Burns and the Bible: From Whence Comes Your Worth?

January 25 is Robert Burns day, which is an important day where I live in Canada. On Manitoulin island there any many Scotts families and even though very few people live here a good number of people gather every year to celebrate the life and work of Robert Burns.

For those of you who don’t know, Robert Burns is Scotland’s most famous poet. He lived in the 1700s and wrote numerous poems, many of which have been turned into songs like Auld Lang Syne, the one we all sing at New Year’s as well as a whole bunch of other ones like Scots Wa Hae and one of my favourites A Man’s a Man for a’ that.

Burns had a flare for political reformation and a deep love for the common folk of Scotland. He had a vision that one day the world would unite in peace and the separations of class and rank would dissolve. His vision was very much in line with the teachings of Jesus.

The song A Man’s a Man for a That is written in Scots. So while much of it will sound just like English a good portion of it might be hard to understand. But I’ll go through the bits I think are the most important and translate them so that it all starts to make a little more sense.

The first line that really pops out to me is when he says,

“The rank is but the guinea’s stamp, The Man’s the gold for a’ that.”

The Guinea was the first standard coin minted in Britain after the Romans left. Like other coins of its time its true value was in the measure of Gold it was made of and it had a stamp on the surface to signify it was made by the state and of genuine value. So what Burns is saying is that a person’s value comes from what they are made of and not the external stamp that they are marked with.

We have value by virtue of the fact that we are made by God, the mere fact that we are human is what gives us worth. The Guinea stamp, what he is using as a metaphor for rank in society is of little consequence compared to that, as the gold will always be more valuable than the mark upon it.

In the second verse he says,

“Give fools their silks and knaves their wine…
the honest man though ever so poor is king of men for all that”

Here he takes the idea a little further and says that despite riches and status what truly decides a person’s value is her honest nature, we might say that is the measure of how pure the gold in the coin is. It is the honest person who is the purest gold and worth the most regardless of the clothes they wear or the expensive food and drink they can afford.

In the third verse he says,

“You see that birkie (which means arrogant young man) who is called a lord, who struts and stares and all that though hundreds worship at his word he is but a coof (which means idiot) for all that…the man of independent mind, he looks and laughs at all that”

Not only has Burns declared that rank is of no value but he is saying that a person who walks around and shows pride in his rank is an idiot, supposedly because he is unaware of the true measure of a person which is an internal characteristic and not an external one. He says that a person who has an independent mind looks at this fool and laughs about how mistaken he is.

In the fourth verse he says,

“A prince can make a belted knight, a marquis duke and all that but an honest man is above his might…the pith of sense and pride of worth are higher rank than all that”

He is saying that even though a prince may distribute rank to those around him the honest man is still above his might, he is still beyond the reach of royalty because the true essence of intellect and reason and a sense of self worth are higher rank than anything the prince could bestow.

In the fifth verse he finishes with a prayer:

“Then let us pray that come it may, As come it will for all that, That Sense and Worth, over all the earth, Shall bear the gree and all that for a that and a that It’s coming yet for all that, That Man to Man, the world over, Shall brothers be for all that.”

Now, bear the gree is an expression which means to win the competition, or take home the trophy – so Burns is praying that one day the people who lead us, who will have won the trophy and earned our respect will be the people who have the most sense and the most worth. There is a prayer that I can get behind.

And he is sure that it will come true. He is sure that one day rank will be decided on ability and integrity as opposed to birth and wealth. It is the ultimate democratic dream that those who lead our society will be chosen to do so based on genuine merit and honest dealings.

And in that he believes that the inevitable outcome will be that the people of the world will recognise the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God and embrace one another in peace and cooperation.

In our Gospel reading this morning Jesus rebuked the Pharisees, he said they lay heavy burdens on the shoulders of others yet refuse to lift a single finger themselves, they make sure they get the nicest seats in the synagogues and wear fancy clothes so that people will respect them.

They sound just like the Lords and Princes in Burns’ song who strutted around in fancy silk clothes bossing people around. The same issues troubled the people of Jesus’ time as did the people of Burns’ time, and unfortunately they still trouble us, in our time.

For as long as history can record humanity has had certain groups of people who believe themselves to be greater than others, because of what they own, the name they carry, the type of work they do, or whether they are a man or woman. But, as we read in Galatians, in Christ we are all one, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female.

No distinction of religion, class, or gender exists in the eyes of God. This sentiment can be found all throughout the Bible both New and Old Testaments. I would like to look at one more passage, found in Acts 17:24-28:

“The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things…..that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.'”

In this scripture we see not only that we are God’s children but that God does not dwell in temples made with hands, instead he has made each heart his temple. He dwells within each of us and from his presence in our very beings we derive that every person is of equal value. For there is nothing of greater value than God and it is of God that we exist and are given life.

And this is true of every person across the Earth, we are all united by God and are truly inseparable in that. And any distinctions which we make that separate the people of the world are not only arbitrary but in direct opposition to that most holy command of Jesus to love God, who we see in the face of every person without fail and in turn to love our neighbour as ourselves for both we and our neighbours are truly expressions of God himself, made in his image and loved completely by him.

So I say to you now go out and be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you go; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; and then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; and in this process you will be a blessing to all those you meet and by realizing that of God within them you too will be blessed. And so let us pray, that come it may, as come it will for all that. That sense and worth over all the earth shall bear the gree and all that. For all that and all that, it’s coming yet for all that. That man to man the world over shall brothers be for all that.

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