St Francis, Terriers - Lent 5 (13.03.2016)

Tony Dickinson

I think that Judas Iscariot might have felt very much at home in 21st-century Britain. His complaint ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ suggests that he was someone who knew, in Oscar Wilde’s famous phrase, “the price of everything and the value of nothing”. Today’s world is full of such people – many of them active in the world of politics. Anyone who is following the debates surrounding the referendum at the end of June will be painfully aware of that. So much of the discussion is about the likely effects of a vote either way on trade, on employment and on the privileged position of the City of London. So little has to do with a vision of what this country might be in or out of the European Union – or of what the European Union might be with or without this country’s continuing membership.

If you have read this month’s parish magazine, you will have a pretty good idea of where I’m coming from in this great debate, so I’m not going to bore you by repeating it all over again. Instead, I’d like to focus on the thread that links today’s three readings together. They are all, in their way, about values, the values that reflect our relationship with God.

There’s the prophet, speaking in God’s name to God’s exiled people, a people crushed and helpless, scattered and far from home. There’s St Paul, writing about status to the Christian community in Philippi, a community in which many would have had the privileged status of being Roman citizens. And there’s Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, expressing her relief and her joy at her brother’s miraculous escape from the grip of death by taking her most precious possession and pouring it over the feet of the one she called “Lord”.

Let’s stay with Mary for a moment. On a purely financial level, Judas is right. That perfume was worth the best part of a year’s wages for a day labourer in first-century Palestine. What would be the equivalent today? £20,000? £25,000? What a difference such a sum could have made to people’s lives if the ointment had been sold and the money given to the poor!

But that isn’t what it’s about. What Mary is expressing by her action is the infinite value of a human life. Her generous, even extravagant, gesture fills the house with the fragrance of the perfume. It counters and blots out the stench of death to which her sister Martha had bluntly referred when Jesus told them to remove the stone sealing Lazarus’s tomb. It challenges us. How can we counter the stench of death which drifts through our culture? The stench which rises from an acceptance of measures deliberately targeting the poorest in our society in order to subsidise the richest. The stench which swirls around an acquiescence in the housing of human beings in accommodation which would have been condemned if it had been used to shelter animals. The stench which clings to an unwillingness to tackle the scandal of a long-term housing crisis – and the use of that scandal as an excuse to exclude desperate people who have been driven from their homes by the deadly violence of their own government.

One way of doing that would be to take seriously the prophetic word to God’s people two and a half millennia ago, people who had been driven into exile, who had experienced hunger and homelessness. “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” God, in other words, is about to repeat the Exodus: but those words don’t apply only to Israel six centuries before Christ. They apply to “the people whom [God] formed for [God]self so that they might declare [God’s] praise.” That means every single human being. Every one is “formed for [God]self so that they might declare [God’s] praise.” Living by that insight as we read the newspapers, as we listen to the radio, watch the television, interact with others on social media, as well as in our dealings with the people we encounter face to face – that would begin to fill our society with a fragrance which it has not known for many years.

In order to do that, we have to take seriously St Paul’s words to the Christians of Philippi. There’s a phrase, “check your privilege”, which has become quite common during the past three or four years in on-line debates. It’s often used as a way of shutting people up (or trying to) and closing down discussion, but used properly it makes us look carefully at our assumptions.

Used properly it makes us think again about our values and the things that our status allows us to take for granted. That is what St Paul, very tactfully, does with the Christian community in Philippi. Philippi was founded by King Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, about three and a half centuries before Christ. It was an important economic and military centre, strategically placed on a major trade route, so from the very beginning its inhabitants were privileged. A little over three hundred years later Philippi hit the headlines. The plain to the west of the city was the scene of a climactic battle in the Roman Civil Wars. After the battle, the victorious generals, Mark Antony and Octavian, discharged some of their soldiers and settled them on part of the city’s territory, with the rights of Roman citizens. A dozen years later, after another battle, even more ex-soldiers, also Roman citizens, were settled there.

Now, if you have read this year’s Lent pamphlet, you will know that being a Roman citizen gave you a very privileged position in the ancient world, a position from which it was very easy to look down on others. Paul very gently corrects any tendency to that sort of behaviour in the Christian community in Philippi – not by telling them off but by pointing to what, from the position of a first-century Jew, were his own considerable religious and racial advantages, and how he understood those advantages in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. A status that was precious in the world’s eyes he now saw as worthless rubbish. He checked his own privilege in other words – and by doing that he enabled the Philippians to check theirs. He reminded them that all of his “reasons for confidence” had no ultimate value. What mattered was “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus [his] Lord” and pouring out his life in love and joyful service, as Jesus had poured out his. In these weeks of Passiontide as we follow the way of the cross let us, “press on to make [this goal our] own, because Christ Jesus has made [us] his own.” To him, with the Father, and the Holy Spirit be all honour and glory…