Readings Ecclesiasticus 38.24–end, Luke 11.1–13
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
Amid the relentless Games coverage there are a few gems. One was a radio conversation between Ming Campbell and Jeffrey Archer, each an international athlete turned politician, one an Olympian, and one (we discovered) a frustrated Olympian: Archer playfully (?) accused Campbell of keeping him out of the 1960 British team. One spoke about how they competed on the cusp of the amateur and professional eras: they had to have other jobs, and were up against the hugely subsidised athletes of the Eastern bloc – many of whom were in the army but did no soldiering – and those of the US, with their more open arrangement of generous sports scholarships. Tonight’s New Testament reading is about persistence, and persistence is what you need, in prayer and in any worthwhile thing, but persistence gets you further if you can give your whole life to what you are being persistent about.
This is the reasoning behind the second reading, from Jesus ben Sirach, a.k.a. Ecclesiasticus, not a book from the Old Testament but from that fascinating collection known as deutero-canonical writings, or apocrypha. The writer praises the role of craftsmen – without them no city can be inhabited, they maintain the fabric of the world – but notes that they do not sit in the councils of government and – this is the contentious bit – that no-ne should expect them to, because they have no leisure in which to become wise.
This is the standard view in the ancient world. The word ‘scholar’ comes from scholē, the Greek word for leisure, and the Greeks called work ascholē, un-leisure. The Romans went further. Their word for work was negotium (think ‘negotiate’ and so on), which means the negation of otium, of leisure. For the elite at least, leisure was the proper state of human life, which left space for reading, refinement of taste and (if you liked that sort of thing) politicking; and work, what you did to get money, was what got in the way. You can think like that if you are well off in a slave economy. Their elite athletes, by the way, were professionals. Long before Baron de Coubertin’s heroic devotion to amateurism, the ancient Olympic spirit was rather closer to what we see today, the paid pursuit of excellence.
So what to make of Ecclesiasticus? A wonderful thing about our holy books, Old and New Testament, and those second-rank writings like tonight’s, is that they do not all say the same thing. They are in conversation with each other about the nature of God and of human existence. There is wisdom in tonight’s reading: if your work leaves you exhausted, if you have no creative space in your life, you are not in a position to contribute to shaping the common life of your community. (We know this, as pressures at work have increased for low paid and high, so the amount of so-called social capital – the time and energy that people put into, say, voluntary groups and local politics – has shrunk, and our voluntary and political spheres are themselves becoming more and more like professions alongside others.)
The writer just accepts that, but it doesn’t have to be this way. The writer speaks of the one who devotes himself to the study of God’s law as one set apart from the workers, yet in the Acts of the Apostles on day of Pentecost we see ordinary people – fisherman in this case – given power from on high, and the authority to speak for God. That egalitarian instinct, though often buried in the history of the church, has sprung up again and again. Compare our writer’s rhetorical question, ‘How can one become wise who handles the plough?’ with the claim of William Tyndale (Bible translator and martyr) in his conversation with a bishop in the early 1500s: ‘I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the scripture than thou doest.’
It was the persistent pursuit of this in the modern era that equipped the Free Churches with articulate and learned worker ministers, and that was to flow from chapel to trade union to politics, and got us to point where the councils of the people, at the highest level, did include those who had been used to ‘handle the plough’ or knew ‘the sound of the hammer’, who relied on their hands to earn their keep. More recently, we have been going backwards on this, partly because class is still an issue in our common life, party because of some antisocial developments: there are in our economy and our society some inhuman elements, so that the choice can often be between a long-hours, all-consuming job or no job at all. Listen to the Archbishop of Canterbury when he was with Pope Benedict in 2010:
Work is so often an anxious and obsessive matter, as if our whole value as human beings depended upon it; and so, consequently, unemployment…comes to seem like a loss of dignity and meaning in life. We live in an age where there is a desperate need to recover the sense of the dignity of both labour and leisure.
A church, a place where Christ is preached, with his message of rest for the heavy-laden and the promise of the unearned grace of God, a church should be a centre of quiet resistance to all this, a place to receive medicine for the harm it can do to the self and to others. This is one way in which we can be what the Pope in turn suggested was a calling of the church, to be a ‘creative minority’, and one perception we can bring to bear on this is what Paul calls the body of Christ: we are together an organism, in which different organs play different parts.
We have people in both the categories Ecclesiasticus mentions: those who have the opportunity of leisure, and those who have ‘much business’. Those who have reached a stage where they have more leisure can rejoice in that, yet see that it comes with responsibility for the body as a whole, to take up some of the tasks that need to done if our common life is to thrive, for which those who are younger may genuinely have no space. Many of the Games volunteers are of retirement age. So are half our Richmond street pastors, who give time on a Friday night to keep people safe and well-behaved in our lively town centre – a very late night once a month may be easier for someone who is no longer ruled by the alarm clock. Those, on the other hand, who are so ruled badly need to maintain the biblical idea of the Sabbath, not just a day free of business – that may not be possible – but Sabbath moments within each day, moments to recall that this ‘business’ is not the whole of what we are for.
We’re coming to the end of the second of the 29 days of the Games. In our own streets this afternoon we could watch people who, for all the anguish of a race gone badly, have the privilege of devoting their lives to something that is their passion, cycling. For many of us, the passion, the thing that makes us most us, even the things that contain the call of God, may often lie outside our work, outside the activities that fill so many of our waking hours. If some of us are beyond that, if life now has more space, let’s not fritter it. And if life is still crowded with ‘stuff’, let’s not allow the passion to be buried, or the call drowned by the noise of the business of life. In both cases it may help talk this over with someone – it’s away of reminding myself, by being accountable to another person, that I am accountable to God.
‘The glory of God,’ said St Irenaeus, ‘is a human fully alive; and human life is the vision of God.’ How sad if that glory is lost and the vision obscured, if we come to the end of life and have lived only lived half a life.
An anxious and obsessive matter From Rowan Williams’ address in Westminster Abbey on the occasion of the Visit of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to Britain, 17 September 2010
A boy that driveth the plough A quote from Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, touching Matters of the Church (Foxe’s Book of Martyrs).