The Fourth Sunday after Trinity


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O God, the protector of all who trust in Thee
Romans 8:18-23
Luke 6:36-42

Luke is so full of optimism that it seems a shame to dampen it but, as the Psalmist would testify, our good is not usually returned with equal good; and rarely does the giver of more than fair measure receive even fair measure in return. Even if Luke is right, what can Jesus mean by this optimism? He is referring to the relationship between the Creator and the created, between God and us, where none of the ‘normal’ rules apply and where we can fully rely on being given infinitely more than we have given. It is as well to be clear about this; Jesus is talking about the ‘terms of trade’ between the divine and the human, He is not talking about the human hope that “What goes around comes around”. We might hope that it does but we should not act in that expectation, neither should it be our motive.

The Gospel is Luke’s highly concentrated account in Chapter 6 of the “Sermon on The Plain” which covers roughly the same ground as Matthew 5-7 given from “The Mount” (cf All Saints’ Day). This impactedness accounts for the somewhat sudden lurch with which Jesus then cites the short parable of the blind leading the blind and, again, we need to be clear what we are being told. This is not an invitation for us to work out whether we are blind or whether we are leading the blind. The central message is that we are all blind and quite incapable of leading each other but must instead rely upon the grace of God. Then, in a characteristic modification of metaphor, Luke moves from blindness to what impedes sight, the beam in the eye. If we are so blind that we cannot lead, then we certainly cannot judge; but, being Luke, the metaphor is not that simple. We can in fact attempt to remove the beam from the eye of another but only once we have removed our own. If we accept the Grace of God in humility and simplicity we will be of much service to our neighbours.

Paul has been wrestling with very similar ideas in the first half of Romans and in this extract he is coming towards the half-way climax in a style almost as concentrated in its impact as Luke. Aware of the futility of what we can do for ourselves, we “groan within” in anticipation of our bodily resurrection when we will enjoy the “glorious liberty of the children of God” which, Paul says, are not to be compared with our present sufferings. Of course what Paul saw in the context of eschatological immediacy looks very different to us who expect to be judged over the whole span of our lives rather than over a short period of intense preparation.

Typically, Luke is concerned with individual responsibility which is why his version of the beatitudes is couched in terms of a direct address from Jesus to His audience—“Blessed are you”—whereas Matthew, much more concerned with the corporate entity of the Christian community, employs indirect address with “Blessed are they”. There is always a temptation to think of ethics in terms of abstract propositions and so it helps to have Luke’s very direct style to prompt us into more urgent reflection. Rather than thinking about motes and beams as a form of moral currency it might be more helpful to think about our individual relationship with the people with whom we deal: to what extent am I down-playing my own failings in order to give me the self-appointed ‘moral authority’ to judge somebody else?

Not far below the surface of many readings is the tension between divine judgment, human moralising and civil justice. Pragmatists will rightly point out that: reserving judgment for God is a position that cannot be sustained in an ideal world; constructing frameworks within which moral judgments can be made is necessary in a complex and uncertain world; and the very imperfections from which we suffer require a degree of civil justice. The problem arises when we confuse these approximate distinctions, taking on the divine role or citing human laws as if they were of divine origin. Both Paul and Luke emphasise the dangers of this confusion but it is apparently a weakness we find it hard to counter because the somewhat harsh characterisation of helpless “groaning” in Paul and the metaphor of total blindness in Luke leave us little to do when we have been created as social, busy creatures. Luke’s concluding ‘get out’ clause is therefore comforting; as long as we admit our limitations there is scope for us to be morally active.

Both of these passages are characterised by a high degree of intensity which arises not only from the seriousness of the content but also because of the emphasis on the personal. Abstractions may be necessary to human survival, giving us patterns within which we can locate certain kinds of behaviour, but, in the end, it is the relationship between God and the individual, and vice versa, that really counts. While it is true, seen from the divine perspective, that we can do nothing but lead each other into the ditch, from the human perspective we operate in a world of limited vision both in clarity and scope. It is when we remember this that we operate within our proper limits but when we forget the trouble really starts. Imagine soap opera without the complexities caused by the exercise of moral superiority!

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. Compare Luke 6 with Matthew 5; 6; 7
  2. Explore the concept of the “liberty of the children of God”
  3. How do you feel about the use of the metaphor about blindness in explaining moral positions?
  4. Explore the relationship between divine judgment, moral principles and civil justice
  5. Create some modern images to illustrate Luke’s point about motes and beams.

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