Isaiah 35: 1-10
Today’s reading comes from the latter part of the text referred to by some scholars as “First Isaiah” – that is, from the prophetic ministry of the 8th century prophet, Isaiah ben Amoz. This prophet was active in the years prior to the fall of Jerusalem, and was strongly critical of the failure of the leaders of Judah to embody the covenant leadership to which they, and the aristocratic and priestly classes, were called. As a consequence, injustice and corruption were prevalent, in particular impacting most heavily upon the poor and the powerless, pushing them out the margins of economic and covenantal community.
This passage from Isaiah follows in the wake of chapters which proclaim judgement, not against Judah, but against her foreign enemies and oppressors. Judah’s sin will reap its own consequences; but the political and military aggression that mark the world’s relations will also carry their own retribution. Those who wage war and oppress others for the sake of empire and self-glorification will suffer the fate the impose on others, for within aggression lie the seeds of destruction for aggressors. Violence begets violence; force results, not in subjugation, but resistance – and, eventually, rebound.
But Chapter 35 begins a word of hope and restoration. After the bleak pronouncements of the preceding chapters, the narrative suddenly switches to an assurance of peace, a peace that itself embodies the reconciliation of God with the Hebrew peoples.
The opening voices speak of a natural world filled with joy, a celebratory shalom that proclaims the restorative work of God. The blooming of the desert, the presence of abundant life in what were formerly wastelands, signifies the life-giving faithfulness of God, making possible new life where only the death of sin once reigned. Likewise, the infirmity of human bodies and hearts shall be replaced by an assurance and trust in the graciousness of God, which delivers humankind from the consequences of its folly. The debilitation of a life lived in fear shall be replaced by the fruitfulness of life lived under the protective love of God.
The image of a highway through the wilderness is especially powerful in a time when good roads were few and far between, and in which getting lost in the empty land between cities was invariably fatal – whether from exposure to a hostile environment, or foul play at the hands of thieves. But God’s faithfulness to covenant shall be a highway through the treacherous landscape of human reality; from its secure path not even the most foolish will stray. Yet the fact that even the foolish will be counted among God’s people testifies to the expansive generosity of God’s love; it is not the standards and measures of human worth that define the scope of God’s compassion.
Following the dire judgements cast upon Judah and other nations of the world, today’s reading from Isaiah arrives like a refreshing change at the end of a hot, oppressive day. It does not deny the reality of human sin, nor does it minimise the consequences of our sin for us. But it makes the triumphant declaration that neither our sin, nor its consequences, will have the final word in human affairs. Rather, that word belongs to God; and it is a word of grace, reconciling humanity to God, and reconstituting the relationship between God and humankind in such a way that humanity itself is constitutively changed. No longer will we be prey to fear and sin, envisaged is this passage as ravening beasts; instead, our lives re-oriented toward God, and toward covenantal co-existence, we shall walk safely as the people of God, as a fully restored and flourishing humanity.
Modernity’s construction of work and economy promises much: economic security; material possession; social standing and respectability; the means to be able to afford luxuries and recreational “down time”. But those promises barely touch the meaning which workers frequently assign to their work: the yearning that their work be meaningful for them personally, and wrought in such a way as contributes to the well-being of wider society. What modernity promises us through work, and what we yearn for from our work, are poles apart; and this division alienates us from our work, leaving us with hollow promises which we ultimately find unrewarding and unfulfilling.
The hollowness and alienation we experience in work reflects the sin that is inherent within modernity’s construction of work and economy: the sin of reducing work to a mere function of commercial activity, instead of understanding work as integral to what it means to be human. The commodification of work renders both the worker and their work as tradeable commodities; we are dehumanised through and by our work instead of being fully realised through it. The barrenness of the sin at the heart of modern work is reflected in economic inequality, and in the oppressive structures of corporate power; but most of all it is reflected by the way in which the realm of waged labour has taken over all the other realms of human reality. Instead of merely being a part of our daily human reality – and merely one expression of work in human life – waged labour has so captured our daily living that it has become the primary social and economic reality of modern human existence.
