The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity


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O Lord, we beseech Thee, let thy continual pity…
Ephesians 3:13-21
Luke 7:11-17

Perhaps it is the sparseness of the narrative that accounts for the relative obscurity of the boy of Nain compared, say, with the account of Lazarus in John 11 and it is one of those many occasions when we would really appreciate more detail. Did Jesus know the dead boy and his mother? Did she ask him to intervene or was it a spontaneous act? The account talks of many people but Jesus did not preach, he simply told the mother not to weep; and although he acted out of compassion the effect seems to have been stunning. There is the same sense of awe in Paul’s account of God’s love which “passeth knowledge” and the Collect prays that the Church may be cleansed by “continual pity”. In all three cases there is a complete lack of calculation, of trying to assess the quantity or quality of God’s love, making nonsense of the all too human question: “How much do you love me?”

One way of looking at the history of Christianity is to see it as a struggle between the ideas of God’s unconditional love on the one hand and the notions of ‘Divine retribution’ and the moral dimension of witness on the other. The concept of unconditionality is difficult but simple whereas the idea of retribution is easy but complex. The conflict reached its height in the Lutheran Reformation which was, ostensibly, a revolt against prudential ethics and a return to a recognition of the unconditional but on that point at least Protestantism, as unable as Catholicism to keep out of the private lives of believers, soon reverted to a much more prudential stance. The problem of this approach for Christianity is that it receives no support from the teaching and conduct of Jesus; just as he did not ask any of the thousands he fed whether they were worthy of his miracle (cf Seventh Sunday after Trinity), He did not ask the widow how well she had behaved or whether her son deserved a spectacular second chance. The problem with God’s unconditionality is that it is as unfathomable as God. We are so used to measuring, counting, calculating, trading, fining and giving that we cannot help ourselves. We have to think about space and time, clothes and clocks, buildings and bridges, structures and stresses, nutrition and navigation. Our functional lives are full of numbers but so are our stories. From the time we are children we are subjected to and deeply affected by numerical truth and exaggeration. In a sense that it is difficult to articulate our idea of infinity is not really about a different category of reality but is, rather, an idea of something beyond number, like more music to play, chocolates to eat or cars to drive than we will ever have time for in life; that is why we quite often articulate life after death as similar to life on earth but with unlimited access to earthly pleasures.

To this extent, prudential morality is an understandable anthropological but an inadequate theological response to the infinite. One way of approaching the issue is to imagine that we are in a permanent condition of dependency and joy, replicating the experience of the widow of Nain but on a daily basis for as long as we live. In spite of what goes wrong with our earthly lives, with our jobs, finances, achievements and relationships, we are still in that state. The way we normally describe this to ourselves is “gratitude” but that is a conditional word. In the sense that God does not want anything, words which imply reciprocity are redundant.

The core of our problem is that there is a paradox in unconditionality which requires reciprocal unconditionality; just as God loves us unconditionally we are required to love God unconditionally and while the first proposition requires a struggle to comprehend the second, more critically, requires a struggle to act. There is, however, a truth at the heart of our condition which Luther apprehended and that is that there is nothing we can do to reciprocate God’s love just as there was nothing that the widow could offer Jesus equal to the value of what He did for her.

We are blessed with an irremediably asymmetrical arrangement with God; no other kind would be possible in a relationship between the Creator and the created. We naturally try to express this in terms of ourselves because we find any discussion of the idea of God too difficult to encompass. The paradox of theology is that it must try to use words to ‘capture’ the idea of God but it must equally be open to being encompassed by God. Most words and all numbers, however, are the enemies of wonder and mystery, intent on reducing reality to terms which we can grasp and control. There lies the key to adopting a proper stance as a creature; it is the Creator who controls not the creature.

The Collect strikes a jarring note with its idea that we are subjects of God’s pity, presumably because we are sinners, fallen or flawed. The natural response is to ask why a God who created in love would create something to be pitied. The answer is that pity is not a form of condescension. Even though it is generally perceived only to operate in an ecology of inequality, its driving force is mutuality, respect and recognition of God in the other which might lead us to ask whether equality in itself is not simply a numerical concept.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. Can you reconcile the concepts of God’s unconditional love and ‘divine retribution’?
  2. Is the idea of thanks appropriate to an unconditional relationship?
  3. What are the strengths and weaknesses of Luther’s attack on prudential moralism in favour of Justification?
  4. Can theology be undertaken without an individual commitment to belief in God?
  5. Is equality simply a numerical concept?

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