Welcome + Worship + Witness

Revd Jonathan Cain: Hardness of Heart

Trinity 1
03 June 2018
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Revd Jonathan Cain
2 Corinthians 4: 5-12; Mark 2: 23- 3: 6

“For some, the result was catastrophic. In one case, a woman had lived and worked in the UK for 50 years before she was wrongfully declared an illegal immigrant and almost forced on a plane to her native Jamaica.  In another, a man who had lived in the UK for 59 years received a letter that not only informed him of his illegal status in the country, but also offered him “help and support on returning home voluntarily.”  Perhaps one of the most severe cases concerned a man who, after living in the UK for 44 years, had his cancer treatment through the National Health Service withheld because he couldn’t provide sufficient documentation to prove he lived in the country continuously since immigrating from Jamaica in 1973.”

The Windrush Scandal, which the above news extract relates to has arisen, we are told, as the unintended consequence of the collision of two circumstances: the ‘hostile environment’ introduced in 2012 in response to fears over levels of immigration to the UK; and the absence of formal documentation for many now retired citizens who came to the UK with their parents from Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean after World War Two – the so-called Windrush generation. When news of the scandal broke in the run up to last months Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, it prompted widespread outrage and fulsome apologies from government.  Somehow in the midst of a set of rules and policies the lives and stories of real people had been occluded.

In Jesus’ time the observance of the sabbath was one of the principal distinguishing marks of the Jews as the people of God, and as such it was defended with more than merely pietistic zeal; it was a matter of national pride. In the politically turbulent Ancient Near East many in the time before Christ had been prepared to die rather than desecrate the sabbath by fighting in self-defence.  After one massacre of Jews by a hostile neighbour, we read the following in first Maccabees: “If we do as our kindred have done and refuse to fight with the Gentiles for our lives and for our ordinances, they will quickly destroy us from the earth.”  The account in Maccabees goes on to describe the decision made following this massacre: “Let us fight against anyone who comes to attack us on the sabbath day; let us not all die as our kindred died in their hiding places.”

This pragmatic response to living and surviving alongside pagan neighbours left many issues about sabbath observance to be resolved. The Hebrew Scriptures offered positive principles that the sabbath should be kept holy, and that the day should be a time of rest, with the negative corollary that no work should be done. It was on this negative aspect that debate centred; what after all was work?  While the scriptures offered illustrations of a number of sabbath prohibitions, they did not add up to a comprehensive definition of ‘work’ and in the Pharisaic tradition an elaborate case law developed.

The life and death importance of sabbath observance, and this elaborate case law about sabbath prohibitions provide the backdrop to the two encounters between Jesus and Pharisees in the gospel reading this morning. Both reveal Jesus’ attitude to sabbath observance, which is elastic and at odds with those in religious authority.  Jesus’ actions reclaim the meaning and purpose of sabbath which is essentially positive, a time for doing good, particularly a time for the relief of suffering. Jesus shines a light on the Pharisaic enterprise of building a fence around the sabbath, corrupting God’s intentions and creating a set of rules and policies where the lives and stories of real people were being occluded; “Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the sabbath.”

I’m no Greek scholar, but I would draw attention to the word Jesus uses for ‘hardness’ in the phrase “hardness of heart”. It derives from the same root as that used to describe the concretion of minerals to form stone, or the growth of bone tissue to form a callus. When such hardening happens to the heart – the centre of feeling and of spiritual insight – it cannot function properly.  Jesus’ critics are set in their ways, their hearts are hardened and incapable of receiving and accepting new insight; their insensitivity both hurts and angers him.

Before we distance ourselves from the Pharisees too quickly, it is worth remembering where the complex sabbath law originated; fears about national identity and a desire to control. It was a similar fear and desire to control that contributed to the hostile immigration policies at the centre of the Windrush affair.  These fears did not just appear in a vacuum, and it is surely worth noticing and reflecting on the conditions that leads to such a collective hardening of heart.  In a recent blog Bishop Nick Baines listed some of those conditions as: populist nationalism, mass migration, the corruption of the public (and political) discourse, and the easy equation of the common good with mere economics and self-protection.  We might add to that list political leaders with an instinct to build barriers, fences, or even walls.

In the sixth century before Christ God spoke to Israel through the prophet Ezekiel: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” God made this promise so that Israel might become a nation worthy of God’s holy name.  The church continues to have influence in the life of this nation, and to be worthy of Christ’s holy name we too must pray for hearts that are fleshy and open.  Only then will we see clearly the lives and stories of real people and love our neighbours as we love ourselves.