October News From The Clergy

October News From The Clergy

22 Sep 2023 • From the Clergy

In 1147, a headstrong fourteen-year-old gathered together a group of mercenaries in France and invaded England. The boy would go on to be one of the most successful of English kings after he was crowned Henry II, seven years later, but right now he was hopelessly out of his depth. His plan was to make good the claim of his mother, Matilda, to the throne currently occupied by King Stephen, but few took a boy barely into his teens very seriously. Having made no military progress, he then found himself faced with the awkward fact that he had no money to pay his mercenaries. Like any teenager, he turned to his mother to bail him out, who responded like many parents down the ages by telling her son to earn his own cash. So, he turned to his uncle, Matilda’s half-brother Robert, who just as firmly told him to go away and stop treating his family like a bank.

With a cheek that only a teenaged boy would ever attempt, Henry then turned to the king, his mother’s enemy and the man whose crown he was attempting to steal, and asked him to pay off the mercenaries hired to displace him. Astoundingly, Stephen agreed and gave Henry the money, and the impudent boy cheerfully went back to France to await his next opportunity. Contemporaries (and not a few subsequent historians) were totally baffled by this insanity on the part of the king. Yet this mad generosity, in many ways typical of King Stephen and a reflection of the sort of man he was, had a lasting impact. As king himself, Henry would never be accused of meanness. The records are full of stories of his reaching into his pocket to help out; on one occasion most of the ships crossing the Channel with him were shipwrecked, and Henry personally recompensed all of the affected sailors. Although the new king dismantled and obliterated much of Stephen’s legacy, something of the older man lived on in the generosity he taught Henry II, and which Henry so clearly remembered.

It might be a slightly extreme example, but this anecdote gets to the heart of what generosity is. It was clearly in Stephen’s best interests not to pay, to make his opponent uncomfortable and perhaps even cause him considerable strategic damage, but he responded with this gesture. Tied up in the notion of generosity, there is indeed something mad or reckless, for it defies any cold calculation. To be generous involves forgetting what might be most advantageous to us individually, carefully plotting how an action might benefit us. It is something very different from paying or doing something that you owe or have to do, and yet in the Jewish and Christian tradition, there is a strong link between generosity and duty. In the Jewish tradition, charity, in the sense of helping out those in need, was an obligation rather than an option. It is an understanding which carried over into Christianity, where there is likewise an obligation to give generously to those in need. Generosity is at the very heart of Jesus’ message, with some of his sternest warnings reserved for those who hoard wealth and do not help the suffering; think about the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Remember too the widow who gave everything, even though in absolute terms it was nothing, and is commended so highly.

Yet it is important to remember that generosity is not only about money. The seven acts of mercy, based upon Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, are not financial acts, or at least not directly: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the traveller, visiting the sick, visiting the imprisoned, burying the dead. And the highest value was placed on just getting on and doing these in private, not in declaring it to the world. These are acts which demand generosity of the self and of time, having the grace to recognise the humanity and needs of others, and respond accordingly. After all, at the heart of Christian understanding is the generosity of God, the God who gave himself in the person of his Son to redeem the world. One need only look at how humanity has responded to see how reckless an act that is, but generous love is at the heart of the nature of God. Maybe we do not need to be quite as reckless as King Stephen, but from time to time all Christians should reflect on how they respond to the generosity of God and what role generosity plays in our own lives.

Phil Bradford