Psalm 82:1-4 | Luke 10:25-37
The Holy Man meditating in his cave opened his eyes to discover an unexpected visitor sitting there before him – the Abbot of a well-known monastery. “What is it you seek?” asked the Holy Man.
The Abbot recounted his tale. At one time his monastery had been famous throughout the western world. But hard times had come on the monastery. There were only a handful of monks left and these went about their duties with heavy hearts.
“Is this because of some sin of ours?” questioned the Abbot.
“Yes,” said the Holy Man. “A sin of ignorance. One of your number is the Messiah in disguise and you have failed to recognize him.” Having said that the Holy Man closed his eyes and returned to his meditation.
The Abbot thought about this on his return to the monastery. The Messiah – the Messiah himself – had returned to earth. How was it he had failed to recognize him? And who could it be? Brother Cook? Brother Treasurer? Brother Prior? No, not he; he had too many defects. But then, the Holy Man had said he was in disguise. Could those defects be one of his disguises? And one of them had to be the Messiah!
Back in the monastery, he assembled the monks and told them what he had discovered. They looked at one another in disbelief. The Messiah? Here? Incredible! But he was supposed to be here in disguise. One thing was certain – if the Messiah was there in disguise, they would not recognize him.
So they took to treating everyone with respect and consideration. “You never know,” they said to themselves when they dealt with one another, “maybe this is the one.” The result of this was that the atmosphere in the monastery became vibrant with joy and kindness. Soon dozens of aspirants were seeking admission to the order – and once again the church echoed with the holy and joyful chant of monks who were aglow with the spirit of love.
In our series of Lenten movies last year, we watch “Amazing Grace”, the story of William Wilberforce and his lifelong campaign, inspired by his faith, to bring an end to the evil of slavery – a campaign which ended with the abolition of the slave trade, and eventually the outlawing of slavery in the British Empire. Slavery is now illegal in every country in the world.
But for all the successes of Wilberforce and his allies, there are more people living in slavery today than at any time in history – estimates range from 20 to 30 million people, three quarters of them female, half of them children.
And this isn’t slavery by some woolly liberal definition; these are the estimates of the United Nations, the CIA, British foreign office. Somewhere between 20 and 30 million people who have no freedom of movement, no choice in their work, no income from their work, treated as a resource to be exploited. Around 5 million women and girls living in forced prostitution; a similar number of children sold into domestic labour or as workers in cocoa or cotton industries; or forced into service as child soldiers in one of the many conflicts around the world.
And while the majority of those in slavery live in the poorer nations of the world, slavery exists even in wealthy democracies – the British Home Office estimates that at least 10,000 people live in forced labour or forced prostitution in the UK. And while good estimates for Australia are hard to come by, there is no reason to assume that we are free of the problem.
And the trade in people – human trafficking, the buying and selling of people (mostly women and girls) is now the second biggest illegal trade in the world – smaller only than the trade in illicit drug trades, bigger than the illegal arms trade – around $40 billion dollars a year is spent buying and selling people.
it’s hard to imagine that there is any trade more unambiguously contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
This weekend is being marked by Churches, Mosques and Synagogues around the world as “Freedom Sunday” – a day of raising awareness and encouraging people of faith to take action in the face of this worldwide evil. Our reading from Luke today reminds us – as if we really needed to be reminded – of the gospel imperative to treat others as neighbours even if, as was the case for the Jewish victim and his Samaritan helper, you come from different cultures, different faiths, different countries.
Earlier this year I told the story of the Good Samaritan to the scripture classes at WPS. And one of the things I then asked the children to wonder about is how the story would look if all the people involved were children. And I don’t know it happened, but with, I think it was year three, suddenly the students had changed the story into one set in the playground – a story of bullying, and of people deciding whether, as bystanders, they would have the courage, the conviction, and the compassion, to get involved, to stand up for the child being bullied.
It was an amazing discussion, because it captured the truth at the core of the story of the Good Samaritan; that it is a story about the bystanders. The real villains of the piece, in a sense, are the robbers – but that’s not where the focus, the contrast lies. Because Jesus wasn’t speaking to teach people “don’t rob travellers” – he was teaching “don’t walk by on the other side of the road”.
Of course, the trouble with modern slavery is that, for most of us, it is invisible to. We don’t walk by on the other side of the road, because we don’t walk the same roads as the victims. But we are still bystanders – we are still neighbours, by the only definition that matters.
But there is nothing more depressing – or for that matter, disempowering – than to hear about a problem and have no idea what can be done about it. When most of us will never meet a young girl forced into prostitution, a boy working all hours in the cocoa plantations denied an education, a women serving in indentured labour in a garment factory.
Of course we can support those charities and NGOs that work to rescue victims of slavery and prevent people from falling victim in the first place – the Not for Sale campaign, International Justice Mission, or our own UnitingWorld (I’ll make a list of some of the organisations, tools, and websites I mention available in the next week or two). And we can use our voices in a democracy to make our national response a higher priority to all parties (and let me give a shout out to our local member Paul Fletcher here, who has always responded positively to issues that I’ve raised with him, even if we may not entirely agree on our politics).
But perhaps the most powerful thing we can do is to use our power as consumers. There are two major industries in Australia where we can make a difference.
One is clothing – to buy from labels and shops that ensure the workforce who make our clothes pay a fair wage and meet minimum working conditions. It’s not also easy to know – but the “Shop Ethical” consumer guide, website and smartphone app are rich sources of information. Again, details to follow!
And the other is the cash crops – tea, coffee, and perhaps most of all, chocolate. Forced labour, especially child labour, in plantations is one of the largest forms of slavery outside the sex industry. And fortunately there are now plenty of fair trade options available – look out for the blue and green fairtrade mark, which is well administered and a reliable indication that a brand meets internationally recognised standards.
Most of us here today would go to great lengths to help a friend, a neighbour, even a member of our wider community – indeed, many of us here today do so, in a wide range of ways.
Perhaps the challenge for us in the gospel today is to seek ways that we can work for the good of those of our neighbours that we will never meet.
And fortunately, at least to make a start, it’s not so hard to make a difference.