A Thankless Task

A Thankless Task

Nineteenth Sunday of the Year. Fr Richard Ounsworth calls for mercy towards a group of people who do not often receive it.

I was talking the other day to a young man from a country in the Middle East who hopes to return to his home when he has completed his studies to engage in politics, to stand up for the rights and freedoms his people do not currently enjoy. I was rather blithely encouraging him in this laudable ambition when I was firmly told to keep quiet by someone older and wiser than both of us. ‘Do you want him to end up being tortured in a secret-police cell?’, I was asked.

Those of us who live in democracies perhaps tend to take for granted the opportunities we have to express our views, to determine the course of our lives, to go where we will and do as we please without needing to look over our shoulders all the time. And one of the things we most enjoy is criticising our political leaders — and we should thank God that we can, and pray for liberty for those who can’t.

Indeed, we in Britain like not only to criticise our politicians but to demand the impossible of them. A recent report on the radio announced the result of an opinion poll: the vast majority of us want our leaders to lead and not just to follow, to be people of strongly held principles and not just popularity seekers. But when asked whether we wanted them to listen to public opinion, to be flexible and open to changing their minds, we all duly said ‘yes’ to that as well. Which seems to be entirely contradictory — but the ‘Great British Public’ is nothing if not demanding.

In this, at least, we are like God. I wonder whether our new Prime Minister, for example, on hearing today’s Gospel reading about the demands placed on the stewards of God’s household, and the punishments held over them so threateningly if they fail to do as the Master wants, is inclined to ask the same question that Saint Peter asked: ‘Are you telling this parable for us or for all?’

But surely, if on one level the household of God is clearly the Church, and these sayings should have the Pope and his fellow bishops quaking in their boots, then on another the household of God is the whole world. It was, after all, for the salvation of the whole of humanity the God chose his holy people, gave them the Law and the Prophets, and sent his only Son into their midst to reconcile all mankind to himself. And it was to Adam, and in him to all of us who are his sons and daughters, that God entrusted the world to till it and care for it.

So these sayings of Christ speak in a special way to the political leaders of the whole world, democratic or otherwise. And those held accountable by democratic processes cannot use that accountability as an excuse for failing to follow God’s law; as the Lord says in another place, one cannot serve two masters, and the master here is clearly God, not man. If following the law of God, leading the people they have been given charge of along the pilgrimage of faith to the heavenly Jerusalem of which our second reading speaks, makes a politician unpopular or threatens to lose him his power, then he must surrender that popularity and that power gladly.

For all power comes ultimately from God, as Jesus tells Pilate, and all power, whether in state or in Church, must lead back to him. The purpose of all structures of authority must be to lead people to God, and leaders must lead and not simply follow — we are not well-served by leaders, whether bishops or Members of Parliament, Presidents or Popes, who are slaves to public opinion and seek principally to be loved by us. It is not their job to be loved by us; it is their job to participate in the guiding, providential love of God who seeks to draw all people to himself.

Let us, then, be more merciful to our politicians. They will, like us who know the Master’s will, be judged in the fullness of time by the one to whom all judgement belongs. Meanwhile, we should make it easier for them to do what we know is right — and of course more difficult to do what we know is wrong. Above all, let us pray for them, for the future of the world is in their hands, until we reach the heavenly city.

Readings: Wisdom 18:6-9 | Hebrews 11:1-2,8-19 | Luke 12:32-48

fr Richard Joseph Ounsworth is resident at Holy Cross Priory, Leicester, teaches scripture for Blackfriars, Oxford, and is the Editor of Torch.