Jeremiah 31: 7-14
Today’s reading from Jeremiah comes from a section of the text that follows on from what most biblical scholars today regard as the “core” text in Jeremiah, namely chapters 1-25. Although the work attributed to this prophet covers 52 chapters in whole, the consensus is that the first 25 chapters reflect the core teachings of the prophet who was active in the late 7th to early 6th centuries BC. The following chapters may have been the work of followers of Jeremiah, including his scribe Baruch.
The period during which Jeremiah conducted his prophetic ministry was a turbulent time for the remnant kingdom of Judah, both internally and externally. The northern kingdom of Israel had been destroyed by the Assyrians, who in their turn had been overthrown by the Babylonians. Egypt had briefly imposed vassalage status on Judah; but after Egypt’s defeat by Babylon, Judah exchanged one foreign overlord for another. Unsuccessful rebellions against Babylonian rule ultimately resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the exiling of the aristocracy and a large section of the population to Babylon.
Today’s passage follows a short section in which biographical details about Jeremiah are supplied, including details of some of his interactions with other prophets active at the time. This section is noted for the promise of a new covenant between God and the Chosen People, in which the exiles will be redeemed and restored, and the message of God’s goodness and fidelity known to all the earth.
The passage begins with an exhortation to gladness and praise; a time of joy has arrived. God declares that God will gather together all the people scattered by exile and calamity. This gathering will include those who are normally excluded from celebrations: the physically afflicted and mothers and their children. They are representatives of the socially powerless and the economically vulnerable. Their inclusion is God’s declaration that things are about to change: none shall be excluded from the new covenant; the rules of exclusion that humans previously applied to one another shall apply no more.
The passage then depicts God as a consoling Father, leading the distressed children out of the wilderness into a place of safety and refuge characterised by bountiful nature. The image of the straight path which also appears in Isaiah also appears here; unlike the roads that are built by humans, and which are subject to the forces of nature and the ravages of outlaws, the path established by God shall be neither treacherous nor unsafe. Even the weakest and most vulnerable will be able to come to God in security.
The text then shifts to a declaration to the nations: God is the shepherd of Israel and will secure their future. No matter what foreign oppressors might do, God will deliver God’s People from tyrannical rule, and they shall be made secure under God’s reign. That reign and the security it embodies is characterised as being like Mount Zion, a safe dwelling place beyond the reach of ravaging armies and oppressive despots. Again, images of abundance, this time involving domestic crops and watered gardens, are used to evoke the plenitude which God’s new covenant will involve. Whereas previously the people had known sorrow, hardship, and scarcity, God will bless them with joy and ease and abundance. That young and old shall celebrate together is another indication of the breaking down of barriers and the removal of exclusion; all shall participate in God’s redemptive promise.
Today’s reading from Jeremiah is a message of hope to a defeated and colonised people labouring under the yoke of foreign exile and constricting surveillance. It is notable inasmuch as Jeremiah is often regarded as the “lamenting prophet”, the prophet who is full of dire news for the people that concludes with bitter tears over the fate of Jerusalem. Indeed, the text known as Lamentations, with its graphic depictions of the desolation caused by the Babylonian conquest of Judah, is also attributed to Jeremiah. But just as that text likewise places ultimate hope in the mercy and faithfulness of God, so today’s reading from Jeremiah points to the ultimate horizon of hope which is to be found in God’s fidelity to covenant. The present is full of danger and distress; but the consequences of human folly will not have the final word in human affairs. That word belongs to God, and it is a word, not of condemnation, but of renewal and hope.
One of the promises made by modernity’s construction of work and economy – articulating as it does the myth of the autonomous individual – is that if you work hard enough for long enough, if you “make a contribution” and “pay your way”, not only will you be able to afford all the markers of success and legitimacy such as a house and a car and a whole panoply of other consumer goods, you’ll also be able to afford to “get away from it all”, to go on holidays and “take a break” or “see the world”. The promise of holidays is also the promise of being able to do things “your way”, freed from the restrictions, confinements, and obligations that are attached to everyday life.
