This is the third of Martyn Goss’s talks which he gave at a quiet day last year at Sheldon retreat house. It seems particularly appropriate as the run-up to the General Election begins, and as some of the world’s wealthiest meet at one of the world’s most exclusive resorts (Davos) to talk about poverty …
“Whatever you did for one of the least of my sisters and brothers, you did it unto me”
YHWH (the way God is referred to in the Old Testament) offers the land as a home to God’s peoples but with that gift comes responsibilities. We are asked to behave in appropriate ways that will respect the Earth and all living beings as part of a three-way partnership or Covenant between the Creator, People and Planet (Genesis 9).
Much of the Jewish Torah (Pentateuch) (first five books of our Bible known collectively as ‘the Law’) sets out guidelines for daily living. How the Hebrews are to farm, to eat, to reproduce, to care for one another, to trade and to protect themselves. The books of Deuteronomy and Levitical codes are quite clear for their day. They also, of course, outline how the one God of Israel is to be worshipped in the Temple, and hint at how he is to be experienced through the natural order of the hills, valleys, trees, streams, mountains, etc.
And at the heart of all this thinking there is one particular ‘law’ which is expressed in the fifth commandment but whose implications permeate the whole of life: honouring the Sabbath or the seventh day. The Shabbat is seen as the pinnacle of Creation – the day on which God rests because the Creation is whole and healthy. Indeed Shabbat is almost a symbol for the entire Creation, as the Temple becomes the symbol for the Creation stories.
Linked clearly to the Sabbath is the principle of the Jubilee – the time not to work, and the recognition that every seven times seven years there is to be a social review when the trumpet calls out to all. This is to be an opportunity to write off debts, re-distribute land, free captives and to heal those who are broken or excluded. Human economic activity is to cease (as it is on the weekly Shabbat) and everyone has a responsibility to engage in changing society to be more egalitarian and more just. Justice will bring about peace, restore wholeness and initiate a re-created social order.
Later in the Biblical literature the Prophets, John the Baptiser, Jesus and others serve as an assertive reminder to return to these guidelines that the poor become rich, and the rich are sent away empty; that the unclean are welcomed and accepted; that economic dependents be cared for and that God’s love becomes universal. We are especially to care for and about the most vulnerable.
The word ‘Responsibility’ has two edges to it. One suggests the necessity of responding to what is happening – reacting to social realities and re-acting appropriately. This is the need to read the signs of the times and to speak the truth to power. Or in our contemporary situation, for example, to respond to the effects of austerity, poverty, inequality and insecurity through sharing the love of God in mercy, kindness and justice through our own lives.
The second understanding of responsibility is illustrated by the German translation – Verantwortlichkeit – or answerability. This emphasises that as Christians and as humans, we are actually accountable one to another. And this accountability may be legal and upheld by the Law (as a parent or teacher in locus parentis), or it may be moral and upheld by the community (as in voluntary work or in terms of good neighbourliness or friendship). Or it might be both.
So responsibility is concerned with how we manage and share the resources we are given in life. In Christian terms, we may see it as how we better further God’s reign on Earth through loving one another into becoming more complete human beings. For we also recognise that we are accountable to the Creator who makes and forms us.
We are called to be responsible for the past, the present and the future.
There is a story of a farmer who has a pond on his land. On the water there is a single strand of duckweed, which doubles in size every day. Each morning he checks out the surface of the pond, until one day he sees it covers 50% of the water. And he says to himself, No problem – it is still only covering half of the pond….
My question for you to ponder is therefore this:
WHAT ARE MY DEEPEST AND MOST PROFOUND RESPONSIBLITIES?
How do I meet these? Are they changing? Do I share them with others?
Do I need to take these more seriously?
Do we have responsibilities for future generations?’