletic one; running a tough race. But this is where it gets complicated. In Job’s case the tough stuff, the suffering, is nothing personal, as between Job and God, as Job has really done nothing wrong, and God is not punishing Job. It’s just that, in the wider compass of things, things have to go badly as well as well, there has to be black as well as white.

But there is also a sense where difficulties are to some extent intended. This is where there is a training purpose involved. The Letter to the Hebrews suggests that God sometimes is – and should be – like a father who follows the old idea about ‘sparing the rod and spoiling the child’. It’s supposed to be a sign of parental love if the father whacks the children by way of punishment. Thank goodness, we don’t do that any more. I think that now we know that simply hurting people when they won’t stop doing something doesn’t in any sense train them not to do whatever it is. In a sense, indeed, it may be, in a microcosm, like the beginnings of wars.

A war often starts with a ultimatum: If you invade Poland, we will declare war on you. What it means is, if we can’t persuade you by argument, we will compel you by force. If you throw golf balls at Mr Jones’ greenhouse, I will smack your bottom. The problem is, that whereas possibly in the case of Mr Jones’ greenhouse, the threat to smack bottoms may be effective in stopping you doing it, in the case of modern warfare, it’s arguable that all you do by waging war is add to death and destruction, and perhaps store up resentments and enmity for the future.

Think of the aftermath of the Treaty of Versailles, which brought about the end of the First World War. It was so hard, it exacted such a harsh penalty in reparations on Germany, that Germany was reduced to its knees economically, and the seeds of Nazism were sown. The war did not achieve its peaceful or practical objective. Think of the wars in Afghanistan, since the time of British India, when it was the ‘North-West Frontier.’ The British Army in Victorian times couldn’t defeat the Afghans. The Russians couldn’t do it. And we and the Americans haven’t done it more recently either.

So we might query the efficacy of the ideas behind this passage in Hebrews. ‘Spare the rod, and spoil the child’, is not what we believe in today: but we can understand the idea, the theory. If we, who are supposed to have seen the light, who are supposed to be believers, to be Christians, behave badly – if ‘…there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright, ..’ if we are sinful, God will punish us, will give us a hard time, says Hebrews.

Maybe that’s a point to ponder. Would a loving God hurt his chosen people? However naughty they were? And what if they repented, if they sought forgiveness? I have a feeling that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews – who wasn’t St Paul, according to a number of scholars – may have been wrong here. Surely a loving God would not hurt people. So perhaps, actually, the Job model, that suffering doesn’t necessarily result from bad behaviour, from sin, is more apt, even in the light of Christ. Bad things just happen. It doesn’t mean that God is angry with us. So do run the race, do go into training for the race to run the good life. But don’t give up if rain stops play. God doesn’t have it in for you and your team.

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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?