But the very allure of holidays and its centrality to the promise of modernity’s cultural narrative points to the very illusiveness of that promise, to its falseness. Indeed, it points to the extent to which waged labour in particular, and the demands of the corporate prerogatives by which such labour is accompanied, has intruded into human life. Because if the opposite were true, holidays and the “freedom” they represent wouldn’t be such a longed-for objective; time away from work, time to spend with family and/or to engage in recreational travel would simply be a reality integrated into the fullness of human life.
The irony is that most people begin their “working lives” filled with excitement about the prospects which waged labour will open up to them. A pay packet will open the way to economic and financial liberation – to being able to afford all the things that were previously denied to us. Most of us, however, quickly discover that entering the “workforce” simply involves exchanging one set of restrictions and obligations for another. We exchange financial dependence on our parents for financial dependence on an employer. We exchange the benefits of home ownership or rental accommodation for financial obligation to a landlord or financial institution, as well as our obligations to utilities and other service providers. We exchange the limitations imposed by our bank balance for the burden of personal debt repayments. We exchange the rules and standards set by our families for the demands and protocols established by our employer. We exchange our relationship with institutions such as schools and universities for our relationship with government at local, regional, and national levels.
In other words, the freedom we think will come to us as a result of gaining access to waged labour turns out to be an illusion created by our ignorance of what being a “contributing member of society” involves. Moreover, the fluidity of the “labour market”, the precariousness of employment combined with the various forms of corporate corruption (such as wage theft) that undermine the security of “having a job”, all reinforce the illusory nature of our expectations. As the saying notes: we are only ever one pay day away from poverty and homelessness. Unemployment and the inability to work means all the glittering prizes of modernity – possessions, wealth, social standing – are not only denied us, we are also stigmatised as “costs” to the economy, a “burden” that “legitimate” (ie: employed) members of society must carry.
Even those of us who are able to enjoy relatively secure employment, or whose labour is not conducted in conditions of exploitation, quickly discover the burden of the “daily grind”. Whether it is in a long commute to work, or in the petty vindictiveness of “office politics”, or a nagging sense of our powerlessness in the face of “market forces”, most of us quickly discover the banal, corrosive irritation of waged labour and its hold on our lives. In this context, the promise of holidays – an escape from the intrusive influence of waged labour – glitters ever more brightly. Except, of course, that our capacity to go on holidays is hostage to the demands of our employers: no job means no wage; no wage means no holiday. Our ability to escape the oppressiveness of work is dependent upon that very oppressiveness if it is to be realised.
In such circumstances, modernity’s construction of work feels a lot like the Babylonian exile: we are caught living under a stifling, tyrannically intrusive regime. Every aspect of our life is dependent upon that regime; and much though we long to escape its clutches, we doubt that any other kind of existence is actually possible. Holidays thus become a part of the mechanism of oppression: longed for, they pass too quickly, and are often spent in a haze of frenetic activity – whether “seeing the sights, or getting an “adrenalin high” – that mirrors the inhuman pace of our daily reality. We thus return from our holidays no more refreshed than when we set off; but upon our return are beset by a sense of longing and absence that projects toward the time when we can next “get away from it all.”
The tragic irony is that one of the functions of work in human life is to liberate people, to set them free to be fully human. Work sets humanity free by activating our social, relational spirit; by activating our creative and analytical faculties; by enabling our co-operation with the natural world instead of our subjugation to it. However, by co-opting human social and creative prowess to the prerogatives of profit generation and productivity, by replacing human subjugation to the natural world with human exploitation of the ecology, modernity has deformed work’s liberating value, reducing it to a narcissistic craving instead of it being an expression of human fruitfulness. Modernity’s construction of work and economy distorts the meaning of holidays and recreation in human life, utilising the human yearning for rest for the purpose of subjecting human life to corporate imperatives.
