Horseman's Sunday: "On Overlooking"

The Revd Brutus Green

I read a story the other day. It was about a worker who was suspected of stealing. Every evening as he left the factory the wheelbarrow he pushed in front of him was carefully inspected. But the guards never found anything. Finally, they worked it out. He was stealing the wheelbarrows.

It’s often the most obvious things we overlook, like the salt cellar sat plum in front of us at dinner, while we bemoan our partner hiding it. Things become so familiar we stop noticing them - or appreciating them. We get used to seeing the world in a particular way and we become convinced we see things just as they are.

Today’s Old Testament reading is the Bible’s idea of a joke - something that’s usually overlooked because we don’t expect the Bible to be funny. But, as I said, when things become familiar we stop noticing them. And the Bible is pretty familiar. But that’s not to dismiss the story.

William Boyd-Carpenter, Bishop of Ripon at the turn of the last century, once got heckled by a man asking ‘Do you really believe that Jonah was swallowed by a whale?’ The bishop diplomatically responded that he would ask him when he got to heaven. ‘And suppose he isn’t there’ responded the sceptic. ‘In that case’, said the Bishop, ‘you’ll have to ask him yourself.’

If you’ve read through all those fierce, bearded Old Testament prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the like, you’ll notice a very definite pattern. God calls the prophet. After a little negotiation, the prophet graciously accepts and goes to the people to return them from wickedness to the godly life. But the people are all enjoying their sex, drugs and foreign gods too much and don’t listen. So the LORD sends down his great vengeance and furious anger, and Israel ends up in captivity somewhere, or without rain for six years.

It’s a familiar pattern. The story that we expect. Like the Romcom with its cute chance meeting, it’s burgeoning romance, and the heart-breaking misunderstanding before final reconciliation and much kissing. We like familiarity. It’s easy. But then there’s the Smurfette principle. This came from one critic who noticed a tendency in films to decorate an all male cast with a single female character. So, just as you will find it hard to think of a female smurf, other than ‘Smurfette’, try and remember a science fiction movie with more than one memorable woman. Familiarity, then, is also a sloppy cover-up for stereotyping and prejudice.

But let us recall for a moment the peculiar story of Jonah and the Whale from our first reading. Jonah refuses his commission as a prophet. In fact he sails in exactly the opposite direction. Then in a highly undignified manner he is swallowed up then vomited out by the whale. So he decides that it’s probably better not to mess with God and goes out and preaches his fire and brimstone. Only then we have the unique situation that the people actually repent, every man, woman, child and animal. Yes. Every animal. Even the animals put on sackcloth and fast. Now I’m sure we have some very pious horses coming along in a little while but I expect that even the holy horses of Hyde Park are rarely found in sackcloth, still less their riders!

So the people listen to him and the city is saved, but what is Jonah’s reaction? He sulks. Actually, as we just heard, he sits under a tree and wishes he was dead, along with everyone else. This is one seriously self-involved prophet. Jonah, in its slightly extreme storytelling, its reversals of expectation, is a parody. It’s a reminder to the Israelites that prophets aren’t perfect and it pays to keep your wits about you when you’re listening to someone preaching. [Don’t worry. You can trust me.]

Jonah is a reminder that life can surprise us. That life isn’t always as neat as we’d like. Now this summer will be remembered for the riots. What has most struck me about the debates since is how often people seem to talk entirely at cross purposes. People get passionate, and then quickly revert to assuming their opponent is either David Starkey or Polly Toynbee.

The great divorce seems to occur somewhere between narratives of personal responsibility and social justice. There are those people who believe that all it takes for the perfect society is for individuals to behave, and there are those who insist that, were society fair and just, people would behave in an upright fashion. The riots for the former were about individual moral failure and, for the latter, social breakdown. Few people hold simply to one of these views but when we hear people who have opinions significantly different to our own there is a great rush to characterize our opponent either as a wet, socialist, spineless hippy, or a reactionary, moralising, bourgeois fascist.

And the problem is that it seems an either/or situation. So as soon as you suggest it’s partly a societal problem you’re seen as letting rioters off the hook - as Harriet Harman demonstrated in getting flattened by Michael Gove. Or when you insist on people being absolutely responsible legally and morally for their actions you’re seen as being oblivious to how the other half live, of having no interest in social reform, of ignoring the unambiguous relationship between poverty and crime; of being mean and thoughtless. This seems to leave us in a bipolar bind where to shift an inch is to give way entirely. And the truth is that anyone who starts likening her opponent to the Nazis or Stalin has already lost the argument.

How sure are we that we have got it right?

The philosopher Gillian Rose whispered to her friend Jim who was dying in a hospital bed: ‘You are surrounded by friends who love you.’ Jim in response pulled the sheet over his face. ‘He was beyond language,’ she writes, ‘But not beyond the discomforts of love.’ Even telling someone they are surrounded by loved ones is not unambiguous. It may equally be a merciful comfort, or a humiliating torture. Or even both. Our confidence that we always see the world aright - as it is - should always be tested by Oliver Cromwell’s rule: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”

The story of Jonah questions how we relate to our prophets (whether our religious or political leaders); and whether we too might not be running in the opposite direction; or sulking in self-righteous condemnation of others. Whether the way in which we look at the world hasn’t missed something, perhaps something obvious.

And a lot of the time we can let one genuinely true intuition cloud our thinking. If we become overly enamoured by fairness we can overlook the demands of generosity - that ‘justice be seasoned with mercy’. But if we cave in to the attractive goal of mercy we ignore the concrete demands of social justice, that a person’s actions must have appropriate consequences for the common good.

Our Gospel reading today is addressing this tension. The parable of the labourers in the vineyard - where each receives a day’s wages no matter whether they’ve just worked for an hour or the whole day - is aimed at a group of people who are single-mindedly legalistic; who think every bad action merits punishment and every good action reward. Jesus responds with an example which is fair - all receive a day’s pay - but also generous - as it applies no matter how long they’ve worked. His point though is that if we focus too heavily on our intuition of fairness or justice, we miss the mark on the more divine virtue of generosity.

Now you might think I’m saying that when we’re thinking about the world we should take a fluffy, sympathetic Christian perspective. But what I really want to say is that part of being Christian is being open to the possibility that you’re wrong - in the bowels of Christ to believe that you may be mistaken.

And the name of this virtue is humility.

Our faith tells us both that we are made by grace in the image of God but are also fallen creatures. It’s in this tension that we need to rediscover continually what is our purpose; what intuitions guide the way we look at the world; what is it that we overlook?

But our faith also gathers us together as a community in the knowledge that, whatever our personal flaws, through living and working alongside one another, through sharing our different intuitions and experience we are stronger, wiser, more generous and more comprehensive in our giving, our looking after one another and what we can achieve - like our new floor!

This is the purpose of parables like the story of Jonah and Jesus’ labourers in the vineyard. To change the way we look at the world and so to change the way we act in it.

To offer one more parable, there is a story, a true story, of two young fish swimming along who bump into an older fish swimming in the opposite direction. The older fish hails the other two saying “morning boys - how’s the water?” The two smile and swim past when one says to the other, “what on earth is water?” We so often overlook what is closest to us, what is most obvious.

We give thanks this morning to God and to one another for this building, for this community brought together on Horseman’s Sunday, for the gifts of music, friendship and all things equine, but also to give some thought to what and who we are overlooking; the water all around us and the bloke stealing wheelbarrows. Amen.