The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity


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Almighty and everlasting God, give unto us the increase of faith,…
Galatians 5:16-24
Luke 17:11-19

Imagine being one of the nine cured lepers who decides not to thank Jesus for curing them. It seems incomprehensible. Quite apart from any religious obligation to worship or moral obligation to contribute there is, at the very least, the matter of politeness. As Jesus cured people to bear witness to the power of The Father and not to be thanked, good manners are not the central point of the incident but this is the aspect of it which forms a link with the Epistle.

The logic behind “zero tolerance” policies is that they make a connection between poor behaviour in small things with the development of criminality. In this context what such policies say is that if lepers do not thank the people who cure them they will increasingly take everything for granted and, in turn, will take everything without asking for it and finally take anything they like regardless of ownership or consequences. Whether or not this is borne out by evidence, it certainly plays to our instinct that, for whatever complex of causes, people develop bad behaviour.

In the Epistle the contrast between the list of vices and virtues is stark, as is the dichotomy between “flesh” and “spirit” to which they are respectively assigned. It is all too easy to use this division as a starting point for a slide into dualism but the concluding thought of the passage runs decisively counter to this by saying that “... they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh” for this metaphor of Crucifixion takes us immediately to Christ Himself whose sacrifice was not some kind of spiritual gesture but was profoundly and cruelly physical. It follows that although our physical bodies may manifest wickedness they are not of themselves wicked and it is this latter view which is dangerously dualist. It is therefore extremely important to handle this kind of rhetorical passage of Paul with care because he frequently appears to be dualist when what he is actually saying is that the difference between “flesh” and “spirit” is the difference between those who are and are not committed to Christ or, to put it in Pauline terms, committed to the Law or to Christ’s transforming power.

To Paul and to us that transformation is seen through the retrospective lens of Resurrection and crucifixion but to the lepers it must have seemed much more simple. Here was a miracle worker who might cure them. They were not only sick with an incurable and frightening disease, it was one that turned them into such outcasts that it even broke down the division between Jew and Samaritan. They had to show themselves to the priests after their cure to be re-admitted into society and it was no doubt renewed inclusion that tempted the nine Jews to seek their families. Perhaps the Samaritan realised in the moments after his cure that he had lost his nine fellow sufferers and would never see them again; the bond of captivity was broken.

Whichever way we look at it, the story is oddly sad. After all, although Jesus says to the Samaritan that his faith has caused the cure, those who had no faith and did not worship Jesus in gratitude were also cured. That is why it is always dangerous to make a link between what we see in the conduct of others and what God ‘sees’. We have no idea why Jesus cured the other nine; and, as we have noted elsewhere, our danger is always to cast ourselves as the attractive character—in this case the Samaritan—instead of seeing ourselves as less clear cut.

The other reason why the story is sad is because it tells us how quickly we move from one ambition to another. In our own day this most vividly takes the form of refugees who are close to death from starvation, whose only wish is to receive food to live but who, having received it, protest that their other wishes are not being adequately fulfilled. Our behaviour is often the same but in a less extreme sense: one moment we are desperate for something which we regard as vitally important and then, having attained it, we are immediately desperate to attain something else. This is the best of us and the worst of us; but in this story it is the latter.

What Jesus might have seen in the Samaritan was the capacity to worship unconditionally, regardless of what actually happened to him. The tradition of such commitment is catalogued in the Book of Job. The acid test is the reversal of the Samaritan’s actual outcome; would he have worshipped Jesus, as Job continued to worship God, if he had not been cured? This is a question we need to ask ourselves frequently to guard us from reducing worship to intercession and result-related thanksgiving. The ease with which we fall into this trap is frequently seized upon by atheist critics who rightly say that if we attribute finding a car parking space to a successful prayer then we must equally attribute the failure to find one either to our prayer or God’s response. This is an apparently harmless game we play with ourselves which can easily become dangerous, leading us, at either extreme, into fatalism or obsession. Worship, after all, is about God’s due not our needs.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. Do you think there is a credible link between poor manners and the development of immoral behaviour?
  2. How well do Paul’s two lists match up as pairs of opposites?
  3. Are there better ways of describing what Paul calls “flesh” and “spirit”?
  4. Think about unconditional worship and the Book of Job
  5. Tell the story of the cure from the point of view of one of the nine who went away and the one who came back to Jesus.

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