Today’s reading from Jeremiah offers hope to a captive people in exile. They were longing to “get away” from the shackles of their captivity and despairing that liberation would ever come. No doubt, like the messianic expectation that drove hopes for release from the Roman regime of Jesus’ time, the people in Exile were looking for a military or political leader who might come to power and set them free. Yet just as Jesus didn’t conform with others’ expectations, so God’s promise isn’t expressed in earthly terms. Liberation won’t come through the conventions of politics or society; even the Hebrews’ eventual “liberator”, Cyrus the Persian, retained tight control over the region of Judea through the office of an imperial governor. Rather, freedom comes from relationship with God, and from relationship with one another that reflects God’s covenantal imperative.
In the same way, hoping for liberation through the very mechanism that oppresses human life and reduces it to nothing more than a means to an end is a futile exercise: that way leads only to further depression and despair. Only by recovering work’s original liberating purpose and breaking the stranglehold of waged labour on human life (a stranglehold which itself expresses the tyrannical myth of the autonomous individual) can we hope to once more gain a vision of human flourishing that isn’t limited to material terms, and which releases human social and creative purpose. This liberation will come, not through human acts of power that themselves arise from either despair or egotism, but from an organisation of human life along relational terms that express God’s fidelity to covenant, and concern for including all those who are marginalised and excluded by the divisive constructs of economic power, institutional prerogative, and political self-interest.
Psalm 147: 12-20
Like last week’s Psalm 148, the passage this week from Psalm 147 is an exuberant song of praise to God. And like last week’s reading, it also draws on images from the natural world to articulate God’s sovereignty and power and faithfulness. But unlike Psalm 148, which has a more “global” mode of address, Psalm 147 is specifically directed at the Hebrew People as God’s Chosen Ones.
Verses 12-18 describe God’s various powers and capacities, and the ways in which God protects God’s People. Whether it is securing them from foreign enemies, or making their crops abundant, God is a blessing to the Hebrews precisely because God is concerned for their well-being. Likewise, God’s sovereignty is evident in the various manifestations of the natural world, in the patterns of wind and rain that operate at God’s command. All these manifestations further illustrate the trust which the Hebrews can have in God; for if they are the Chosen of the One who controls the cycles of creation, what need they fear from worldly enemies?
Verses 19 and 20, however, narrow down the focus to Israel: it is only to the descendants of Jacob that God has revealed God’s word and covenant. In God’s power God reveals God’s sovereignty to all the world; but it is only with Israel that God has chosen to live in covenantal relationship. The “statutes and ordinances” of God, the basis upon which God desires human life to be organised, have been disclosed only to Israel, so that Israel might function as an exemplar to the world. Revelation is thus both what God has disclosed only to Israel, as well as what God discloses through Israel.
Psalm 147 calls on the Hebrew people to give praise to God, not only because of what God reveals about God-self though the forces of nature and the abundant provenance with which Israel is blessed, but because it is through the relationship of covenant that Israel has been set apart from other nations of the world. This relationship is not a marker of Israel’s exclusive righteousness, but of the model for human life which God wishes to establish: the covenant between God and Israel is intended as a pattern for all human life, one that draws the people of the world to God. Israel is thus called to give praise to God, both for the wonderment of what has been revealed to them as God’s Chosen, as well as for the wonder of what God desires for the whole of creation. Praise thus becomes part of humanity’s reciprocation to invitation, its responsive “Yes” to God’s desire for relationship and covenant.
In just the same way that Psalm 147 reflects the gifting to Israel of covenant, a gifting for which God “has not dealt thus with any other nation”, so it might also reflect the gift of sentience, which, so far as we know, is not a gift which has been given to any other living creature. Sentience, self-awareness, enables awareness of the other; and awareness of the other enables relationship. The “I” and “You” that marks difference and apartness also defines the space that makes relationship possible; if there was no distinction between “I” and “You” then relationship itself would not be possible.
It is the distinction between God and humanity that makes relationship possible. God not being human enables God to reach out to humanity in invitation, and facilitates humanity being able to respond accordingly. Likewise, it is all the differences between human beings that make relationship possible: all the differences of culture, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, physical and mental capacity – all of these are what make relationship possible, precisely because the differences and particularities of communities and individuals create the “talking points”, the grounds upon which conversation becomes possible.
