Sunday Sermon – 25 August 2019

What does The Lord require of Thee?

Among the programmes most frequently seen or heard on radio and television, are those which come under the general heading of quiz shows. In one form or another they have lasted for a number of decades. Sometimes the questions are banal, trite, where it seems very difficult indeed to get the answer wrong. “What was the garden called where Adam and Eve lived?”, might be a typical example., or, slightly more difficult, “If the days of the week are placed in alphabetical order, which will come first?”

In other programmes the contestants are required to have specialist knowledge of say sport, or music, or literature. Mastermind and Brain of Britain contestants should have wide general knowledge allied to a retentive memory. Some shows expect the contestant to demonstrate deep if rather narrow learning in a specialised area. Where prizes are given they range from expensive holidays or consumer goods, to baubles of little value. On other occasions the reward comes simply from the satisfaction of getting the answer right.

Why this type of entertainment remains so popular is difficult to say. In the Mastermind or Brain of Britain type of contest perhaps it is admiration that so much information can be packed into one mind. As Oliver Goldsmith wrote of the village school-master

” …….. and still the wonder grew
That one small head could harbour all he knew!”

Or perhaps we enjoy the thrill of a contest, with a winner rewarded and a loser humiliated. Envy or admiration, excitement or relaxation, partisanship or the enjoyment of the kill; whatever the attraction, for the entertainment of the watchers, hundreds of questions are asked, most are answered, though not always correctly. The successful enjoy transitory fame, the losers disappear without trace.

But whatever the reason for their popularity, one needs to bear in mind that an ability to retain information and to quickly regurgitate it on demand, is not in itself a sign of wisdom or even of superior intelligence.

In the world outside the confines of the television or radio studio, asking questions and giving answers is but a first step in tackling the real problems in life. Important step it may be, but it is not in itself a resolution of a difficulty. Nor does the reply suddenly make the world a better place.

There is a well- known, off-quoted story in the Gospels which describes a young man putting a question to Jesus. “What should I do to inherit eternal life?” the young man asks. Jesus’s response was to give a list of religious obligations he should fulfil, and to speak of responsibilities owed to the community. The young man responded that these he knew and accepted, but something still was lacking. “Then sell up, and come with me and join my disciples,” Jesus added.

The young man went away sorrowfully, for he was required to do more than learn an answer. Implementing the response presented the obstacle. It was one thing to hear the words, quite another to translate them into deeds.

Doctors’ surgeries resound with the sound of questions being asked and answered. “I don’t feel as well as I ought”, we say. We are given a list of reasons. We over-indulge on chocolates and cream cakes; we smoke too much; we drink too much; we exercise too little, riding when we should walk; and so on, and so on. The answers are given, but the problem remains, unless or until we incorporate the rejoinders into our life style. Knowing the answer is only the start of the journey.

A question appears in one of the prayers we use sometimes in our worship. “What does the Lord require of thee?” it goes. The three part answer which follows is, as you will recall, “do justly, love mercy and walk humbly”. The language maybe old-fashioned but the answer is clear. If this were a quiz show, we might feel a warm glow as the quiz-master (they are usually male) confirms the answer is correct.

But the purpose of the prayer is not to test knowledge, it is rather to prompt action on our part. As always, finding the answer is the easy part, whereas applying the remedy is the difficult, but crucial, bit. Let us consider that three part reply.

To do justly. In more modern language this might be expressed as acting fairly, in an even-handed way. (ensuring others are “tret reight” as they say in Sheffield). That seems straight-forward enough, but then prejudice has a habit of getting in the way of good intentions. Discrimination by one group against others is not unknown in the land. Though we know that we ourselves are free from prejudice, we begin to prevaricate and qualify. “I’m open-minded myself, but there are limits,” we think. “I know one shouldn’t be too critical, but ……,” we add. “We need to look after our own people first,” one emphasises. We carefully rehearse the arguments, and convince ourselves that no-one could be fairer than us. We do “do justly” on the whole, and when we don’t it is for good reason. Or if really up against it we point out that it is not really our fault, and in any case, none of us is perfect.

