07 June 2015

‘The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason’

‘Other echoes / Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow’ (TS Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’) … in the garden at the Hedgehog in Lichfield last weekend (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday, 7 June 2015,

The First Sunday after Trinity

All Saints’ Church, Grangegorman, Dublin,

11.30 a.m.
, The Parish Eucharist.

Readings: I Samuel 8: 4-11, [12-15], 16-20, [11: 14-15]; Psalm 138; II Corinthians 4: 13 to 5: 1; Mark 3: 20-35.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of TS Eliot on 4 January 1965. Eliot is, perhaps, the greatest poet in the English language in the 20th century, and he is one of the greatest Anglican literary figures.

As well as being a great poet, he was also a playwright, and his plays include Murder in the Cathedral, The Family Reunion and The Cocktail Party.

Murder in the Cathedral was first staged in the Chapter House in Canterbury Cathedral 80 years ago on 15 June 1935. This verse drama is based on the events leading to the murder in Canterbury Cathedral of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, on 29 December 1170.

The play was written at the prompting of the Bishop of Chichester, George Bell, a friend of the martyred German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and later one of the key critics of the excesses of violence unleashed in World War II.

The dramatisation in this play of opposition to authority was prophetic at the time, for it was written as fascism was on the rise in Central Europe and Bishop Bell had chosen wisely when he suggested Eliot should write this play.

The play is set in the days leading up to the martyrdom of Thomas Becket at the behest of King Henry II, and the principal focus is on Becket’s internal struggles.

As he reflects on the inevitable martyrdom he faces, his tempters arrive, like characters in a Greek drama, or like Job’s comforters, and question the archbishop about his plight, echoing in many ways Christ’s temptations in the wilderness when he has been fasting for 40 Days.

The first tempter offers Becket the prospect of physical safety:

The easy man lives to eat the best dinners.
Take a friend’s advice. Leave well alone,
Or your goose may be cooked and eaten to the bone.

The second tempter offers him power, riches and fame in serving the king so that he can disarm the powerful and help the poor:

To set down the great, protect the poor,
Beneath the throne of God can man do more?

Then the third tempter suggests the archbishop should form an alliance with the barons and seize a chance to resist the king:

For us, Church favour would be an advantage,
Blessing of Pope powerful protection
In the fight for liberty. You, my Lord,
In being with us, would fight a good stroke
At once, for England and for Rome.

Finally, the fourth tempter urges Thomas to look to the glory of martyrdom:

You hold the keys of heaven and hell.
Power to bind and loose: bind, Thomas, bind,
King and bishop under your heel.

Becket responds to all his tempters and specifically addresses the immoral suggestions of the fourth tempter at the end of the first act:

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason

Saint Mark’s Gospel is very sparse in its account of the story of Christ’s temptations in the wilderness – just two verses (see Mark 1: 12-13) compared to fuller 11 or 13 verse accounts given by Saint Matthew (see Matthew 4: 1-11) and Saint Luke (see Luke 4: 1-13).

In those fuller temptation narratives, Christ is tempted to do the right things for the wrong reason.

What would be wrong with Christ turning stones into bread (see Matthew 4: 3; Luke 4: 3-4) if that is going to feed the hungry? With showing his miraculous powers (see Matthew 4: 3; Luke 4: 9), if this is going to point to the majesty of God (see Matthew 4: 4; Luke 4: 10-11)? With taking command of the kingdoms of this world (see Matthew 4: 9; Luke 4: 5-7), if this provides the opportunity to usher in justice, mercy and peace?

Let us not deceive ourselves, these are real temptations. Christ is truly human and truly divine, and for those who are morally driven there is always a real temptation to do the right thing but to do it for the wrong reason.

‘Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past’ (TS Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’) … summer returns to Cross in Hand Lane, Lichfield, last weekend (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

This theme of temptation and how to respond runs through this morning’s Scripture readings.

In the Old Testament reading (I Samuel 8: 4-11, [12-15], 16-20, [11: 14-15]), the elders of Israel want a king, and go to Samuel, claiming their motivation is to be “like other nations” (I Samuel 8: 5). But the real reason was a power grab, motivated by a loss of faith in the power of God. Israel is warned that a king would exploit the people and enslave them, but they refused to heed these warnings.