In modernity, however, we have enacted two disastrous follies. One is the folly of “no difference”, the syncretistic impulse to say that all religions amount to the same thing, that all cultures express the same human reality, that all societies articulate the same understanding of what it means to be human. In the otherwise laudable desire to avoid conflict and maintain harmonious relationships between people, this syncretistic impulse actually removes the very basis for conversation and communication. Solidarity with others is not to be conflated with “we are all the same” – any more than God’s solidarity with humankind means there is no difference between God and humanity. This dangerous folly, derived from the best of intentions, blinds us to the flashpoints and difficulties of conversation and relationship, and simply assumes that all of us “getting along” is simply a matter of course rather than of difficult, intentional work.
The second folly of modernity is the folly of divisiveness, the folly that says “my” culture, “my” religion, “my” societal background is superior to yours. Recognising that we are not “all the same”, the cult of superiority seeks to use difference, not as the starting point for conversation, but as the basis for imperialist assertion. This is the idea that history is composed of a “clash of civilisations” that is essentially a kind of Darwinian contest for supremacy. To support this “clash”, propagandists from all sides point out the failings and deficiencies of the “other”, while whitewashing or rationalising away their criticisms levelled at “their own”. Thus, “we” are always on the side of the angels, while “they” are always the enemies of freedom and enlightenment. This “clash” occurs at more than just the national or international level: within every society, every institution, every community, “we” and “they” becomes the basis for asserting superiority and the “right to rule”.
Neither of these follies is unique to modernity – strains of both have existed throughout human history. But what is unique to modernity is the emphasis which the cult of rationality and the autonomous individual have given to both. The post-Enlightenment project of reducing the whole of human reality to that which can be measured or tested by empirical means has lent itself to both the folly of syncretism and the folly of divisiveness. On the one hand, the “private” realm of religious belief and emotional sentiment is expressive of a “common” human yearning for the “transcendent” or for a “transcendent” meaning to life. Thus, both religion and feelings are reducible to sociological phenomena which can be observed, measured, and categorised. On the other hand, the “public” realm of work, economy, politics, and social policy is the forum for a “contest of ideas” in which the most rational, practical, or explicable set of paradigms is championed as the “best” way forward for society, or as the basis for why “our” rights and prerogatives take precedent over “your” rights and prerogatives.
What both these follies ignore, however, is that human life is called into relationship – which is neither the kind of naïve syncretism that pretends differences and conflicts don’t exist, nor the competitive competition which sees the object of life as the “triumph” of “us” over “them”. Relationship, on the other hand, is both intentional and committed, aware of differences and tensions, but also open to communication and fruitful co-existence. Relationship, and relationality, are far harder exercises than either syncretism and conflict, for they require both a measure of self-awareness and humility that is a difficult balance to achieve. But just as Psalm 147 calls on Israel to offer praise as an act of response and reciprocation to God’s call into relationship, so human life throughout history is called to set aside the tropes of its social and cultural bigotry in order to embrace the “other”, to be open to the possibility of relational co-existence. Competition, which forms the basis of modernity’s construction of work and economy, is not the same as relationship and relationality – Psalm 147 reminds us of the basis upon which God seeks the ordering of human life, up to and including our lives at work.
Ephesians 1: 3-14
Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians was written to the early Christian community in Ephesus, a major city on the south western coast of what is now Turkey. Noted today for its splendid ruins, Ephesus was the centre for a major cult focused on worship of the goddess Artemis; the temple to Artemis at Ephesus was one of the famed Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. An important administrative and trade centre, Ephesus had a large population of Roman citizens, as well as a wider cosmopolitan population drawn from the whole Roman Empire and beyond.
Like many early Christian communities founded by Paul, the church at Ephesus quickly found itself disturbed by questions relating to the person of Jesus of Nazareth: who was he, exactly; what was his relationship to God; how did faith in Jesus bring one into relationship with God? These and other questions allowed charismatic leaders to emerge and claim leadership of the church community; a leadership that was usually about their own power rather than a concern for properly guiding church members. The pastoral letters that were written by Paul (or by his disciples drawing on Paul’s authority) were often composed to answer the questions which arose within these communities, as well as to settle the divisions caused by ambitions individuals.
