Playing Up

I was remembering the other day when I was at school in North Walsham and what a revolting bunch of boys we were. Some teachers could control us, others could not. But when any of them left the room we would flick elastic bands, and chewed up paper at each other and hurl an assortment of objects around the room accompanied by a lot of name–calling. The boy nearest the door would alert us to the teacher’s return and we would return abruptly to an angelic vision of diligence.

We needed discipline and lots of it. We needed the threat of punishment in order to make us behave. It is not just children who need the threat of punishment. We all need to be kept in order. I do not drink and drive. But, if I am honest, the prime reason I do not drink and drive is not because I am concerned that I might have an accident and hurt someone, but because I am frightened of losing my licence. If there was no threat of punishment that I would lose my licence, I dare say that I would risk it now and again.

There is much threat of punishment in our reading from St Luke’s gospel. The portrait of Jesus painted by St Luke in his gospel is usually regarded as being one of a Christ who is concerned about the poor, the disadvantaged, and the foreigner, he is the Christ of social action. The picture that Luke actually paints of Jesus is not always a comfortable one. In next Sunday’s reading for example we will hear how Jesus exclaims that he has come to bring fire to the earth. And in today’s gospel reading, Jesus is like a Bond film villain stroking a white kitten, ‘do not be afraid,’ he says to his disciples, before spelling out future punishment.

The Jesus of Luke’s gospel does not pull any punches.

Jesus compares good and bad servants, those who work hard and do their duty even when the master is away, and those who take advantage of his absence and get up to all sorts of bad things.

The Old Testament is full of both kinds of servants, the faithful and the faithless. In the Letter to the Hebrews there is a list of those good servants of God and what they achieved by faith, beginning with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The good and faithful servant has one eye on the world and the other on heaven. We have to be about our worldly business but realise this is only our temporary home, for we journey towards God. The question is: do our actions bring us closer to him or drive us further away?

None of our actions go unnoticed. All of our actions have consequences. When we sin, it damages us and other people and our relationship with God.  While  bad behaviour in some may appear to go unpunished, we are taught that as we sow, so shall we reap. We must always treat others as we would wish to be treated ourselves. If we lie, can we ever expect to be believed? If we steal can we expect to be trusted? If we are unwilling to give to others can we expect them to be generous to us?

When we know what God expects of us, we cannot behave as though we didn’t. If we are Christians we cannot say that we do not know how God expects us to behave, it is there laid out for us in the Bible for us to apply to our own lives.

Bertram Pollock, formerly Bishop of Norwich was before that Master of Wellington College. On the subject of discipline he wrote that it is a mistake to try and cow boys with a distant severity. Meet them on their own ground, was his advice. Silence was a most useful instrument for discipline. He tried not to punish a culprit before he had acknowledged his fault. He knew one boy was lying in denying blame for an offence, so he made him stand outside in his garden while he was writing and come in every half-hour to repeat his denial, while the other boys were playing cricket. Every time he appeared, and spoke Pollock made no remark. After four hours of this he was worn down and confessed his guilt.

Christ holds up a mirror to ourselves, when we compare ourselves to him, we see ourselves as we really are, and not how we pretend to be. It may well make us uncomfortable to recognize our faults and failings.

Years ago, we all received school reports. Peter Ustinov’s said, ‘Peter sets himself very low targets which he then fails to achieve.’ Joanna Lumley’s said that 'she must learn to speak politely when her requests are refused'. While Sarah Ferguson was told that 'she must learn that liveliness should cease at lights out.'

What might a school report say about us now, I wonder?


Hebrews 11:1-2,8-19                                 Luke 12:32-48