When we first started planning this service, the Mayor told me that there were three things that were particularly important to her: housing, health, and education. She also said that she wanted the service to reflect her concern for peace in the world.
The Bible is a very rich resource for reflecting on the values that underpin public life. But when we read the bible with questions of politics and government in mind, we need to be mindful of the fact that the ancient world was very different from our own. Human societies have been transformed in all sorts of ways since the agricultural and industrial revolutions; the understanding of leadership that we find in the bible reflects a very different sort of society.
The duties of a king in ancient societies were broadly speaking twofold.
The first priority was familiar: security and peace. It’s pretty obvious that any other political goal is somewhere between difficult and impossible to achieve if you cannot first secure a level of basic security for your people within certain boundaries. A successful biblical king was one who could achieve victory over enemies, securing peace for his people; or, better still, maintain secure boundaries without having to go to war at all.
The second priority was that of providing justice. It was the king’s responsibility to see that laws were upheld, and the king could be called on to make judgements between one person and another. In particular, the king was understood as having a special responsibility for standing up for the poor.
So the Mayor’s concern for peace is certainly something that we see reflected in many places in the holy scriptures. A good king was one who could guarantee the security of his people through military strength; peace was seen as a blessing from God. In the New Testament, Jesus speaks of peace in a different way, the peace that it within us rather than the peace that is without; this too is understood to be a blessing from God. And in today’s gospel, Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”.
But housing, education and health were not by and large things that belonged to the realm of politics in biblical times. Human society at that time was much simpler, primarily engaged in food production, and primarily organised through kinship groups. The allocation of land and housing, the provision of such education as was considered necessary, and the care of the sick, these were all things that were largely dealt with through family networks. It is only as society has become more complex over the last few hundred years that that state has involved itself significantly in housing, education or health.
So when we reflect on our public life and the values that underpin it, we can see that there is a pretty big gap between the way societies are organised in our contemporary post-industrial context, and the ways of life that would have been familiar to biblical writers. So where then can we find in the bible principles and values that can help us in thinking about public life and good government in our contemporary context?
One of the important strands of writing in the Old Testament is what is known as the Wisdom Literature. These books are closely associated with King Solomon, the legendary king of ancient Israel, famous for his wisdom. Our first reading, from the Book of Proverbs, is an example of this sort of writing. Although much of the Wisdom Literature is applicable to human life in general, it does seem to stand in a particular connection to leadership and public life.
In the biblical wisdom tradition, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. This word “fear” is a difficult one – in this context it has more of a sense reverence and awe than a cowering fear or terror. But the idea is clear enough; to be wise, we first need to learn humility. When we understand ourselves in relation to God, and when we learn a sense of reverence and awe for God, we see ourselves in proper perspective. There can be no wisdom without first recognising our frailty and our limitations. And looking at the world today, I don’t think there can be anyone who would dispute the conclusion that a little more humility amongst our political leaders would be rather a good thing. This exhortation to humility which is such an important part of the biblical wisdom tradition is picked up and amplified by Jesus in our gospel reading today: “Blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are the meek…”. Self-assertion and overconfidence have no place in the biblical understanding of wisdom.
And the sense of reverence and awe for God that is the starting point for wisdom leads logically to a sense of reverence and awe for God’s works, for the natural environment that sustains our lives, and for human beings, made in God’s image, “a little lower than the angels”, as the psalmist writes, “crowned with glory and honour”. Such power and authority as one human being may exercise over another is understood as being held on trust from God; a wise ruler rules for the good of their people rather than for their own self-interest, because of their reverence for God and God’s works.
And more than that, there is a special concern for the poor that is the responsibility of kings and all those who hold worldly power. This concern is understood as an echo of God’s direct personal interest in the poor; again and again throughout the Old Testament there are clear instructions to look after the welfare of widows, orphans and foreigners, the people who tended to fall through the cracks of the extended family networks which were the welfare systems of the ancient world.
Those in authority had a particular obligation to provide justice for the poor. “Blessed are those who consider the poor and needy”, the psalmist writes.
In the ancient world of the bible, the allocation of land and housing, the provision of education, and the care of the sick were things that could largely be accomplished through kinship networks. In our own much more complex society, many of us still lean on our families for support in various ways, but social changes have led the state to become increasingly involved in housing, education and healthcare. It is hard to see how leaders in our generation can take seriously the biblical exhortation to “consider the poor and needy” without attending carefully to these things which are so essential for human flourishing.
So today we come together to reflect on and pray for the public life of our town and of our nation. We consider the challenges faced by our nation and by our own community in the areas of housing, education and healthcare, and we pray for energy and endeavour in addressing these challenges. We remember the people of Ukraine, and other conflict zones, and we pray for their protection and peace. And we reflect too on the need for wisdom, a wisdom grounded in humility; we pray that all those who hold positions of human authority would have a sense of reverence and awe, and be always mindful that they must ultimately give an account of their actions to the One who is our true King and Judge, to whom with the +Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory now and unto ages of ages.