Today’s reading from Ephesians begins with a Christology that describes Jesus as the “blessing” which God has bestowed upon humankind, and through whom God has made known to the world God’s redemptive purpose. Both this blessing and this revelation occur through faith in Jesus as Messiah; through this faith we are “adopted” as “children of God”, and thus come into the inheritance that was originally set out in the covenant between God and Israel. The point of all this is that it is Jesus who is both the head of the Christian community and the focus of faith; because it is through Jesus that both God and God’s Good News are revealed to the world. It is Jesus, through his Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection who decisively enacts God’s desire for relationship with the world, drawing the life of the world into the life of God and overcoming all the forces and powers by which creation is alienated from God.
But within this Christology there is also a litmus test: to what are the claims of charismatic leaders oriented? Are they oriented toward Jesus, and thus toward God? Or are they oriented toward the prerogatives of their own self-aggrandisement and influence? This, for Paul, was the critical issue at the heart of all the divisions and disputes within the early Christian communities: were those disputes focused on understanding God as revealed through Jesus, or were they simply an attempt to gain control and exercise power? Paul, who was himself a highly charismatic individual, understood very well the influence which persuasive and plausible individuals could hold over entire communities. In describing Jesus as the “blessing” through whom God is revealed to the world, and faith in Christ as the mechanism which enables us to be “children of God” who receive the inheritance of covenant, Paul was setting out the parameters of what truly constitutes “good news”. Faith always points elsewhere, toward the relational life with God and with one another to which we are called. Faith always points to the kind of discipleship that models the servanthood of Jesus to the God whom he addressed as “Abba, Father”. In just the same way that Jesus was wholly oriented toward God, so we need to be wholly oriented toward Jesus, precisely because it is through following Jesus that we follow God.
In setting out this litmus test, Paul was not trying to assert his own control and authority over those whom he regarded as “rivals” for power within the early church. Rather, he was seeking to remind those Christian communities whom it is who calls them into faith, and whom it is who sustains their relational co-existence. This calling and resilience is not the product of the claims made by charismatic individuals, nor their assertions that they alone are exclusive possessors of the “truth” – a truth that often requires the unquestioning obedience of others. Rather, this calling and this maintenance of relationship comes from God, who self-reveals in Christ and invites us to respond with the relationship of faith. It is not a submission but an act of willing reciprocation. The point of a Christian community is thus not to submit to a “leader” but to sustain one another in faith; those who exercise “leadership” do so, not because of their exclusive virtue or especial insight, but because they recognise themselves as “fellow travellers” whose task it is to journey with others.
Today’s reading from Ephesians sets out a Christology whose task is not just to answer the questions surrounding Jesus’ relationship with God, but to set that relationship in the context of our relationship with one another. If God is revealed to the world through Christ, and if faith in Christ enables participation in the inheritance of covenant, then the task of Christian faith becomes the task of living together in a way that both models God’s call into relationship and which also reveals to the world the “good news” of God’s love for the world. Forms of church which emphasise the primacy of individuals or cliques over others, or which facilitate the self-serving interests of those who wield authority within the church, are not models of church which attend to the task of Christian faith.
This is not to say that leadership isn’t required, or that part of the calling of faith for some people doesn’t also involve a calling into leadership roles within the church. Rather, it is a reminder that this leadership must always exist for some purpose other than its own sake – it must always be about faith in Christ, and pointing people toward Jesus, through whom God is revealed in the world.
Modernity’s construction of work and economy assigns “authority” to various individuals and groups based upon their participation within the governing assumptions and preconditions of corporatist capitalism. Thus, professional economists are touted as “experts” and “authorities” whose explanations and rationalisations for the operation of the “market” present the mysterious and inexplicable as “rational” and “necessary” to the world. Likewise, the CEOs of multinational corporations are often presented as “authorities” whose explanations for why the prerogatives of corporatist capitalism should be facilitated and acceded to by government and society alike are often dressed up in the terms of public good. Finally, our culture with the myth of the autonomous individual at its heart, lauds and proclaims as models of human purpose the various “entrepreneurs” whose various endeavours allegedly represent human ingenuity and creativity at its best – which might be true, but which also tends to not only cover over the various unsavoury, unethical, or even downright illegal manoeuvrings which such individuals engaged in to become “entrepreneurs” in the first place, it actually hails those behaviours as praiseworthy.
