The older ones among you may remember the play, film, and pop song of the late 50s and early 60s – ‘A Taste of Honey.’
Well, there’s more than a taste of honey to be found in the Bible – there’s a great stream! From the Book of Genesis, where the anxious old man, Jacob, sends a gift of honey, as well as spices, myrrh and almonds to the ruler of Egypt, who unknown to him is his lost son, Joseph; to the Book of Revelation, where an angel presents the prophet with a scroll and commands him to eat it – a scroll which tastes like honey in his mouth, but is bitter when digested; through Exodus, where manna tastes like wafers dipped in honey, to Judges, where Samson tells a riddle based on a honeycomb in a lion carcass, through Samuel and Kings where honey is given as a special gift; to the Gospels, where John the Baptist lives on honey and wild locusts. But above all in the repeated references in the Pentateuch and the history books and the prophets to the Promised Land as a land of milk and honey. Honey in the Bible is a sign of prosperity, health, abundance, pleasure and ease, something to be shared with others, especially those who you wish to impress.
Honey is at the centre of this year’s Bishop’s Harvest Appeal, funding a project in Ethiopia which is teaching farmers about better beekeeping methods. The money raised will be channelled through a Christian Aid partner, Action for Development, which provides small farmers with equipment and advice, so that they can set up beekeeping co-operatives which enable them to produce more honey and sell it at a higher price.
One of those who has been helped is 78 year old Geji Tie. He has been shown how to get the most from his hives and how to plant flowers in on his land that encouraged the bees. His 20 hives are more productive following this help and the honey is of such quality that the co-operative is able to charge more for it. This has been life-changing for Geji and his family. Previously they could only afford to eat twice a day, now they eat three meals a day and have a more varied diet. They can afford to send the children to school and go to the clinic for medical help whenever they are ill. They have more than one change of clothes and they are healthier. The production of honey is truly bringing them health, prosperity and ease. The Bishop’s Harvest Appeal plans to bring these benefits to many more in Ethiopia, so that it can become “a land of milk and honey” for more of its inhabitants.
But honey represents more than pleasure and sweetness. Its production has important lessons to teach us that are particularly relevant at Harvest Thanksgiving. Honey is produced by the co-operation of many bees, working together for the common good. Harvest Thanksgiving reminds us how all our food is produced and brought to us as the result of many different people working together. Some of them we may know, but many more will be unknown to us. But as Deuteronomy reminds us, both friends and aliens are to share in the Promised Land which God gives us and be included in the bounty of God’s household. At the heart of harvest thanksgiving is God’s command to celebrate with everyone, no matter who they are and where they live, whether we know them personally or not. For Christians this inclusion is particularly important At the centre of the gospel message is the breaking down of barriers between human beings, and the creation of a new humanity through the Spirit, based on Christ the cornerstone, which will become a dwelling place for God.
Deuteronomy uses the word ‘household’ to speak of the people of God. The Greek word for ‘house’ is ‘oikos, and from the same root comes ‘oikonomia’ which means one who runs a household. You can hear that our word ‘economy’ also comes from the same root. In Biblical terms then, the economy is something that concerns all of us, and is something through which all the people of the world are connected, and since Christ has brought us into God’s oikonomia, for Christians the economy is something which should bring justice to all.
The sweet taste and sweet smell of honey are also reflected in our Harvest Thanksgiving. We receive generously from God in the gifts of the land and the sea which provide our food. We celebrate this generosity as we sing and pray and eat together at Harvest time. But the impact of God’s generosity can be multiplied if we share its sweetness with others. That is what the woman in our Gospel story did. She used her wealth to buy the perfume to anoint Jesus, and the sweet smell filled the house. We can use our wealth to give to the Bishop’s Harvest Appeal and the sweetness of our prosperity can begin to fill the whole world. We can join our small efforts with others, as the bees do, to create a harvest of sweetness that will begin to take away the bitterness of past poverty for many people.
Both Deuteronomy and the Gospel remind us of the debt of gratitude we owe – to God the Creator, to our ancestors and to so many people around the world who gave us this land of milk and honey in which we live and prosper. Sharing the harvest produce with those who are terminally ill, and with those whose lives are not so sweet goes some way to repaying that debt.
The Bishops Harvest Appeal is an opportunity to spread the sweetness of honey around outside ourselves, and bring a material transformation to the lives of many. But perhaps we could also use this harvest time to think about how we might bring spiritual transformation within ourselves In the Book of Revelation an angel asks the visionary, John, to eat a scroll, warning him that though it tastes sweet in his mouth, it will be bitter when it reaches his stomach. He obeys the angel’s command , and finds exactly that. The scroll stands for the witness of the community to the message of Christ in the world. It is Good News (so is as sweet as honey) but it often leads to the cross, opposition and persecution (so is bitter when it is taken into the body and lived out in action in the world.)
But it is the sweetness which we Christians are supposed to be sharing, not the bitterness. Very often, opposition, particularly as we experience it in the modern post-Christian societies of Europe, leads Christians to react with anger and bitterness towards their opponents and even towards fellow Christians who think differently from themselves, whereas Christ taught us to meet opposition with kindness and soft replies. The Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, has an insightful metaphor, based around honey, for the way Christians should react in such situations. He wrote: “I dreamt – marvellous error – that I had a beehive, here inside my heart. And the golden bees were making white combs and sweet honey from my old failures”.
This is the exact opposite of the picture given in Revelation – here the bitterness inside is transformed, bringing sweetness to others. Many spiritual writers from all traditions have written about how this transformation can come about. One of the most recent is Karen Armstrong, who has formed a worldwide movement of people of all religions and none, called the Charter for Compassion, and written a book to go with it – Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. What she teaches is not a simple transformation – any more than the production of honey is simple – but if more people in the world were to try to transform their thinking and their actions as she advocates, it would make an enormous difference to our world.
My prayer for us this Harvest Thanksgiving is that we will produce from inside ourselves, and spread, both to those we know and those who are far away, but who are nevertheless part of the household of God with us, not just a taste of honey, but a never ending stream of it.