All Saints Margaret Street | Evensong & Benediction Sunday 29 July 2018

Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 29 July 2018


Readings: Ecclesiasticus 38.24-end; Hebrews 8 

“The wisdom of the scribe depends on the opportunity of leisure;

  only the one who has little business can become wise.”  Ecclesiasticus 38.24 

As a nation, we do not have much time for intellectuals; they are thought to be a foreign phenomenon – to be found in the cafes and bistros of the left bank in Paris or in the Grandes Ecoles which train the people who run France. 

A cabinet minister told us some time ago that we had had enough of “experts”.  Coming from someone who had earned his living as a newspaper columnist prior to becoming a politician, this seemed to be either a bit cheeky or to demonstrate a serious lack of self-awareness. 

Jesus ben Sirach, the writer of the book called Ecclesiasticus, begins by sounding like a bit of an intellectual snob with his comments about tradespeople who do not have the leisure to cultivate wisdom. 

His book is one of those in the Old Testament and the Apocrypha or the Deuterocanonical books, called the Wisdom literature: works like Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Job and The Wisdom of Solomon. That tradition is concerned with how people are to live well. 

These writings have a good deal in common with similar ones from other ancient Near Eastern cultures.  They seem to have had their origins in schools attached to royal courts. Rulers found they needed well-educated advisers, administrators, lawyers and judges, as well as military leaders, if they were to govern successfully. So they encouraged the establishment of such academies to provide a supply of such people.  The to-and-fro of international diplomacy and trade led to an inevitable interchange of ideas between schools in different lands. 

In the Middle Ages and beyond, rulers in Western Europe had to turn to the Church for such people, which helps to explain why great churchmen played such a prominent role in political life. While some of them sprang from aristocratic origins, most came from humbler backgrounds. In consequence, they were often treated with contempt and envy by the land-owning aristocrats who provided the military might for kings. Those who are looked down on by those above them in the social hierarchy often compensate by looking down in turn on those beneath them. 

There is an ancient Egyptian instruction from over 1500 years before Christ, written by a man called Khety, and known as “The Satire of the Trades,”  ridicules numerous occupations so as to exalt the scribal profession.  In fact, he belittles every occupation other than his own, describing the harsh realities associated with their lives. If Jesus ben Sirach knew of this satire, he avoids copying its mockery in his remarks about the four trades he discusses.  

In fact, he credits them with maintaining the fabric of the world, something Khety seems not to have noticed. While Church and society both need people of education and wisdom, but that is not a justification for the denigration of people who work with their hands or carry out menial tasks. The life of our world depends on such people, and they should be treated with respect. 

In a world which increasingly seems to value people according to how much they are paid, and pays many of those on whom it relies to maintain the fabric of society the bare minimum on zero-hours contracts, and even tolerates some working in effective slavery, while rewarding those at the top with lavish salaries and bonuses; even when they prove to be spectacularly inept at their jobs, this is an important message. 

One group which Sirach does not have a very positive attitude towards are merchants: I wonder what he would have to say about those whose culture of corporate greed almost brought the world’s economy to its knees? 

But, speaking of the farmer, the artisan, the smith and the potter, he says that they are so totally consumed by the  work which they have set their heart on, that they can never find time or energy to improve their minds. 

Any parish church, whether it is a traditional one in which most people work close at hand, or a residential one whose people mostly commute to work somewhere else, or one like this to which they commute, has to have in its mind and priorities the spiritual needs of people on whose work we rely.  Here, those who live and work around us have a frequent place in our daily prayers: we do not just pray for those who worship or visit here, but for those who work around us. Some of them will have very grand jobs and others more humble ones, but we are all dependent on one another’s toil. 

Let me turn now to scribes and the leisure they need to become wise. 

In the world of education, in schools and universities, what might the Wisdom literature have to say about a culture which sees education largely in terms of producing economically useful people; equipped for productivity rather than reflection? 

And what of a church which is spending money on teaching its clergy management skills but stinting on theological education?  I do not think management skills are to be despised in the way that aristocrats and social climbers despise those in “trade.”  But no amount of management or financial skills will make up for a lack of theological education and ongoing devotion of significant time for study of the scriptures and theology.  Human souls are not nourished by management manuals or lifted heavenward by marketing-speak. For that you need prayer and study and both require time and leisure. That time may not seem very productive to management consultants with their stop watches.  But in the long term it will prove indispensable to the spiritual life and well-being of the Church. A culture of ever-more frequent meetings, often confused with work, crowds out the real work of God, prayer and reflection, with busyness. 