One political economist has called this the phenomenon of the “dead man working”. We have become enslaved by modernity’s construction of work and its promises to such an extent that we are no longer human or alive. We are little more than zombies, waiting for the obliterating fall of retirement, negation, and death. We are dead even before we die.
Modern constructions of work and economy are rather like the ancient kings of Israel: instead of embodying a shared, covenantal life, they have become the hallmarks of oppression and injustice. The road we walk is less like a secure highway through the wilderness than part of the wilderness itself; a kind of “via dolorosa” that reflects the misery of humanity’s enslavement to waged labour. And yet part of our entrapment lies in our own sense of helplessness: we are aware of the injustices and oppression in which we are enmeshed, but we can’t conceive of a way out.
The prophetic tradition articulates God’s judgement against those aspects of human life that dehumanise us and cut us off from relationship with God and with one another. Bet despite the overwhelming pervasiveness of corporatist capitalism’s control over human life, and the seeming impossibility of a positive alternative, God’s judgement – God’s “no” – is not an eternal condemnation. Because there are two sides of judgement: the “no” of rejection and the “yes” of affirmation.
Today’s reading from Isaiah proclaims the “yes” of God’s faithfulness to covenant; a faithfulness that will ensure our present enslavement does not speak the final word about human reality. Just as the passages preceding today’s reading speak God’s “no” of rejection, so today’s passage gives voice to God’s “yes”: the affirmation of God’s love for us, the affirmation that it is through God’s graciousness that we are redeemed from our stupidity. Our sin will have consequences; but those consequences will themselves by overcome by God’s fidelity.
Today’s reading calls on us to not only be open to God’s judgement upon the oppressive powers of dehumanisation and oppression locked within modernity’s construction of work and economy, they also invite us to be open to the ways in which God speaks a word of hope – a hope that enables us to imagine human work in a new light, one that affirms our dignity and enables covenantal co-existence. The promise for the future lies neither in the violent overthrow of the established order, nor in the promises of “trickle down” economic theory; rather, it lies within us all, like a seed waiting for fertile soil and the right conditions in order to spring into bloom. We need to envisage work in dimensions that transcend the banal considerations of profit and market share, and imagine economy as something more than the mere balance of trade or the ebb and flow of capital markets.
Psalm 146: 5-10
At one level, this excerpt from Psalm 146 fits within the traditional wisdom literature of Israel. It ascribes to God the role of vindicator, the One who, through judgement, advocates for the powerless and the marginalised in society, and who vindicates their standing within the community of the faithful. As part of this characterisation, God is also seen as the executor of justice; that is, as the One who brings ruin upon the wicked and the unjust. This is another aspect of traditional wisdom: that those who do wrong ultimately get their “just desserts”.
Seen from another perspective, however, this passage reveals much more about God. Firstly, it attests to God’s sovereignty as creator: all that exists comes from the hand of God and is ultimately subject to God. God’s sovereignty flows from God’s identification as creator, and from our relationship with God as the created. Moreover, the nature of God’s sovereignty is not that of the absolute ruler; rather, it is as the faithful companion to humankind, the One who persistently and consistently calls us into relationship with God, with one another, and with creation.
Secondly, the fact that there is the possibility for injustice and wrongdoing alerts us to the fact of freedom; human beings are not mindless automata, bound to pre-programmed pathways by a set of directions. We are free to choose; we can live relationally with God and with one another in covenant, or we can choose the way of short-sighted self-interest, oppression, and exploitation. God will continuously call us into the way of relational justice; but God will not seek to force or impose upon us that which we do not freely choose ourselves. Moreover, God’s faithfulness will result in a continued outpouring of love and yearning for us, regardless of how frequently, or to what extent, we turn our backs on God.
Thirdly, the fact of God’s faithfulness and love does not exclude the reality that there will be consequences for us stemming from our sinfulness. From the traditional perspective, this is seen as God’s retribution; but within the deeper articulation of God expressed within this Psalm, this is an outcome of human sin. The violence of human wrongdoing begets a violence that rebounds upon its perpetrators. Even where those responsible for wrongdoing “get away with it” (as this is viewed from the human perspective of “just desserts”), the reality of their sin colours and controls their lives, dividing them from their own humanity and from relational living. We cannot sin and blithely expect to walk away untouched; even if the effect is cumulative and not episodic, it will have consequences for our humanity and our personhood.
