17th Sunday after Trinity

03 October 2019

Proper 23: 2 Kings 5.1-3, 7-15c; Psalm 111; 2 Timothy 2.8-15; Luke 17.11-19

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“THE fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111.10a). Only when humans abandon their fantasies of self-sufficiency can they receive the gifts that God has prepared for them.

In our first reading, we encounter the “mighty warrior” Naaman, who suffers from leprosy. After asking the King of Israel for a cure, he flies into a rage when Elisha tells him to wash seven times in the Jordan. As Gina Hens-Piazza explains, the commander’s exalted sense of status demands “something dramatic, something visible, something that was done to him rather than something he would have to do” (Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: 1 and 2 Kings).

It is Naaman’s humility that saves him. For all his arrogance, the commander is open to the wisdom of his servants. It had been “a young girl captive from the land of Israel” who suggested that he send for Elisha. Here, once again, he heeds his servants’ advice: “If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”

As Hens-Piazza observes, the most lowly characters are at the centre of the narrative: “The instruments and agents of the divine plan include not only the recognised religious appointees of cult and the prophets; the servants in this story, the least among the people, are also emissaries of the Lord.”

Our epistle contrasts such humility with the arrogance that closes hearts to grace. Paul is not afraid of genuine intellectual engagement (cf. his preaching at the Areopagus in Acts 17.16-34). Here, however, he warns Timothy against getting caught up in “wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening”.

This advice reflects the practice of Jesus, who is likewise willing to engage with those whose questioning and challenging reflects a genuine searching after truth (e.g. Mark 12.28-34). He sidesteps, however, those whose motives is to trap him (e.g. Luke 20.20-26).

Commenting on our epistle, St Thomas Aquinas writes that “a person who wishes to dispute must first examine his intention to see whether he is motivated by good zeal.” While reason can be a powerful force in unmasking error and pursuing truth, fallen human beings are adept at using their intellect as a defence against uncomfortable ethical and spiritual realities. True wisdom can be found only when the intellect is placed at the service of divine love.

Our Psalm begins and ends with gratitude. Thankfulness and humility go together: they involve the recognition that we are not self-sufficient, and stand in need of grace. In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus heals ten lepers, but it is only the Samaritan who returns to give thanks. As St Athanasius comments, the others “thought more highly of their cure from leprosy than of him who had healed them”. This leper alone recognises his dependence on the Lord.

Perhaps it is because he remains an outcast, even after his healing, that the Samaritan returns to give thanks. As Athanasius notes, he is therefore “given much more than the rest”. In his humility and gratitude, the Samaritan is able to receive the gift of a renewed relationship with God in Christ.

Throughout the Gospels, the poorest and most marginalised are recognised as blessed — precisely because they recognise their need of grace. Of course, they are not unique in that need, which is one that all human beings share, but also one that riches and security can obscure. Those who stand on the margins of a society are often less susceptible to fantasies of self-sufficiency. They tend not to take God’s blessings for granted. This gratitude opens them to the far greater gift which God longs to bestow on each of his creatures: a share in his own life and love.

The “fear of God” does not involve an anxious attempt to placate him. Such fear, as John reminds us, has been cast out by love (1 John 4.18). The “fear” that the scriptures commend is the recognition of our need of God, along with gratitude for his blessings. These habits take us beyond our fallen fantasies of self-sufficiency into a posture that can receive all that the Lord longs to give us; for he “opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Proverbs 3.34, James 4.6).

Canon Angus Ritchie is Director of the Centre for Theology and Community, and an NSM of St George-in-the-East with St Paul, London.

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