’ere mate, you can’t you do that! It’s against ’elf n safety, innit!
The killjoys of our age are definitely Health and Safety, we love to demonise it. It seems almost an obsession in this country to ban all manner of common sense things in the name of health and safety, and then to deride them. Visiting other countries it’s very clear that they simply don’t do health and safety. In the Holy Island, for instance, they simply don’t do health and safety, in the same way that they simply don’t do disabled access, and we wouldn’t want to be without that.
Genuine health and safety is essential. Far too many people have died and been maimed in hideous industrial accidents not to need protection. However, things have obviously gone too far when Conkers is banned in school playgrounds, ties are banned in schools, candy floss sticks are deemed too dangerous, hanging baskets too much of a hazard, and park benches must be replaced because they are three inches too low. Good news! None of those things were really banned. The Health and Safety Executive runs what they call a Mythbuster Service, explaining that all things I’ve just mentioned were nothing to do with them or with the law, but decisions made arbitrarily by organisations in the name of health and safety. My particular favourite was Castle View School at Canvey Island, Essex, which banned triangular flapjacks after a pupil was poked with one, replacing them with square ones, which have four sharp corners, rather than just three. The Health and Safety Executive said: “We often come across half-baked decisions taken in the name of health and safety, but this one takes the biscuit. The real issue isn’t what shape the flapjacks are, but the fact that pupils are throwing them at each other – and that’s a matter of discipline, and has got nothing to do with health and safety as we know it. We’re happy to make clear that flapjacks of all shapes and sizes continue to have our full backing.”
This obsession, of course, is really a fear of being sued. Accepting responsibility for our own shortcomings seems to have become a lost art. Insurance company files are full of letters from clients with exotic and bizarre excuses for their motor accidents. For instance, “I was driving along the road and a tree came out and hit me”. Denial is now the expected response to any car accident – it wasn’t my fault. And if it wasn’t my fault, then it must have been somebody else’s fault, his fault or her fault or their fault or God’s fault. We live in a society which seems to have a need to apportion blame and to act on the consequences. Someone must be blamed and pay the penalty. Then everyone else can feel virtuous and stand on the moral high ground. So that, for instance, the person who is made redundant is often also made to feel it’s their fault in some way, then those responsible for the sacking don’t need to feel any blame or any guilt. Litigation is big business because even for unintentional accidents and mistakes, someone must pay. If you trip on the pavement in Farnham, then sue Waverley. It must be their fault – everything else is.
The problem with this mentality which we’ve created for ourselves, is that many people are now so afraid of being sued or losing their job, that they spend their lives looking over their shoulders and sticking rigidly to the letter of the law. There’s no room for creativity when you pay dearly for the slightest error. And for many people, the thought of being wrong in any circumstances, even in some slight way at home, is so terrifying that even the mildest criticism can cause uproar and is met by instant denial, “It wasn’t me. I didn’t leave the lid off the toothpaste.” “Who’s moved my glasses? I know I left them on the table.” “Of course I didn’t buy any butter, nobody told me we’d run out. Who finished the last packet?” And so on!
In today’s Gospel reading we meet Simon the Pharisee, who seems to be a man full of the same human failings and weaknesses which affect us all. He was a good man, a religious man, a church-goer no less! Simon enjoyed his religion so much that he set himself high standards of morality, but he wasn’t very self-aware, as many of us aren’t, and so he tended to live by the letter of the rule, rather than the spirit of them. And so, working according to the rules and regulations, he condemned the woman who gate-crashed his supper party and anointed Jesus’ feet with oil.
Oh dear, he’d missed the point, as many of us do. Jesus turned all of Simon’s religious assumptions on their head. He did so very gently, with a little story, so that Simon couldn’t help but agree that those who are forgiven much, love greatly. Then he pointed out the signs of Simon’s lack of love. Simon hadn’t broken any rules. He’d done all the religious law required him to do, and probably more. But it was all superficial, none of it touched his heart. It takes a lot of love to overcome pride, to face self-deception, and to accept pain. It takes enough love to go past the blind spot and down into the depths. Anyone who can love like that, can’t help but receive overwhelming forgiveness.
I wonder what happened to Simon the Pharisee after this meal with Jesus? I wonder whether he was suddenly able to see himself as Jesus saw him, and followed Jesus? That’s the happy ending! Or was he outraged by Jesus’ words, and furiously angry?
We encounter much the same thing in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. It’s Paul’s angry letter, written in haste and temper, to church that had gone back to requiring new Christians to go through the Jewish rituals, and Paul was cross they’d gone back to rituals and laws, forgetting the free approach that all can make to Christ that he’d taught them. Paul’s message is unequivocal that people are put right with God (justified) through faith in Christ, not by doing what the ‘Law’ requires. If we do our best to be faithful to God, who is totally faithful to us, Paul tells us, we’re close to God and his kingdom.
Our readings today offer us a significant challenge as individual Christians, and as three churches all part of God’s one church. What kind of Christian do we want to be? God challenges us to try not to be like Simon the Pharisee, obsessed by his rules, but to live in God’s grace. I think that means God challenges us not to fall into the culture of making our own rules and watching our backs, like creating the so-called Health & Safety myths, but I think it also means not demonising anyone. And what of our churches? Like the church in Galatia, we’re challenged not to become trapped by man-made rules. I don’t mean anarchy, but to live in grace not law. We’re three churches in Farnham town centre, and I wonder what God wants us to still do apart that we could do together? As we follow Christ in our lives, and as churches, let us not fall into the spiritual equivalent of making up health and safety rules to avoid being sued, and try our best to live in God’s grace.