Advice about Building a House
Ninth Sunday of the Year. Fr Euan Marley issues a call for a new kind of friendship and a new kind of politics.
The only time I visited a communist country was in 1981, when I took a train journey from Vienna to Budapest. Hungary was, reputedly, under the least intense form of communism. Yet when we crossed the border, all the Hungarians were taken off the train, and every inch of the train was examined. Outside we were surrounded by soldiers with sub-machine guns, pointed at the train. I fervently hoped that none of them would sneeze. That was 1981. Eight years later it had all gone, like snow off a dyke, as we say in Scotland.
All political theories are, at root, theories of friendship. Communism failed because it became, I think it always becomes, an imposed friendship, and that is just too much of a contradiction. If the stick will eventually destroy friendship, however well intentioned — and communism always begins with a lot of good intentions — the carrot doesn’t work either.
Arthur Miller’s play, The Death of a Salesman is an analysis of a capitalist theory of friendship. It is friendship based on mutual self interest. The hero, Willie Loman, has all his life been mesmerised by an 84-year-old man who could pick up a phone and make a deal. Willie thinks that this is the best sort of friendship:
What could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of eighty-four, into twenty or thirty different cities, and pick up a phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people?
This sort of friendship fails too, because friendship can’t all be about exchange and a sort of shared selfishness. Sometimes friendship involves sacrifice and loss. Capitalism can’t explain why anyone would die for a friend, yet ‘greater love, no man has’ (John 15:13). Willie is obsessed with paying off his mortgage on his house, to the point where he has forgotten to live in his house. Biff his son, whom Willie thinks is a failure, learns at the end of the play to just accept what he has. We don’t know what he will do out west, where he returns, but we can feel confident that somewhere, for someone, he will be a real friend.
So today, we come to the end of the Sermon on the Mount. It could equally be called the sermon about building a house. Near the beginning of the sermon, after the beatitudes, Jesus says that we should light a candle and put it on a candle stand to give light to men (5:15). He ends by saying that the words of the Sermon are a foundation for a house that will not collapse.
Well — Communism, and certain raw forms of Capitalism, are houses that collapsed. They were to give light to men, but the light turned into darkness. They fell, even when they seemed to be unassailable. Think of the Nazi ideal, a brotherhood of the superior race, which truly fell as it became increasingly degraded, long before Berlin was in ruins. The buildings may stand long after the spirit has fallen into ruins.
Read the Sermon as advice on building forms of friendship that will last. Read the rest of the Gospel of Matthew and consider the many houses, the gatherings of friendships which Christ encounters. The houses of Pharisees, of tax collectors and sinners, of Peter and of Simon the leper. Consider the first house we hear about, after the Sermon, the house of the Centurion, where his sick servant lies dying. The centurion says significantly that he is not worthy to have Jesus enter his house, yet in the important sense, Jesus does just that, by curing the servant. Other houses Jesus enters physically but he is not really allowed into those houses. He was never really there, and they were never truly friends.
And when you have read and pondered, be political. Engage in the politics of friendship. A politics which needs purity of heart, poverty of spirit, hunger and thirst for justice. We know that this century, with global warming, there will be famine and drought in many places. Technology alone will not be enough. This century must be spent building up friendship in the whole world. Build a house of friendship that doesn’t fall, that shares its light with the world.