The Twenty-First Sunday after Trinity


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Grant, we beseech Thee, merciful Lord, to Thy faithful people pardon and peace…
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 4:46-54

One of the strangest flaws in the exegesis of the letters of Paul is the failure to take him literally when he is discussing contemporary politics. Consider the following: “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” To interpret this simply to mean that Paul opposed immorality or was simply warning against “The Devil” is surely a threadbare explanation. It is difficult to see how this cannot be taken as a direct assault on the Roman administration in general and its Emperors in particular. As successive Emperors declared themselves to be gods, such attacks were not only seditious but blasphemous and would have brought Paul into serious danger if the Empire had had a greater capacity for spying; but ancient empires which extended over large territories spread their administration very thin, concerned only with taxation, food supply and security against invasion and insurrection. Nonetheless, local Governors had draconian powers (Acts 16:22-24) and Paul was therefore vulnerable not only to Jewish conservatives (cf Galatians), opportunists (Acts 16:16-20) and the self interested (Acts 19:24-27) but also from the governing classes who owed their position to roman patronage. Republican probity, harsh but consistent and ubiquitous was now, literally, legendary, replaced by tyranny which was capricious and inconsistent. At the same time, like all waves of the nouveau riche, imperial favourites compensated in ostentation and excess for what they lacked in subtlety and good taste. In such circumstances it is natural that Paul should have turned to the military metaphor of armour, shield and helmet when considering the moral confrontation with egregious wickedness. At the time of Jesus there was no less a contempt by Jews for the Romans, not least because of the divine pretensions of their rulers, but it was much less tangible than it was by the time of Claudius. It is therefore surprising that today’s Gospel only gives the impression of rather general condemnation.

Whether the nobleman was a foreigner or simply a Jewish vassal who had ‘sold out’, there seems to have been no hostility to him. In any case, Jesus would not have been the one to choose to heal or not on the basis of political allegiance; His reference to Naaman (Luke 4:27), for example, scandalised his hearers. As usual, Jesus’ criterion was not conduct nor background but faith. In an age of comparative medical ignorance there was a clear two-part dynamic in operation: first, people were much more frightened by illness because it was much more prevalent, more often fatal and hardly understood, a combination which led to a much greater emphasis on faith than science; but, secondly, in the Jewish tradition the idea of healing was not frequently associated with faith. In the Greek-speaking part of the Empire the medical model, in the idea of catharsis, had sacred overtones (cf. the Temple of Esklepios and the Forum at Epidaurus) but in this there was no trace of a relationship between worship and cure. So whether the nobleman was a Jew or a Greek, the circumstances of his request were unusual.

For Paul, the dichotomy between private Christian virtue and public pagan vice could not be more clear cut; but how far should we condemn the conduct of civil powers who claim to base their decisions on ethical and social values of Christian origin? Paul had a large target but took aim at considerable risk; our target may be smaller but so, proportionately, is the risk. We might also observe the maxim that people in a democracy get the government they deserve; so we might consider ourselves partly responsible for what we regard as government shortcomings. We should also face up to the somewhat taboo question of whether the values of Christianity more nearly align with a particular party or outlook.

Paul’s response was couched in terms of a military metaphor but we are indebted to Susan Sontag for pointing out the dangers of this form of language. How helpful is it to an understanding of Christianity to say that we must Fight The Good Fight or depict ourselves as Christian Soldiers? The rejoinder might be that these are only metaphors but what use are they when they mean the opposite of what we intend, or mean nothing?

One remarkable aspect of the miracle in John is that it was achieved, like that of the Centurion’s servant (Luke 7:2); the accounts may have a single origin) is that, unlike the healing of the ancient world and, largely, our own, the cure was achieved remotely. The nobleman had to believe it had happened even if he did not see it; and if he did not believe it had happened it would not have happened. He did not ask for a sign. Even if we pray in faith and not because we expect to inspect the divine credentials, it is human to wish to discern patterns, to make connections, but we do not know how prayer works. Jesus asked us to pray to The Father through Him for our wants—however God determines them—but He never promised direct causality between the prayer and the response. The world, which Paul condemned for its immorality, has more faith in the causality and patterns of science than in God’s mysterious healing power but seems no sounder for that. It is understandable in a military empire that Paul should have used his metaphor but we might better think about healing than fighting.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. How clear was the dichotomy between the early Christian and Roman moral and spiritual outlooks?
  2. How has the Greek idea of Catharsis evolved into a contemporary psychological tool?
  3. Is there a fundamental incompatibility between faith and medicine?
  4. What is the purpose of Services of Healing?
  5. Would you still fight for the military metaphor?

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