Finally, the fact that so many categories of marginal person are mentioned – strangers, the blind, the orphan, prisoners, widows – as particular foci of God’s attention alerts us to the fact that, regardless of status within society, God’s imperative is that all persons participate fully in the life of the community – not because doing so is “nice” or “good”, but because it embodies the relational co-existence that affirms each individual’s dignity as a being created in the likeness and image of God. It is not our socio-economic status, our political power, or behind-the-scenes influence that determines our legitimacy and authenticity; rather, it is our standing in the eyes of God that makes us fully human.
This excerpt from Psalm 146 gives us a much more complex and nuanced understanding of God, and of humanity’s relationship with God, than at first appears. In doing so, it reminds us to dig deeper than our initial impressions, to seek out deeper truth and deeper meaning within the apparently simple or obvious. God is to be praised and worshipped and given glory; but these are neither trite nor superficially ritualistic. They occur within the context of covenant relationship, in which our praise of God serves to remind us that it is into God’s love and faithfulness that we are drawn, even those of us who, in terms of conventional wisdom, count for very little.
One of the means by which the oppressive structures of unjust power maintain their grip on human life is by reinforcing the notion that there is no viable alternative. We might be aware that the present system is dehumanising and exploitative, we might lament the extent to which it intrudes into all the spheres of human existence, but we are persuaded that there is, literally, no other way to be. This, of course, ignores the realities of human history: people have lived under a multiplicity of different social, economic, and political systems. However, when those who benefit the most from the status quo wish to entrench their own privilege, they do so by suggesting that the present system is, despite its limitations, the best of all possible systems; and that, were it to be replaced, human beings would suffer and social order would collapse.
Modernity’s construction of work and economy is no different in this respect. The ideology of corporatist capitalism, which proclaims the myth of the autonomous individual, alleges that it represents the “end of history”, the purposive destination of human social and economic development. Any attempts to articulate an alternative vision of the role and meaning of work in human life, or of what economy might look like with respect to human relations, is either dismissed as “utopian” speculation, or else derided as “impractical”. The reality, the argument runs, is that modern systems of trade, communications, production, and social organisation are so enmeshed within the global sphere of corporatist capitalism that any attempt to reconfigure these arrangements would be futile at best, and catastrophic at worst. This is the way things are; this is the way they will always be.
But today’s reading from Psalm 146 reminds us that these claims of intractability do not stand up in the face of the freedom which God’s faithfulness to covenant relationship gives to us. In precisely the same way that God leaves us free to choose how we respond to God’s call to covenantal co-existence, so we are likewise free to not only re-imagine work and economy in new ways, but to implement that vision. No-one pretends that this task will be either easy or achieved quickly; but difficulty is not the issue. Indeed, difficulty often accompanies faithful living. The issue is whether we choose the difficulty of trying to embrace covenantal life, or whether we choose the relatively easy path of continued captivity.
Because the continued oppression implicit in corporatist capitalism will have its consequences. For our humanity, for our understanding of human relationships, and for the environment in which we are embedded. The insatiable appetite of our present economic structures, captive as they are to the ideology of endless growth, is consuming the non-human ecology upon which human life is reliant for its continued existence. Moreover, the economic inequalities which corporatism is producing not only condemns the vast bulk of the human population to lives of hardship, if not outright exploitation, it represents a fundamental injustice in the organisation of individual and societal relations – one that threatens to cut us off from our own humanity. The ideology of work means that waged labour has become so central to our existence that it has colonised all the other facets of our humanity, reducing the very meaning of what it means to be human to a single dimension tied to the prerogatives of corporatist capitalism
The faithfulness of God calls us to renewed covenantal co-existence, to a repentance that acknowledges the extent to which we have skewed our relations with one another and with the non-human ecology. That same faithfulness calls us to exercise our freedom to overcome the ideology of inevitability and necessity in order to re-imagine human life and societal relations in ways that restore and express human dignity. The sovereignty of God, expressed through creation, sets limits to what we can do without repercussion; this does not limit our freedom, but does remind us of our relation to God as creator arising from our status as created. This is not a hierarchical relation; but it does mean that if we continue to ignore the call to relationship, that will be reflected in our social organisation and approach to the natural world. And that, in turn, will rebound upon us, for good or for ill.