However, the question is rarely asked to what end is all this vested authority directed, for what purpose is the hallowed expertise of economists bent, for what objective is the lionisation of entrepreneurs enacted? The answer – given by economists, CEOs, and entrepreneurs – is that their own self-interest serves the interest of the wider good: when they flourish, the community as a whole also flourishes. The claims of so-called “trickle down” economics are an example of this phenomenon. Allow the owners of capital, the entrepreneurs, and the class of wealthy “super-managers” to operate business and commerce with a minimum of regulation from government, or “interference” from civil society groups and trade unions, and this will allow business to employ more people, which in turn will strengthen the economy, which in turn will further employment growth through business growth. The benefits of giving the “top end of town” a more-or-less free hand will ultimately “trickle down” to other classes in society.
Unfortunately, although such theories are given wide credence, there is very little evidence that they actually work as stated. Indeed, the longitudinal studies that have actually been conducted suggest the opposite is the case: nearly half a century of the so-called “neoliberal ascendancy” has seen the wealthiest sections of society increase their share of wealth, while other sectors of society have become poorer. At the same time, work itself has become more and more fragmented, casualised, and insecure; working hours have expanded; and the benefits won by labour unions – such as penalty rates for overtime – have been wound back. Many of these developments have likewise been pushed by “experts” and “authorities” in pursuit of claims they will “improve” the economy and thus generate benefits for less wealthy sections of society. Again, however, these claims remain largely unproved.
Today’s reading from Ephesians reminds us of the risks entailed by uncritically investing authority in charismatic or self-assured “experts”, especially when the claim to “expertise” is largely a product of participation in self-selecting and self-reinforcing vested interests. Unlike an acknowledged expert in climate science, for example, who has to have a demonstrated record of achievement in the relevant scientific disciplines, economic and business “experts” are often “authorities” simply by dint of the assertively made and untested nature of their pronouncements about the way the economy “works” and what is in the best economic interests of society. As dissenting economists – the French economist Thomas Piketty and the American economist Robert Reich, for example – have noted, the formulae and equations used by economists to justify their “insights” are often loaded with assumptions that are either entirely undemonstrated, or which actually bear no resemblance to the realities of economic, commercial, and social behaviour. The “laws” of economics appear “scientific” in nature; but unlike other scientific disciplines, such as physics, or chemistry, or biology, there is no empirical process through which the claims of economists have been tested and either verified or rejected. Instead, the reality is that the theories and prognostications of economists are often vested with authority precisely because they serve the self-interest of those who benefit from the status quo – namely, the heads of corporations, the entrepreneurs, and the owners of capital.
But Paul’s caution against charismatic leaders who made claims to knowledge wasn’t simply a “rant” against his rivals or people he didn’t happen to like. It was a reminder to the Ephesians that their life as a community of faith was only possible as a consequence of it being focused on the person of Christ, rather than being distracted by rivalries and personalities. In the same way, work and economy only serve the purpose of human flourishing when they are focused on the innate dignity of every human person – on the fact that by virtue of our creation we are each of us the likeness and image of God. When work serves one section of the community at the expense of another, it ceases being human and dignity focused; when economics becomes a tool for manipulation by social and political elites, it ceases serving human flourishing and becomes destructive and oppressive instead. Modernity’s construction of work and economy, upheld by the “experts” and “authorities” who are themselves the servants of the privileged few, is both dehumanising and destructive – and all the symptoms and discontents which we experience as a result are alerting us to the need, not merely for change, but for wholesale re-alignment, if we are not to continue along the present trend.
John 1: 10-18
The opening to the Gospel According to John is arguably the most well-known passage in all of Scripture: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. But today’s passage begins after this well-known section, at verse 10, when John begins to talk about the significance and the consequences of the Incarnation. The “mystic” nature of John’s writing often causes this fact to be overlooked: people are captured by the poetry and imagery of John’s language, and fail to pay attention to what he is actually saying. Because what he is saying has significance and consequences for us.
