When I was a schoolboy, each August my mother would take me and my brother to Smith’s department store in Leicester to buy new blazers. Putting on the new blazer was always magic, but there was another bit of magic I always looked forward to. The store was equipped with a vacuum tube payment system. The shop assistant put my mother’s money in a capsule and sealed it. Then he lifted a little lid at the end of a tube, releasing the noise of rushing air. He popped the capsule in and it shot off along the tubes clattering and wheezing along the ceiling and over to some hidden depths in the department store. A few minutes later there be another clattering and wheezing and the capsule would fall out of the hole onto the counter. Inside was the change and the receipt. I would have loved to have installed such a system in our house so that I could send messages between upstairs and downstairs.
Our understanding of language is very like that tubular system. We tend to understand words as capsules holding a precise meaning. I put my words into a capsule, it goes over to whoever I’m speaking to, and they open it up and take out the meaning. Of course it’s not like that at all. We often fail to say all we mean, and what we do say is often understood in ways we hadn’t intended, or is misunderstood or misheard. Modern semiotics has taught us that words can never be relied on to convey all the intended meaning. It will often be a bit of a messy job. Words are very inefficient as capsules for our meanings.
We have a poet in residence with us at the moment, Maggie. Poetry takes us into a different game. It teaches us that words might be inefficient, but they can be a source of wonder and of powerful evocation. The words of poetry can say or to evoke things that words can’t say in normal usage.
The way we relate to other people is a bit like the difference between prose and poetry. We can think an encounter with someone else is straightforward to understand, when in fact what is going on is much more complicated.
On my recent holiday I rented a lean-to in somebody’s garden in southern Italy. In the garden, roaming free, were several cats, two dogs, a cockerel and a chicken, a donkey and two goats. All of them seemed to regard my lean-to as their lean-to, and I spent a lot of time shooing them out. I made a short video of myself shooing the donkey out of my bedroom. It would have been easy to become us-and-them about it. On the one hand they might have been saying, “this is our place – we live here”, while I could have responded by saying, “no it isn’t – I’ve paid good money to have this to myself for two weeks, and you can keep out”. But what was going on was more complex. They had a good-natured desire to be friendly – with an obvious hope hovering in the background for perhaps a morsel to eat. Occasionally behind my back they helped themselves.
My wrath however was tempered by their delightfulness. We ended up with a kind of balance of forces, in which both sides reached a level of satisfactory contentment.
There are themes from today’s gospel, and they throw light on a common human predicament, that we can see in action in something like our country’s agonisings over Brexit.
In the gospel Jesus asks the Pharisees a question: referring to Ps 110 he says, How can David, the psalmist, refer to the Messiah as his Lord, if he is David’s son? Jesus is gently questioning the Pharisees’ picture of the Messiah, which was ethnic: they expected the Messiah to come from the Jews and to be for the Jews in the first place. Jesus is indeed himself portrayed as of the house of David in all 4 Gospels, but that is not the only factor, or even the determining one. He is also Son of God. He is above all ethnic belongings. God is greater than Jewish patriotism. In Jesus’ Jewish roots we see the scandal of the particular: our redemption was wrought in a particular place among particular people, and Jesus was limited by all that particularity. And yet the redemption he brought is universal. The particularity of place and time meant everything to the Jews, while for Christians they are one side of a coin. The other side is the universality of God, who is above every nation and patriotism. And so for Christians there is a challenge: we are bound to live out our loyalties to the family, to the wider group within which we live, and to the nation: they are fundamentally important for our humanity. And yet at the same time we are to be above them.
One problem about the Brexit debate is a stirring-up of a patriotism that is short on that complexity of relating that I found with the donkey, the goats the cats. You may know that some of us were involved recently in a colloquium of Anglican and German Roman Catholic bishops at the Abbey of St Matthias in Trier. One of the German Bishops said that many Germans were dismayed that our Brexit debate in Britain was so lacking in a moral dimension. In other words, we talk a lot about the economic issues and the effects on our self-determination, but very little about the moral arguments for such a coming-together of nations, or the moral consequences of breaking away. There are plenty of moral questions to be raised of course about the way the EU is run; but what the bishop was talking about was the underlying principles, issues that would include the building of a better world by coaxing many Eastern countries towards democracy and the rule of law; the example set in establishing trust between nations; then there is the voice that such a large grouping of nations can have in world affairs, where individual nations following their own interests would have much less ability to do so. And so on. This is not an apology for the Remain camp: the bishops were simply pointing out the lack of something important in the British public debate. It needs to be at a higher level than just us-and-them. Patriotism, and a sense of being a nation, is important, but it will only be healthy when it is set within a much more complex set of things going on where people are relating at all levels of the affections and intuitions and desires.
Daily life is full of situations where we easily jump into an us-and-them confrontation. Somebody does something that annoys us and we go and vent our irritation. They hit back, or perhaps internally burst into tears, in a transaction which is too crude. Boxing-gloves need to go and our antennae need to be out – we will always learn more about the truth of the situation if we make an effort to be generous. There is an unhelpful patriotism of self, defending my territory, and defining myself over against others. That is different from the better patriotism of the Kingdom of God, in which we certainly learn to love ourselves, but in a context of loving our neighbour as ourselves.
This trying to be generous is there in many of Jesus’ images: turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, love your enemies, and, in the first part of today’s gospel, love your neighbour as yourself. Loving will always include a certain degree of irritation and combat, as in my defence of my lean-to, but it will include also a certain pleasure in giving ourselves, in an unquantifiable exchange where giving and receiving are elided into something more mysterious. In relationships between human beings, if we resist the temptation for the simple straightforward response, the quick fix, the contractual tit-for-tat, that can often open the door for the people involved to grow.