Beneath the apparent simplicity and obviousness of corporatist capitalism’s claim that there is no viable alternative, lies a deeper, unexplored truth. We are called by today’s excerpt from Psalm 146 to realise that deeper truth – and to make it a reality in human life.
James 5: 7-10
The Letter of James is one of the pastoral letters that make up the latter half of the New Testament. These pastoral letters, written to early Christian communities by various members of the leadership group in Jerusalem (or by their disciples) serve as reminders to these scattered, sometimes fractious communities about the calling into which the life of faith has summoned them. That calling is one of shared, covenantal life together, in which we bear with, and are borne by, one another for the sake of a life that embodies the covenantal faithfulness of God.
In today’s passage, patience is the particular virtue upon which the author of James focuses. Patience is not merely a case of passively “putting up” with one another; it is an approach to life that embraces nurturing and a willingness to allow the passage of time and the movement of God’s Spirit in the world to operate in ways that may not necessarily accord with our own preferences or prejudices. Moreover, patience is a process through which we companion one another and are in turn companioned by God; experiencing and practicing patience works changes in our hearts and minds as we begin to appreciate, and understand the fruitfulness of, the longer and deeper perspective of God.
The image of the farmer is especially apt in this context. The life of a farmer is especially precarious, dependent as it is upon the patterns of the weather and the natural environment. Rain at the wrong time can spell disaster, even as rain at the right moment can give birth to a bumper crop. In such circumstances, a farmer might well be excused for displaying anxiety and impatience. But experienced farmers know they have to take the longer view; the results of any given season do not compare to the cumulative outcome of many seasons.
Likewise the image of the prophets as an example of patience is striking in its potential dissonance. Our popular imagery of a prophet is that they tend toward the wild-eyed, angry type: an example of God having gotten fed up and deciding to give the unfaithful people a blast. But this belies two aspects of the prophetic ministry. The first is that fact that, as well as pronouncing judgement, prophets also offer hope. This hope may be a long way over the horizon, beyond the immediate prospect of disaster; but it is also a proclamation that, in the longer term, God’s faithfulness and love overcome any temporary distress or rejection of human conduct which may be part of God’s judgemental “no”. The second is the fact that the repeated ministry of the prophets, the fact that God sends us prophetic voices time and again, and not just as a once off, attests to divine patience.
This brief passage from James, coming as it does deep within the Advent season, when our (perhaps material) hopes and expectations for Christmas are starting to reach a peak – and, perhaps, also, a sense of impatient “when will this be over” – reminds us that patience is integral to covenantal life. Patience is not passive, but is an active way of being that appreciates the hope toward which our lives are directed, and the slow process of enrichment that life lived in the shadow of that hope enables. That hope is embodied in the person of the infant Jesus, born on Christmas Day, and in the slow maturing over childhood and adolescence which he received through the care and parenthood of Joseph and Mary. The waiting of the Advent season is not an exercise in tolerance levels; it is a reminder that the operation of God applies over the whole of human history, and not just our little part of it.
One of the strategies by which consumer capitalism entraps us into its construction of human life is the immediacy with which it promises us it can fulfil our demands and expectations. Our need (which actually isn’t a need, but a created want) for various goods and services can be fulfilled, even if we can’t afford them; various forms of credit or delayed payment fuel our appetite for ever-increasing consumption. Moreover, such consumption is presented to us as a compensation for our various feelings of inadequacy or insecurity; loneliness, lack of fulfilment, a sense of failure – all these can be overcome (or, at least, held at bay) through our acquisition of “stuff”.