Today’s reading begins with John’s description of the Word’s presence in the world, in and through the person of Jesus, and yet of the world being incapable of recognising that presence. Both the world at large and those who were the Word’s own people were blind to the irruption of God into human life. This begins one of the major narrative threads of John: the blindness of those who believe themselves to be righteous and clear-sighted, and yet who cannot recognise Emmanuel, “God among us”. Both the “righteous” and respectable among the Jewish people – especially the Temple leaders and the secular powers – as well as those whom the conventional assumptions of the wider world hold to be “wise” are incapable of seeing the reality in front of them, precisely because they have been blinded by their own assurance of wisdom and sanctity. They believe they know what they are looking for and what they are looking at; but they see only the reflection of their own conceit and presumption.
But there were those who could see – those who, ironically, were dismissed by the powers and authorities of the world as ignorant or unrighteous. And to these who could see, and who as a consequence made the response of faith to the invitation to relationship embodied in Jesus, came the gift of adoption as “children of God”. We have already seen this concept of adoption in the passage from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians discussed above; but it should be pointed out that, in the ancient world, adoption was not merely a legal process by which one family became the legal guardians of the children of another family. Rather, through adoption, those being adopted became the literal flesh and blood of the family by whom they were adopted, thus continuing the lineage, inheritance, and social relations and obligations embodied in that family. Thus it was that aristocratic Roman families often adopted the younger children of other aristocratic families in order for their own lineage to continue – and under Roman law, those adopted children became the literal flesh and blood heirs of the family into which they were adopted.
The significance of this, as we have already discussed, is that those who did have the “sight” to see and believe in Jesus as the Incarnate Word of God became the literal “children of God” – they were adopted by God as heirs to the promise made to Abraham and embodied in the covenant with the Hebrew peoples. Those who formally stood “outside” the orbit of God’s grace have been drawn instead within that orbit, precisely because the presence of the Word in the world affirms the love of God for the whole of creation. This love was embodied in covenant, intended as a light that drew people to God; then, of God’s own free election, God chose to act decisively in the person of Jesus to come into, and come to, the world and to the nations of the world. All those who “see” this light and respond to it through faith become part of the orbit of God’s grace, the “children of God”.
This passage concludes with the description of Jesus as the One through whom we see God. This is because Jesus, the Word made flesh, is God’s self-disclosure to the world. And this disclosure occurs in the ways of the world: through a childbirth like any other, through a process of growth and maturing like that of any child and adolescent. Unlike the typical god-assuming-human-form stories, the story of Jesus is atypical – he doesn’t descend as a cloud of gold, or appear as some mystic form, or assume someone else’s identity. Rather, God, incarnate in Jesus, is fully and ordinarily human. This indicates the extent of God’s solidarity with the world: God is come among us as one of us, to live our lives as we do. And in doing so, God discloses God’s own identity and purpose: as the One who seeks relationship with humankind, so that humankind may live relationally with one another.
And it is in this relational, covenantal co-existence that our adoption as “children of God” resides: by embodying in our own lives the very relationship which God seeks with us, all aspects of our humanity become God- and other-focused, concerned with the flourishing of our humanity and the fullness of our participation in the dignity of our creation. Our “sanctity” is not a function of our social status, our political power, our material wealth, or our standing in the eyes of those who wield power and privilege. It is certainly not a function of whether or not we are deemed to be “righteous” or “unrighteous”. Rather, it is a function of the fact that the love of God embraces the whole of humanity, and seeks, not our terrified submission, but our freely given response to freely offered love.
There is much about modernity’s construction of work and economy that encourages us to assume we “know the truth” and understand fully what is “necessary” and inevitable. The claims and assertions made by economists, corporate executives, and others vested by the “neoliberal ascendancy” with “authority” are shaped, not only by a particular worldview about how human relationships operate, and what constitutes human “flourishing”, they are also reinforced by the conviction that this worldview is correct and that any other view is “heresy” that would inevitably lead to “disaster”. In other words, the very same conceit which motivated the Temple leaders of Jesus’ time to declare who was “righteous” and who was “unclean” also motivates the “authorities” of our time to declare whose economics is “orthodox” and whose is “blasphemy”.