We all know Ireland benefitted in recent years from wanting to be a modern nation, like your neighbours. But that ambition turned to greed, and we were surprise when greed turned to economic collapse. We found we had given in to the temptation to do what appeared to be the right thing for the wrong reason.

Too often when I am offered the opportunity to do the right thing, to make a difference in this society, in this world, I ask: “What’s in this for me?”

When I am asked to speak up for those who are marginalised or oppressed, this should be good enough reason in itself. But then I wonder how others are going to react – react not to the marginalised or oppressed, but to me.

How often do we use external sources to hide our own internalised prejudices?

How often have I seen what is the right thing to do, but have found an excuse that I pretend is not of my own making?

I hear people claim they are not racist, but speaking about migrants, immigrants and asylum seekers in language that would shock them if it was used about their own family members in England, America or Australia.

The victims of war in Syria or boat people in the Mediterranean are objects for our pity on the television news night after night. But why are they not being settled with compassion, in proportionate numbers in Ireland?

How often do I think of doing the right thing only if it is going to please my family members or please my neighbours?

How often do I use the Bible to justify not extending civil rights to others? Democracy came to all of us at a great price paid by past generations, but how often we try to hold on to those rights as if they were personal, earned wealth.

How often we use obscure Bible texts to prop up our political, racist, social and economic prejudices, forgetting that any text in the Bible, however clear or obscure it may be, depends, in Christ’s own words, on the two greatest commandments, to love God and to love one another.

Christ is challenged in this morning’s Gospel reading in two fundamental ways, about his calling those on the margins to come inside and be part of the Kingdom of God.

Christ is challenged about whether his work is the work of God or the work of the Devil (Mark 3: 22). And he is challenged to think about what his family thinks about what he doing (Mark 3: 32).

It would have been so easy for any one of us to give in under these twin pressures. To give up because of what people think of us, or how our family members might be upset when we do the right thing and there is nothing in it for them or for us – nothing at all except sneers and jeers and isolation.

We can give in so easily … we can convince ourselves that we are doing the right thing when we are doing it for the wrong reason. And when we allow ourselves to be silenced or immobilised, those we should have spoken up for lose a voice, and we lose our own voices, and our own integrity.

A wrong decision taken once, thinking it is doing the right thing, but for the wrong reason, is not just about an action in the present moment. It forms habits and it shapes who we are, within time and eternity.

The Revd Martin Niemöller (1892-1984), a prominent German Lutheran pastor and an outspoken opponent of Hitler, spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. He once said:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

Eighty years ago, TS Eliot took some of the material that his producer Martin Browne asked him to remove from Murder in the Cathedral and he transformed it into his poem Burnt Norton (1935), the first of his Four Quartets, four poems concerned with the conflict between individual mortality and the endless span of human existence.

In Burnt Norton, TS Eliot tells us that the past and the future are always contained in the present. Past, present, and future cannot be separated with any precision:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.

What we do today or refuse to do today, even if we think it is the right thing to do but we do it for the wrong reasons, reflects how we have formed ourselves habitually in the past, is an image of our inner being in the present, and has consequences for the future we wish to shape.

I pray that I, we, and our Church recover our voices and speak up for the oppressed and the marginalised, not because it is fashionable or politically correct today, but because it is the right thing to do today and for the future. Because all our actions must depend on those two great commandments – to love God and to love one another. And because, as Christ reminds us this morning, “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3: 35).

And so may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

‘Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future’ (TS Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’) … walking through the fields beside Cross in Hand Lane, near Lichfield, last weekend (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)


the strength of all those who put their trust in you:
Mercifully accept our prayers
and, because through the weakness of our mortal nature
we can do no good thing without you, grant us the help of your grace,
that in the keeping of your commandments
we may please you, both in will and deed;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Eternal Father,
we thank you for nourishing us
with these heavenly gifts.
May our communion strengthen us in faith,
build us up in hope,
and make us grow in love;
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached on Sunday 7 June 2015 at the Parish Eucharist in All Saints’ Church, Grangegorman, Dublin.

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