The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity


A revised version of this collection of commentaries, entitled Stir Up, O Lord, has been published in paperback format and as an e-book (for all major e-readers) by Sacristy Press. Buy now »


Lord, we beseech thee, grant thy people grace to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil…
1 Corinthians 1:4-8
Matthew 22:34-46

Living in a city which was a byword for every kind of vice, there was nothing that anybody could teach the Corinthians about the world and the flesh (cf Sexagesima) but, conversely, they were pretty indifferent when it came to the devil. The phrase of the Collect rings out in a unmistakably Pauline way and no doubt he had something of the kind in mind when he began his momentous First Letter to them concerned, as always, with eschatological closure (cf The Sixth Sunday after The Epiphany).

There was something deeply troubled and ‘millennial’ in the 16th Century which drew it to desperate moralising in general and to Paul in particular. Whether the Reformation was a cause or a symptom of this turbulence might merely be a matter of intellectual fascination were it not for the resulting ‘Pharisaical’ fanaticism which had a profound effect on individual and social conduct, combating the world, the flesh and the devil with exegesis, moral force and state power.

In a way which should not be exaggerated, the contrast between pre Reformation Christianity and the Reformation is not dissimilar to the contrast between Jesus and the Pharisees, including Paul. The question Jesus is asked arises from a characteristically moralist standpoint; to ask what is the greatest commandment is to require a ranking process which allows for censure to be measured out with precision. A contemporary example would be the question: is it more sinful to be gay or to be homophobic? There is no answer, not least because sin is about motive rather than outcome; but with the ‘last judgment’ in the offing, such hair splitting can seem important.

Although Jesus constantly preached the coming of the Kingdom, he seems not to have understood this in a quasi judicial way. When asked about the Commandments he gives an irreproachably simple answer which eschews any notion of ranking the sins of the flesh. To understand why He took a much more open view of the question we have to refer to the second part of the Gospel which contains some complex theological byplay but whose central point is so inescapable that it ultimately, as Matthew says, stops the discussion between Jesus and his questioners until his trial. No matter what his virtues were as a man, as a teacher and icon of holy living, Jesus was the son of God and could not be expected to look at moral questions from an anthropocentric perspective. It is this freedom from baggage and cant which is one of his most telling advantages and accounts for his continuing attractiveness. In a way which is difficult to characterise precisely, Jesus the God made man, as opposed to Jesus the atoning victim, lost some of that attractiveness in the 16th Century with its quasi theocratic obsessiveness. We have to remember that uniquely in Western Christian history Christians slaughtered each other in the name of ‘right’ religion for almost two centuries after the Reformation (cf The Fourth Sunday after The Epiphany). To be relaxed in the context of the 15th Century in imitation of Jesus did not mean that how people behaved did not matter, it simply meant that goodness should be lived for itself and not because of threats from the civil or religious powers nor from the fear of Armageddon.

The tension between the consistently constructive teaching of Jesus and Paul’s tendency in his worst moments to sink into Pharisaical judgment should not be dismissed nor exaggerated. Jesus was preaching from a Utopian standpoint, Paul, on the other hand, was struggling to found His church on earth which involved tangling in a practical way with the world and the flesh as well as the devil; and Paul’s worst moments are far fewer than his best.

Living the holy life for its own sake, outside the confines of eschatological closure, presents us with a much greater problem than that faced by Paul’s Corinthians and it puts us firmly in the crowd listening to Jesus. We are to live by the two great commandments regardless of external pressures one way or the other. This will frequently mean resisting all kinds of specific and implied peer and social pressures, the most pressing of which is the seemingly inexorable social pressure to judge the moral conduct of others as a precondition to a bewildering variety of ostracisms. Paradoxically, the argument for self restraint (cf The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity) is in need of forceful advocacy. Just as crises always bring authoritarianism, so our own state of comfort and ease has, in spite of what we say and think, summed up in that ridiculously upper class cliché “The nanny state”, brought about a condition of unsurpassed individual personal freedom which has taxed or powers of self governance. In a corporate context this freedom has radically transformed Christianity from a conforming to an affirming community which in turn calls for a degree of self commitment for its own sake whose value is much greater than any thought or act, no matter how good in its effect, generated by fear. During the next decades when the ecological crisis alters the balance away from individual freedom and towards the exercise of governing authority, one of our challenges will be to change our life style not just out of niggardly obedience or even self preservation but as a way of following Jesus by doing the right thing for the right reason.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. Describe the moral threats posed by “The world, the flesh and the devil”
  2. Can moral acts be ranked and why would we want to rank them?
  3. Is fear a legitimate motive for doing good?
  4. Discuss the tensions between the teachings of Jesus and Paul in the way they view unethical behaviour
  5. Why is the response to the ecological crisis veering towards imposed rather than voluntary solutions?

Want to read more? Buy Stir Up, O Lord (available in paperback and for all major e-book readers)