Preached at Cliburn on Trinity 17: 2 Timothy 2.8-15; Luke 17.11-19
Respect or Protect. It’s widely agreed nowadays that everyone ought to be either respected or protected. Everyone ought to be respected in making their own choices about how they live and what they do. Everyone ought to be respected: except first, if what they choose may harm other people, who need to be protected; or second, if they cannot make reasoned choices because they are too young or too mentally incapacitated, and themselves need to be protected from harm.
What this means in medical law and ethics, for example, is that people have a right to choose or refuse any treatment offered them, unless they are too young or too mentally incapacitated and so need to be protected by others deciding what is in their best interests. Other people also may need to be protected if and when treating one person leaves no time or resources left to treat another with equal needs. In practice, it is not always obvious how far someone is incapable of making reasoned choices, or how far what they might choose may harm other people. So if an individual’s capacity to choose is in doubt, this has to be weighed up carefully by doctors and in some cases by the law courts. So too, the benefits and harms of treating some people rather than others have to be carefully weighed up by expert committees and by health authorities: and beyond that, because resources are always limited, decisions have to be made by politics. But how politics are decided is in the end up to all of us, provided we have reached the age to vote, which we are all entitled to do, regardless of our mental capacity. In politics, unlike medical law and ethics, everyone is free to make their own decisions, even if those decisions eventually turn out to harm other people or themselves.
Now it was not always widely agreed that everyone ought to be either respected or protected in making their own choices, far less that everyone of age should have their say in determining politics. In most tribes and empires of the ancient world and in many cultures then and since, including most recently the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, such respect and protection of all except the strong and their kin would have been scorned and rejected. That it is so widely agreed today, the historian Tom Holland argues, is attributable above all to revolutionary beliefs and values which were emerging in the Hebrew Scriptures, were personified in Jesus, and were institutionalized by the Church. So profound has been the ‘impact of Christianity on the development of Western culture’, Holland writes, that even agnostic secular Humanism today ‘derives ultimately from claims made in the Bible: that humans are made in God’s image: that his Son died equally for everyone; that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female’. Very many of our shared assumptions about the principles our society should uphold, Holland writes, are ‘thoroughly Christian’; and while the Church and society may often have failed to live up to these principles, they have repeatedly been called back to respect them and to work out their implications in their own historical circumstances.
What Holland writes can be illustrated by the story in today’s Gospel. All ten lepers were segregated from the rest of society by their skin condition: but the nine Jewish lepers, once they were healed, were reintegrated into society by being examined and ritually cleansed by priests in the Jerusalem temple. This social reintegration was not possible for the tenth leper because he was a Samaritan, a foreigner who could not look for help from the Jewish priests. Yet his response – he ‘prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him… praising God with a loud voice’ demonstrated that in his case something greater had happened than reintegration into a particular society. He had been a despised and rejected outsider, twice over, as a leper and as a Samaritan, but now someone had noticed him, someone had cared enough to use whatever powers he had to heal him. And even more importantly, in noticing and caring for him, someone had restored his human dignity, his very humanity. Through his encounter with this man who noticed and cared for him, the Samaritan recovered faith in himself, and gained new faith in life’s possibilities.
The point of this story then, as in some other Gospel stories involving Samaritans, is that Jesus was opening up a possibility, glimpsed fleetingly from time to time in the Hebrew Scriptures – the possibility that the liberating love of his ‘Abba, Father’ was not just for Israel, but for all humanity, and especially those not noticed or cared for by the ways of the world. How far this possibility could be opened up by Jesus in his earthly lifetime was limited by how far that was humanly possible for a man of his time: that Jesus was truly human meant that he could not see with any human certainty beyond the limited horizons of his place and time: humanly he had to rely on faith alone to live out the larger vision he gained from the teachings of his predecessors and most deeply from his prayerful trust in God his Father. But it is precisely because Jesus had all our human limitations and yet had that faith and larger vision, that his faith and doubts, his death and new life have been so profoundly encouraging to all who have followed him, for we also have no human certainty beyond the limited horizons of our own place and time.
Thus, for example, while Jesus and his first disciples did not explicitly question for the institution of slavery widely accepted in their own time, the story of the Samaritan leper would encourage those in later years, both who suffered from and who fought against slavery – would encourage them to realize that racial, like social segregation is only skin-deep, because each and every slave is a beloved child of God; and so to work for emancipation is a Christian duty. Perhaps this was what Jesus meant when in John’s Gospel [14.26] he promised that ‘the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.’ Part of that promise was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost, but more was yet to be fulfilled in the centuries that followed, and is being so still, in our society today, despite all the setbacks; and part of this is also the widespread belief, reflected in law, that everyone should be either respected or protected.
But that of course is not the whole of it. Tom Holland remarks that although so many of our shared assumptions about the principles our society should uphold, are ‘thoroughly Christian’, and although the idea of a secular state itself has Christian roots, ‘churches across the West [although not in the global South] continue to empty’. Although he believes the supposedly rational and science-based arguments of many atheists today are no less mythological than those of Genesis, Holland himself is not a practicing Christian and offers no advice to the churches. But towards the end of his book he tells of his regret, when visiting his dying godmother, ‘a kind and loving woman’ and former headmistress of a famous school, his regret that he could not share ‘her certainty that all would be well and all would be well and all manner of thing would be well’. Yet at the same time, he says, he knew that her beliefs were those on which Western civilization was founded and has flourished for the common good. I do not think that agnostics like Tom Holland can be persuaded of the Gospel by intellectual arguments, let alone by preaching. He also is a man of his time. But with his godmother in mind, I do not believe either that the church need lose heart.
To recall another Gospel story: many if not most people today, like Martha, are distracted by many things, increasingly and ever more pressingly so. I’m reminded of the story on the radio yesterday of the little girl who when asked what superhuman power she would like to have, replied that she would like the ability to communicate with animals – so that she could have someone to talk with when her Mummy and Daddy were busy on their mobile phones. Many if not most people today, like Martha, are distracted by many things: all the more need then for thoughtful people, like Mary, to be there, as they are, to watch and pray and to be listening community, however small, available to others in their tears and in their joys and amid all their distractions. I’m not suggesting that the church does not also need new expressions, fresh ways of communication the faith. But as long as two or three people, men as well as women, like Martha and Holland’s godmother, are there in the church, so is Christ; and so in God’s own time, ‘all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well’.
Reference: Tom Holland Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind London: Little Brown 2019