Part of the tragedy of this paradigm is that we know that the promises we are being sold are a lie; that not only do they not fill the sense of hollowness we feel inside, they contribute directly toward that “hole” getting ever bigger. The law of diminishing returns dictates that once we have tried to satiate our gnawing sense of emptiness with consumption, the temporary reprieve we feel quickly gives way to a sense of even greater loss. Thus the cycle of addiction is started and reinforced; and the advertising industry fuels our addiction by suggesting that we either didn’t buy enough, or didn’t consume it in the right way, or didn’t buy the right type of product to satisfy our cravings. Despite what we rationally “know”, our feelings of despair and emptiness overcome our awareness of the truth.
This “consumption imperative” feeds into modernity’s construction of work and economy. Given the centrality which corporatist capitalism assigns to waged labour as a measure of human worth and legitimacy, the experience of work is likewise turned into a competition between workers: a competition for recognition, for promotion, for improved income, for greater power and status. Even when this competition isn’t overtly articulated, it remains in the background. If waged labour is a marker of individual worth and authenticity, then advancement in the realm of work is indicative of superior legitimacy and status. The improved income and material circumstances that come with advancement are further reinforcement of the moral validity of the individual over against the “illegitimacy” of those who don’t “achieve”.
But what gets left unmentioned is that, in any hierarchical system, only a strictly limited number of people will ever achieve the “validation” that attainment of high office within a corporate structure allegedly confers. Moreover, this attainment is not, as it is often represented, the result of “merit”: rather, it is a consequence of interpersonal connections. And while it is natural for people to search among those whom they know when it comes to nominating people to fill vacancies, we should not confuse this human trait with claims of “meritocracy”. Familiarity and association may be efficient methods for identifying suitable candidates for a role (though not always!) but that is not a statement about the moral qualities and characteristics of those who do or don’t succeed to such roles. Yet the cult of “achievement” posits the exact opposite.
This cult also results in the phenomenon of the “person in a hurry” – the person eager to succeed, the person desperate to “get ahead” and rise above the ruck of “typical” workplace experience. Again, this competition is characterised as a positive, inasmuch as it allegedly drives innovation and invention. However, the evidence for such claims are contested, to say the least. More to the point, this process has a distinct downside: the all-pervasive anxiety among people that they have “underachieved” or even “wasted” their lives because they have not been able to climb the corporate ladder (or climb high enough). The notion that someone hasn’t “made anything” of their life is more than just “envy” for the success of others; it is a direct outcome of the implicit narrative within modernity’s construction of work and economy: success equals validation and legitimacy, failure equals moral inadequacy and condemnation. The cult of competition and achievement results in untold human distress and suffering.
Today’s reading from The Letter of James reminds us that the role and meaning of work in human life is to contribute to human flourishing – a flourishing that extends beyond mere material terms, and which has nothing to do with wealth and status. Rather, it is a flourishing that involves a fullness of life, a full participation with others in the kind of relational co-existence that nurtures and gives expression to our dignity as human beings. This is a flourishing in which our legitimacy and value are located in the richness of being which our engagement with others – and their engagement with us – brings to us all. Work in the form of waged labour is part of this; and there is no question that human dignity is linked to a material state of being in which our physical existence can be sustained to a standard that goes beyond mere subsistence – which, indeed, allows for leisure, and rest, and creativity. But waged labour is not the totality of this process; nor is the “achievement” attainable through waged labour a marker either of our moral worth or our legitimacy as human beings. This, however, is the very conflation which modernity’s construction of work and economy produces.
The Advent 3 passage from James is a calling into a new understanding of work in human life; an understanding undergirded by the virtue of patience. If work is part of our flourishing, then it needs to be nurtured and allowed to enrich our being over the longer term, as part of a holistic approach to human existence, and not in some anxious rush for status and power. The patience which we are called to exercise is neither a passive submission to oppression nor a resigned “putting up” with the status quo. Rather, it is a calling into a deeper, richer understanding of human life; one that exercises prophetic accountability for the way in which human constructions of work and economy distort human relations; but which also directs work, along with all other human endeavours, toward God’s horizon of hope.
Matthew 11: 2-11
Today’s passage from the Gospel According to Matthew takes place after John the Baptist has been imprisoned by Herod the Great for his criticism of Herod and his family. We are informed back in Chapter 3 of Matthew that it was John’s imprisonment that sparks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry; and during the period in which Jesus is preaching to large crowds and performing healing miracles, John languishes in prison.
