Blessings and Curses

Priests are often asked to give blessings.  Yesterday, for example, I was asked to bless a car. On Thursday while I was on my way to the Blessing of the Mart, I was asked for a curse. I had to explain that priests do not do curses, they would need a witch for that, I presumed, which was not something I wished to encourage.

However, in the Book of Common Prayer there a section called The Commination, or The denouncing of God’s anger and judgements against sinners. The Prayer Book notes that in past times, notorious sinners would be made to face public penance and punishment. The Commination was to be read to the whole congregation at the beginning of Lent, to remind them what miserable sinners they all were.  The priest would read out a series of ‘curses’ taken from the Book of Deuteronomy and the congregation was to respond Amen.

Cursed is he that curseth his father and mother. Amen

Cursed is he that removeth his neighbour’s landmark. Amen

Cursed is he that smiteth his neighbor secretly. Amen

Cursed are the unmerciful, fornicators, and adulterers, covetous persons, idolaters, slanderers, drunkards and extortioners.  Amen!

You can imagine those present saying the various amens with particular relish accompanied by an accusatory look towards other people. 

The prophets had no compunction about denouncing sinners. It was part of their job-description. They were called by God to give warnings to the people of Israel from the king down, when they departed from the way of the Lord.

The prophet Jeremiah warned that the sins of the people of Judah ran deep. They were engraved with an iron tool, inscribed with a flint point. They had gone over to the worship of idols.  His prophecy today echoes one of the curses from Deuteronomy: Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man and in his heart goeth from the Lord. He likens those who put their sole trust in man-made solutions to a shriveled up bush in the desert that has no water to draw on in time of drought. The one who trusts in God, however, is like a tree  planted beside water that can draw on water whenever it needs it. The one who puts his faith in man has little to draw on, while the one with faith in God will be better placed to pass through hardship.

Jesus also acts within the prophetic line. Prophets help people to see things as they really are, which may not be what they expect. The prophet can draw out a blessing where all seems gloomy, and can give a warning when all appears rosy.

Jesus, in Luke’s gospel, tries to change the perspective of his hearers. To be poor in Jesus’ time was seen as an indication that God had not blessed the person, whereas to be rich was regarded as a sign of God’s favour. Poverty pushed people to the margins of society, as still happens now. But Jesus says those who are poor are very much in God’s kingdom, whereas the rich are at risk of being outside it. They may appear to have it all but they are at risk of breaking the great commandments, if the love of possessions and money comes before love of God and neighbor.

Anyone now who is short of money to buy food and pay bills, would find it hard to see the blessing and would regard it as an insulting platitude to be told that they were blessed. Mae West once said that she had been poor and she had been rich; rich is best.

Elsewhere in the gospel we are reminded of our Christian duty to provide for the material needs of those who are poor. In the perspective of Jesus, those who are rich have the responsibility to use their wealth wisely, not to hoard up for the future but to use it to the advantage of all. When we consider the rich, we cannot just consider them to be the fat cats, pop stars and premier league footballers. All who have more than need to have a decent standard of living are rich, while  those who have no freedom in their lives can be consdiered poor. They are restricted in what they can do. For example if you cannot afford £75.50 to renew your passport you cannot leave the country.

Elsewhere in the gospel, Jesus warns against judgement and condemnation. ‘Judge and you will be judged, condemn and you will be condemned.’ It might be considered that he is not practicing what he preaches, but Jesus lived out his teaching. He was judged, and he was condemned, because of his teaching. His teaching may have brought the admiration of the poor but it also made him enemies among the rich and powerful. 

There is much paradox in the gospels. Things are not always what they seem. May the wisdom of Christ broaden our perspective that we may perceive the consequences of unheeded warnings, but equally well discover the blessings that lie concealed.