Comparisons, 20 August, 2023
A sermon preached by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor
(2 Kings 4.1-37; Acts 16.1-15)
In Act III of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Dogberry makes the much-misquoted observation that ‘Comparisons are odorous’. The misquotation substitutes the more likely word ‘odious’ for his sound-alike word meaning ‘smelly’; which in itself is ironic, because one of the things which makes Dogberry comic is his ability, when speaking his native language, to mangle it.
But, whether comparisons are odorous or odious, they are still very tempting. Who doesn’t want to be better, or even best? Who this afternoon would deny Spain’s women footballers the chance to define themselves as the best in the world? Even cathedrals find ourselves doing it: you don’t have to search very hard through what we say here to find out that Salisbury Cathedral has the largest cloisters, the tallest spire, the oldest working clock, and the best-preserved copy of the first issue of Magna Carta.
To this evening’s readings, which offer some firsts.
Lydia, the dealer in purple cloth, was the first person on the continent of Europe to convert to the new Christian faith, and she brought her household along with her; the first of millions.
In the Second Book of Kings, the prophet Elisha isn’t the first person to be a prophet. But these stories about him set the pattern and the precedents for many of the stories that, much later, were told and recorded about Jesus in the gospels. Jesus too provided miraculously and without apparent limit: Elisha provided oil and the relief of debt, Jesus provided food for the masses; and Jesus, like Elisha, restored life to the dead child of desperate parents.
Precedents, such as Elisha the master prophet whose signs could also be seen in the man from Nazareth, are in no way ‘odorous’. The comparisons were made because to the writers they conveyed the stamp of authority. Centuries before, God had worked powerfully through Elisha, freeing a widow from her slavery to debt; now he was working through a carpenter who blessed the poor. In the gospels there are times when the ministry of a disciple doesn’t suffice – which echo this Shunammite woman’s insistence that only Elijah, not his assistant Gehazi, can restore her child.
The first; the best. Who doesn’t want such things?
Well, Elisha wasn’t the first – he continued the work of his master Elijah, he literally took on his mantle. And one of the great insights of the gospel writer Luke is displayed in the fact that he decided to write a second volume: what came first (the story of Jesus) didn’t mark the end. So he continued the story of God’s work of salvation, by telling us what God did through the disciples and those who responded to their message.
Here, comparisons aren’t odorous, they’re simply pointless: Peter, Paul, Barnabas, Timothy, and the rest – these heroes in Acts don’t bear comparison to the central figure of Luke’s gospel. What they did was less, was feebler, than what Jesus did. Who cares? All we need to grasp is that the work of God didn’t finish with the resurrection of Jesus and his Ascension. That work carries on through the worse, the feebler, the less competent agency of people who only need to be open to the dynamic Holy Spirit of God.
Before God, as we all are, it’s not important whether we are the first, or the best. Someone has already done that! Like the disciples, we just have to follow the master, and let God speak and work even through us.