Being imprisoned in a dungeon has become something of a Hollywood trope, in which we imagine dank stone cells, flickering torches, and misshapen jailers who are themselves not much more human than the prisoners. But imprisonment – especially at the instigation of an absolute ruler – was no laughing matter in the ancient world. It invariably meant abuse and neglect without any prospect of release, never mind oversight by any kind of judicial authority with the power to ensure prisoners were treated humanely. The checks and balances which we take so much for granted today – and which, with the best of intentions, still on occasion fail – simply didn’t exist in the Judea of Jesus’ time.
Yet, even within such confines, John hears about Jesus. It may seem strange to us that John should send a message to Jesus to enquire of him whether he was the Messiah or someone else, especially since he himself has been preaching of the One to come; but as has already been noted for the Gospel readings for the previous weeks in Advent, this was a time of particular fervent in Judaism, when prophets and messiahs of all stripes and varieties were in abundance. The reply which Jesus gives to John’s disciples is framed in exactly the same terms as John’s own preaching: the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, and so forth. It’s as though John and Jesus share an implicit understanding of how the answer must be structured in order for it to reveal Jesus’ true identity.
Having delivered his message, Jesus then begins to talk about John to the assembled crowd. It is interesting that he speaks of John as though he were addressing modern-day qualms about John’s appearance; again, as has already been noted in previous weeks, the description of John the Baptist fits in with modern notions about a strange, wild-eyed fanatic. And while John may not have been particularly noteworthy to audiences of his own time, especially given the messianic fervent of the period, nonetheless, there was something strangely captivating and charismatic about him that drew large crowds – as we have seen, even the Pharisees and the Sadducees went out to see him.
Jesus’ words to the crowd seems to address our own dis-ease about John and his appearance. It’s as though Jesus is saying to us: what were you expecting? Some cultured, plausible, presentable spokesperson of the variety who inhabit television commercials? People went into the wilderness, not to view reeds swaying in the breeze by the banks of the Jordan, nor to see anyone decked out in the latest fashion trends. They went to see John; and John was a prophet. It stands to reason that he was different in many ways.
Jesus confirms John’s standing as a prophet, not only by reference to the prophetic tradition itself, but by making the declaration that, of all those “born of women”, nor has “arisen greater” than John. Here we see another of the strange inversions that seems to bookend the relationship between John and Jesus; an inversion that marks the time when Jesus emerges fully into his own, and John’s period of prophetic ministry comes to an end. Whereas previously Jesus had gone to John; now it is John (via his disciples) who goes to Jesus. And whereas previously it was John who declared that he was to be followed by One greater than he, now it is Jesus who declares that John is the greatest to have arisen from the ranks of humanity.
But then comes the telling qualification: even the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than John. In so saying, Jesus is not attempting to dismiss John or nullify his significance. Rather, he is pointing toward a reality that will be embodied in his own ministry: that the re-alignment of human life which Jesus himself signifies will do away with human notions of legitimacy and authority, replacing them with an understanding of human personhood that is grounded in the eternal life of God. In other words, the divisions and categories which today determine the regard in which we hold one another – socio-economic class, wealth, material possession, educational attainment, physical appearance, political affiliation – will all be swept away by a mutual recognition of ourselves as Children of God. The greatness and esteem in which John is held will become irrelevant in the light of the re-orientation of human life which Jesus will bring. As Paul will later declare: in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Greek – we are all one.
People come to the world of work looking for many things: for the financial security of a steady income; for a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives; for social contact; for the opportunity to develop a career path for themselves. These hopes and expectations are often associated with our own, deeply personal needs: the need for self-esteem, the need for human association, the need for standing in the eyes of others. All these hopes and needs connect us to one another; and yet they can also become the mechanism by which we are divided, cut off from one another by the judgementalism and value-associations which we bring to bear.
In many ways, John the Baptist was both the archetype and the exception of the prophet, even in his own day. While the “message” which many of the prophets of John’s time – as well as before and since! – has, on face value, appeared both reasonable and profound, the reality was that such “messages” were just the means to an end: the end of developing a cult of personality, around which the “prophet” could build a power base or access material wealth. John, however, was different; his “message” was profound because it was the end in itself – it pointed away from John and toward God. Thus, while it was that John gathered disciples – as Jesus would after him – those disciples were never instruments of John’s power or greed. On the contrary, John ended up being imprisoned for his very opposition to unjust, rapacious power.
