Easter III, 23 Apr 23
How much are you worth? I find the concept of wealth lists bewildering: so-and-so is worth so many billion, he or she (mostly they’re “he’s” I‘m afraid) is down a few places or up a few places on last year. X number of people on the world’s richest 100 list are British, or whatever else we may glean form such data. When I was a child we grew up never really asking what my father owned, or indeed my mother when she went back to work when my sister and I had grown up a bit. I remember other children at secondary school saying their parents earned this or that, and I just had to keep quiet because I didn’t know how much mine earned.
I’m guessing none of us are on the world’s richest list (if you are, please make sure you’ve signed a gift aid form and your standing order details are up-to-date!) and even more importantly I’m hoping none of us want to be and I certainly hope we’re not sad about the fact that we’re not among the world’s richest.
In our second reading today we heard from St Peter’s First Letter, in which he wrote: “Remember, the ransom that was paid to free you … was not paid in anything corruptible, neither in silver nor gold, but in the precious blood of a lamb without spot or stain, namely Christ.” I want to explore this language of ransoming in the context of our faith. A ransom, of course, is something paid to set people free. We might think of hostage situations where the terrorists ring up (in the films at least) demanding a ransom and the cops are listening in on the phones. We might recall from our history too that Kings of old were ransomed if caught in battle, most famously Richard I. When the ransom was demanded for him by Leopold of Austria, the wicked Prince John sought to get more in taxation and this led to the Sherwood Forrest escapades of Robin Hood.
Anyway, the language of ransom goes with speaking of redemption. Our Lord speaks of His own self-offering as a “redemption” sometimes translated as a ransom for many (St Matthew 20:28). In today’s Gospel Cleopas and the unnamed disciple explain to their unidentified co-traveller that they had hoped Jesus would “set Israel free” (St Luke 24:21) and the same word for redemption is used. The psalmist, centuries prior to the Death and Resurrection of our Lord, realised that humanity was incapable of sorting out this debt ourselves, as we said on Tuesday at Evening Prayer, “For no man can buy his own ransom, or pay a price to God for his life. The ransom of his soul is beyond him,” (Psalm 49:7).
But here comes some of the problems Christian theology has encountered when considering this question of to whom the debt or ransom is paid. For centuries there was a sense in which the debt needed to be paid to Satan. The logic was that divine justice required that some payment be made to pay off the Devil for freeing those who had aligned themselves to him by their sins. This debt, it was said, was paid by the Lord on the Cross. This gave slightly too much weight to Satan and his power, a temptation that is always there in the thinking of Christians. Be it things that go bump in the night or the hold of evil on the lives of those around us, we must never think anyone is lost or to be given over completely to the evil one. We don’t believe God and Satan are two equal and opposite powers at war with each other and we’re not sure who’s going to win, as if this were a comic book or blockbusting film: we know how this ends, God wins, we just have to decide whether we want to be on the winning side or not.
St Anselm, whom the Church celebrated on Friday, was Archbishop of Canterbury a nine hundred years ago and a significant part of his legacy is to realise that this sort of paying-debt-to-Satan theology was problematic. Rather, God became man for us in Christ Jesus Our Lord, St Anselm argued, so that the relationship between us and God could be put right. Only God could sort this out as we became incapable of giving everything to God through the entanglement of sin within our life and because of the immensity of God’s gracious love.
The language of ransom further reminds us that there will be at times in our life evidence of another master at work within us. When we are captives, like those captured by terrorists or indeed like King Richard I, we are subject to another person’s ways of doing things: we eat what they determine, we speak to only those whom they allow, our freedom is curtailed. In this is the effect sin has on our lives. It is always dressed up as freedom: “I can do that because it is not doing anyone any harm … It doesn’t really say in the Bible that it is wrong …” Doing any number of things is presented to us as a good idea because it looks like we are exercising freedom, which must be good, right? St Paul is quite honest about the struggle he himself experiences in a passage in his letter to the Romans: “I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me,” (7:14,15,17). An awareness of this struggle, even when it is not a conscious one, will give us humility to seek forgiveness and to be patient with one another.
The language of ransom will also remind us that we are important to God and indeed all His people are important to Him. As the Psalmist says, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones,” (Psalm 116:15). Jesus amplifies this when He teaches us not to worry in St Matthew 6: “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” Our Lord goes on in this passage from the Sermon on the Mount: “if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you - you of little faith?” (St Matthew 6:26, 30). God’s love for us goes hand in hand with His intimate knowledge of us: He’s counted everyone of the hairs on our head after all.
Our response to this immense value of men and women is quite different to the world’s evaluation. You may remember the TV ads for L’Oreal, the makeup company, which ended after the brief clip of someone swooshing their hair or whatever and the final line would be in the bets American accent: “Because I’m worth it.” The logic was that our value is expressed through materialist pleasure and adornment. (And don’t get me wrong I’m up for a bit of feel-good therapy as much as the next person!). But the difference is that we see the intrinsic value of human beings being expressed in different ways. We are called to worship God, something animals are not called to do. We believe life should not be terminated irrespective of how our body or mind deteriorates and irrespective of how young we are in the womb of our mother because each of us is wonderfully and intimately made by God in His own image.
This sense that people are valuable propels us to share the Good News with others: to be witnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. We don’t tell people about Jesus is risen because we’re obsessed with them being sinners who need to repent (true though that will be) but because we realise their worth is being diminished by them not accepting their potential responding to the divine call to worship God in His House. It’s this drive that means we strive to make it as easy as possible for people to get to Mass with two Masses at St Mary’s and this was the drive behind our opening the Good Shepherd again thirteen years ago and indeed of supporting St Philip’s for the past five years. We do this because it is difficult for people to get to Mass and when they don’t worship God they will inevitably have a lower regard for themselves and be less aware of the beauty of being human.
Even those with no faith recognise the value of human beings and like all this good, when this becomes corrupt it is particularly grotesque. We see this supremely in slavery, the trafficking of human beings, the abuse of refugees, the belief that we can buy and sell others for our own enjoyment, or that once we money is involved we are given rights over another, allowed to be rude or exploitative of them. The value of a person means they are beyond a pecuniary worth: they’re not for sale, there is no charge permitted.
When the disciples recognised the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread their hearts burned with them. What joy they must have had knowing they had come face to face with their Saviour. May our heart burn no less within when we consider what Jesus went through for our sake and for the sake of the whole world. May this renew our sense of self-worth and an our awareness of the value of others. This isn’t measure by earthly standards, and nor can it be limited when criteria set by the world are not met. Rather we know we and those we see around us are valuable because in the words of St Peter, “the ransom that was paid to free you … was not paid in anything corruptible, neither in silver nor gold, but in the precious blood of a lamb without spot or stain, namely Christ.”