Easter 6: Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?

6th Sunday of Easter

Sermon by the Reverend Doctor Brutus Green

Based on readings: Ezekiel 37.1-14, Acts 16.9-15, John 5.1-9


If you happened to be at church last week, you’ll be delighted to know that I’m sticking with the classic movie references.

Only this week moving from Taxi Driver to the superb 1954 film On the Waterfront. The film is less famous than one particular line in it, spoken by Marlon Brando, a boxer who is convinced by his brother under pressure from the Mob to lose fights for money. You may have never heard of the film but you’ll know the line: [I think it works better with an English accent, but this is not an accurate repetition of Brando’s working American man:] “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.” Not ‘I coulda been a champion’, but just ‘I coulda been a contender’. Against his conscience, against his pride, with no support, Brando has become a bum, a nobody. It’s not that he failed — he never even got a chance.

I bring this up because there’s a tension throughout history, but most clearly in the twentieth century between — paraphrasing Mr Spock —

‘the needs of the many’ and ‘the needs of the few’. That conflict is at the heart of most human tragedy. For when ‘as logic clearly dictates… the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few’, we are in to the language of ‘collateral damage’, of ‘necessary evils’. The evil of having to get up early every morning because the need of your partner to have half an hour more in bed, and your baby for his milk, outweigh your need to sleep. Necessary evils.

The great unsentimental wickednesses of Fascism and Socialism made no excuses here, but it also becomes the embarrassment of our own politics. Economic or ‘tough’ decisions are made regularly that even with every effort to be fair, require politicians, commanders, anyone making large-scale decisions, to set the needs of the few to one side.

Decisions called ‘brave’, ‘statesmanlike’, ‘justified’. I’m sure, like me, most of you are very much looking forward to seeing which of the ‘statesmanlike’ figures, vying to be contenders, becomes our next Prime Minister.  

The novelist Arthur Koestler puts it concisely in Darkness at Noon, the book that signed him off from Communism.  He writes:

There are only two conceptions of human ethics, and they are at opposite poles. One of them is Christian and humane, declares the individual to be sacrosanct, and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units. The other starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows, but demands, that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community — which may dispose of it as an experimentation rabbit or a sacrificial lamb.

It’s not that having collective aims pursued at the cost of individuals is evil. That’s a principle inherent in all politics. But it is true that when this is pursued most rationally and ruthlessly, it’s led to some of the worst human catastrophes. Think of Javert in Les Miserables, of whom Victor Hugo says:

‘Probity, sincerity, candour, conviction, and the idea of duty, are things which, by deceiving themselves, may become hideous, but which even if hideous remain grand… they are virtues which have but one vice, error… Nothing could be more painful and terrible than this face, which revealed what we may call all the evil of good.’ 

This may be true even of politicians who have good intentions. But so much more when they do not. I hope you all voted last week.

When the mob who control the Waterfront in the Marlon Brando film start getting rid of those who threaten their control, Father Barry tells them:

Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary.

They better wise up! Taking Joey Doyle's life to stop him from testifying is a crucifixion…  And every time the Mob puts the pressure on a good man, tries to stop him from doing his duty as a citizen, it's a crucifixion. And anybody who sits around and lets it happen, keeps silent about something he knows that happened, shares the guilt of it just as much as the Roman soldier who pierced the flesh of our Lord to see if he was dead.

When the individual is crushed beneath the collective will, the powers that be, it is a crucifixion.

I was intrigued watching a 3 year old playing with some older children in the house yesterday. You could see this was very new to the 3 year old, but it was also exciting being with these older children. Despite being very unsure about the game he went along with it.  We are just naturally very sociable animals. Submitting to a group is something we do a little too easily. And a vicarage is an excellent place to play hide and seek.

It’s a theme that’s very clearly at work in the Gospel.  Power – that is – not hide and seek. As John’s Gospel moves to a close, it’s revealed to the High Priest that ‘it is expedient that one man die for the people’. He doesn’t understand why this has been revealed or what it means, but goes along with it because it seems to him a political truth. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

And we see it in certain miracles.  We’re told that the man is born blind in order that God’s power may be seen and Jesus revealed as the light of the world. Lazarus is allowed to die and Jesus delays his journey to this end, so that he may be raised from the dead and Jesus known as the resurrection and the life. Jesus’ divinity then appears to look past the plight of the individual to the higher goal of the revelation of God’s purposes.

And yet in today’s Gospel, we see Jesus, as he does so often, responding to individual need. Seeing someone struggling and not abstracting to the wider social or theological  issues, lamenting the NHS, or making a speech about social justice, but simply acting on the basis of the need in front of him. We see him breaking the Jewish interpretation of the Law, which is no respecter of the man or woman in crisis. And as with his compassion for outcasts, the vilified and unclean, and his emphasis on forgiveness, Jesus in his humanity puts the individual first.  He’s kind. So in the two natures of Christ, we see mercy seasoning justice, of the needs of the few held with the needs of the many.

This person-based ethics is infused in Christianity. In our reading from Acts we heard about the women of Macedonia and Lydia, hearing the Gospel and being baptised. And this is how Christianity went from a handful of people to a world religion. The simple sharing of stories and interpersonal relationships. The few caring for the few, despite the persecution of the many. As Lydia was baptised with her whole family, like last week, we baptise into the faith our children, as we promise to pass on the stories and bring them up with love and prayer. And as a parent loves a child, as the humanity of Christ speaks of God’s love for each of us despite our weakness and failure — so in baptism we’re reminded that nothing can separate a child from the love of God, and that we have this duty to try and replicate this love for one another, for our neighbours and those we share our lives with; despite early mornings, diva moments and an overabundance of bodily fluids. 

So yes we have collective goals, and we should pursue justice. But we also have to protect one another from the justice and indifference of the world. We have to encourage one another to become the persons we are meant to be. We can all be contenders, but not alone. We can all become collateral damage, we can all face crucifixion, if we don’t watch out for the person who has fallen the wrong side of the tracks. And as the Bible continually exhorts, we must do what we can for the widow, the orphan, the refugee, the sick and the dying. And as Spock learns, where there is love, there is no counting of costs.  Love will move time and space to meet the needs of the few, that one sheep gone astray, the prodigal and profligate, the outcast on the hill, whatever the purposes of the many.  Amen.