The world of work – especially the world of waged labour – can often ensnare us in the structures of unjust power by appealing to our human needs and wants. The “message” which the ideology of work, and which modernity’s construction of work and economy can present to us might seem both reasonable and true. It can tell us that it is only be entering into the world of work as this is constructed by corporatist capitalism that we can attain our heart’s yearnings; it can tell us that it is only by participating in the cultures of sales, marketing, and consumption that we can hope to contribute meaningfully to society; it can tell us that it is only by rising through the ranks and becoming “successful” in conventional terms that we can obtain the esteem of others.
Yet this message – and its associated promises – have a dark side. Just as false prophets use their message for the dark purpose of self-aggrandisement at the expense of others, so modernity’s construction of work and economy uses its message to capture human desires and appropriate them for its own purposes. Those purposes usually involve the further enrichment of those who benefit from the presently prevailing structures of power: the owners of capital, and the class of “super-managers” whose extraordinary incomes are hundreds of times greater than that of the typical worker. But this dark side can also have a devastating impact on individuals: implicit in the promise of self-realisation and success is the message that if you “don’t make it”, if you don’t fulfil everything that the world of waged labour promises you, then you are by definition a “failure”, a “parasite”, a moral bankrupt who deserves the scorn of others.
John the Baptist asking Jesus if he was indeed the Messiah serves as a warning, as an example of the necessity of taking a reality check. No doubt, even in his prison, he heard of any number of “messiahs” and “prophets”. But John was on the lookout for one particular person, the one of whom he himself had spoken; but even when he heard about that person, he remained cautious and determined to interrogate his own hopes and desires. John sending his disciples to Jesus to ask him if he was, indeed, the Messiah, was more than just scepticism and certainly not a case of faithlessness. Rather, it was John being sufficiently self-aware to know how his own needs could be appropriated for other purposes.
And Jesus’ response is framed in such a way as to confirm John’s hopes, rather than colonise them for some other end. But Jesus’ subsequent remarks to the crowd about John are also a commentary on the way in which “messages” can not only appropriate our desires, but use them to construct artificial divisions and categories. John is indeed great – but his greatness is not a product of his own “success” or “achievement” or capacity to navigate the structures of social and economic power. The measures by which John might be esteemed in the world are irrelevant in the Kingdom of Heaven; what actually matters is our shared humanity, the mutual dignity with which we are endowed as a consequence of our creation in the likeness and image of God, and the fact that we are all, ultimately, Children of God who are called into a life of covenantal co-existence with God, with one another, and with the non-human ecology.
Thus it is that the “least” in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than John. Not because Heaven has a hierarchy that replicates the social and political hierarchies of earth. But because Heaven is itself the realm of humanity fully realised and restored to the life of God. Here, the yearnings of the human heart for freedom from the absence and incompletion implicit in desire is made manifest in the person of Christ; Jesus becomes the “missing link” that unifies heaven and earth. The “God-shaped hole” that is emblematic of all our desires is finally and decisively filled. Not by the power or wealth that comes through “achievement” or the exercise of control over others; but by our being released from all the categories and divisions of human hierarchy through the re-orientation of our lives to God.
Today’s reading from Matthew alerts us to the necessity of interrogating our desires to ensure they are not appropriated by the “messages” of the world for unjust or exploitative purposes. In particular, we need to be alert to the “messages” which modernity’s construction of work and economy send us, and the promises with which they imbue the world of waged labour. These things may indeed provide us with a means toward “success” and “achievement” and “status” – but are these things actually in accord with what it means to be fully human, and do they actually provide the kind of human flourishing that attends to the yearnings of our heart? We need to be asking “are you really the messiah?” in order to ensure we are not ensnared in the structures of unjust power – and in order to understand that our greatness resides, not in the divisions and categories of human assessment, but in the shared human reality that ultimately constitutes the Kingdom of God.