“Those who will not work, shall not eat.” That was the phrase that grabbed my attention as I was looking at the Bible readings for this morning. “Those who will not work, shall not eat.” The reason that it grabbed my attention is that it sounded like it could have been a headline from one of the Tabloid papers reporting the benefit reform proposals announced by Iain Duncan-Smith this week.
The background of the benefit reforms is well known. There is a massive public conversation going on at the moment, both nationally and locally. As a country, between us, we have been living beyond our means and the time has come for a reckoning. Exactly how we got here is a matter for debate. How deep the spending reductions have to be is another. What is agreed is that we are in a mess and that we have to stop spending as much money as we were.
These discussions are not just theoretical. They will massively affect our daily lives for decades. Members of this congregation have received notice of possible redundancy. The pool in Shelton, where Tabitha and Nathaniel go for swimming lessons is likely to close. The money that pays for the care for people in their homes is under threat.
Some of these issues are also facing the church. The financial income of the churches across this diocese, deanery and team is not matching our costs. We are living beyond our means. Over the coming months we are going to have to talk about how we match up the money coming in with the money going out.
The background of that verse of the Bible is probably less well known. It is part of Paul’s second letter to the church in Thessalonica. In the previous letter he had also written that people in the church shouldn’t take advantage of other people’s generousity be being lazy. They don’t seem to have got the message, so in this second letter he tells them even more strongly.
It seems to me that as we think about this verse, its background, and other things that the Bible has to say about work, living together in community, and care for each other, then we discover that this is not theoretical either. It is very practical, and provides us, as followers of Jesus, with some important things to say and a distinctive way of saying them.
The first thing that we have to say is based in our belief that God created the world, and humans, in a certain way. When we read the Creation accounts, we hear that God created us with privileges in this world but also with responsibilities. It is also clear from those Creation accounts that work was always intended by God to be a part of a flourishing human existence. However, it is also clear from the story of humankind’s rebellion against God, that one of the things that was spoiled by that rebellion was work. It became a burden, something with the potential to damage people and to destroy relationships.
In short, people are designed to flourish when they are able to work creatively, but that work as many people experience it is hard and dehumanising.
Throughout the Bible we are shown that Godly communities are ones in which those who are vulnerable and on the edge are cared for and provided for. Again and again God is angered by people’s failure to provide for the orphan and the widow. It is part of our task, as followers of Jesus, to speak up for those who have no voice of their own. It seems to me that this means that when we look at the proposals for spending cuts, we should not necessarily argue against those that will affect us, but against those that will have the biggest impact on those who cannot argue for themselves.
When Jesus came to live on earth he spent time with those on the edges rather than with the accepted, honourable members of society. It is interesting to me that one of the key examples of those on the edge of society are the tax collectors. These were rich people who had got rich by extorting money from their communities. They were on the edge because people blamed them and hated them for causing poverty in the community. Jesus went to them and loved them.
It seems to me that this is really important to keep in mind when we talk about the current situation.
In ancient times, once a year a goat would be taken, the High Priest would lay hands on the goat, to make it a symbol for all the sins of the people and it would be sent off into the desert, taking all those sins with it. This is where the word, “scapegoat” comes from. Scapegoats are those we love to hate, those we can blame for everything that’s gone wrong.
Jesus was a scapegoat. Jesus was the last scapegoat. He took all the sin of all people for all time to the cross and they were dealt with in his death. This part of the Christian tradition has two important things to say into this current conversation. Firstly, there are no more scapegoats because God requires each person to repent of their own sins. Bankers, councillors, politicians and others may have made mistakes, they may even have sinned, but we cannot speak about them as if everything is their fault. The cross calls us all to repentance. It calls us to acknowledge that we have all made mistakes and sinned.
Secondly, there are no more scapegoats because they are not needed. At the cross we can all find forgiveness for our sins. That is true for everybody. Jesus took that good news to the tax collectors. We may not withhold the grace of forgiveness from those who have contributed to the development of the current financial situation. When we talk about them, we must do so in a way that recognises that Jesus loves them so much that He died for them on the cross, just as He died for us.
Finally there is the resurrection. Jesus was raised to life. This is one of the most important claims of the Christian faith. Resurrection is at the heart of our worship and our belief. It is the promise and hope of new life coming out of death. It is also an understanding that death is necessary for new life to come. It seems to me that this is something that needs to be said loudly at the moment. There is resurrection hope. There are enough people calling “We’re all doomed”. Christians have a message of hope, there is a God who brings dead things to life. We are called to live our lives in the light of that truth. To grieve and mourn with those who are experiencing death, but to do so in way that makes real the hope of the new life that God offers.