But this conviction of both rightness and righteousness is not just a matter of personal conceit; it is also a matter of vested self-interest. The owners of capital, the class of super-managers, the inheritors of wealth generated by the original industrialists and “moguls”, naturally desire the continuance of their privileged position, as well as the system by which it is sustained. So the whole framework of economic “orthodoxy” which both sanctifies and justifies this privilege, as well as declares it to be both inevitable and in the best interests of humankind, serves the ultimate purpose of keeping in place the structures of power from which they are the key beneficiaries.
The tragic irony of all this is that it is not only self-deceptive but self-destructive as well. The widening disparity in wealth and income distribution is destabilising the social fabric upon which economic and commercial structures depend if they are to continue functioning. The increasing control upon human life which corporations are exerting through waged labour and political influence, and the resulting feelings of powerlessness and despair to which they give rise, are driving the growing trend toward the kind of populist authoritarianism inimical to the open, democratic society capitalism requires if it is to survive. The ecological devastation which the ideology of endless consumption produces is destroying the very environment for which human survival is required.
In other words, the very blindness which prevailed in Jesus’ time prevails today. The “powers” and “authorities” who assume their own righteousness and rightness are blind to the reality that stands before them. But they are blind not just because they are self-interested but also because they are no longer “one of us” – they no longer have the same experience of what it means to be human as that which is experienced by the bulk of the human population. Which isn’t to say they don’t experience fundamental human realities like death or sadness or tragedy – rather, that their mode of being has become so remote from the daily, lived experience of the rest of humanity that they no longer “see” or “share” the humanity of anyone who does not live in their circles of engagement.
This is primarily the result of the fact that, over the course of the so-called “neo-liberal ascendancy”, the top 10% of wealthiest people in the world – who control close to 50% of the world’s wealth – have ceased earning the bulk of their income through the products of labour, and have instead started earning it through returns on investment. That is to say, instead of being derived directly from the returns made by commerce and industry, the income for the world’s wealthiest people now comes from returns on the bonds, stocks, derivatives, and other investment instruments that constitute the global financial markets. Moreover, much of this wealth is hidden in tax-havens and thus never enters the economy through government revenue. Thus, as the French economist Thomas Piketty and his colleagues have shown, when you need only use a relatively small proportion of your overall wealth in order to receive a rate of return on your investments that is greater than the overall rate at which the economy as a whole is growing, and when you can be sure that the vast bulk of that income will never be subject to government taxation, you no longer need worry about inflation, or stagnating wages, or insecure employment, or rising house prices. Your “reality” no longer reflects the same reality that obtains for most people – indeed, it reflects the extent of the disconnect between you and others.
And it is the extent – and widening – of this disconnect that is one of the most damaging by-products of modernity’s construction of work and economy. Historically speaking, power and wealth have always served to disconnect those who have been their beneficiaries from those who were not; but in modernity, this disconnect has reached such extreme levels that it threatens the very survival of the human species. Nor is this disconnect merely the sum result of a long historical process; rather, it is the specific outcome of the manner in which corporatist capitalism organises social and economic relations.
Today’s reading from The Gospel According to John reminds us of the blindness to which we are prone when our own experience does not match the experience of our fellow humans – indeed, when that experience induces in us a “blindness” that convinces us we are right and that we have the knowledge and information to “see clearly”. It also calls upon us to remember that work and economics are part of the network of human inter-relationships, and that we are called upon to embody forms of work and economy that enhance human solidarity and mutuality. Just as Jesus was “God among us”, one of us living our life, so we need all sectors of society to have a shared experience of vulnerability and richness that, even given the disparities that exist within human society, enable relationship and mutual identification. “Sustainability” refers not just to our relationship to the natural environment and the resources we consume, but also to the structures of power and authority that either sustain human dignity, or which militate against flourishing and ultimately bring about their own destruction.