Even the animals in the kingdom

I've been asked to preach something about Stewardship, that difficult subject for churches. So I'm clarifying my thinking. Why do we give money? I'm thinking it's a lot more profound than just to keep the church going, although that is necessary. Why does stewardship serve God and the Kingdom?

Coming home the other night, a car squeezed off Main North Road into a service station. They had a little trouble getting in, because a woman coming out was taking up more than her share of the drive way. She yelled abuse at the driver coming in. For a moment I saw the whites of her eyes, bared teeth, and a snarling face. With her henna gone wrong hair dye, she looked very like our big orange Norwegian Forest cat, when he is snarling at the other cat, and stealing her food.

I can’t point the finger here. We once had an aggressive client who took a swing at me at the church office. I blocked it. He took another swing. I blocked that. On the third swing I lost it. I took him down. There are ways to do that. I could have grabbed him and spun him round, tripped him over my foot, and been reasonably gentle about it. I took the fast route. I was very close to beating the crap out of him.

We are animals. According to common wisdom, we have 98% of the same genetic material as chimpanzees. The defensive reflexes which meant that man could not successfully punch me, are the requirements for animal survival in the wild. Cats have them. Dogs have them. Chimps have them.  We came from the wild, and we have them. But the very adrenalin that lets us destroy the enemy, or flee to safety, is also the thing that dehumanises us when we lose control of it.

What makes us human, and more human, is our ability to cultivate civility. The acme of civility is compassion; the ability to feel with. Our compassion is ultimately what makes us human. What terrifies us about the psychopath, is their inability to form human attachments; that is, be compassionate. The restraints of civility and compassion which normally protect us from each other, do not apply when we meet such a person.

There are levels of compassion and cooperation. There is family and tribe. Those outside are other and essentially, not fully human. The protective laws of the society do not necessarily apply to them. Although we have widened the boundaries of compassion beyond tribalism with the development of nation states and even a United Nations, we can see how compassion does not apply to the other. The US government , by keeping Guantanamo prisoners off shore, commits human rights abuses that would never be tolerated within the USA. And the people of the USA let them do it. In Australia we keep refugees off-shore, in a sophistry that contradicts all decency, and is a huge waste of money. It is  for the same purpose of avoiding the responsibility of compassion. The appalling treatment of Cornelia Rau was too often appalling only because she was a permanent resident and not a refugee. We further limit compassion and humanity by calling refugees, wherever possible, illegal immigrants, which is a complete lie.

The fullness of compassion; that is, the time when compassion will reach its maximum potential, is actually  what Christians call The Kingdom Of Heaven:

There are famous lines in Isaiah 11 talking about the righteous king who will come in the spirit of the great king David.

The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. ...

The effect, put poetically will be that

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

The compassion of a fully realised humanity will be so great that it will humanise even the animals.

Jesus says it more prosaically in Matthew 25:

The language is still mythical, but we can see the nature of transformative humanity that has the “approval of God.”

34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

To sum up:

Our purpose is to go out and make disciples, or to spread the good news of the kingdom.  The chief end of humanity is to glorify God and enjoy God forever. We can pull these religious statements from Matthew, or Mark, or from the Westminster Confession. However we summarise our purpose, and the point of life, it comes back to a paradisiacal existence based around life lived compassionately.

Compassion is what humanises us. Compassion is not immediately obvious as the thing which enables survival. It is counter intuitive. It is not always easy to see the evolutionary advantages of altruism. Indeed, Paul’s famous statement in Galatians 3:28, that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus...” would seem to be anti-competitive.

But the biological evolution which has brought us this far, must be tempered and infused with a deliberate and controlling flavour of compassion, if we are to go much further as species.

Our ecological crisis, driven by competition and exploitation, and the dangerous mythology that Growth is Necessary for Economic Survival, threatens to wipe us out as a species. We are making the earth uninhabitable. The faith of Christians, and other religions too, is that compassion is the humanising factor that can help us survive this crisis. What we need is not more efficiency, or more technology. We need more humanity. We need a different set of priorities about what counts in life. We need a mythology, or life story, of compassion rather than economic growth.  It is compassion that will make the world go round, not money.

The key impediment to the survival of the species, and the key impediment to signs the kingdom of heaven, is my animal need to survive.

As an animal I learned to eat to excess when there was food in front of me. I learned and  evolved to get fat in the good times, and the fatter the better. It would increase my chances of survival in the winter, and when enemies destroyed my crops, or caused me to flee from my hunting grounds, or when the droughts came.

I learned, and evolved, to get hold of as much stuff as I could carry and then, later, as much as I could store, squirreling away for the hard times. The success of consumer society is not based around my enjoyment of my goods; it is based around my fear of being caught without, and of dying because of it.

This is so deeply ingrained in us that we are barely aware of it. We avoid death; we deny it; we push it back. Medicine has gone beyond healing, and is now about death prevention. The law pretends  to guard us against greedy relatives or rogue doctors turning off life support, but the dying of Karen Ann Quinlan, and others, suggests a deeper unconscious motive. We are afraid of death. We will kill others to stay alive. It is the animal way.

In the end, to be human, we must overcome our fear of death. It is in dying that we are raised to life! To be raised to life we must transform our biological heritage and find a new way of being animal.

In Matthew 6:24 it says ‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

The reason is clear. Wealth is what we use to survive and postpone death. If we cannot overcome this insecurity, we must eventually use resources that could give life to someone else.

Mothers of my generation were famous for telling their children to eat their potatoes because of the starving children in India. As one of my friends said, “Whether or not I ate my potatoes, those children would  still starve.” But on another level our comfort, and especially our success, does contribute to the death of others.  An enormous proportion of the starvation and privation in the world comes back to the greed of those who have, and must have more. War causes famine.

All of this illuminates our struggles with discipleship. Paul said, in Romans 7,

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.

Although under the grace of God Paul said in 1 Cor 9

24 Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. 25Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one. 26So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; 27but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.

Another way of putting this is to say that each time we do something, it is practice for the next time. When we practice compassion, it becomes easier; even a habit. When we practice avoiding our death,  it becomes easier next time to buy another iPad, or more clothes. When we walk past the beggar on the street, or do not listen to our children, it is easier to do it the next time. In the end, we will not notice.

When we are compassionate, or merciful, we are saying we are not the most important person in the world. How could we be? We’re dying and soon won’t be here. Compassion is a little death to the idolatry of the self, and a little resurrection follows

The practice of compassion is multi faceted.  I always have time for people who need a theological conversation. I love it. It is much harder for me to sit with someone who is silent, or someone who needs, most of all, another person simply to listen to their chit chat. As inane as the chit chat may be, this listening is telling them they actually do matter enough to be heard. This is the compassion I need to practice. It is excruciating. It “punishes my body.” A theological conversation is ‘boxing at the air” for me;  almost an indulgence. it is too easily entertainment, rather than compassion.

Building on  this point, can you see that the giving of wealth is immensely important in the working out of our salvation, and our being open to the kingdom. In our land wealth is the idol above all idols. It is the great block to compassion. It is the cost we do not wish to pay.

We do not save ourselves. We are given our life and our salvation. But we do open or close ourselves to the blessings of life. There is a very real sense in which, if we want to enjoy life, we should practice giving away as much money as possible. It frees us from idolatry. There is a very real sense that if we really want to serve God, we should practice giving away as much money as possible. It enables the kingdom, because we became more human as we are less bound by money.

A by-product of this giving may be that we enable the financial ministry of our church. But fundamentally our giving to enable the kingdom, does not “work” by allowing the church to spend money. It is about enabling us to become free and human, and agents of the kingdom.

Andrew Prior



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