The end result may well be that when we are called upon to say something to the world, we find we have nothing to say; that the intellectual cupboard is bare, save for a couple of airport bookstall management manuals. 

So the Church of England needs to ask itself some hard questions about its priorities. At a time when money can be found for new mission projects, many of our ordinands are spending two or three years on part-time courses, into which they and their teachers must try to cram what I had three years of full-time residential training to absorb; where learning was in the context of an ordered life of common prayer. I do wonder if at least some of the money being lavished on mission initiatives might not be better spent on the proper education and formation of our future priests.  The clergy of the Church of England were once known as stupor mundi, the wonder of the world, for their learning. I fear we would struggle to live up to that reputation now. We should at least not be known as the “stupid of the world.” 

Ancient Judaism endeavoured to hold together a belief in the virtue of manual labour and a conviction that one was obligated to study the Torah.  Rabbi Gamaliel said, “Excellent is study of the law together with worldly occupation, for toil in both of them puts sin out of mind. But all study of the law without worldly labour comes to nothing and occasions sin.”  Rabbi Meir was remembered for a quite different view: “Do little in business and be busy with Torah, and be humble in spirit before all.”  I 7.15, 22 Ben Sira implies that the wise should also work at manual labour. 

Modern technology increasingly reinforces vocational elitism, at the same time elevating professions that require advanced education and sophisticated knowledge. In this process, cerebral occupations such as law, medicine, university teaching, professions in business. Are placed in prestigious categories of work, whereas manual labour is demeaned. From the perspective of the elite, the nature of much manual labour contributes to their contempt.  In this elitist view, minimal intelligence, skill or ambition allows these workers to be content with assembly lines, service jobs and menial chores. 

Ben Sira’s attitude to the workers of his own day, and Khety’s before him reveals the early roots of elitism. In Ben Sira’s defence, it should be recognized that he was fighting for an elevated understanding of intellectual pursuits in a society that valued expertise in various crafts far more than the acquisition of literary skills. He wrote on behalf of poorly paid and barely respected scribes at a time when society had begun to rely on written documents more and more.  Art for art’s sake hardly more then than it does now. Utilitarian criteria alone seemed to justify expenditure of great time and effort. Using such a measuring stick, the trades Sira mentions receive high marks. For him, however, other standards cancelled this advantage particularly access to power. Contemporary disdain for manual labourers has even less to commend it, for this pejorative understanding of the work of human hands is based primarily on economic factors.  Elitists in contemporary society consider monetary earnings the significant factor in dismissing many occupations as beneath their dignity.  This attitude has been internalized by many workers who labour in jobs from which they receive no personal satisfaction. Lacking adequate self-respect, they take little or no pride in the finished product of their labour. 

Contemporary disdain for menial labourers has even less to commend it for this understanding of manual labour is based primarily on economic factors. Elitists in contemporary Europe and North America consider monetary earnings the significant factor in dismissing workers in many occupations as beneath their dignity.  This attitude has been internalized by many workers in jobs from which they receive no personal satisfaction. Lacking adequate self-respect, they take little or no pride in the finished product of their labour. So the prophecy of elitists becomes self-fulfilling, and people fall into a treadmill existence. 

Although some early Christians succumbed to the seductive lure of pre-eminence, both Jesus and Paul resisted the disciples’ desire to be first in rank. Their arguments interjecting such efforts to attain honour and authority recommend subservience and emphasize the mutual interdependence of the corporate body, the church.  Whoever wishes to be first in rank must serve others, for that kind of pre-eminence alone accords with God’s will for Christians.  Moroever, just as no part of the body can boast that it is more important than another, so also all vocations in the church are complementary and, therefore, equally important. 

The understanding of spiritual calling can be meaningfully applied to the diverse ways by which Christians earn a living. All worthy labour, manual or otherwise contributes to the body politic.  No type of profession has more inherent worth than another, although society tends to value some types of work more highly than others. Manual labour is just as important as its intellectual counterpart.  The important thing is that Christians do their work, whatever its nature, with pride and dignity. Having done so, they need not yield to one who insinuates that manual labour lacks worth. Perhaps in this way Christians can resist the debilitating trend to connect earnings and self-worth.