Many of you will remember the Scotsman from “Dad’s Army” who when faced with any difficulty would say “We’re all doomed!” He was, of course, even if he didn’t know it, quoting from Jeremiah, our prophet this week!
Jeremiah’s work ended in 587 BC when the City of Jerusalem was surrounded by the army of Babylon. Now Jerusalem had high stone walls and a good water supply and could hold out against a siege for a long time. So most of the king’s advisers were telling him to do this. Jeremiah was the one prophet who said the opposite. He said that if the King did not give in to the invaders then Jerusalem would be destroyed and the people scattered. Hence we heard today his “Doom for the shepherds” (Jeremiah 23:1-6) – those prophets who said everything would be OK if they held out.
As you can imagine Jeremiah was NOT popular. Hardly anyone believed that God would want them to make peace with the enemy. Gods in those days were meant to bring you victory, and if they didn’t then you turned to a god who was more successful. The fact that Jeremiah was proved right in the end, that the City fell and the people were scattered was a turning point in the history that led eventually to Jesus; to the idea that God was not a magician who could put everything right for us, but was a power that will support us and be alongside us, even when we suffer, and our life appears to be a failure.
Jesus takes this image of a shepherd even further, using another prophet Isaiah to say that not only will people who follow God sometimes have to suffer, but that its leaders too, even Jesus himself must be prepared to enter into this suffering. So Jesus says “I am the Good Shepherd… who lays down his life for his sheep.” (John 10:11) And we hear this message too in our 2nd Reading (Eph 2:13-18) where we are reminded that Jesus brings us peace – Yes – but it is brought to us “by the blood of Christ”. Christianity has always therefore used this message, which comes originally from Jeremiah, to encourage its Bishops and Priests to be faithful shepherds, even if their message is unpopular just as Jeremiah’s was.
Around this time in the Catholic Church in England and Wales we have our Day for Life. We are being asked to support the Anscombe Bioethics Centre, which happens to be based in Oxford, and that provides academic backing to the Church’s teaching on a lot of tricky and easily misunderstood issues, not least whether people should be allowed, and indeed assisted, to commit suicide if they are faced with a life-threatening illness.
I am glad to see that the slogan this year is not just “Cherishing Life” but also “Accepting Death”, and I want to look at the accepting death teaching first, because without it the Church’s opposition to the Assisted Suicide Bill scheduled for debate in the UK Parliament on September 11th, is easily misunderstood. One of the most difficult things a priest has to do is to help people who cannot face up to the fact that their loved one is dying – that it is actually wrong to give a dying old person another dose of antibiotics rather than let the pneumonia take its course, that the doctors must be allowed to switch off the life-support machine and see if the person can survive unaided. This is the teaching of the Church, that we must not strive to keep someone artificially alive. It may seem sensible to you at this moment in time, but when we are faced with a dying loved-one, it can be an incredibly hard decision to make, even though it is the right one.
Letting someone die naturally does not mean depriving them of proper care, of water when they need it for example. The Hospice Movement, inspired by Christian teaching, has shown how important it is to develop practices that allow us to die with dignity. Watching over a loved one dying can be very hard. It can take a long time, and we should always seek support when faced with this, and especially ask for a priest, even if the time of death may be some days, even weeks away.
Faced with this long drawn-out process, some people say why can’t we shorten the process. Why can’t we just allow people to end their own life with an injection that just puts them to sleep for ever? Hence the Assisted Suicide Bill.
When my atheist aunt was dying she said bitterly “You wouldn’t treat a dog like this!” My reply, even given as gently as possible, was not popular. “But you are not a dog.” I could have said “All human life is sacred.” But although that’s true, it doesn’t really explain why we oppose such things. The point is that if we encourage and assist one dying person to take their own life, we make all old people and severely disabled people vulnerable. Think what it would be like if you were ill, and you began to wonder if your relatives would prefer you to end your life quickly. Why? To reduce your pain, or so they could inherit more of your money?
Thus, instead of dying with dignity, the dying would be worrying about the trouble they were causing, and would die often confused and unhappy. If a dog is put to sleep it does not affect all other dogs, but we humans are different, and that is why the Church says that human life is sacred, is not a thing to be tampered with because it seems more convenient to us.
Yes, both these views, allowing people to die naturally on the one hand, and not making them die artificially on the other, are hard and sometimes unpopular messages; but we Christians, like Jeremiah so many yeas ago, believe that sometimes what is unpopular may be the right thing to do, may be the thing that is actually in the long run, a greater good