You remember George Orwell’s pigs in Animal Farm, who recognised that though all animals are equal, some are more equal than others. On the whole they were acting justly, they argued, but then, there are limits.

To love mercy is to temper justice with compassion. But mercy has to be against a background of justice. If justice is uneven, skewed or biased, then mercy can’t be applied as a sort of emergency prop to even matters up. Mercy under these conditions is not mercy at all, but a salve to a throbbing conscience. If justice, whether formal under the law or more informally in our relationships with others, is contaminated, then mercy itself is devalued.

We often hear mercy talked of in terms of “making allowances”, a description which is close to condescension. True mercy is surely rather different from making allowances. To be merciful is to have appreciation of the human condition; sympathy with the weaknesses of others because we ourselves are fallible. Making allowances is a mechanical process, whereas exercising mercy arouses emotions which come from understanding, and solicitude.

Then thirdly, how difficult it is consistently to walk humbly. Occasional, or selective humbleness calls for no great effort. In the presence of those we admire or respect, whose gifts are great, whose responsibilities are wide, whose intelligence is formidable, humbleness is imposed upon us. An imposition we may accept gladly. On other occasions we may substitute modesty for humility, and this isn’t the same thing at all.

But humility to all peoples, humility on all occasions, humility in the face of praise, this is indeed a challenge. To be truly humble is to acknowledge that we are no more important, no grander than any-one else. That we ought not to have privileges which give us precedence over the rights of others.

The trilogy which forms the answer to what our God requires of us – justice, mercy and humility – is in fact one whole, of which each component is an essential ingredient. Justice and mercy are dependent upon humility. It is the arrogant who tamper with justice, the proud who are contemptuous of mercy.

To refer once more to Animal Farm. We recall that it was not the hard-working and ever-willing Boxer the Horse who proclaimed that some were more equal than others, but Napoleon the Pig, whose love of power crowded out any humble thoughts he may have had once.

The greater the responsibility, the harder it is, albeit the more necessary it is, to look out upon the world, as Jesus so memorably said, with the innocent eyes of a little child.

Unless there is humility, how can one accept that all peoples are equal in the sight of God? And unless all are accepted as equal, how does one do justly, that is act fairly? Rich or poor, black or white, male or female, educated or illiterate, young or old, Jew or Gentile, all equal; all entitled to impartial justice.

And mercy? Mercy coexists with justice, dependent upon it and, at the same time, adding strength to its host.

From early times, a triangle has been recognised as a shape of great strength. Not easily distorted, retaining its integrity as forces are applied to it. Our troika of Justice, Mercy and Humility form the sides of a triangle. Take away any one side and the whole collapses.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Destroy our triangle, and what value has the earth? Who in their right mind would wish to inherit such a place?

And so one returns to the original point. Knowing answers is only a start. Willingness to apply the knowledge is the real criterion by which we shall be judged. There is a glow of satisfaction which comes from knowing an answer. It is as if we have achieved something. We are perhaps surprised at our own cleverness, and just a little scornful of those who didn’t know the answer when we did.

But it is the old, old problem. Knowledge that remains as in a book on the library shelf leaves the world untouched. Or to use another analogy. One may learn the names of all the plants and trees, and what kind of conditions suit them best, but something more is needed to make the wilderness into a garden. The knowledge only becomes of real benefit when the land is tilled, the seed planted, and the subsequent growth tended.

Quiz programmes enable answers to be given, but the exercise is merely entertainment. The world becomes a better place through the labourers who apply the knowledge, not by acquiring information merely to impress others with our achievements.

There is a litany in the prayer book which calls for responses from the congregation with the words, “Write these words in our hearts, Lord we beseech Thee”. If the precept “to do, justly, love mercy and walk humbly” is written in the hearts of mankind, that would be a pretty good start to making a better world. Always provided that the words were not only written, but also put into practice.

C.J. Rosling 22 February 1997

Fulwood 23 February 1997
Hucklow 25 May 1997; 11 September 2005
Mexborough 17 August 1997

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